A matter of faith

When terror struck, Americans turned to religion for guidance and strength. Then what?

Minister John Boonstra believes people are turning to faith after Sept. 11 out of fear-and hope.

Minister John Boonstra believes people are turning to faith after Sept. 11 out of fear-and hope.

No poll has been taken, but it’s a good bet that when Americans first learned the fate of the four hijacked airplanes that fateful September morning, the most common response was a variation on one phrase.

Oh, my God.

For many people, the response was literal. Even in normal times, polls tell us that around 85 percent of Americans believe in a higher power of some sort. Yet except for the peripheral presence (real and lampooned) of Christian Coalition-type conservatives, religion is almost never discussed in public in America, let alone as a matter of public policy. In daily papers, it generally gets a page a week at most.

There are many reasons for this. Faith tends to run deepest in rural areas, among older people, and in the middle of the country, far from our hip young media culture (and liberal big cities like Seattle). America’s increasingly liberal culture frowns upon offending people or making them uncomfortable, so one’s faith is often a private thing. And, for many Americans, belief in a higher power does not translate into regular or visible worship. The Islamic practice of five prayer sessions a day, for example, seems inconceivable in modern America.

But even before most peoples’ eyes had been peeled away from the macabre replays of collapsing inferno, faith-based institutions of all kinds were faced with a flood of shaken people. On the evening of Sept. 11, several interfaith services were held across Seattle, and many more took place across the country. They continued throughout the week— a remarkable phenomenon, largely unnoticed by Osama bin Laden-obsessed media, sweeping the United States.

“I think there was a tremendous sense, on the 11th, 12th, and 13th, of people just trying to make spiritual sense of what happened,” says John Boonstra, executive minister of the progressive religious coalition the Washington Association of Churches. “It’s not surprising that in times when people are very, very anxious and there’s a lot of fear about the future-fear both about their own safety and the safeties of their families within the country, and also fear about how our country will behave in the world-that’s a very natural time for people to look for something higher.”

Rick Kingham, senior pastor at Overlake Christian Church—a man whose theology is very different from Boonstra’s—agrees. “Any time there’s a crisis, whether that’s a national or personal crisis, it calls for [people] to turn to whatever anchors them. People’s tendency is to go to whatever feels the most solid, and we feel that it’s a turn to faith and God.”

Across the country, people who had not set foot in a sanctuary in years, or even decades, found themselves praying. The trend crossed all faiths: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islamic.

Communities of faith also turned out to be a critical link in channeling people’s public responses, whether it was for blood drives or donations of food or money to victims in New York. Overlake sent donations to sister churches in Manhattan that, in two cases, lost over a hundred congregation members. Ecumenical support also extended to a sister faith under fire: Within days, the Church Council of Greater Seattle had set up a program called “Watchful Eyes,” in which people of other faiths extended their solidarity, accompaniment, and even physical protection to Muslims worried about retaliatory violence.

In response, Jamil Razzak of the Islam Idriss Mosque near Northgate, says, “We have not enough words to say thank you.” The mosque experienced several incidents of violence and threats in the first days after the attack—but also enormous support. “We had thousands of flowers brought in, cards, even teddy bear toys,” Razzak recalls. “People from all walks of life, churches, organizations, neighbors-it’s been an overwhelming and gratifying experience.”

Surprisingly, September’s religious fervor seems not to have subsided. Kingham says, “After the original shock wore off, people started questioning their own mortality in life. . . . “

For many people, issues have moved from processing the immediate shock of Sept. 11 to broader questions: about spiritual relationships, about the theologies of different faiths, about how those apply to evil, patriotism, and war. Overlake is an Evangelical church, one of the largest in the region, and it both reflects and shapes the worldviews of its thousands of members. “Our experience has been a turning back to God,” Kingham says. “There’s much more of a desire to know God, from being a Sunday morning attender to ‘I want to know more about the Bible and about God and the differences between what I believe and what other people and religions believe.'”

Across religious divides, that response echoes. Dorene Cornwell of University Friends Meeting—the traditionally pacifist Quakers—says recent meetings have continued to be unusually large, in some cases overflowing. And Razzak says, “Our attendance is up, and we’ve had a lot of visitors from a lot of different organizations, mosques, schools.”

Where differences start appearing is in how different congregations are understanding and responding to current events.

The sense that things have irrevocably changed since Sept. 10 has been widely proclaimed in America. But it’s not universal. Cornwell, for one, disagrees. “From my perspective, in some ways, nothing has changed. There’s a whole array of things that need to be changed [in the world], and I thought that before Sept. 11.” Rabbi Drorah Setel, whose Kadima congregation has been active in seeking Middle East peace, is even more blunt. “For a lot of Jewish people, there wasn’t a feeling that everything’s changed. It’s like, ‘So what’s new.’ I lived in London while IRA bombings were going on, I’ve lived in Israel. . . . There’s a particular group in American culture that has never felt itself vulnerable.”

THE UNITY MOST area faiths felt, around solidarity with attack victims and in opposition to hate crimes, does not fully extend to more recent events. The resurgence in American patriotism, and the launching of war against the Taliban, bring up theological as well as political questions. America works hard to not bring church into the state, but is it appropriate to bring the flag into the church? Is God on our side, blessing America in every seventh-inning stretch, or is he a god that grants favor to all people?

For Kingham, America’s prosperity and freedoms are obvious evidence of God’s approval. “You can never get away from the Bible saying, ‘Blessed is the nation whose god is the Lord.’ . . . The patriotism of our country is rooted in divine providence and in divine destiny: that we all have a sense of purpose in life, that we’re not just trying to make it from day to day, and that comes from what God has given to us and to our country.” He notes that the country’s divinity includes its racial and ethnic diversity. A majority of Arab Americans—people often targeted for postattack hate crimes—are Christian and came to the United States specifically so that they could worship in freedom. (Overlake itself has a large Iranian congregation.)

Rabbi Setel rejects that idea. “The whole confusion of patriotism with xenophobia is a real issue. Philosophically, Jews say there’s a role for every culture. Too often American patriotism becomes a denigration of other cultures or other countries.”

Boonstra, also, is getting tired of that song. “Every time we hear “God Bless America,” it reinforces the idea that God cares about us in a special way,” he says. “Yes, we want God to bless America, but we want him to bless all people. He’s not choosy. We don’t want our faith used as a way to justify U.S. policy.”

On the evening of Sept. 19, several thousand people marched silently through Capitol Hill from a service at St. Mark’s (an Episcopal church that has been supportive of peace efforts) to another service at St. James Cathedral, the city’s Catholic center. At St. James, an area was set aside for mourners to leave cards and memorabilia commemorating victims of the attacks, with the material to be incorporated into a later liturgy. Last week, at an unusually crowded weekday lunchtime Mass, the prayer offerings were at one point distinctly political:

“We ask for an end to the bombing in Afghanistan.”

“Lord, hear our prayers.”

“We ask for clarity so they can see what they’re doing.”

“Lord, hear our prayers.”

WHILE MANY BELIEVE Jesus was a pacifist, Christians generally are not. Just War theory, a Christian doctrine echoed in most other major faiths, allows exceptions to “Thou Shalt Not Kill” to prevent the killing of others. As America plunges into an unprecedented war-one that was triggered by a massacre of its citizens, but which, in turn, is killing other innocents-the question churns. “Personally, as a Christian, God tells me to pray for my enemies,” Overlake’s Kingham says. “We will continue to pray for whomever believes, for whatever reason, that they are our enemies. . . . But there’s [also] another responsibility, to protect our country. And that’s the responsibility of the civil government. Government isn’t required to turn the other cheek.”

But if Christians are required to turn the other cheek, where does that leave the Christians in uniform, the women and men doing the work of both the Lord and the government?

“You can love people, but if you’re performing one’s duty as a person, you have to be able to lay down your own ideas for the protection of your fellow citizens and family,” Kingham says. “I think we’ve seen that throughout the history of the United States. If an enemy comes to my front door, I’m not going to negotiate, I’m going to try to protect my family. . . . There’s a difference in protecting your interests and protecting your person. In the case of protecting the innocents and the defenseless, I think we have a responsibility as a nation, with all the might we have, to protect ourselves.”

Members of a traditional peace church like the Quakers, naturally, don’t see things the same way. The University Friends Meeting’s Cornwell specifically rejects the front door analogy: “[The Sept. 11 attacks] were a crime. If you think of it in terms of a burglar coming onto your property, you have the right to defend your property. But once they leave your property, it’s the responsibility of police. You can’t chase them, or shoot them in the back. Anything else, that’s vigilantism.”

Within the city, many of the most visible religious communities and leaders have concerns about either Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis or the war itself. Support for war and patriotism seems much higher in the suburbs, and higher still in the rest of the state and country. In part, that’s the culture of Seattle. But even within Seattle, it seems likely that a lot of the people coming into and through services that preach healing and the commonality of humanity are coming out the other side still wanting the U.S. to wage war. Boonstra, who spearheaded the drive last week to get Pacific Northwest religious leaders and groups to sign on to a call for a pause in the bombing, explains the difference between the messages heard by worshippers and those heard by pollsters: “A large part of what religious communities are about is helping walk people through the spiritual journeys in their lives. It’s a journey, not an end point. The fact that a large number of people are participating in their [faith] communities is a reflection that they are searching. . . . It takes time, which is why it’s done Saturday after Saturday, Sunday after Sunday, Friday after Friday. All week long we are confronted and surrounded and overwhelmed by media messages about fighting back, and so it takes time and perseverance for the faith communities to identify real truths. Trying to put ourselves on higher spiritual ground is in many ways countercultural. The disconnect doesn’t represent a contradiction between religious teachings and the religious community, but rather identifies what the journey is about.

“The classic case is the death penalty. There’s no basis for this in religious teachings. Most [Christian faiths] have condemned it. Yet it is popular.”

DIFFERENT FAITHS are a reflection of the mosaic that is American culture, and when applied to politics, enormous diversity is inevitable. But that such discussions are happening all over is a sharp departure from the America of Sept. 10. It’s hard to imagine that this process isn’t going to affect the American public’s ongoing opinion of our government’s choices in a variety of ways.

Beyond the diversity of these debates, almost all faiths share one characteristic that makes them appealing in a time of uncertainty: They offer hope. “That search for something holy, which unites us all, has questions that look different now after Sept. 11,” says Boonstra. Razzak is more explicit: “We are just like a tree: one trunk, one root, many branches. But that’s what humanity is: one root, one origin. We are living; we are demonstrating that. Thank God it is happening this way.”

Cornwell grounds her hope in the living of daily life: “Quakers always talk about, ‘that of God is within every person.’ When you think about it in that universalist way, it makes you want to create a political system that lets different voices be heard. There’s something theological about wanting to take care of the life that you have.” Rabbi Setel echoes Cornwell’s earthly words: “The rabbis said that we shouldn’t discuss the afterlife. Not because it’s a forbidden topic, but that we shouldn’t waste our time talking about things we couldn’t change when there are so many things we can change. Instead of talking about life after death we should talk about feeding the hungry and housing the homeless and doing all kinds of things that we could actually do something about.”

For Overlake Christian Church, says Kingham, the crisis has leant its missionary work a new momentum: “There is a greater sense of urgency in the task of taking the good news of Christ to the U.S. and to the world.”

But beyond proselytizing, Kingham, like his colleagues, finds a silver lining, one that can comfort, rooted in our own community and in peoples’ greater sense of unity and helping each other.

“If something like what’s happened has helped people notice God and notice their neighbors, then this will have played a good part. That which was meant for evil will have been used for good.”


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