An archbishop suggests a pause to breathe deeply and to let some of our demons walk away.
By PETER STEINFELS
Published: September 16, 2006
The New York Times
Held together by a large black clip, the pages were jammed in a corner of a top shelf. E-mailed on Dec. 3, 2001, by an editor at the Eerdmans Publishing Company, they were the printed-out page proofs of a small book, “Writing in the Dust,” reflecting on what the author had experienced a few months earlier on Sept. 11.
The author was Rowan Williams, then Anglican Archbishop of Wales and today the Archbishop of Canterbury. When the planes hit the World Trade Center, he was in Manhattan, about to videotape a discussion at 74 Trinity Place. The building, which houses Trinity Church’s offices, stood between that famous Episcopal church, at Broadway and Wall Street, and the trade center.
Trapped in the building, choking on smoke and fumes, the archbishop and many people with him seriously pondered the possibility that they were about to die. In the moments after the second plane hit, as one person present recalled, “he read the anxieties of the group and prayed them into words, naming our fears and calming our nerves.”
The next day the archbishop led an impromptu service in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Morningside Heights and, speaking from notes, delivered a fully developed but completely different lecture than the prepared text he had come to New York to give.
Impressive, yes, and on the first anniversary of Sept. 11, this column reported Archbishop Williams’s moving thoughts on the limits of language in dealing with God and tragedy. But in December 2001 the page proofs of that little book still did not escape skeptical scrutiny. Rereading them this week, this writer found the margins peppered not only with his many appreciative checks and exclamation points — but also question marks and some serious grumbling.
The archbishop’s confidence that terror could be dealt with by international policing rather than military means, for example, provoked some pained scribbles — even a single “yuck,” which, in this personal system of marginal notes, ranks just below “ugh.”
“Writing in the Dust” is a subtle interweaving of themes, many dealing with language. The religious language that the terrorists used to justify their acts. The final messages of doomed victims to loved ones. The language of violence. Think how often, Archbishop Williams reminded readers, one hears, “It’s the only language they understand.”
The author noted the volleying back and forth of clichés about terrorism’s roots in poverty and helplessness and the reflexive rebuttals, whether about Osama bin Laden’s wealth, apocalyptic nihilism or hatred of the American way of life. There was a warning about the consequences of choosing the labels “war” and “war against terrorism” for a struggle that departs sharply from classic notions of war and in which it is not clear what can count as a conclusive victory. The author also warned against the use of language about suffering to make pious points, to translate suffering into ideology or self-justification, to reduce other people to symbols in one’s own stories rather than acknowledging how they see themselves.
The book, in sum, was a plea for “language that brings into the world something other than self-defensiveness,” language — or maybe silence — that creates (and the author knew from being on the scene how paradoxical was this chosen image) a “breathing space.”
In an epilogue, Archbishop Williams offered three reasons for calling his book “Writing in the Dust.”
“The obvious one,” he wrote, was “the sheer physical recollection of that dense gray atmosphere in the streets, the soft fall of ash and paper, the gritty eye-stinging wind.”
The second was an awareness that “these words won’t last.” He did not consider his reflections “a theology or a program for action, but one person’s attempt to find words for the grief and shock and loss of one moment.”
The third stemmed from the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery found in Chapter 8 of John’s Gospel. When the accused woman is brought to Jesus for judgment, he seems not to hear but merely writes with his finger on the ground.
“What on earth is he doing?” the archbishop asked. “Commentators have had plenty of suggestions,” he wrote, but in light of Sept. 11 one meaning strikes him as obvious. Jesus hesitates. “He allows a moment, a longish moment, in which people are given time to see themselves differently precisely because he refuses to make the sense they want.”
“So this is writing in the dust,” Archbishop Williams concluded, “because it tries to hold that moment for a little longer, long enough for some of our demons to walk away.”
Although the war in Afghanistan had begun before the archbishop finished his book, and he did not condemn it there, it was clearly not in keeping with his plea for a “longish moment.” Perhaps that explained some of the impatient marginal comments encountered this week.
Others were reacting to a tone that seemed scolding or superior or elevated above political realities. Still, from the perspective of five years, the archbishop’s case for a longish moment to breathe deeply, to see things differently and to let some of our demons walk away looks increasingly wise.
On Monday, the archbishop spoke on the BBC of the trauma of five years ago. He described a recent conversation with a senior Israeli rabbi about the bloody events in Lebanon. “The rabbi,” Archbishop Williams told his audience, “made no political points. But he said that when in the Bible God tells Moses to take off his shoes in the divine presence, the Jewish sages had interpreted this to mean that we couldn’t meet God if we were protected against the uneven and unyielding and perhaps stony or thorny ground.”
The rabbi considered this also true “when we meet the human beings who are made in God’s image,” Archbishop Williams said. “Those who are responsible for violence of any kind, even when they think it is in a just cause, need to take off their shoes and recognize what it is like when flesh and blood are hurt.”
“Terrorism,” he concluded, “is the absolute negation of any such recognition,” and what will defeat terrorism in the end “is ‘taking off our shoes,’ coming to terms with what we share as mortal beings who have immortal value.”