What kind of story is this?
Is it the
Men said Come, let us build a city,
with a tower reaching to the heavens,
and make a name for ourselves.
From all nations they came to build the city
thinking nothing was impossible.
Today, they said, we will go into this or that market,
carry on business and make money.
Oh? said James, You do not know what will happen today.
What is your life? You are a mist
that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
Is that it?
Or is it the beginning of Judgment?
Four aircraft of the Apocalypse
coming like thieves in the night,
the henchmen of some AntiChrist
making a few practice runs
to raze the new Jerusalem to dust.
And all of this permitted by the Lord, who has said
I brought you into a fertile land
but you defiled it
You have as many gods as you have cities.
So flee for safety now without delay!
I am bringing disaster from the north,
even terrible destruction.
Where then are the gods you made for yourselves?
Let them come if they can save you.
Was it a slaughter of innocents?
Which of us is innocent? Eighteen people died
when a tower fell in Siloam, and Jesus asked
What, do you think they were greater sinners
than anyone in
No, but I tell you, unless you repent
you will all likewise perish.
Is that it?
Or is it the story of Job?
An honest man trying his best
when all of his hard-won security
is brought down in a sudden calamity
the hour a building fell on all his family.
His servants break the news to him by email.
Job watches, disbelieving, on TV
his life unravelling in front of him.
Weeping in the ruins of his city,
distraught, bewildered, desolate, enraged.
We rush to comfort Job, and so
we should be careful of our feelings,
not to confuse our sympathy with
the substance of his lasting grief,
as one of those who will be living from now on
on the legacy of an unthinkable change.
Of course it summons up
the ghosts of our own grievings, whether real
or from our worst imagining; but this
is suffering by proxy: it will have
no answers when God asks his dreadful questions
out of the whirlwind of Job’s despair.
Is that it?
Or is it Nehemiah,
who would not be defeated
while everyone else sat in their living rooms
watching the TV pundits play I told you so
and prove that nothing could be done?
Nehemiah went out to rebuild the walls
with courage and shrewd management,
armed guards on every corner
keeping watch against a new attack—
and out of so much ruin and despair
he forged a new community
stronger and wiser than it ever was before.
Is that it?
It is all of these stories, and something more;
for after the accounting of the dead,
when the insurance claims are settled,
and the markets are back to their normal jittery selves,
we have all seen what Hell looks like. In future
we will avoid tall buildings, slowly move away
from cities, fly less often, view
our fellow passengers with circumspection,
seek refuge in more virtual reality and trade
within the safer evils of the internet.
We listen doubtfully to our leaders’ words
as they struggle to fill their own shoes.
Four planes just flew out of Pandora’s box:
and when men armed with razor blades can bring
the whole wide world up to a juddering halt
we know too much and care too little
to believe that this will be the last time.
The big game of Monopoly is over.
The losers’ tantrums have become too dangerous.
Even before our anger cools we see
the moral high ground is just
a pile of smoking rubble. Jesus kneels
and writes with his index finger in
the white dust of
Let him who is without sin
launch the first missile.
Who is our
and what can we fight him with?
Where are our allies? Where was God
on September the Eleventh? He was begging
in old clothes in the subway
beneath the World Trade Centre.
He was homeless in Gaza,
imprisoned in Afghanistan,
starving in Somalia,
dying of Aids in an Angolan slum,
suffering everywhere in this fast-shrinking world;
and boarding a plane unwittingly in Boston,
heading for a meeting on the 110th floor.
When the time came he stretched his arms out once again to take
the dreadful impact that would pierce his side,
his last message on his fading cell phone
once more to ask forgiveness for them all, before
his body fell under the weight of so much evil.
We bring our cameras to his massive tomb
for any chance of resurrection, now we know
the kind of story that it really is,
united by this common enemy,
sin’s terrorism, that we never dreamed
could bring such devastation. This is war.
We line our weapons up: faith, hope, obedience,
prayer, forgiveness, justice;
the explosive power of love.
The more widely published shorter version of this poem is here. The tenth anniversary version is here. Some background is here.
Tower of Babel cf Genesis 11, 1-8.
"Come, let us build a city...name for ourselves." cf Genesis 11 4.
"Today we will go...and make money" cf James 4 13.
"You do not know what will happen today...vanishes." cf James 4 14.
Four aircraft of the Apocalypse cf Revelation 6, 1-8.
new Jerusalem cf Revelation 21 2.
"I brought you into a fertile land..." cf Jeremiah 2 7.
"So flee for safety...even terrible destruction." cf Jeremiah 4 6.
"Where then are the gods...can save you." cf Jeremiah 2 28.
Slaughter of innocents cf Matthew 2, 16-18.
A tower fell in Siloam cf Luke 13, 4-5.
A building fell on all his family cf Job 1 19.
whirlwind of Job's despair cf Job 38 1.
armed guards on every corner cf Nehemiah 4 13.
Jesus kneels..."launch the first missile" cf John 8, 6-7.
ask forgiveness of them cf Luke 23 34.
pierce his side cf John 19 34.