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An Apocalyptic Moment

I have written elsewhere about my experience taking a tour as a chaplain at Ground Zero several weeks after the planes struck the World Trade Center. The pile was still on fire those many days later, and the combined smell of burnt human flesh and concrete dust remains unforgettable. Whenever human remains were discovered, the chaplains were asked to wait until the remains were ready for removal and then the chaplain would come up on the pile and say a prayer before the body parts were removed. It didn’t happen very often. There was very little to recover.

While I was waiting with another chaplain for the signal to come and pray, a young New York City policeman turned to me and asked, with a look that combined anguish and pity, “You are a man of faith. Do you think this is the end? Is this the Apocalypse?” I answered that I did not think it was the end, but I did think it was an apocalyptic moment. There are moments when the veil is lifted, which is the literal meaning of the word apocalypse, and we see things as they really are. We see who is who and what is what. The attack on the World Trade Towers revealed the full range of the human heart, from dark murderous depths to heights of luminescent self-sacrifice and heroism.

Shortly after the attack, I was a speaker at a clergy conference and as I was about to start my prepared remarks, I looked down at my feet and realized that the eerie white dust that lay over all the ruin of Ground Zero was embedded in the welt of my shoes. I asked for a moment to reflect on that powerful experience before I went on to the theology of the priesthood. During discussion, a number of questioners were uncomfortable with my conviction that I had seen a revelation of evil. There were even calls for the church to seize the opportunity to be prophetic.

I was quite stunned. I was there for the briefest of times, but that short stint had made any exculpatory explanation, any analysis that aimed at dividing the blame between victims and terrorists impossible and a kind of blasphemy. I was dumbstruck for a moment and then said that I thought if there were an opportunity for the Episcopal Church to be prophetic it would not be missed, but the opportunity for a pastoral response might well be missed.

Every priest encounters people who are undergoing great suffering: the sickness of a child, a battle with cancer, a sort of anti-karma when those whom we think most deserve blessing are beset by one evil after another. Tread lightly. It is a form of impiety to explain evil away, for evil makes no sense. Cancer makes no sense, the killing of Europe’s Jews in the death camps made no sense, and the beheading of babies makes no sense. The effort to make sense of evil is never satisfying. It is experienced as salt in the wound and as adding insult to injury. God forbid that at this moment Christian leaders should make statements that add insult to the profound injury of this outbreak of the deadly evil that lies lurking in the bottom of the human heart.

To the degree we pride ourselves on being modern, we will find the temptation to explain away and analyze away irresistible. To be modern is to believe that man does not need God and that a God who is anything other than a remote spectator diminishes human dignity and human freedom. For the modern person, God is irrelevant to the solution of any and all the meaningful problems that confront us. Moderns believe we can fix ourselves. Moderns believe there is no such thing as pure evil and that war and hatred can be done away by the adoption of the right ideology and its expert application. Apocalypse confronts us with the truth that evil has an uncanny hold on the human heart and that we are impotent, save God be our helper to overcome it, either in our own hearts or in the affairs of nations.

I do not think it is an accident that the intellectual elite of the West is shot through with antisemitism. The crudity and banality of this evil hatred of Jews is now being unveiled on the campuses of the most prestigious universities in the world. The existence of the Jewish people, their great suffering at the hands of a modern and technologically sophisticated society, the apocalypse of evil that is the Shoah, is a walking contradiction of the conceit that man is the measure of all things and that we can save ourselves without God’s help.

When I was just starting high school, I had to go away to school because the public schools in my county were going to be closed rather than integrated. I attended a prestigious military boarding school near Baltimore. The school also had day students, and in the year I attended, for the first time Jewish students were admitted — two day students, to be exact. We three quickly became best friends. On the weekend, my home was too far away to go home, and I was invited to spend the weekends with the family of one of my Jewish friends. Being friends with Jews made me the subject of antisemitic hazing. They were kikes and I was a kike-lover. I became aware that the leafy suburbs of Baltimore were divided into WASP and Jewish neighborhoods and that there were streets you shouldn’t cross alone.

My friend’s mother and father saw that I was not doing well as a boarding student, and invited me to live with them and become a day student. They saved me and were part of my coming to adult faith.

It was a religious household. The mother, who had a professional career, came home early on Friday night to meticulously prepare the sabbath meal. It was impressive. If there had been quarrelling, it had to be mended with the kiss of Shalom before sitting down to the beautifully set sabbath table. My friend’s father, a medical doctor, cut the Hallah bread and gave everyone a slice. Everyone had a glass of wine. Before the blessing was offered, the father folded the blade of the knife he used to cut the sabbath bread into its handle. I asked about the special knife. “You see, on the table of the Messiah, there must be no weapon in sight.”

These kind and good people had some relatives who escaped from the Nazis and some who did not. These people, who were in so many ways modern and sophisticated and politically liberal, kept in their basement a six-month supply of canned food and a cache of gold jewelry. I thought it excessive at the time. I think now it is realistic about both men and mobs.

It is necessary to use force to constrain evil and protect the innocent. Codes of warfare are important, lest the necessary task of restraining evil lead us into greater evil. But the hope of the world is that God will hear our prayers and be our helper, and the Messiah, his Savior, will bring us his peace. O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us. Amen.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you very much for what, candidly, is the most beautiful and theologically apt commentary I have read in many a day. Indeed, may it please God to make speed to save us.

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