© iStockphoto.com/ Shavar Ross
IT HAS BEEN five years since the
tragedies struck the United States
on September 11, 2001. Memories
of that fateful day continue to
reverberate in our hearts and
minds. With those memories, we sense
little closure on many of the questions
those events raised for us. Now, from a
distance of five years, it is perhaps time
to revisit them.
The questions I will try to examine
here are these:
• Where was God when these things
happened, and why did God allow
them to happen?
• How, as a country, do we deal with
the sense of violation we feel by those
events, and how do we come to terms
with our suffering, as individuals and as
• Is it possible to forgive those who
planned and carried out the attacks,
since they have shown no repentance?
• Is there a way forward for us,
despite all these unanswered questions,
and can anything positive come out
of this terrible experience?
Of course, these questions do not
allow any easy answers or solutions.
But sometimes, simply returning to them gives us the chance to gain new
insights and see things a little more
Why Did God Let This Happen?
Where was God? This question is the
first that springs to mind for us as
believers. If God loves us and watches
over us, how could something like this
even occur? Where was God when this
happened? Why did God allow this to
Whenever tragedy strikes and evil
happens, it challenges our very understanding
of who God is.
The tragedy of 9/11 was neither the
first time nor will it be the last time we
are going to ask these questions. Think
of the tsunami that struck South Asia in
2004 or what Hurricane Katrina did to
New Orleans in 2005. Older people
will remember the death of President
John F. Kennedy in 1963 or even the
bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Whether tragedy comes to us through
a natural disaster (which we call an “act of God”) or through the cunning
of human beings, God seems to have to
answer for it.
All such events lead us to question
either God’s power to prevent such
things or God’s love that truly cares
for us. Theologians have grappled with
these questions for centuries and have
not come up with a satisfactory answer.
For some, tragedies such as natural
disasters are a punishment from God for
our collective sins. (Some televangelists
cited collective sin as causing 9/11,
as well.) Other people point to the shifting
tectonic plates or meteorological
maps to explain why earthquakes,
tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, tornadoes,
hurricanes and flooding happen.
When acts of human beings are the
cause, people usually point to the fact
that God gives us our freedom, even to
sin and to do wrong.
But perhaps pursuing God as a punisher
or as indifferent is not the way to
go. If we look at these nagging questions
from another angle, we can see a
common thread running through
them—whether it is about large events
or single tragedies. The web of relationships
in our lives—relationships
with our families, our neighbors, our
country and God—has been torn asunder.
We are asking questions about how
those relationships can ever be restored.
We wish that we could go back
to how things were before all of this
When we ask “why” questions and
“how” questions, we are trying to repair
the broken relationships around us,
relationships we cannot live without.
We soon come to realize that things
can never be as they were before.
Instead of going backward, we need to
find a way to move forward. That does
not mean that we must forget what
has happened or abandon our love for
those who have perished. But we have
to find a new way of relating to those
events and those dear people.
The stories of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples after the resurrection give
us a cue here. Time and again, Jesus
gives his disciples a new orientation, a
way through their grief at losing him.
He does not take them back to where
they were before but sends them forward.
Take, for example, the story of the
disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke
24:13-35). The two disciples are locked
in their grief and growing despair. They
keep telling themselves the same story
over and over. Jesus listens to their
story and then tells it back to them
another way. Their hearts are on fire.
After Jesus disappears, they rush back to
Jerusalem full of excitement.
In this and the other appearance stories,
Jesus asks them to have faith—
trust in him and what he is doing. A
network of relationships is restored.
And it changes their lives.
Trust and faith are about reconnecting
all those relationships that have
been damaged or severed in the terrible
experience. That so many people went
to their churches, mosques and synagogues
on the day itself and on the
weekends after 9/11 was a sign of trying
to reconnect with God. That seems
to indicate that the real and deeper
question was about reconnecting with
God and with one another rather than
questioning their trust in God.
When we struggle to understand the “why” and the “how” after a tragic
event, we need to remember that perhaps
our real question is: How will we
be able to reconnect and move ahead
after all of this?
Dealing With Violation and With Suffering
In the aftermath of 9/11, a second set
of questions has loomed large, questions
that deal with our feelings of violation
and the suffering that ensued.
Violation is an experience of transgression:
Perpetrators have entered into
an intimate part of our lives—a place
where they are not welcome—and have
deliberately dishonored us. That sense
of intrusion and disrespect gnaws away
at our self-esteem and our sense of the
trustworthiness of our environment.
We feel hollow and empty.
Suffering is the response to these feelings.
It is a psychological state of uneasiness
and diminished energy. For those
who lost loved ones in the attack, that
suffering can be sharp and ongoing. They may experience flashbacks to the
moment when they heard and saw what
was happening. Any new experience of
violation brings them back to those terrible
moments again. Their sleep may be
disturbed and their waking hours
marked by a perpetual haze.
Suffering is something we cannot
control. We cannot turn it off at will. If
suffering endures, it wears us down and
diminishes our humanity. It makes no
sense; it lacks any meaning. Can there
be a way out of suffering?
One of the most helpful ways of
diminishing suffering is by linking it
to something greater than ourselves.
Christians from time immemorial have
done this by linking their suffering to
the Passion of Christ. St. Paul puts it in
terms of his earnest desire to know
Christ “and the power of his resurrection
and [the] sharing of his sufferings
by being conformed to his death, if
somehow I may attain the resurrection
from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).
By connecting our meaningless suffering
to the suffering of the innocent
Christ, we might also somehow come
to participate in his being raised from
The mystery of Christ’s death and
resurrection, by which God is making
reconciliation in the world happen,
can become a pathway for us to situate
our own suffering in the wounds of
Christ—wounds that healed the Apostle
Thomas’s broken heart (John 20:27-28), wounds that can heal our own (1
Finding meaning in our suffering by
connecting it to the suffering of Jesus
can help relieve personal suffering. But
what about our sense of violation as a
nation? It is important that we name
the violation for what it is: a trespass
upon our honor and dignity.
Moreover, we need to remind ourselves
that our honor will not be
restored by violating the honor of others.
When nations are violated in the
way we were, the impulse is to strike
back. But then we are not acting out of
our best instincts, and we do no honor
To restore dignity, we need to seek
out ways that will change the moral
landscape, rather than defile it once
again. We must rise to higher moral
ground than those who defiled us. Only
in this way can we hope to restore a
moral and spiritual order.
Is Forgiveness Possible?
Can we forgive the perpetrators of 9/11
for their heinous acts? Apart from the
enormity of the wrongdoing, it is even
harder to think about forgiveness knowing
that the 19 men who carried out the
attacks all died in the process; hence,
there is no way that they can repent,
apologize and seek forgiveness.
Our first reaction to the question of
forgiveness is probably refusal. Not only
did the perpetrators not repent, but
also forgiving them would seem to
be disloyal to those who died on that
day. It might say that their deaths were
not important, or that we need not
remember their suffering and violent
But on the other hand, we know
that forgiveness is at the heart of the
Christian message. Jesus not only forgave
others, but also enjoined his followers
to forgive—not just seven times
but 77 times (Matthew 18:22). In the
prayer Jesus taught us, we ask God to
forgive us in the way that we forgive
others. We tell ourselves all the time
that we should “forgive and forget.”
So what are we to do?
Forgiveness is never easy, especially
when we have to forgive something
that has forever changed our lives. Forgiveness
takes time as well. Instant forgiveness
usually strikes us as superficial
and not the real thing.
Where might we stand now, five
years after 9/11? Certainly the passage
of time has alleviated some of the suffering
and resentment, even though it
has not begun to erase it entirely. When
we think about perhaps forgiving something
as terrible as this, we need to
attend to the teaching of Jesus closely.
First of all, it is God who forgives
sin and wrongdoing. Only God has sufficient
perspective to grasp the extent
of damage that sin and wrongdoing
create in our lives and in the lives of
those against whom we sin.
In the act of forgiving, we participate
in God’s larger act of forgiveness. Forgiveness
is something that comes from
God—it is a gift of God to us. If we listen
closely to Jesus’ words, we will discover
that. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ first
word on the cross is about forgiveness:
“Father, forgive them, they know not
what they do” (Luke 23:34). We often
read this as Jesus forgiving his executioners.
But in actual fact, Jesus is calling
on God, his Father, to forgive them.
Jesus is still in the midst of his suffering.
He cannot forgive his executioners
for something they have not yet completed.
But he can call on his Father to
This act of Jesus can be a great source of comfort to us when we struggle to
forgive but cannot. We can call upon
God, who sees all things, to forgive.
And that is a prayer that we too someday
may be able to forgive.
The advice to “forgive and forget”
means that we should not hold on to
resentment after we have forgiven
someone. In something so heinous as
the 9/11 attacks, we can feel that forgetting
betrays those who have died. Do
we have to forget when we forgive?
Actually, we neither have to nor
should. That injunction is nowhere in
the Bible. Our repulsion at forgetting is
a correct human reaction. When something
has so changed our lives as did
the events of 9/11, forgetting would
diminish our humanity and trivialize
the suffering of those days.
The issue is not forgetting, but rather
how we remember. Forgiveness is often
made possible by our ability to see the
wrongdoer from a different angle: not
as a despicable, immoral person, but as
a weak, fragile and sometimes confused
human being, as we ourselves often are.
Put another way, when we forgive,
we do not forget—we remember in a
different way. We no longer reduce the
wrongdoers to the deed that has been
committed. We see them from other
perspectives. This does not condone
the deed or dismiss what they did. We
see the event as more complex, not
reducible to a single motivation.
Forgiveness means that the wrongful
deed of the past no longer controls our
lives. By remembering in a different
way, we do not forget what happened,
but it is no longer allowed to poison the
present and the future. But even to
achieve that, we will need God’s help.
Is There a Way Forward?
Even if we can reach some measure of
forgiveness and free ourselves from
being overwhelmed by the past, we
still have to ask ourselves whether anything
positive or meaningful can come
out of this experience. Our first answer
is to insist that nothing positive can
come from this. In many ways, we are
perhaps still too close to the event to
give a more hopeful response to this
In a way, trying to look forward
brings us back to our first question: We
tried to find out where God was when
all of this happened. We discovered
that, although we are not able to answer
this question to anyone’s satisfaction,
it did reveal another question lurking
on the sidelines: How can we reweave
the broken fabric of our relationships?
When we ask about a possible way forward,
or what might be learned from
the situation, we are asking about those
relationships once again.
Indeed, we must try to learn something
from what happened, rather than
let it sit like a black hole on our social
landscape. The attack that drew the
United States into World War II might
provide some parallels here. Although
that attack and the war that followed
brought untold suffering for millions of
people, by 1945 we had learned something.
We learned that we needed to
take steps to make sure no war ever
happened again on that scale.
Rather than punishing the vanquished
(as we did after World War I),
we helped Germany and Japan rebuild.
One of the consequences of that decision
has been that there has not been
another war of that size and scale in the
60 years since.
Resentment and the desire to punish
are poor guideposts for building a better
future. We cannot undo the past.
But we can try to build a better future.
Here is where the likely positive outcomes
of 9/11 will be found. Can we do
something to still the resentment and
hatred that led the perpetrators to plot
and carry out the attacks?
Our efforts will always be insufficient
and incomplete, but we must
struggle to try to make a difference.
The malaise we are experiencing on
many fronts in this country at the
moment seems to indicate we still have
not arrived at that point. But, as Christians,
we must continue to seek ways to
make a better and safer future.
Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S., is a professor of theology
at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Among the
many books he’s written is The Ministry of Reconciliation (Orbis Books). Father Schreiter also serves
as a consultant to reconciliation and peace-building
programs around the world.
Remembering 9/11: Find ways to remember the anniversary of the September 11 attacks in our special feature.