Ever since Sept. 11, thoughtful people have been asking the question, sometimes in sophisticated ways and sometimes very simply: Did the awful things that occurred that day happen because America is basically good, or because America has become in so many ways shamefully bad?
Only God, of course, knows the nuances buried in the answer to that question. And anyone who pretends to know the mind of God in any detail in the matter is both arrogant and presumptuous; Romans 11 asks bluntly, "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor?" At the same time, anyone who says we shouldn't humbly and modestly seek to discover God's purposes about such matters misses the central role He means to play in the events of our lives.
Having pursued the substance of that question twice in this space already, it isn't my intention here to go back still again to that debate. Instead, I am intrigued by how difficult even very good people find it to leave the question alone. In a discussion sponsored last week by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., 30 men and women surprised me with the wide-ranging suggestions they brought to the question. Especially given their expertise, understanding, and inclinations, I couldn't help remembering the Apostle Paul's earlier words in Romans 11, where he warns: "How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out!"
The evil of the terrorists themselves in all this was assumed. It takes a wacky outlook indeed to try to make excuses for the people who gave Sept. 11 its horrifying reputation-and I have yet to meet anyone who begs, "But before you condemn them, think about their plight." The debate I heard in Washington last week didn't include anybody that silly. Indeed, the participants seemed to agree that almost no penalty is harsh enough for such vicious criminals. That's why America's military response is enjoying a remarkable but appropriate backing in our nation these days.
All that notwithstanding, the flip side of the question keeps perplexing thoughtful people. It's not a question of whether we were as evil as the terrorists were; almost everyone assumes that we're not. It's just the nagging thought that one way or another, God was rattling our chain and reminding us that our own cavalierly secular inattention to Him may also carry a price. And if that indeed is the case-if it's the case that God is actually saying something-then embarrassing as it may be to admit it, shouldn't we pay Him some attention? For even if our shortcomings are relatively minor (as we suppose ours to be), doesn't the God of the whole universe nonetheless hold the prerogative of reminding us-who have enjoyed His blessings so extravagantly-that we owe Him at least something?
Many object, of course, that the God of their definition would never resort to such overstatement while issuing such a reminder. But that is precisely where I don't want to go just now. Discussions concerning the extent of what God may or may not have said tend to get us away from the main point. Debates about whether He would do something harsh or severe also tend to distract us. For now, let's just stick to the basic question: Does God, in such circumstances, have the right and the ability to say anything at all to us? Can we recognize that right and ability independently of what we think about the evil of the enemy?
For when we can finally say yes to that basic question, another central issue in this whole matter has been exposed. That issue is our pride. Once we acknowledge that an external word from God is an appropriate part of both our personal and our national experience, then we have been humbled. Such humility-all by itself, and with no further definition-is a very good thing. Indeed, it is always the very first thing God wants from anybody, for a spirit of humility indicates an understanding of the relationship between us as creatures and our Creator.
At the gathering I attended last week, Gilbert Meilaender of Valparaiso University sounded just such a modest note when he encouraged us not to resort to false bravado and arrogant pep talks, but quietly to report to the next generation: "My child, the world is always a dangerous and threatening place where death surrounds us. When I brought you for baptism, I acknowledged that I could not possibly guarantee your future. I handed you over to the God who loves you and with whom you are safe in both life and death. There is no security to be found elsewhere, certainly not from me or those like me."
There's a note of meekness there that covers a world of disagreement about other fine points. It's a spirit that would be becoming to all Christians, to all Americans, but especially to Christians who are grateful because they are also blessed to be Americans.