God Speaks in the Language of Resurrection

Ten years after 9/11 and on the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, it is appropriate to reflect with the Archbishop Rowan Williams on war and peace. In Writing in the Dust: After September 11, Williams invites his readers to sit with their emotions and inclinations (no matter how disturbing) in what he calls “breathing spaces” while offering insight on Christian responses to violence and terror.


Peering into the Darkness

In reaction to the terrorist attack of 9/11, the Archbishop humbly and soberly asks, “What are we prepared to learn?” (xii).[1] In asking this question and taking it seriously, Williams peers into some of the darkest crevices of the human heart and psyche, where he confronts the existential fear and rage that animates and perpetuates the human cycle of violence. Instead of repressing this fear and replacing it with the jingoistic jargon of vindication and vengeance, Williams looks carefully at the fear, analyzing and articulating it in such a way that readers find themselves peering into their own shadows, whether they want to or not. Within these shadows, we realize that we “might be committed to a God who [seems] useless in a crisis” (8), that we can easily confuse the self-giving love of a martyr with the self-hating violence of a suicidal killer (3,10), that we so often tend to scapegoat and de-humanize the ‘other’ (Jews, Muslims, etc.) in ways that simply fuel the fire of war and, in perhaps the most troubling words of the book, we face the very real possibility that “the distinction between what the US forces are doing and what was done on September 11 will be academic” (34, my emphasis).[2]

Williams does not penetrate this darkness for shock value or in order to speak ill of US foreign policy, rather, he seeks to acknowledge and use “the rage and revengefulness as a way of sensing a little of where the violence comes from” (24). Williams’ invitation can be hard to swallow for those who have lost loved ones in the 9/11 attack, but his approach is nevertheless profound and deeply “Christian” (in the best sense of the word) regarding our response to violence. “The trauma,” he writes, “can offer a breathing space; and in that space there is the possibility of recognizing that we have had an experience that is not just a nightmarish insult to us but a door into the suffering of countless other innocents, a suffering that is more or less routine for them in their less regularly protected environments” (59). Williams elaborates on this empathetic “door into suffering” by helping us to understand more intimately the Palestinian-Israeli deadlock in which both sides have experienced terrorist attacks similar to 9/11. Certainly, if everyone heeded Williams’ call to see our trauma as an opportunity for deeper empathy and forgiveness rather than as a justification for further violence, then the ethical issue of war and peace would become mostly irrelevant.

How to Grieve Humanly

            However, as human history attests, most people do not heed William’s call to see trauma as an opportunity for empathy. This is partly because, as William himself acknowledges, such “seeing” is hard work and it requires peering into our own darkness, which often frightens us. “There is a particularly difficult challenge here,” Williams admits, “to do with making terms with our vulnerability and learning how to live with it in a way that isn’t simply denial, panic, the reinforcement of defenses” (57). Coming to terms with our vulnerability and our own inner violence is what the archbishop calls grieving humanly: “If, as St. Augustine says in his Confessions, we can fail to ‘love humanly,’ then surely we can also fail to grieve humanly, to grieve without the consolation of drama, martyrdom, resentment, and projection” (72).

The call to grieve humanly is clearly a challenge and, for some, maybe an impossibility. The archbishop’s invitation to respond with deep reflection and compassion to the atrocities of 9/11 can easily be construed as naïve and wishful thinking. After such a horrifying trauma, there is a human need to discharge, often violently. Williams acknowledges this: “We weren’t completely sure at first, most of us, but it was, of course, violence we turned to. Not surprisingly, because we felt, most of us, that there really was nothing else we could do. A long programme of diplomatic pressure, the reworking of regional alliances and a severe review of intelligence and security didn’t feel like doing anything. There needed to be a discharge of the tension” (31). He explains that the war on terror and the need to capture bin Laden were born out of this need to discharge. However, he also warns, “the drama of a martyr’s fate for bin Laden would give another turn to the screw” (32). The human need to discharge violently always leads to more violence (the “tightening of the screw”) and, according to Jacques Ellul, “Violence begets violence—nothing else.”[3] Williams looks carefully at this human need to discharge, rightly critiques it and then wants us to (somehow!) simply let go of the human need to discharge in order to “grieve humanly.” Here, the archbishop betrays his naivety. How does one simply let go of the human need to discharge? Can one dismantle the inner violence and darkness simply by looking at it? acknowledging it? writing about it? Williams admits that it is hard work to peer into our darkness, but he does not fully equip his readers to deal with their own inner violence and darkness. He is naïve to assume that his readers will simply dispel the darkness within through the power of empathy and forgiveness. Furthermore, he is irresponsible in leading many to confront their own inner violence without equipping them to handle it. In other words, he is inviting us to “play with fire” when many of us our still “children.” Friedrich Nietzsche, who knew well the destructive power of inner violence, spoke wisely when he said, “When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”[4] Rowan Williams gazes long into the abyss and compels us to do the same, but what do we do when the abyss stares back at us? What do we do when the “breathing space” becomes a gaping hole of darkness and destructive forces?

God Speaks in the Language of Resurrection

What do we when our inner violence needs to be discharged? Do we direct it towards others in a way that perpetuates war and scapegoating and dehumanization? The archbishop strongly urges against this. But then where else can we direct the violent discharge? Towards ourselves in a way that leads to self-abuse, self-destruction and suicide? The archbishop does not seem to address this, but would certainly condemn it. So then, where can we direct the violent discharge?

One answer can be found in the archbishop’s description of the way in which God speaks. In the chapter titled “Answering Back,” he describes the “miracle” of dispelling darkness and violence, which is “made possible by the way in which God speaks.” God understands that we need to discharge violently and that violence is the language by which we speak: “God speaks one language, and human beings respond in another. God speaks to say, ‘Don’t be afraid, nothing will stop me welcoming you’” (26). In saying this, God invites us to direct our inner violence onto him, the only One who can truly take it and dispel it. God does not respond to our violence with more violence. Williams writes, “The speech of God is silenced by death,” explaining that human violence killed and still kills the incarnate Logos. “But,” according to the archbishop, “God is unable, it seems, to learn any other language, and speaks again in Jesus’ resurrection” (26). When we speak to God in the language of human violence, God answers back by speaking to us in the language of the resurrection. It is only by continually engaging in this conversation with God that we can begin to speak the language of resurrection to our own inner violence and to the violence around us. In doing so, we allow the power of the resurrection (which is divine forgiveness for all human violence) to dispel the power of war and death and darkness. When we learn to speak the language of the resurrection into the abyss, the abyss no longer stares back at us. Instead, we begin to see the abyss as the Empty Tomb, the sign of God’s ultimate forgiveness for our violence, which transforms us, within our world of war and terror, into agents of forgiveness and peace.

[1] All quotes from Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust: After September 11 (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2002) unless noted otherwise.

[2] “From the point of view of a villager in Afghanistan whose family has died in a bombing raid, a villager who has probably never heard of the World Trade Center, the distinction…”

[3] Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective (Harrisburg PA: Seabury Press, 1969), 100.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1989), Aphorism 146.

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