In the Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar the week of September 14, including the two Sundays preceding and following this date, are devoted to the remembrance of the Cross, a paradoxical symbol of death and life, humiliation and exaltation, suffering and hope.
In honoring the Cross, Christians honor the death of Christ, on the one hand, a brutal and inhuman death visited upon the most loving and innocent person who ever lived, and on the other hand, a mystery of self-sacrifice by which God marked a decisive step in the ultimate victory over the evil forces of sin, Satan, and death itself.
During the same week, America experienced another cross of horrific proportions. On a beautiful morning, two magnificent towers stood tall and gleaming, with thousands of people within them beginning the day's work. Suddenly, a plane crashes straight into one tower and explodes through it with fire and black smoke forming the rough shape of a cross. Then, after a brief time, another plane plunges into the second tower with the same horrific results. Two crosses of destruction and death visited upon countless innocent people.
In the history of Greek Orthodox people we know a "black Tuesday"--when the great city of Constantinople, the queen of cities, the center of a brilliant Christian civilization, was conquered and laid waste by an invading enemy. We now have a "black Tuesday" in American history--Tuesday, September 11, 2001--a day of cowardly treachery, a day of great tragedy, a day of unspeakable evil.
Human beings have been endowed with freedom to do good or evil, to be honest or deceitful, to speak the truth or to lie, to love or to hate. Freedom is the basis of human dignity and moral value. Sadly, human beings can instead follow the way of evil and hatred, the way of cruelty and killing. By abusing the gift of freedom, they inflict terrible pain and suffering on others and thus erect crosses of frightening dimensions. And they do these evil deeds by choice. They think about them. They plan them precisely. They carry them out with determination, evil will, and unfathomable hatred.
Many ask, where is God? However, the question is not where God is but where man is. For God is always present in his creation, in human lives, and near our hearts. We call his presence the kingdom of God--eternal, everywhere present, and always ready to express itself through love and goodness, but only where desired and received. Tragically, it is humanity itself which often forgets God, departs from God, and even uses the name of God to do horrible things contrary to the very nature of God. The Bible proclaims the great truth that God is love, not hatred. "He who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8). Strangely, both hatred and love are at work in the mystery of human suffering--hatred creates crosses, whereas love seeks to redeem them.
What are we to do now? How are we to face the future from the standpoint of our Christian faith? First, we pray for the peace and repose of the souls of the innocent victims. We pray for the injured and the recovery of their health. We pray for their families and friends as they face anguish and sorrow. We pray for the volunteers, the policemen and firemen, the nurses and doctors, and all the rescue workers who have shown an inspiring abundance of human goodness. We pray also for the perpetrators, those who are now dead--may God forgive them--who may be inseparably bound to the hatred of hell in which they already lived. We pray for ourselves and our leaders, for strength and wisdom, as we face an entirely new future in modern life.
Thirdly, there is a nobler way to deal with evil--to conquer it with the good. St. Paul exhorts Christians: "Repay no one evil for evil . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:17,21). Bringing people to justice is not repaying evil for evil. The difference is the difference between justice and terrorism. But overcoming evil with good is something beyond and higher than justice--it is the way of God's love shown through the Cross of Christ.
When Moses and the Israelites were journeying through the wilderness, they came upon a place they named "Marah" ("bitterness") because its waters--which the people desperately needed--turned out to be bitter. God instructed Moses to toss a tree into the pool, whose waters then became sweet to drink (Exodus 15:22-25). Orthodox theology has seen in this event a symbol of how Christ came into a world of sin and evil, a place of hatred and bitterness, but has shown us the way of the Cross, that is, to overcome evil with love and goodness. For love is a cross, a difficult way to walk in the face of evil doers, in fact impossible without the power of God's grace. Yet it is the most effective power which can heal and transform evil into good.
In the long run, the greatest victory over evil occurs when we make friends out of our enemies, when we seek to win them with understanding, justice, and goodness. Those who committed the inexcusable acts of terror against America did not think of us as friends but as enemies. They looked at our government's politics and policies in the world and the places where they lived, and they did not see expressions of justice and friendship. Whether they were right or wrong certainly is debatable, but the point remains. If their perception was different, they would have not done the evil they have done against the American people themselves who have little knowledge and less control of foreign policy.
What can our country do to change that perception on the part of millions of others? How can we help our country to make friends and not enemies in the world? Surely, we must begin with ourselves and make sure that in our own families, places of work, communities, and country we practice not only the demands of freedom and justice but also the healing ways of goodness and love. But we must also urge our leaders to apply the same principles for the healing and health of the world, an unavoidable moral imperative of America as a leading nation.
The way of understanding and goodness does not always work because individual evildoers may continue to commit wicked acts according to their perverted thinking. But the majority of the world's people recognize both justice and goodness when they see it. It is the vocation especially of Christians to be leaders in following the way of sacrificial love. Jesus said: "Whoever wants to come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me." This is the way which can heal the deepest roots of evil in human hearts, overcoming evil with good.