9/11 and the Sport of God

This article is from Bill Moyers appearing in CommonDreams.org looking at religious fundmantalism in the US. The point made in this article is that as well as Muslim extremists using an extreme interpretation of their holy book, the Koran, Chrisitian fundamentalists are also using extreme and literal interpretations of their holy book, the Bible, and have enormous power. The original article can be found at http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0909-36.htm 1

9/11 and the Sport of God

Commondreams.org

by Bill Moyers

Friday 09 September 2005

This article is adapted from Bill Moyer’s address this week at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where Judith and Bill Moyers received the seminary’s highest award, the Union Medal, for their contributions to faith and reason in America.

At the Central Baptist Church in Marshall, Texas, where I was baptized in the faith, we believed in a free church in a free state. I still do.

My spiritual forbears did not take kindly to living under theocrats who embraced religious liberty for themselves but denied it to others. Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils, thundered the dissenter Roger Williams as he was banished from Massachusetts for denying Puritan authority over his conscience. Baptists there were a pitiful negligible minority but they were agitators for freedom and therefore denounced as incendiaries of the commonwealth for holding to their belief in that great democracy of faith - the priesthood of all believers. For refusing to pay tribute to the state religion they were fined, flogged, and exiled. In 1651 the Baptist Obadiah Holmes was given 30 stripes with a three-corded whip after he violated the law and took forbidden communion with another Baptist in Lynn, Massachusetts. His friends offered to pay his fine for his release but he refused. They offered him strong drink to anesthetize the pain of the flogging. Again he refused. It is the love of liberty, he said, that must free the soul.

Such revolutionary ideas made the new nation with its Constitution and Bill of Rights a haven for the cause of conscience. No longer could magistrates order citizens to support churches they did not attend and recite creeds that they did not believe. No longer would the loathsome combination of church and state - as Thomas Jefferson described it - be the settled order. Unlike the Old World that had been wracked with religious wars and persecution, the government of America would take no sides in the religious free-for-all that liberty would make possible and politics would make inevitable. The First Amendment neither inculcates religion nor inoculates against it. Americans could be loyal to the Constitution without being hostile to God, or they could pay no heed to God without fear of being mugged by an official God Squad. It has been a remarkable arrangement that guaranteed soul freedom.

It is at risk now, and the fourth observance of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 is an appropriate time to think about it.

Four years ago this week, the poet’s prophetic metaphor became real again and the great dark birds of history plunged into our lives.

They came in the name of God. They came bent on murder and martyrdom. It was as if they rode to earth on the fierce breath of Allah himself, for the sacred scriptures that had nurtured these murderous young men are steeped in images of a violent and vengeful God who wills life for the faithful and horrific torment for unbelievers.

Yes, the Koran speaks of mercy and compassion and calls for ethical living. But such passages are no match for the ferocity of instruction found there for waging war for God’s sake. The scholar Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer carefully traces this trail of holy violence in his important book, Is Religion Killing Us? [Trinity Press International. 2003]. He highlights many of the verses in the Koran that the Islamic terrorists could have had in their hearts and on their lips four years ago as they moved toward their gruesome rendezvous. As I read some of them, close your eyes and recall the scenes of that bright September morning which began in the bright sun under a blue sky:

Those who believe Fight in the cause of Allah, and Those who reject Faith Fight in the cause of Evil.(4:76)

So We sent against them A furious Wind through days of disaster, that We might Give them a taste of a Penalty of humiliation In this Life; but The Penalty of the Hereafter will be More Humiliating still: And they Will find No help. (41:16)

Then watch thou For the Day That the sky will Bring forth a kind Of smoke (or mist) Plainly visible, Enveloping the people: This will be a Penalty Grievous. (44:10-11)

Did the people of the towns Feel Secure against the coming Of Our Wrath by night While they were asleep? Or else did they feel Secure against its coming in Broad daylight while they Played About (carefree)? Did they then feel secure Against the Plan of Allah? - But no one can feel Secure from the Plan of Allah, except those (Doomed) to ruin. (7:97-99)

So the holy warriors came - an airborne death cult, their sights on God’s enemies: regular folks, starting the day’s routine. One minute they’re pulling off their jackets, shaking Sweet n’ Low into their coffee, adjusting the height of their chair or a picture of a child or sweetheart or spouse in a frame on their desk, booting up their computer - and in the next, they are engulfed by a horrendous cataclysm. God’s will. Poof!

But it is never only the number of dead by which terrorists measure their work. It is also the number of the living - the survivors - taken hostage to fear. Their mission was to invade our psyche; get inside our heads - deprive us of trust, faith, and peace of mind: keep us from ever again believing in a safe, just, and peaceful world, and from working to bring that world to pass. The writer Terry Tempest Williams has said the human heart is the first home of democracy. Fill that heart with fear and people will give up the risks of democracy for the assurances of security; fill that heart with fear and you can shake the house to its foundations.

In the days leading up to 9/11 our daughter and husband adopted their first baby. On the morning of September 11th our son-in-law passed through the shadow of the World Trade Center toward his office a few blocks up the street. He arrived as the horrors erupted. He saw the flames, the falling bodies, the devastation. His building was evacuated and for long awful moments he couldn’t reach his wife, our daughter, to say he was okay. Even after they connected it wasn’t until the next morning that he was able to make it home. Throughout that fearful night our daughter was alone with their new baby. Later she told us that for weeks thereafter she would lie awake at night, wondering where and when it might happen again, going to the computer at three in the morning to check out what she could about bioterrorism, germ warfare, anthrax and the vulnerability of children. The terrorists had violated a mother’s deepest space.

Who was not vulnerable? That morning Judith and I made it to our office at Channel Thirteen on West 33rd Street just after the second plane struck. Our building was evacuated although the two of us remained with other colleagues to do what we could to keep the station on the air. The next day it was evacuated again because of a bomb scare at the Empire State Building nearby. We had just ended a live broadcast for PBS when security officers swept through and ordered everyone out. This time we left. As we were making our way down the stairs I took Judith’s arm and was struck by the thought: Is this the last time I’ll touch her? Could what we had begun together a half century ago end here on this dim, bare staircase? I forced the thought from my mind, willed it away, but in the early hours of morning, as I sat at the window of our apartment looking out at the sky, the sinister intruder crept back.

Terrorists plant time bombs in our heads, hoping to turn each and every imagination into a private hell governed by our fear of them.

They win only if we let them, only if we become like them: vengeful, imperious, intolerant, paranoid. Having lost faith in all else, zealots have nothing left but a holy cause to please a warrior God. They win if we become holy warriors, too; if we kill the innocent as they do; strike first at those who had not struck us; allow our leaders to use the fear of terrorism to make us afraid of the truth; cease to think and reason together, allowing others to tell what’s in God’s mind. Yes, we are vulnerable to terrorists, but only a shaken faith in ourselves can do us in.

So over the past four years I have kept reminding myself of not only the horror but the humanity that was revealed that day four years ago, when through the smoke and fire we glimpsed the heroism, compassion, and sacrifice of people who did the best of things in the worst of times. I keep telling myself that this beauty in us is real, that it makes life worthwhile and democracy work and that no terrorist can take it from us.

But I am not so sure. As a Christian realist I honor my inner skeptic. And as a journalist I always know the other side of the story. The historian Edward Gibbon once wrote of historians what could be said of journalists. He wrote: The theologians may indulge the pleasing task of describing religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian [read: journalist] He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.

The other side of the story:

Muslims have no monopoly on holy violence. As Jack Nelson-Pallmayer points out, God’s violence in the sacred texts of both faiths reflect a deep and troubling pathology so pervasive, vindictive, and destructive that it contradicts and subverts the collective weight of other passages that exhort ethical behavior or testify to a loving God.

For days now we have watched those heart-breaking scenes on the Gulf Coast: the steaming, stinking, sweltering wreckage of cities and suburbs; the fleeing refugees; the floating corpses, hungry babies, and old people huddled together in death, the dogs gnawing at their feet; stranded children standing in water reeking of feces and garbage; families scattered; a mother holding her small child and an empty water jug, pleading for someone to fill it; a wife, pushing the body of her dead husband on a wooden plank down a flooded street; desperate people struggling desperately to survive.

Now transport those current scenes from our newspapers and television back to the first Book of the Bible - the Book of Genesis. They bring to life what we rarely imagine so graphically when we read of the great flood that devastated the known world. If you read the Bible as literally true, as fundamentalists do, this flood was ordered by God. And God said to Noah, I have determined to make an end of all flesh... behold, I will destroy them with the earth. (6:5-13). I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall die. (6:17-19) Noah and his family are the only humans spared - they were, after all, God’s chosen. But for everyone else: ... the waters prevailed so mightily... that all the high mountains....were covered....And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts...and every man; everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life, died.... (7:17-23).

The flood is merely Act One. Read on: This God first hardens the heart of Pharaoh to make sure the Egyptian ruler will not be moved by the plea of Moses to let his people go. Then because Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, God turns the Nile into blood so people cannot drink its water and will suffer from thirst. Not satisfied with the results, God sends swarms of locusts and flies to torture them; rains hail and fire and thunder on them destroys the trees and plants of the field until nothing green remains; orders every first-born child to be slaughtered, from the first-born of Pharaoh right on down to the first-born of the maidservant behind the mill. An equal-murderous God, you might say. The massacre continues until there is not a house where one was not dead. While the Egyptian families mourn their dead, God orders Moses to loot from their houses all their gold and silver and clothing. Finally, God’s thirst for blood is satisfied, God pauses to rest - and boasts: I have made sport of the Egyptians.

Violence: the sport of God. God, the progenitor of shock and awe.

And that’s just Act II. As the story unfolds women and children are hacked to death on God’s order; unborn infants are ripped from their mother’s wombs; cities are leveled - their women killed if they have had sex, the virg