Thursday, September 11, 2008

God Bless America

Today is the seventh anniversary of the terror attack on America. There will be moments of silence, prayers, memorial visits, quiet reflection, and contemplation as we remember that terrible day.

Our family was away on vacation with relatives on September 11, 2001. One of the oddest things about that time was not the day itself, when like most Americans we were shocked and horrified at what we saw on television, but returning home several days later to see that our town had changed while we were gone.

There were American flags and ribbons up everywhere. There was a little extra kindness and friendliness in everyone's voices, a sense that everyone was trying just a bit harder to be neighbors. And there were signs, all over the town, that read simply "God bless America."

Stores had this message out front. Handmade signs stood in yards and at street corners. Everywhere you looked was this message, this prayer: God bless America.

Nobody worried, at least not then, that the message was politically incorrect. Nobody screamed about "Christianists" trying to impose their faith on the rest of America. Nobody got the ACLU to sue the local drugstore for creating an environment hostile to atheists. Nobody complained about the overtly religious tone of various political leaders' statements, and even the Hollywood elite sang "God bless America" with prayerful fervor.

Churches were packed to the rafters as mourning citizens came together to search for peace or a sense of meaning. The American Red Cross had to tell people that they had enough blood, for the moment, because so many people lined up to donate. People opened their wallets with generous goodness to help those affected by the tragedy; more importantly, they opened their hearts, and became the instrument of God's blessing to many.

Heroes were made that day, heroes and martyrs and even, perhaps, some unknown saints. An appreciation for the work and bravery of our firefighters and police and rescue workers grew, as we heard inspiring tales of heroic deeds and selfless sacrifice for others. The whole world watched, and prayed with us, "God bless America."

How quickly that prayer vanished. How quickly we returned to our entrenched secularism of the modern age, where "God" is doubted and resented, "bless" is a meaningless verb that signifies that the person using it is a right-wing religious wacko, probably Evangelical, who wants to impose his or her morality on everyone else, and "America" is just one of many countries, who is creating resentment at home and abroad by her prosecution of an unpopular war, and by her failure to follow Europe's shining light and abandon her provincial notions about the sanctity of human life, the importance of marriage and family, and the very idea that "right" and "wrong" are not absurd constructs in a post-Enlightenment context. How quickly we returned to partisan sniping and hostility, to suspicion of each other, to an abandonment of that sense of neighborliness and kindness, to the same old dreary irreligious materialism peddled by so many, that robs us of any notion of higher purpose or selfless service.

How quickly the churches dwindled back to the usual membership; how quickly the voices raised as one returned to a cacophony of squabbling; how quickly they took down those signs that said, "God bless America."

But we need His blessing, nonetheless. We need His blessing, if we're not going to fade and fall like all the empires that have abandoned Him in pursuit of their own temporal goals. We need His blessing, if we're going to be able to see His presence in every human being, from the unborn to the small child to the disabled to the adolescent to the suffering to the adult to the elderly to the dying, at every stage, under every condition. We need His blessing if we're going to avoid killing the unborn or the inconvenient or the aged or the ill because they are invisible or because they demand sacrifice from us. We need His blessing to seek detachment from the material goods that have become a national addiction, and to help us turn away from the immorality that parades across our televisions, blares from our radios, and confronts our children at eye-level on the lurid magazines at the checkout counters of our grocery stores.

We need His blessing if we're to remember to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us; we need His blessing to avoid turning our true and honest patriotism into the sin of nationalism or the kind of jingoism that delights in war and worships country as a false god. We need His blessing to remember to pray for our soldiers on the battlefield and our leaders who call the shots, literally. We need Him to bless us as we put aside selfish fears and soul-killing hatred and turn to love and honor and sacrifice, instead.

We need for God to bless America.