Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Is God a terrorist?

The Mass that I mention below was presided over by a priest who had a lamentable tendency to ad lib parts of the liturgy, or to add extemporaneous phrases here and there. I'm sure it was well intentioned, to make the liturgy somehow more relevant for a tragic time such as this. In my opinion, I'd rather the liturgy be left alone. This isn't Bollywood where every connection has to be pointed out in bold colors.

The penitential rite went something like this:
Sometimes it is God, the Scriptures attest, who causes terror, as at the Flood when he almost destroyed earth. Lord have mercy.
I was so startled that I don't recall the other two petitions very clearly. I think one suggested that when we neglect our interior lives, we terrorize ourselves, and that when we neglect our neighbors, we terrorize them. I really don't recall them accurately.

Now there is no doubt that the Flood was a terrifying event. As was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians or, for that matter, the Great Lisbon Earthquake or the recent tsunamis. (The latter two aren't biblical, but were ascribed to Divine volition by contemporary commentators.) I just felt it was woefully inadequate to simply imply that God is a terrorist, or operates in the same manner as those who caused the bombings, without saying anything else, and that to at the point in the liturgy where we recall our own sinfulness. [Nor did I think it was at all helpful to consider sinning against self or neighbor to be terrorism.]

Images of a wrathful God are rare in modern Catholicism, or at least in my experience in modern American Catholicism. Scripture, it seems to me, tends to put divine punishment in the context of discipline (See Heb. 12:5-13 for instance). Nor are punishment and divine love mutually exclusive, as Ps. 89 implies.
If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my ordinances, if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with scourges; but I will not remove from him my steadfast love, or be false to my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant, or alter the word that went forth from my lips. (Ps. 89:30-34, RSV)
[Of course, the Scriptural witness is more complicated than that ...] I really don't think the priest was talking, Falwellesque, about divine retribution for Bombay's sins. I'm not really sure what the point was. Whatever one thinks of divine wrath, I just found it incredibly inappropriate to put God in the same category as the terrorists.

Then there was the recessional hymn, that adaptation of Ps. 124/123 (Vulgate) that was practiced (without much congregational participation. The melody was, to put it mildly, not very memorable) at the beginning of Mass. Here's the text:
If God had not been with us
Yes, this is Israel's song,
If God had not been on our side,
We would be burnt alive!

Then would the blasts engulf us
And terror would have spread
As deafening bombs would leave us
With broken limbs and head.

Though telephones may fail us
Though roadways may be jammed
Our help is in the name of God
Who made the earth and sky

We pray for those who helped out
Who tried to bind up wounds
We thank all those who labour
To wipe out terror soon
[Compare the text of Psalm 124/123.] Now I have no problem with the last two verses (the last one is an addition to the paraphrase of the Psalm). But the first two? Woah! All I could think of was, "What do you mean? Those who were burnt alive, who had broken limbs and head, did not have God on their side?" How can we crow about being kept safe when nearly two hundred died and hundreds more were injured? How churlish! Psalm 124 is a song of victory, and of thankfulness for divine protection. Where was that protection on Tuesday? I simply could not bring myself to sing it. Maybe I'm missing something?


Napoleon said...

Oh my goodness, you aren't missing a thing Gaurav, I would have certainly been taken aback (that is if I could understand the language). Sounds like bad planning by an assistant pastor and the music director.

Gashwin said...

I think you'd have been able to understand English, even Indian English, Napoleon ... :)

Bad planning, or rather no planning, seems to be, in my experience, de rigeur in liturgies here, at least when it comes to the Liturgy of the Word and the music.

However, this liturgy was quite obviously thought out and planned, with the attacks in mind, hence the special music and so on.