September 16, 2001
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Redeem the Time
Any preacher who presumes to comment on this week’s tragedy knows silence is the first language that must speak to such anguish. It is a time to let the stones speak. Words crumble against the catastrophe that has made all of us victims. The weight of the casualties defies speeches from podiums to mollify our shock and despair. Words that want to stride with the assurance of a color guard are hopelessly reduced to propaganda. This week’s media coverage; the constant, repeated voices of victims on cell phones; the pledges of vengeance; the pictures of air-born calamity and human victimization have vulgarized and confiscated our need for sacred silence, sacred mourning, sacred sharing. Perhaps only the poets have the right to speak at moments like this. [God be with me as I presume to break this holy silence we so badly need now … the holy embracing we need, to carry the full weight of our devastation and grief.]
William Butler Yeats, in his poem The Second Coming, writes:
“… Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned …”
On Tuesday morning everything fell apart. Commercial airliners were subdued and became warheads. Our country became a no-fly zone. F-16s were on patrol defending targets in Washington and New York. Our president played cat and mouse with invisible foes to make his way to the Oval Office. This is the Tom Clancy book; this is the Roland Emmerich movie that we have always feared would come true. An unthinkable act of terrorism has slipped its way through the looking glass into improbable actuality. In a hideous twist of fate, a movie has been made of us for the entertainment of terrorists. We have been shut down with shock, fear, and grief.
There are moments in history when time stops. There are moments when history splits and we define our experiences as before and after. If four commercial airliners can be overcome by suicidal hijackers and made into missiles of war, can we ever be sure that rogue and malicious intentions will be forever contained? A backslide—a political backslide of catastrophic proportions—has happened early in this new century that has separated us from life as “we knew it.” In the pendulum that swings from before to after, we are a totally after people. We are the “morning after” people. A day dreaming America is now gone, way gone. The America that saw Disney’s Pearl Harbor this summer is as far removed from the America that was attacked this week as the America that listened to Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” was from the America attacked at Pearl Harbor.
When history splits, there are new realities to respect. Now we must face a hatred that exceeds the limits that kept most wars, though brutal, at best rational. We now face enemies who work outside the lines of our most secure international agreements. We took refuge in the thought that the excess of such a hatred rendered such fanatics volatile, and therefore self-destructive. But that was before 9:00 on Tuesday morning when we lived on the other side of history’s rift. And what about tomorrow? We don’t even know who we are doing battle with. The same television cameras that panned people fleeing city centers for the sanctuary of their friends, families, and homes undoubtedly panned the apartments, hotel rooms, and training centers where terrorists hid while planning this hideous attack.
Many things died on Tuesday morning and are dying still. People died. People like us, with families to enjoy and care for, and to watch prosper and grow. A safe world died. Those who work in networks contributing to national defense are gripped by a sense of failure realizing that hatred can turn anything into a tool of destruction. Office workers have been shell-shocked with the loss of people they depend on and love. Misery prevails.
God dies on days like this. God dies in God’s own overwhelming anguish for the slaughter we make of each other. God dies in us as anger and lust for retribution at any cost begins to occupy and dominate our best instincts. This week I have had to recognize and fight with my own emotions of rage and revenge. These are the ingredients for unlimited retaliation. Revenge is on everyone’s lips. What shred of God that is left in us is aware that acting on these hostilities will only perpetuate the very violence we condemn. It is imperative to find and punish the perpetrators, but if retribution overwhelms our strategy, we will slide even further into the nightmare of this young century.
Where is the church in all of this? On Tuesday morning, as I have said, many things died. One of the most important things that died is the childhood of Christianity. The childhood of Christianity is over. A daydreaming church is now over, way over. The church, in its safely guarded playpen, is history. The world now bleeds with too much blood to “play” at religion. Beating swords into plowshares is the main event in the church. Christians intent on protecting what they’ve got or the silent majority intent in not rocking the boat have for a long time controlled the agenda of our churches. As history collapses, so too will the church.
T.S. Eliot, in his poem Ash Wednesday, writes:
The time. Redeem.
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.
The gilded hearse drawn by jeweled unicorns is Eliot’s Dante-esque image for the ridiculous pageant of Christian pomp as the main feature offered to people who must live and often suffer under the weight of the tragedy of human history. Lampooning the shallowness of the church’s mission and proclamations, Eliot identifies the real challenge is to redeem the time and to do so by redeeming the unread vision of the higher dream. Institutions that bear the Christian name often keep tight in their corners powerful defenses upholding national, civic, and the cultural life, pledging prosperity for all. As such, they are inadequate to the task they’ve been given by Christ from the Cross. The fact that we prefer our gilded hearse to the smelly and unwanted conditions that visit such hardship on most people of the world is evidence that we have prevented the spirit of the Gospel from having its effect on us after all. We are such babes in the faith!
Many have complained to me this week, “Where was God in New York?” “Where was God in the Pentagon?” My answer is—God was all over New York and Washington in acts of sacrifice and compassion! The God of Jesus Christ, the God of the Muslims, the God of the Jews was rushing into burning buildings, tearing through rubble to reach survivors, clamping tourniquets on those bleeding, joining hands and passing plastic buckets of steel glass, flesh, and tears in a week when our religious badges couldn’t matter.
When history splits as it has this week, God dies a certain death. This time it is a needed death. The childhood of Christianity in our time is over. It is time to unleash the steel-like strength of love for neighbor and reconciliation as the only weapon that will end the slaughter. In a sense, on Tuesday, the whole world, God’s world, was attacked, we being the ones under the hammer of its most crushing blow. The church has been summoned to redeem the time. We need to live and love and work together in new ways. We really have no choice now. As Shakespeare’s horror-struck Hamlet said after being visited by the ghost, “it is time to wipe away all trivial fond records” from the altars of our memory and hope our learning curve will be steep.
T. S. Eliot, in The Waste Land, writes:
The corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed it’s bed?
Oh, keep the dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again.
A sudden frost has hit our nation. The dogs are rioting in their kennel to dig up the corpses of our vengeance and strike down what God plants to bloom. There is a looming consensus for Tuesday’s hostilities to be repaid with spectacles of good or “righteous war.” Weeding out and eliminating terrorist is ours, yet in the long run we lay plans for peace or we die.
We have crossed a fateful threshold where an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth held us in check. Now, violence in all its ubiquitous forms has the opposite effect. It spirals and escalates and hastens wider and wider rings of aggression and catastrophe. Safeguards fail to limit its diffusion. Violence is not the way; it is only the cradle for more violence.
Jesus said, leave the dead to bury their dead. When our mourning runs its needed course, we have a new world blooming that practices reconciliation and peace with the precision of a soldier that all the guns and the mortars and rockets of all our battlefields will fall silent to the sound of plowshares wedging new seeds back again upon our land. The church’s gilded hearse will be history as we rise above our Chaucerian phrases and polite gestures and follow in the footsteps of a New York fireman who reported: “All I did was forget about myself and go in!”
Pierce Wittfield Klemmt was born in 1949, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He received his Bachelor of Arts from Wabash College in 1972, and his Masters of Divinity from Yale University, the Divinity School, in 1976. Following ordination as an Episcopal priest, Pierce served as the Associate Rector of St. Mark’s Church in Evanston, Illinois, and then as Rector of Trinity Church, Troy, Ohio and then Christ Church, Springfield, Missouri. He has been Rector of Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia since 1994. Throughout history, Christ Church has played a significant role in our national life. General George Washington and General Robert E. Lee were members of the church. Washington served on the Vestry. National capital area leadership continues to be enhanced and expressed by those attending Christ Church. It remains today as one of the largest Episcopal churches in the United States, with 3000 parishioners, many of whom are active leaders in the government, military, and corporate world. The church’s mission is centered in serving the poor, voiceless, and those in need. This committed and talented congregation amply serves missions overseas in Russia, Africa, the Middle East, and Central America. It also serves the homeless and disadvantaged in the city of Alexandria.
Mr. Klemmt is married to the former Mary Tuke Gates of Louisville, Kentucky, and they have two young daughters.