The Breakfast Table

The Role of God

Good morning (I guess), David:

Or should I call you “the Old Fox”—your last post was the most good-natured reply to a political difference (without sacrificing  conviction) I could imagine and I’m grateful for that, because who wants to get bogged down in repeating the same old arguments everybody’s heard before? You say you’ve got your plug-in texts; if I could choose one for mine it would be Hitchens’ column in the Sept. 9 Boston Globe. What I’ve identified with most strongly about his take on things this year is that the terrorists are not speaking for the wretched of the earth; they’re speaking for the theocratic oppressors of the wretched of the earth. And the rest of the earth.

Speaking of which, there’s someone I’d much rather argue with than you this morning, and that’s Tom Friedman in the Times, a guy I’ve agreed with more often than not over the past year, but whose column today “Noah and 9/11” seems to me to exemplify just the kind of “Yes, but” thinking he’s castigated about fundamentalist theocrats all year long.

But before I get all irreverent about his surprisingly unquestioning reverence, there is one act of heartfelt reverence I’d like to express this morning: I never expected the rest of America to rush to the aid of NYC the way it did. Maybe I’m parochial, maybe it’s the Vietnam syndrome, but I always expected the rest of the country thought of us as a kind of alien island filled with, well, people like you and me. But the rest of America did, dammit, overwhelmingly, and the spiritual side of me needs to say: I’m grateful.

Meanwhile my contrarian side is all incensed at Tom Friedman ever since I read “Noah and 9/11” online at 5 a.m. All this came as a surprise, since, as I said, I felt in synch with so much of what he wrote post-9/11. Particularly his “Yes, but” column. in which he spoke about a certain kind of blame-the-victim reaction to 9/11 endemic on the Left: Yes it was bad all those people killed and all, BUT, we’re very, very bad in many, many ways and in effect we either deserved it or it was an almost welcome wake-up call to our sinfulness. (I’d call it the Pat Robertson Left response.)

But this morning … Friedman gives us the “wisdom” of one of his mentors, a rabbi in  the Netherlands who goes on about the lessons we should learn from the story of Noah and the flood. The main lesson, one I’m not sure Friedman is completely aware of, seems to be: “Yes, but” to mass murder. Yes, this benevolent, all powerful all-knowing Deity, murdered every human on the planet (but two) BUT they were behaving very, very badly, so they must have deserved extermination, and besides after the extermination this all-wise Deity gave us new rules so he wouldn’t have to exterminate us again for a while (“the fire next time”), and the new rules are all about how “precious” life is. Gee thanks, Guy in the Sky. Exterminate most of mankind for not following the rules you forgot to tell them, for basically being human just the way He created them; then give them new rules about life being “precious.”

Yes, sure some will say it’s just a metaphor but alas, for the guys who hijacked the plane it wasn’t: Worship a deity who is not averse (in the Bible, anyway) to vast slaughter, and afterward restrict your killing to those your “spiritual leaders” define as rule-breakers and infidels (us). Yes, but. It just seems inappropriate for the morning commemorating a mass murder committed in name of God to publish a column that says “Yes, but” to mass murder in the Bible. Would we have greater respect for Mao, say, if after he’d murdered, say, 20 million and counting, he’d said, “Guess what, I’ve got new rules that are easier to understand, so next time you’ll know more precisely what I kill you for”?

As I said yesterday, I’m not anti-religious, just anti-literalist fundamentalists; I’m pro-spirituality. But there’s one line in this Frontline documentary I worked on (“Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero,” re-played on PBS tonight) that spoke most directly to me, an uncomfortable truth I don’t think you’ll hear anywhere else during the marathon of piety we’re in for today. It’s a line that doesn’t represent the conclusion of the documentary (which offers questions rather than answers and represents a wide range of opinion—from people who lost their faith to those who regained it after 9/11). But it’s a line to which attention should be paid. The line (I forget the name of the guy who said it) is this: “Religion drove those planes into those towers.” A year later few want to hear or think about that, but we have to deal with it, and I guess what’s most disappointing is that this comes from Tom Friedman, whose clarity on such questions I’ve had such respect for in the past. Oh well, enough of reverence and irreverence. You asked what I planned to do today. Maybe I’ll try to calm down. How about you, what are you doing today?