September 29, 2001: Terror shakes faith, puts God in question

09/29/2001 11:54 AM

09/19/2014 2:21 AM

So how could God have allowed this to happen?

Standing uneasily at the altar, the minister explained that he had come to a conclusion about that, one he didn't expect us to like. Maybe, he said, God allowed the planes to be stolen, and the people to die, because He was helpless to stop it. Maybe He didn't have the power.

The silence was as sudden as it was stunned. No one said Amen. No one stirred. Nothing moved. He went on speaking. Two women quietly gathered their things and left.

My wife and I turned to each other. She wanted to follow them as an act of protest. I wanted to stay as an act of faith.

But as the sermon went on, it became clear that faith would not be rewarded. This wasn't some clever speaker using a daring rhetorical device. This was just what it seemed to be: a man of God publicly struggling with a crisis of conviction. Of all I've seen in the wake of Sept. 11, this was, in some ways, the most dismaying.


It occurs to me that we've spent a lot of time these past days toting up all that has changed in our world as a result of that awful Tuesday morning. Comedy. Sports. Travel. But I get the sense that, in ways as unremarked upon as they are profound, faith was changed as well. In churches, synagogues and mosques, people are left to define and defend what it means to believe in a world where belief suddenly seems either a weapon of war or an act of futility.

After all, the men who hijacked the planes thought they acted at the behest of Allah. And Jerry Falwell, a Christian minister, claims their attack represents God's verdict on the ACLU and other bogeymen of the right wing. Meanwhile, there's a posting on the Internet that asks, plainly and plaintively, ``Where Was God?'' And now, there's a minister at my church who thinks God was simply not able. We gaze upon wreckage and ruin and struggle to see the hand of the deity.

But maybe that's not the worst thing in the world.

It occurs to me that God, especially in times of crisis, has more spokespersons than Amway. Some simply seek to divine the divine. Others claim to know His mind and motives as surely as if they had read His diary.

But so many times what you discover is that people have created God in their own image. That they interpret Him according to their petty biases and predispositions, attribute to him their political party and ball team, their motivations and hatreds, their timetable and comprehension.

Maybe it's good to be reminded sometimes that mortality can't fathom eternity, nor limitation comprehend endlessness. Maybe it's good that we are sometimes forced to say words we are loathe to say, ``I don't know.''


So go on, ask me why the terrorists succeeded. Or, for that matter, why the Jews were slaughtered and the Africans kidnapped. Ask why innocents die cruelly while the cruel live long and well. Why pain happens in the name of God. Why the world makes so little sense.

I don't know. I just don't know.

It's a humbling thing to say. Makes you feel less sure of your own powers, less in control of your own world. Makes you feel like a child lying awake in the scary dark, trusting the adults to know what's going on and how to make it better. Which is precisely the point. I'm reminded of the refrain from a little-known rock song: ``The less I believe in me, the more I believe in thee.''

Some people will never believe. Some people will always believe without question. And some people - most of us, I suspect - will always believe with question.

We shake our fists at God for daring to live outside our imaginings. We curse the skies for raining down unfair misfortunes. We see suffering and wonder why.

Like that child in the dark, we struggle to learn how to rest at peace with things we don't know. And how to rely on the one thing we do.

Always, morning comes.

About Leonard Pitts Jr

Leonard Pitts Jr


Leonard Pitts Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004. He is the author of the novel, Before I Forget. His column runs every Sunday and Wednesday. Forward From This Moment, a collection of his columns, was released in 2009.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he wrote a column on the terrorist attacks that received a huge response from readers who deluged him with more than 26,000 e-mails. It was posted on the Internet, chain-letter style. Read the column and others on the topic of September 11.

You can also read Pitts' series, What Works?, a series of columns about programs anywhere in the country that show results in improving the lives of black children.

Leonard also wrote the 2008 series I Am A Man, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.

Email Leonard at or visit his website at

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