St Andrew’s Croydon

23 September, 2001


September the Eleventh, 2001


Now that the dust, both physically and figuratively, has had a chance to settle on the tragic City of New York in the wake of the terrorist bombing of 11th September, it would seem appropriate to give some thought to the incident and see whether, out of all the tragedy, it is possible to discover anything which may help us learn about the mysterious ways of God who, as the poet Cowper said, "moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.

That there are things to be learnt we cannot doubt. As St Paul wrote to the Romans "To those who love God all things are worked together for good". By this he did not mean that Christians invariably enjoy good fortune – far from it as his personal experience had often taught him; but rather, that those who single-mindedly seek the face of God will discover that even in their darkest experiences, though perhaps not for some time, his purposes will begin to become clearer and clearer.

It’s helpful, I believe, to look at a similar event which happened some 250 years before the New York attack.

On Saturday, 1st November; 1755, All Saints Day, in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, "Britain's oldest ally"; there was an earthquake which destroyed a large part of one of the richest and most prosperous cities the world had ever seen.

The facts are few and simple. About 9:30 there was a tremor, not much more than a rumbling sound which people at the time described as being like "exceptionally heavy traffic in a neighbouring street". There was a brief pause. This was followed by a devastating shock lasting over two minutes which brought down roofs, walls, facades and the towers of houses, churches and palaces alike in one dreadful and deafening roar of destruction. Shortly afterwards came a third tremor, less severe than the second it would seem, and then a dark cloud of choking dust settled, turning the brightness of a sunny autumn day into the darkness of night. Innumerable fires broke out all over the city engulfing one building after another in their flames. Further smaller tremors followed which did little damage in themselves though one of them killed many people by bringing the churches of St Caterina and the east wall of St Paul's where people had fled to take refuge crashing down. The wreck of one of these churches may still be seen today standing in ruinous isolation on top of a hill.

Finally, about an hour after the first tremor, the waters of the river Tagus rocked and rose menacingly and then poured in three mighty waves, a hundred or more feet high over the whole of the part of the city between the Alcantara Docks and the Terreiro do Paco.

The final death toll seems to have been about 10,000: small perhaps as earthquakes go but quite comparable with New York in 2001. But like the bombing of the World Trade Center the Lisbon earthquake shook the whole civilized world to its roots. Literally shook it because the tremors were felt as far away as Switzerland and Normandy and some accounts say even in Derbyshire; but , more importantly, it shook the hearts and minds of everyone who heard about it or experienced it. For nothing of that kind had ever happened to them before. Earthquakes were things that happened in deserts or "far away places of which we know practically nothing", not in places like Lisbon and New York, cities unequalled in their own day for prosperity, wealth and security. Predictably, the first thing people asked was "Why has this happened and what should we do about it?". Predictably too, the answers were of several different kinds.

In both cases there was what might be called a Realistic explanation. The earthquake and the bombing were events which were both likely to happen sooner or later. Given the unstable nature of the earth’s crust and the even more unstable nature of parts of the Arab world and their intense hatred of America it was surely only a matter of time before these two instabilities, political and geological, would manifest themselves in some dramatic fashion.

Secondly there were the spiritual leaders who saw in the earthquake the dreadful judgement of God on a city which, by any standards, was staggeringly rich, and seriously immoral, though in the latter respect was no worse than many of its contemporaries. So for them the big question was not "Why?" but "Why Lisbon?"

Thirdly there were the Practical People who saw the importance of getting things working again, before ever they could enjoy the luxury of such speculations. The injured needed caring for, the fires must be extinguished, the rubble cleared away, vital services reinstated and the work of rebuilding started.

In this respect both Lisbon and New York were each fortunate in having an exceptionally able man, Mayor Giuliani in the New World, Jose de Cavalhoe Mello, later known as the Marquis de Pombal, in the Old. With the co-operation of his colleagues and with aid and resources from many countries, the work of rebuilding immediately got under way.

Now if when tragedy suffering and disaster are staring us in the face we ask which of these three responses, Practical, Spiritual or Realistic is the right one for Christians? , then the answer has to be, of course, "all three". But each one needs to be put in the proper order.

The first Christian response must surely be compassion. It is those who can give practical help who are most important – the Rescue Services, the Doctors, the nurses the police and the engineers. Let us call this the "Ministry to the Body". Such ministry knows no barriers. Muslims minister to Jews, Christians to Atheists, blacks to whites, poor people to rich and vice versa. Whatever else it does, suffering can be a great leveller and breaker down of barriers.

The second ministry let us call the Ministry to the Mind. People need to be told, for instance why, physically, such things happen and what they really are. They need reassuring that the tragedy that has hit them has a cause and an explanation and is not something entirely without reason. Scientists and politicians need to discover what preventative steps can be taken to stop such things happening in the future, and minimizing their consequences should they do so. Most importantly, people need to be helped towards a sensible view of who, if anyone, is to blame for what has happened. The perpetrators of the New York outrage are no more typical of Islam than the Ku Klux Klan is of Christians or the IRA of Roman Catholics. It’s fatally easy to draw over-hasty conclusions from insufficient evidence and having drawn them, act upon them. They want to be told (if it is true) that the tragedy is not their fault, or if it is, what they have done wrong; they want to know, even if it is their fault, what sensible action they can take to restore what has been shattered and prevent the same thing from happening again.

However, in the background all the time runs the need and desire for the ministry of the third sort "The Ministry to the Spirit". There is a deep-seated desire that many people have to "make sense of it all" not least in theological and spiritual terms. That is why so many people turn to God, however temporarily, almost instinctively when trouble comes. Even in 1755, in profligate London, hundreds of miles away from Lisbon, the news of the earthquake drove people to flock into churches many for the first time in their lives.

However, God does not give us an easy "answer" to suffering. He did something far more dramatic: he actually became a man like us and, by entering into our sufferings, succeeded in, making it possible for the sin of the world to be taken away. His answer to us today is the same as it was to St Paul: "My grace is sufficient for thee for my strength is made perfect in weakness". He gave himself up to men who nailed him to the cross on a Friday in the full heat of the Middle Eastern noonday sun; "Behold and see was ever there sorrow like unto his sorrow? Despised and rejected of men: a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief"

Behind the deepest, darkest tragedy the world has ever known, a tragedy in whose light New York and Lisbon pale into insignificance, was the God who came to save his people. He was murdered by them with the full support of the church of that day. On the first Good Friday supposedly "holy" men put out the Light of the World without having the first idea what they were actually doing. It suited them – so they did it. These were men enveloped in a cloud of ignorance no less choking and black than the one which engulfed Lisbon on All Saints Day 1755 or New York or the perpetrators of the events of the Eleventh of September.

But even in the midst of those dark clouds the forces of light were at work, fighting and prevailing against the forces of darkness. As St John says at the beginning of his gospel "The light shines on in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it."

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