Frank Tracy Griswold III

The 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

One Year Later, Continuing to Make Meaning

August 13, 2002
Frank T. Griswold

One year later, our thoughts inevitably turn to that dazzlingly beautiful Tuesday morning of September 11, 2001, which in moments was brutally transformed by destruction and death. In a variety of ways, we are still digging our way out from under the rubble. During this year the events of that day have continued to shape our national attitudes and policies, and to leave us still dealing with questions.

I find myself wondering how it is some could believe such terrible things were done with the presumed blessing and in the name of God. Surely such acts are not of God. And, Muslim scholars and theologians have been clear in saying that so to declare is a perversion of Islam.

Invoking God in support of violence, murder and various patterns of oppression is nothing new, and Christianity is not immune from having been used for untoward ends.
In the course of history, a common temptation has been to identify God with the interests of one's own particular group, be it a religious body, a tribe, or a nation. The uncritical assumption that my concerns and my perspectives match those of God has caused untold harm and suffering across the ages.

I have noted with interest the recent furor caused by the challenge to the words “under God” which are part of the pledge of allegiance commonly recited in classrooms and on patriotic occasions: “…one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” What does it mean to be a nation under God? Does it mean our national priorities and perspectives are regarded as synonymous with God's intention and will? I think not. I believe it has a much more costly meaning: that we as a nation are called constantly to scrutinize the dynamics of our national life and relationship with other nations in the light of the deep values we draw from Scripture and our life in Christ, which reveal to us something of God's desires and intentions.

If we delude ourselves that our perspectives are synonymous with God's we reduce God to a kind of totem or mascot who cheers along our actions and choices. However, if we realize that being under God means we are called to look at our lives in light of God's purposes for us, then we are opened to self-scrutiny, and indeed self-judgment and repentance. God's larger view of justness and care for the whole earth is allowed to pierce and purify our distorted and self-serving understandings of our perceived “national interests.”

If we believe – as I do – that we truly are a nation under God, then rather than covering ourselves and our actions with a self-assumed blanket of holiness, we are called to ask what the Lord requires of us. We are called to discern what it means to be faithful.

In the days immediately following September 11, when our wounds were fresh, we had a new opportunity to ask what it means to be under God. We had a glimpse of our kinship with a larger world, where acts of terror come in many forms. By virtue of our experience, we entered into solidarity with others based on our common vulnerability. This awareness was new to us, and drew forth fear, which led us almost inevitably to thoughts of self-protection, war and retribution. Since then the world beyond us has increasingly become perceived as a hiding place for terrorists. We have thus cut ourselves off and chosen to focus almost exclusively on our “homeland.”

As a nation under God I believe we are called to claim our solidarity with our sisters and brothers around the world. We are called to ask the questions so clearly raised by the events of September 11. For example, why are we perceived with such hatred in many places around the globe? How have some of our ways of being contributed to hardship and poverty, and subsequent rage, in other parts of the world? How frequently do our international policies, economic and political, say to the world that we are not genuinely interested in anything beyond our shores that doesn't directly benefit us? Are we unable to understand, even now, that our world is too small and too fragile for a unilateralist stance?

In describing the church the apostle Paul uses the metaphor of a body in which the well-being of any part of the body affects the well-being of the whole. “We are members one of another,” he says. Perhaps Paul's vision is one we might fruitfully apply not only to our life as a church but to our life as a nation in relationship with other nations. To live under God requires a conversion of heart and a willingness to see things not solely from the perspective of self-interest but from the perspective of God's universal care for the well-being of all people and the creation that sustains us.

As we continue to make meaning of the events of the last year, and to live faithfully under God in these new realities, may we as the church be steadfast and strong in carrying out our mission, which is nothing less than engaging in God's project of restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA


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