Writing in the dust on 9/11

As the hype up to the anniversary of 9/11 reaches full steam, I am trying to remember the thought of some of the New Yorkers who were on the recent religion and violence seminar.

They observed that whilst the world heard George Bush declare a war on terror, and saw Tony Blair fall into line like a lieutenant, many who lived in the city preferred silence. They lit candles. They attended vigils. They squared up to the horror not with cries of justice and vengeance, but with remarkable compassion and calm.

We had been talking about Rowan Williams’ book, Writing in the Dust, his reflections on the day in which he too was caught up. The title comes from the story of Jesus being presented with the woman caught in adultery, the pharisees demanding an instant respond. Jesus writes in the dust.

Williams reflects that there is a satisfaction to be had in responding quickly, dramatically. It feels like you are doing something meaningful, taking control. ‘What makes discharging tension attractive is that it is an act that has a beginning and an end.’ But the end often slips from view; the promise of closure revealed as an illusion. A different approach is to stay with the vulnerability. It’s harder to do – impossible for politicians – though it was the example of the emergency services, Williams believes, who are practiced ‘living in the presence of death’.

‘Simone Weil said that the danger of imagination was that it filled up the void when we need to learn how to live in the presence of the void.’ It’s from the void that faith might return.

The anniversary is being marked by action programming that covers the story from every possible angle, as if desperate to fill the void. But I think too of the thought of the New Yorkers.

(Image: Scotty Weaver mourns the loss of son, P.O. Walter Weaver ESU Truck #3, during 9/11 Memorial Service at Ground Zero. Andrea Booher/FEMA)