Justice and Mercy at Ground Zero

9/11 Memorial Museum

Somehow I missed the story of the Bible page found fused to a hunk of metal at the site of the Twin Towers that were destroyed on 9/11. It was found by a firefighter sifting through the rubble in 2002. The fact that a piece of paper, any piece of paper, might survive the furnace that were the Twin Towers on that day is remarkable; that it is a page from the Bible is more than remarkable.

If you believe in God, you have to wonder about the significance. If you do not believe in God, or do not believe that He communicates with us, the discovery must give some pause. 

Joel Meyerowitz, an agnostic Jewish photographer who felt “called” to archive Ground Zero in the aftermath was there when the firefighter found the relic.  Meyerowitz described his immediate impression of the site: “The first impression for me was the wild chaos of the fall. The complex jumbled steely, wiry, cabley, metallic mess….,” along with a “knotted feeling of loss and savagery.”

In philosophizing later about the scene, Meyerowitz characterized the response of the workers as an “American spirituality” that celebrates the individual, and individual freedom, and that communal effort stands in contrast to the “meaningless of life” evident in the actions taken by the terrorists that reduced the Twin Towers to mangled rubble and flesh. These things struck him as he watched the firemen sift carefully through that rubble in “a devoted, disciplined way” seeking remnants that might bring family members peace. He called their salvaging a sort of salvation.

But this is a human response to such a tragedy. Where is God in this? To be sure He is there, and He was there. One reminder of God’s presence was described by Meyerowitz: “One of [the] girders was perfectly clipped, came away from its other attachments in this way that it left a perfect cross, equidistant from the center. It was standing there, erect, in the center of this space, where everything else was rubble.” The worker, Frank, who found it said, “[T]here was light streaming in. The cross was lit, everything else was smoking and jumbled.”

For Frank, this cross was a sacred sign that God was there. For Meyerowitz, an agnostic Jew, the cross was “an accident”, “a piece of luck”; yet he also recognized that it is more than that, that there is some connection, “something that’s operating there, around our own fate”.

The cross, and then the Bible: I believe these things are no accident, no piece of luck. I am not going to get into a thoughts about why God would let such a tragedy occur. It did.

It was the result of the calculated, intentional action of men who hated the West, hated Christians and hated Americans.

Before getting to the point, I note that the Twin Towers were  built to withstand catastrophic disaster, but they did not survive. Like the Titanic succumbed to the iceberg, the Twin Towers collapsed into a heap in spite of the efforts that men took to design and build the towers to withstand catastrophe. That piece of steal beam, that was supposed to withstand the forces of nature and the forces of an, succumbed. It is a symbol of man’s works which survived only to hold a fragile page of Scripture.

Though he is no believer in a singular, personal God, Meyerowitz was even astonished “that the Bible’s message survives throughout time….” Indeed, Scripture, itself, says, “the heavens and the earth will pass away, but God’s Word will not pass away.” (Matthew 24:35)

What, then, was on that Bible page that survived the destruction fused to the remnant piece of steel beam? The page contained a portion of Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount, verses 38-42:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

Sermon on the Mount Fused to metal

An “eye for an eye” is a description of justice. The eye for an eye instruction was part of the law that God gave Moses for the Israelites. (Exodus 21:24) It is the Lex Talionis; the law of like for like, tit for tat, quid pro quo. Literally, this phrase coveys the idea of strict justice. Figuratively, it means making things right by paying back the value of the damage caused. Our American system of jurisprudence is built on the same concept.

The literal application of an eye for an eye is ultimately an unsatisfactory remedy. One loss does not pay back or replace another loss. Figuratively, it is also an impossible standard. Can money compensate for an eye? How much less can it replace a life!

Importantly, Jesus added cast the instruction that God gave in a completely new light. Jesus said in this passage, there is a better way. He says, in essence, do not seek justice; seek forgiveness, turn the other cheek. The contrast of this instruction from Jesus to the destruction caused by the Islamist terrorists seeking the justice of Allah is stunning.

But what of us? Is justice what we really want? If I have lost my eye, will taking your eye compensate me? Will it satisfy me? Will it replace my eye? If this is justice, it is not satisfying, and it cannot be obtained in this life. An eye for an eye leaves us both blind.

Vengeance is mine, says God. (Deut. 32:35; Romans 12:19)

The point of this passage is that vengeance is not for us to take. When we attempt justice, or vengeance, our efforts fail. Regardless of our ability to exact justice, it cannot be satisfactorily obtained in this life. Eyes and lives cannot be replaced.

And, is it God’s justice that we want? Do we want God’s vengeance? Justice is getting what we deserve. We fool ourselves to think that we want justice.

What we want is mercy! “Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:13) “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) If what we want is mercy, we must show mercy.

Somewhat ironically, Joel Meyerowitz, the agnostic Jew, commented that the evil act that took down the buildings on 9/11 was completely overshadowed by the goodness and devotion of the people who came together to clean up the site. This should tell us something of the nature of good and evil. Evil does not prevail.

More importantly than that, we should be mindful of the reminder God gave us that day in the form of a Bible page fused to metal: do not desire an eye for an eye; desire mercy.

The terrorists who flew the planes into the buildings lived by an eye for an eye devotion to “justice” that they believed to be their duty to the unmerciful Allah.  Those who believe in and serve a merciful God should be informed and motivated by mercy, even to our enemies. Immediately after that passage in Matthew that was fused to the steal is the passage on loving your enemies:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.

Of the signs of justice and mercy at Ground Zero, the clear message God has spoken to us is to desire mercy. Love our enemies, turn the other cheek, do not repay evil with evil; that is the message we must take away. The opposite of justice is not injustice; it is mercy.

When we take justice and the vengeance that is God’s into our own hands, we fail miserably.

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