The Common Good
November-December 2001

A Word of Hope in the Rubble

by Bill Wylie-Kellermann | November-December 2001

Our broken hearts are indeed the proper place to begin theological reflection. Wounded hearts, the tears of suffering and death, however, can lead divergent ways.

Our broken hearts are indeed the proper place to begin theological reflection. Wounded hearts, the tears of suffering and death, however, can lead divergent ways. I think of the Holocaust, a truly innocent suffering on a vastly different scale, but theologically edifying. So many of those who passed through that horror witnessed to a renewed vision of humanity, a moral passion on behalf of all those who suffer violence and injustice. But that same history, the same anguish of suffering, can also be invoked to sanction exclusion, demolition, assassination, air strikes, and Palestinian apartheid. The meaning of suffering and death is partly a moral choice, theologically put.

In the search for the meaning of these events, the temptation is to be justified by suffering. "Justification" is employed here firstly in St. Paul's sense, of constructing a self-righteous idolatry. This is a pastoral issue to which congregations who gather around those in grief ought to be alert. And it is a political issue for a nation that would justify the next round of military build-up, continuing construction of the largest war machine on the planet. In fact, our congregations must recognize that the political maneuver provokes a pastoral crisis of major proportion. When nations intervene, manipulating grief, they offer idolatrous, nationalistic, vengeful substitutions for the grace of God and true community. They preempt the forgiving love of the gospel.

As the South Africans have taught us so well, reconciliation and forgiveness require truth. But if recent days are any measure, the truth would stun many Americans. For most, the innocence of the victims is one with the innocence of the nation. And yet it must be said that the United States has been pioneer and master of targeting civilians. Be it instruments of mass destruction or antipersonnel weaponry or the slow terrors of low intensity warfare, civilians have been not merely "collateral damage" but target. The question is: Can we look on the rubble of Manhattan and see Baghdad or Beirut or Ramallah? Do the eyes of our heart open or close? When we reap the whirlwind, do we see what we have sown?

Because the image of the falling towers, played over and over, has been quite literally apocalyptic, I've been thinking on the dream in Daniel 2. There the towering imperial image of gold and bronze and iron is overwhelmingly strong and glorious above, but what it stands upon is actually its vulnerability. Clay feet. If it doesn't stand on a foundation of justice, it's vulnerable even to collapse. In the dream it crashes down like this heaving emblem in history. Such an image raises the question: What are we actually standing on? What is the real source of our continuing vulnerability? Is it inadequate security machinery and inadequate military power, or is it inadequate justice?

If a Word of hope is in the rubble, it may be the choice clearly put: Will we sow yet again the whirlwind or lay with our lives a new foundation?

Bill Wylie-Kellermann was a Sojourners contributing editor, a United Methodist pastor, and director of graduate theological urban studies for the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago when this article appeared.

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