Getting Back to Normal

Preached in Christ Chapel, Gustavus Adolphus College on November 9, 2001
Exodus 3:13-20

[1] Well, the Federal Reserve has cut the prime rate by another half-percent. . . . Things are looking up for the New York Stock Exchange; a few days ago, I heard, it closed at its highest level since September 11. Inflation is well within acceptable margins. Unemployment’s up a little . . . but even five-point-something percent unemployment isn’t alarming – especially if you’re not one of the unemployed. If you’ve been to the Mall lately, you’ll have noticed that everything is on sale. I always say, when you can save that much, it’s a shame not to spend.

[2] President Bush, basking in stratospheric approval ratings, urges us to do our part to “Keep American rolling!” Moved no doubt by patriotism, corporate America is certainly doing its best to help us get our lives – and their profits – back to normal. Go ahead – Buy that re-designed Camry sedan: “You know you want it.” No-interest financing – no payments for six months or a year.

[3] So many things cost so much less these days. Which of us public-spirited consumers can – or wants to – resist the all-American impulse to get and spend? Besides, we’re exhorted, if we stay away from the malls – if we don’t buy stuff, or get on airplanes and go places. . . . Why, those terrorists will have won, won’t they? Let’s show them! Let’s get back to normal!

[4] When I heard that President Kennedy had been shot, I was just leaving my high school chemistry class. November 22, 1963, was a kind of watershed for me: the beginning of a loss of political innocence hastened and intensified by the Vietnam War, by fallen heroes like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, by the bloody 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago, by Kent State, Watergate, and Richard Nixon’s resignation. For many young people like me, for whom mornings were marked by eating a bowl of Cheerios at home and saying the Pledge of Allegiance at school – politics would never get back to “normal” again.

[5] Years later, I was asked to go to Central America to “accompany” the Salvadoran Lutheran church, which was being persecuted by the armed forces of its own government because it stood with the poor. El Salvador’s government, half of whose annual budget was supplied by the government of the United States, waged a costly, harrowing war against a rebel army of university students and landless peasants. The rebels fought to overthrow what has been “normal” in Latin America for centuries: a social, political, and economic system that ensures the prosperity of the wealthy few and the impoverishment of the rest.

[6] In El Salvador I learned to recognize the sound of helicopter gunships and M-16s, all paid for by U.S. taxpayers like me. An American, I was safer than any Salvadoran. My job was to help the churches help those who had been driven from their rural homes by soldiers whose uniforms, ammo, and rations came from my country, and whose commanding officers the U.S. military had trained. If I ever got scared, I could leave on a jet plane within hours, Samsonite luggage and MasterCard in hand. Such ironies were not lost on me. Whatever I thought might have been a “normal” perspective on my country changed . . . after I saw my country from El Salvador.

[7] You could say that each of these experiences was a crisis. Each pulled the rug out from under what was “normal” for me. Each confounded my expectations, threw me off-balance. Whatever I was using to calibrate risks and possibilities blew a fuse. Each time I had to re-calibrate, figure out new criteria, new ways of measuring, even new names for what was now only partly familiar–certainly not “normal.”

[8] Since September 11, I have found myself walking around in a bit of a haze, somewhat distracted, and – sometimes – deeply sad. It’s a little like a hangover, to tell you the truth – a September 11 hangover. A colleague told me she felt as if she had been going through an identity crisis all fall. “What am I supposed to be doing?” she asked me, as she’d asked herself a hundred times. I understood her question; it was about our lives, our selves, our vocations.

[9] Something changed on 9/11. Perhaps it wasn’t the world that changed. After all, people in many parts of the world live with terrorism every day. It is intentional or collateral, sudden or gradual, material or spiritual–and at least in some of it, the United States is implicated.

[10] Perhaps our world changed. Perhaps we saw our vulnerability. It’s been there all along. Perhaps we all saw, all at once, that we aren’t really in charge. Were we ever? Perhaps we realized, for one split second, what we share with all of earth’s people: our mortality. Perhaps for once we heard “God bless America” as a prayer, rather than as an assumption.

[11] A very long time ago, political leaders sometimes consulted with serious theologians, among them a man named Reinhold Niebuhr. Just weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Niebuhr wrote: “We could not agree upon the peril in which we stood as a national community until the peril was upon us. . . . And we could not agree upon our responsibilities to the victims of aggression until we had been joined to them, not by moral act but by historical fate.” * As the dust settles around Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, Niebuhr’s 60-year-old observation is downright eerie.

[12] The Exodus text we heard a few minutes ago comes in the middle of a longer passage sometimes called “the commissioning of Moses.” From a burning bush God calls Moses to make a dramatic career move. The first words out of Moses’ mouth – “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” – reveal his reluctance to take the assignment. Moments later, he asks another question. As circumspect as it is – “What shall I tell those Israelites when they ask me your name?” – I can’t help thinking that Moses is really asking God from his own heart: “Who are you?” This morning I am less interested in the name God reveals, than I am in Moses’ questions – in what seems to me to be a profound vocational crisis, once he realizes that God really does expect something of him.

[13] I hope at least some of this hangs together. . . .

[14] I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do now. But “getting back to normal” doesn’t seem to be a live option. To tell you the truth – I’m glad about that. You never know what might happen when you start talking to Pharaoh about freeing those slaves.

* Reinhold Niebuhr, “History (God) Has Overtaken Us,” in Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. by D. B. Robertson (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1976), p. 293. I thank my colleague Garrett Paul for putting this book in my hands.