Habakkuk 1:12:4; Psalm 37:1-18; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10
In the name of the one God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
Can we use these words about God? Can we call God “Compassionate and Merciful”? We are less than a month away from the attacks that took place on the 11th of September. These words could easily provoke a shudder, but my intention is to explore with you what is at stake in this phrase.
I am not asking if these words are true about God. While the horror of the attack suggests that the Ruler of this Universe is not compassionate, the courageous and generous responses that we have repeatedly seen in the days that followed are evidence that a loving God is active among us. Once again, God has not hesitated to walk among us for healing and restoration, present once again in the form of a servant–rescue workers, nurses, firemen, counselors, even students at Julliard who played quartets for hours in the rubble and in the rooms where some were being treated for wounds and some were resting. In their strength and in our hope, God is compassionate and merciful.
However, to call God “Compassionate and Merciful” is to pick up a phrase from the Koran. Can we use this Islamic phrase? How far can religious language be shared? We know from the documents found in the luggage of the hijackers that “Compassionate and Merciful” is what they called God. But in the aftermath of their actions, who among those who mourn and which of us who live in fear now would call them compassionate and merciful? So a second question arises: are these words, then, spiritually efficacious? How far can religious language reach within us to transform us?
I said I will not ask if it is true that God is compassionate and merciful, but that is Habakkuk’s question. The prophet who speaks in our first lesson, which is actually a dialogue between him and God, lived surrounded by the prosperous wicked. He asks how long the abuse and injustice will go on. God’s answer terrifies him: God is stirring up brutal Babylon, “that fierce and impetuous nation,” to punish self-satisfied corrupt Jerusalem. The prophet protests that the cure is worse than the disease: how can God, whose eyes are “too pure to behold evil,” use such a tool? Habakkuk dramatizes his urgent anxiety by standing high on the city walls to wait for his answer. The word he receives from God is this: “the righteous live by their faith.”
The alarming discovery of Ancient Israel, the discovery that shook them to their foundations and transformed them utterly, is that God can use pagan nations to work God’s will. They discovered that the God they worshiped was not the exclusive God of the Hebrew people, but the God of all and active in all.
The righteousness called for, the faithfulness by which we can live, is the insight that one God is active and one standard applies. Reality can be trusted; we are embedded in a consistent unity. Pagan gods are not threatening Israel; the only God has roused a restless violent people of God’s own creation. Pagan behavior is not vindicated by their military might nor does their triumph call into question the injunctions of the Torah; one ethical standard applies to all, and those who violate it are judged even as they act.
The discovery of God’s oneness was alarming to Israel because it decentered the intimate, even private, relationship they had with their God. They came to see that they do not exclusively hold God’s attention. God is involved in the history of all people, even their enemies.
This shift, however, brings us to the two questions I raised. What does faithfulness mean? Are we to understand by that a kind of “copyright law,” by which we own certain religious language and have no access to other phrases, or a religious states’ rights theory in which religious language cannot be shared? Then my use of an Islamic phrase is glib at best and apostate at worst.
Our attempt to insure that God is close to us, even “ours” in a particular way is generated by the primal religious anxiety–our deep sense of alienation and insecurity. So we Christians and God make ourselves one in baptism, and affirm that, calling it secure knowledge to be used as a buffer against the terror of the cosmos. So it did not surprise me, though it troubled me, when I was asked by someone, “When are we going to hear from the pulpit that Islam is a false religion?” Here exposed is our longing to be reassured that our relationship with God is reliable, that we, in our unlikely faithfulness, have made the right choice. We may have a fear that enlarging the frame of reference too much will cause us to lose our focus–or rather that, if God is all in all, God cannot focus on us.
Yet God is God of all. A week ago today, the Pope called again for unity among Jews and Muslims and Christians, saying they all love one God. There is, after all, only one God to love. Affirming that there is only ONE God–and Christians do–how can the reverent words of all true worshippers, the sincere offering of any soul to God in any religion, not illumine for us, for our joy and strength and hope, the very God we also worship? Surely God recognizes those who worship in spirit and in truth, whether on this mountain or in Jerusalem–but, as our Lord said, “the hour is coming when we will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem”–and surely, as God recognizes those who worship in spirit and truth, God inclines to them.
The words others use about God can, if nothing else, help us understand how other human beings have taken up the innate restless spiritual longing of our species and articulated their insights. We might attentively sit at their feet and try to understand what is precious to them; we may come to prize some of the same things. We must ask how to pick up and handle respectfully a phrase generated by another people. One danger is that we will do so with arrogance or ignorance, as if we understood better than they what their words meant. We do not want to be spiritual Babylonians, invading, plundering, carrying off the sacred vessels–not that. But do not forget the story of Naaman, the Aramean leper, who was healed by the Israelite prophet Elisha, and who asked to carry back home with him two mule-loads of earth to build an altar. The words of other believers can become mementos of our own healing.
With this, of course, we arrive at my final question. Are spiritual words valuable, powerful, efficacious? How far can religious language reach within us to transform us and to heal us, even the language of others?
Mohamed Atta was one of the leaders of the attack that took place on the 11th of September. A document that the Attorney General claimed gives us a “shocking and disturbing view” into the minds of the terrorists was found in Atta’s luggage. Because I work in religion, I also found that document deeply troubling. In it we read instructions for which compassion did not seem to be a guiding principle: the hijackers were to remember their papers, their wills, and their knives, to make sure they were not followed, to kill efficiently so the victims would not suffer. It would be easy if that were all, since we could simply condemn them as vicious. And yet, John Voll of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding says, “Except for the section that talks about going into a plane and the knives, virtually everything else you could find in some medieval devotional manuals. … It is embedded in a broad Islamic devotional discourse.”
If these attacks were religiously motivated, we, as religious people, must, however it troubles us, acknowledge these other believers, however troubled, and find a way to listen across our barriers, rather than turn our backs, claiming their malevolence and our innocence. Not only must we grasp the political, economic, and cultural motivations of this hatred–Dean Baxter and Canon Geyer pointed to them eloquently–we must see the religious motivations as well, so that we can separate out what is wholesome from what is demonic.
These hijackers were willing to give up their life; they found something worth their life, greater than their life, to give themselves to. Self-sacrifice walks the same terrain as religion walks. The fact that religion is powerful enough to become death-dealing is a sign of how seriously we must take it, rather than how much we must avoid it. I am not saying that these men represent the fullness of Islam. We know from all reports that they do not. I am saying that we cannot remain ignorant of the faith of which they were such a toxic manifestation. Our ignorance gives us no truth to weigh against our fear. I am saying that we cannot avoid the day when Christian must speak to Muslim for our mutual healing and for the fullness of our faiths to be known.
Faith must speak to faith. We must not only be informed and respectful in trying to understand religious motivation, we must speak from as deep a place as our partners speak, if we are to have any hope of meeting them for peace. We cannot pray for reconciliation with our brothers and sisters who call Mohammed God’s final prophet as if this were something that would happen to us without our investment. World peace, a truly just peace, will not be a mediated solution, handled by others, while we receive a report of the result, not the cost, assured that we will never feel the cost nor need to make a change. This is the day of salvation. Now is the time to change.
I spoke with a woman who lost a son in one of the hijacked airplanes; she said to me, “I’ve read their words, but I cannot look into their eyes; their eyes are terrible.” Yet, some of us must learn to look into their eyes. We must not be afraid, as believers ourselves, and we must look into their eyes.
Listen to a portion of Mohamed Atta’s writing: “I pray to you, God, to forgive me all my sins, to allow me to glorify you in every possible way. O God, I am asking you for forgiveness. I am asking you to lighten my way. I am asking you to lift the burden I feel. God, I trust in you; I lay myself in your hands. I ask with the light of your faith…to guide me until you approve of me; once you do, that is my ultimate goal. We are of God and to God we return.”
What shocked me in reading this was that I could pray these words, even thought they expressed the anguish of a badly misguided faith. And while I say to God “keep all such deviations and hatreds away from me, lead me not into temptation, deliver me from evil,” yet I was shaken into wondering about the efficacy of these prayers. Did God forgive Mohamed Atta? Would God guide me if I asked using these words? If he could say these words and commit those acts, we should be troubled to wonder about the power of all religious language, including our own. Once again we have evidence that we can sit in mosque or synagogue or cathedral and deal only in words, never arriving at transformation or healing or encouragement or comfort. More is required.
I know some are called to explore the same depth that, in Mohamed Atta, became his vicious and evil conviction. Unless we can find an equal depth, where Christ is at work in us for healing, we will never be able to look into their eyes, never build the bridge that finds peace. And unless you, as a believer, if you are willing, can come to know the depth of faith in you that gives the lie to their homicidal heresy, we will have no claim to understand the words used of God; because unless we find that depth, God will remain a picture or a poem, rather than living water, while we die of spiritual thirst.
I call on those of you who will to become deep-sea divers into your own hearts, guided by God’s grace. Hold your breath, pull yourself down, kicking, groping through silt, looking for the solid ocean floor of intrinsic unshakeable faith. The pearl of great price is there, not at a casual caravansary encounter, but in a closed shell tucked into a coral crevasse. On the way to spiritual truth, you will be bruised and nearly drown. But at that depth, you will also discover that there are things worth your life, to which you would give your life. We will not only never understand religious motivation, we will never be able to look into the eyes of those who act on it, if we don’t find within ourselves that for which we would give our life, the prize we do not own, but that owns us.
Outside that depth, we cannot claim that god IS compassionate and merciful, because mercy and compassion do not hover on the surface. Staying on the surface with another is ultimately an expression of contempt, not compassion. Mercy is not reached by merely being nice. Mercy and compassion are responses to knowing from the inside certain depths of terror as we face the world–a terror so deep that it easily mutates into fundamentalist rage, a terror so deep that those who sit at ease in Zion drug themselves to look the other way. In those depths we find our ravenous hunger for justice and our parched thirst for peace; we will go mad and blind unless they are relieved. But it is equally true that only what reaches that depth can understand the need for compassion, only what reaches that depth can recognize mercy when it is offered, only what reaches that depth understands that we are made so that we flourish only as children of God. We are made with God as our indispensable but missing component. Religious language, mine or yours, ours or theirs, will not make this true, but it is efficacious in helping us recognize and hold what is true as we know it in Jesus the Christ. That itself can transform you.
If we can find this deep place in us, we will understand that we are unworthy servants of a greater goal. We will understand that it is true, that after we have done everything we can for this goal which far outstrips our life, but which is worth our every breath, we will then willingly say, “We are only profitless servants and have done only what we ought to have done.” This phrase is distasteful to us, because we want religion to be about private consolations and personal spiritual growth; we do not think of ourselves as servants at all, but as consumers, clients, recipients…. Yet Jesus also said of himself that he came to serve, and he knelt and washed the feet even of one who betrayed him, looking into his eyes and waiting seventy times seven times.
Habakkuk closed his book with these words: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls; yet I will rejoice in the LORD, and I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the LORD, is my strength. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.”
May God bring us to know our faith and plant us there until the day we join all the faithful to praise God, the Ruler of the Universe, the Compassionate, the Merciful, who in that Divine Oneness is Eternal Source, Only-begotten Word, and Life-giving Spirit, and whom we glorify this day and always.