Preaching Faith in the Midst of Tragedy
Sept. 11, 2001, drove preachers of the Good News to tackle the classic questions of theodicy: If God exists, why is there evil? Why does God allow the barbarous destruction of innocent people? How can a God of love allow terrorist acts of hate to happen? Except on Good Friday and at funerals, these are questions that preachers in our time have come to dodge. Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death and his Escape from Evil demonstrate how feel-good Americans sanitize the inevitable messiness of life. American preachers are not immune from this culture of denial. But the horrific events of that Tuesday sent them scrambling to reexamine their theologies of Good Friday. We do not yet have a comprehensive catalogue of what preachers proclaimed after the terror of Sept. 11, but we do have a sampling of some of the sermons and homilies and media theological discussions. I believe they illustrate both the eloquence and the awkwardness of preaching faith in the midst of tragedy and, therefore, serve as models of what to say and what not to say when terror strikes our safe and sheltered lives.
God wills it. On EWTN, Mother Angelica tried to explain how God could be involved in the terrorist attacks by making a distinction between God’s desirous will and permissive will. In this she returned to Thomas Aquinas’s famous logical argument that God, therefore, neither wills evil to be done, or wills it not to be done, but wills to permit evil to be done; and that is a good (Summa Theologica). I have a hunch that many preachers schooled in scholastic theology also employed this same explanation. Karl Rahner challenged this Thomistic distinction, since it was of secondary importance. I have a suspicion that most listeners today would also find this scholastic reasoning not only of secondary importance but cold and unsatisfying to the hungers of their hearts.
Good will come out of this suffering. In our struggle to make sense of the terrorist attacks, some preachers relied on the old shibboleth, Somehow good will come out of this suffering. On Friday’s memorial service at Washington’s National Cathedral, the Rev. Billy Graham said Tuesday’s tragic events have brought a new spirit in our nation...a spiritual revival...a return to God. Pointing to the future and the hope that emerges after death is central to preaching the paschal mystery. This theological path can be traced back to the Latin tradition, which focused on the cross as a source of our redemption. But not all medieval theologians preached this way. Abelard and Aquinas stressed that it was the love of Christ and not his suffering that was redemptive. Preachers must be careful to balance both suffering and love. Otherwise we end up with sermons that make grace dependent on a cruel and demanding God. This pastoral balance was heard in the response of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C., when he was asked on a local radio broadcast, Why did God allow this tragedy: You’re throwing me a tough one.... This is not an intellectual discussion but an opportunity to consider the depth of God’s love. That is how the Christian must gaze on the cross of Christ and on the terrible crosses of our time.
God is sending us a message here. This was the response offered by EWTN’s Deacon Bill Steltemeier and the Rev. Pat Robertson on his 700 Club. Both referred to the horrific events of Sept. 11 as a wake-up call from God. Certainly this response has its roots in biblical prophetic preaching. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Jesus all warned about the coming of doom because of the sins of the people. Jeremiah offered a vision of an enemy pouring destruction over the land like a pot of boiling water being tipped on its side. Amos told the people that they would die exiled in an unclean land. But these biblical images can be manipulated by preachers resorting to their own pulpit terrorism. A balanced biblical perspective is needed here. We must not forget Jeremiah’s call for obedience to the Lord found in covenantal love. We cannot ignore that the basic message of Amos was God’s moral rule over the entire world and the divine demands for justice and concern for the outcast and oppressed.
We are Easter people and Alleluia is our song. I have no evidence for the fact, but no doubt this quote attributed to St. Augustine was probably used by preachers when terror struck America. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus and our own resurrection is central to our Christian faith. But preachers must always be attentive to the mood of those gathered because of death. A culture of a denial of death fast-forwards to Easter Sunday before it has paused long enough before the cross of Good Friday. Sometimes a funeral Mass is called a Mass of the Resurrection. But our Catholic Order of Christian Funerals never uses such a term. In recent years people have declared, This is not a funeral but a celebration of someone’s life. But the truth is that it is a funeral. We are gathered not only because someone has lived but because someone has died. The paschal mystery is not just about resurrection. We affirm in the Creed that Jesus suffered, was crucified, was buried, descended to the dead, rose again and ascended into heaven. To bypass the suffering, the crucifixion, the burial is not authentic preaching. President George W. Bush began his speech at Friday’s Memorial Service with an important line. He reminded the congregation and the nation that we are here in the middle hour of our grief. Indeed it is the middle hour.
Certain people are to blame for this tragedy. Tyrants throughout history have led people to hatred by blaming evil and suffering not on God but on particular people. The grossest example of this in our own days of terror is found in statements made by the Rev. Jerry Falwell to the Rev. Pat Robertson on Sept. 13th’s 700 Club. Falwell claimed that God was mad.... I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the A.C.L.U., People for the American Wayall of them who have tried to secularize AmericaI point the finger in their face and say, You helped this happen.’ Robertson replied, Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted their agenda at the highest levels of our government. When criticized for these remarks, Falwell gave a faint-hearted apology and claimed that his remarks were taken out of context. One can only pray that Falwell’s vile words were not echoed in any American pulpit; but considering the intolerance and the religious fanaticism of our times, we cannot be sure. One can, however, be sure that in the days following Sept. 11 many preachers urged their listeners not to blame all Muslims, all Middle-Eastern people for those who have defiled the teachings of the Koran.
It was the elders in the Christian community who were most moving in their appeals for a Gospel response to the terrorist attacks. Billy Graham admitted that I am an old man now...but I hold on to the hope with which I first began to preach. On Sunday, Sept. 16, Pope John Paul II, trembling and shaken, told the people, I pray that the Virgin Mary might help them [the Americans] not to fall into temptation of hatred and violence, but rather to commit themselves to justice and peace.
There is no one way to preach, especially in times of tragedy. But our Catholic liturgical and theological tradition, plus the wisdom that comes from a good pastoral sense can lead us to some guidelines:
l. Liturgy. We should all reflect on what the Order of Christian Funerals advises:
[The] homilist should dwell on God’s compassionate love and on the paschal mystery of the Lord, as proclaimed in the Scripture readings. The homilist should also help the members of the assembly to understand that the mystery of God’s love and the mystery of Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection were present in the life of the deceased and that these mysteries are active in their own lives as well. (No. 27)
That elegant statement will remind us why we are in the pulpit in a time of tragedy and death. Of course we are not there to preach a eulogy but to proclaim the paschal mystery of Christ, the paschal mystery of our beloved dead, and our own paschal mystery. We heard a marvelous example of this preaching by Michael Duffy, O.F.M., at the funeral of his friar friend, Mychal Judge, O.F.M., the beloved chaplain who was killed while anointing a fireman at the collapsed World Trade Center. Father Duffy proclaimed: What a wonderful way to die! Mike was at the center of things, he was praying to God, and he was helping others.
2. Scripture. The 1982 U.S. Catholic bishops’ document Fulfilled in Your Hearing reminded us that in a homily the preacher does not so much attempt to explain the Scriptures as to interpret the human situation through the Scriptures (No. 20). Often in homilies preached on special occasions, preachers ignore the proclaimed Scriptures because they feel their own ideas are primary. Instead of relying only on our own feeble words and images, we must learn to interpret our sad times and tragic experiences through the words and images of the proclaimed Scriptures. The homily preached by George Carey, the archbishop of Canterbury, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on Sept. 14 is a fine example of interpreting life through the Scriptures proclaimed. The archbishop said, I am hopeful for the people of America: hopeful that as ruins are rebuilt, so also a shaken people will be restored. He creatively drew upon the words of Isaiah, first spoken at a time of disaster and despair in the life of his own people.
3. People. The homily must never be my homily but a homily of the gathered faithful. Preachers must pay attention to the mood of the assembly. Billy Graham was most pastoral in his sermon at the National Cathedral. He lovingly told the people that God understands your anger. He also was not afraid to go beyond the acknowledgment of anger and boldly proclaim that God can be trusted.... He is a God of mercy and love and not the author of evil. Some liturgists (David N. Power) and some theologians (Mary Catherine Hilkert) have reminded us of the tradition of preaching as a lament, as naming the pain and revealing the tears. Once again, there are times when we must not be so anxious to fast-forward to Easter Sunday.
4. Christ as our Compassion. What still has not penetrated our pulpits are the insights of some contemporary theologians who have meditated deeply on the Jesus of Golgotha and offered us a Jesus who suffers with us and who is our Compassion. Some, like Jürgen Moltmann, quote from the novel Night, written by the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel:
The S.S. hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp.The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. Where is God? Where is he? someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment in a noose after a long time, I heard a voice within myself answer, Where is he? He is here, he is hanging on the gallow....
5. Mystery. Appalling statements are sometimes heard in funeral homiliese.g., God needed another angel in heaven and that is why she died. Preachers offer a petty God and give the impression that the preacher actually knows the will of God! I was touched not only by the humility but the good theology Billy Graham preached when, concerning the reality of evil, he said: I really don’t know the answer totally to my satisfaction. But Graham went on to profess boldly his belief that our God is a God of mercy and not of evil.
Karl Rahner’s final answer to the problem of evil was an appeal to faith and to the mystery of God: The incomprehensibility of suffering is part of the incomprehensibility of God. Rahner was not afraid to admit that indeed, suffering is the form...in which the incomprehensibility of God himself appears.
We must not be afraid to preach mystery. We do not have the power to end evil, suffering and death. But we do have the grace that comes from the paschal mystery which invites us to pick up the shattered pieces of our world and make something holy out of them.