Fireman among the rubble from the Twin Towers. Wikimedia Commons

God Bless America!

What is urgent for Americans now is asking themselves which God they follow, and not to follow the example of the Pharisee. It is time to invoke the mercy of God who welcomes sinners, like the publican, and is severe with those who are respectable.
Jerry Mahon

The September 11th tragedy has brought communities together in a profound way throughout America, as we join in song and prayer, and as we long for unity that reflects genuine patriotism. Recently, some extraordinarily talented people from my parish, St John’s in Rochester, MN, initiated a night of song through talent and music with a variety of people. This was a fundraiser for families of firemen and policemen who lost their lives in the New York tragedy. It was a powerful gathering with all of the appropriate desires and intentions. However, it raised some questions for me about who this God is. As we stand to sing “God Bless America,” it is much the same as when we say that we “pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Osama bin Laden prays two hours every morning before he begins the work of his day. And who is his god?

The question Fr Giussani raised for his young students who returned from the theatrical drama that was being staged in Milan, The Devil and the Good God, by Jean-Paul Sartre, echoes in my heart at this time. He asked the students whether the god represented in the theater was perhaps “their” god. Americans are being pushed to ask themselves about the God they follow. Many of the founding fathers of America were considered Deists, acknowledging God as Creator but concluding that God is not involved in the ongoing action and way of being of a country. Thomas Jefferson, the second President of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

This same man, who was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote his own bible. He removed the Old Testament and took out all of Paul, with the Gospels being altered to include no miracle stories but a Christ who is a good moralistic model. This bible is being published again and lauded as a great work from this Unitarian tradition. How much influence has this approach to God had on the United States of America? In Jefferson’s bible there is no metaphysics and no mystery, and there are no miracles. Our forefathers created an ideology that was bred in the hearts and minds of people in the name of freedom. We are wondering about that freedom today, and without being simplistic we have to ask ourselves, “Who is this God we are asking to bless America?

God did not become flesh for many of our founding fathers. While we continue to be very proud of our church and state separation, we have an opportunity as a people in the United States to ponder and to be challenged by how we come to follow Christ. Clearly, we Catholics and others who follow Christ must ask ourselves how numb we have become in the long line of people who speak and write bibles about a god that didn’t become flesh.

My prayer (and way of begging) immediately after September 11th and during these days is for America to be vulnerable. If we could follow a God who became flesh in Jesus Christ, then we’d acknowledge some mistakes more deeply and allow this moment to touch us more profoundly with mercy and compassion in the face of some of our actions. This is not to question our defense and the need for the leaders of nations to be united and to confront the darkness of our day.

It seems to me that America is too quick to follow the ways of the Pharisee who took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, “Oh God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity–greedy, dishonest, adulterous–or even like this tax collector.”

What would it be like for the most powerful nation in the world, which presently experiences the brokenness of the heinous September 11th tragedy, to be the tax collector who comes to say, “Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” God bless America and all of our fragility, mistakes, woundedness and longing for a world of peace, recognizing that we are responsible for some of the pain that meets us at this moment.

Traces Editorial “America” has been such a gift for reflection because it pushes each of us to ask ourselves, “And who is this God? What is our defense in the face of such evil?” If we respond that God is on our side with no mystery, no miracles, and no metaphysics, we place the world in a dangerous posture.

I love our country. The renewed sense of patriotism has many positive signs but it must immediately go deeper. We run the risk of being the Pharisee who says, “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” We as Americans have grown accustomed to justifying our behavior and position by announcing how good we are.

Oh God of mercy, the United States of America is experiencing a brokenness and a sense of loss that is crippling and touches all of us. We beg that we allow you to touch our humanity. Let our response be like that of the tax collector, because we believe that the justice of God accepts the unjust and the ungodly and is harsh on the dutiful and the “respectable.” The parable summons us to a prayer of love and trust in God’s mercy and frees us from the need to tell God who is a sinner and who is not.

In the land of freedom we desire to honor the “noble attempt” of all in relationship to God. But we Catholics and all Christians know what did happen! God became Flesh in Jesus Christ.