After 9-11 hit, theologians, preachers, and others began to dig up what it all means theologically. Some saw it as a warning and an act of God’s punishment against a nation that has strayed from its founding allegiance. Others saw America as the pious victim of an attack by Satan himself. There are what I consider to be “subtopics” within both of these attempted explanations; such as the belief that America is somehow analogous to God’s chosen Israel and that America is (or was founded as) a Christian nation. Such a belief doesn’t really match on sociological and even historical levels. However, both lines of belief are attempts of making sense of tragedy in this world…something people question all the time.
It should be noted that, as in the words of Tony Campolo, “everyone is a theologian” (I’m sure the idea didn’t originate with him, but I”m quoting him). If you’ve thought about God in your lifetime, then you’re a theologian on some level. And it seems that “evil” in this world will almost certainly bring theological thinking out of the woodwork. In my experience, however, many people who are in the midst of suffering only seem to want answers and explanations. As a pastor, I’m asked all the time why “bad things happen to good people,” and yet diving into deep theological ideas in that moment never satisfies. Perhaps it’s not answers that people want so much as they want to shake the uncomfortable feelings of not knowing. In Haiti (where I lived for three years), there was very little diagnosis of illnesses and almost no explanations of death. “He died,” they would say. But why? How? What could have prevented it? But there was nothing. A people who understood tragedy as a part of life needed no further explanation.
I go into all that to say that understanding theologically why tragedies such as 9-11 happen will continue to remain a mystery. The great story of Job, the clearest example in Scripture of human beings attempting to explain tragedy, leaves the question of why unanswered. Instead, God responds with a reminder of who Job is in relation to God. A paraphrase would look something like, “I am God, Job, and you are not. I am a great God and my created universe is vast, and there’s just some things that you won’t be able to compute.” I believe it was this sense of humility that lead to bursting-at-the-seems attendance at so many churches after the towers fell.
So what comfort is there, then? Strangely enough, God’s response to Job helps with that too. Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by a task that was just too big for one person? Did you in that moment wish there might have been someone who could say, “take a breather, friend, I’ve got this?” As much as we would love to have answers to tragedy in this world, having the knowledge of God comes with great responsibility. Conversely there is a simple freedom that comes in not knowing, or not caring to know why. This freedom allows us to focus on the real source of our anguish, which is not our lack of answers, but that simply we hurt. What kind of God would you prefer? Is it a God that, after a tragedy in your life, sits down on your couch to give you a theological lesson; or is it a God that hears your cries and cries with you?