Friday, September 9, 2011

The Silence of Holy Saturday

By David L. Johns

The most penetrating sound of September 2001 came
not on Tuesday the 11th but on Sunday the 16th.

In November of 1963, only two days after Kennedy
was murdered in Dallas, gridiron warriors assembled on one
hundred yard fields and pushed, and tackled, and punted, and
passed. Near capacity crowds were somber, but nevertheless
cheered on seven NFL games; Pittsburgh tied Chicago 17-17,
Cleveland trounced the Cowboys by ten points. On a Sunday
afternoon in late January 1991, while soldiers were engaged in a
Storm in the Desert, the most creative television commercials of
the season were shown during breaks from Super Bowl XXV.
Allied troops fought Saddam; the New York Giants beat the
Buffalo Bills 20-19.

The most penetrating sound of September 2001 came
not on Tuesday the 11th but on Sunday the 16th; in stadiums
across the country there was no football, there was only silence.
The silent stadium was a more truthful witness to the moment
than were the immediate demands for war; the silent stadium
spoke more poignantly than the immediate calls for peace.

It was the simple-minded naiveté of both the hawks and
the doves that first made me uneasy. It was all so simple. Too
simple. “Steer clear, dear Odysseus, steer clear and save your

On one hand, there was the immediate response to “kill
them,” “retaliate with everything we have,” “unleash the dogs
of war.” We are victims, they are the enemy! On the day
after, Lance Morrow wrote in Time magazine, “A day cannot

live in infamy without the nourishment of rage. Let’s have
rage. What’s needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of
purple American fury—a ruthless indignation.”

At the same time, another chorus of voices sang a
dirge of national self-loathing. Here the model of blame is
inverted…they are the victims and we are the enemy. “Our
foreign policy has alienated and disenfranchised and, therefore,
the actions of the terrorists, while horrible, were certainly

It was all so simple.

Then came the statement of Pat Robertson and Jerry
Falwell—identical in sentiment to the statements made by
some others. “The United States is getting what it deserves,
what it has asked for. The anger of God (or, Disenfranchised
Arab and Muslim peoples) has been simmering for years and
on September 11 it reached the boiling point. We know who
the guilty party is, says Falwell and Robertson: homosexuals,
the ACLU, feminists, and abortion rights activists; we know
who the guilty party is, say the purveyors of national self-abuse:
corporate America, the government, the military establishment.
Therefore, since we are guilty, the attacks of God (or,
Disenfranchised Arab and Muslim peoples) is understandable, if
not actually justified.”

It was all so simple.

But it was precisely the simplicity of the solutions that
convinced me of their impossibility. From the “war on them” to the “war on us” everything had the ring of sanctimoniousness and superficiality. Many organizations hastily generated statements concerning the attacks. These statements appeared so swiftly it was obscene.

It was so with Friends. By Wednesday morning the
Friends Committee for National Legislation and Friends
General Conference had posted statements on the internet.
FCNL even posted photos of its office draped with a banner
sporting a bumper-sticker-esque slogan: “War is not the
answer.” Like many other colleges, even my beloved Earlham
jumped into the real-time statement game. In a statement dated
September 12th and posted on the college’s website: “Yesterday
[the] President, student leaders, and teaching and administrative
faculty leaders drafted this response to the day’s events.” I
was breathless. Memos and family pictures from the World
Trade Center towers were still drifting over Manhattan and we
were announcing to the world what we would and would not
do, what was in principle acceptable and what was not. For a
denomination that speaks much of the value of silence there was
precious little of it in response to September 11.

These statements were formulaic and predictable—
like form letters resting peacefully on a hard drive waiting for
someone to fill in the blanks, verbal ejaculations to protect
against our fear of corporate anger. They included a ceremonial
denunciation of the attacks to quiet the masses, then they
stated prepackaged solution. But how could we know how to
respond? In rushing to make statements we demonstrated just how messianic some of us think we are.

Blaming clogged the internet, but empty football
stadiums spoke more truthfully. The orthodoxy of political
correctness, of course, still grants permission to make
demeaning and smug remarks concerning “brainless
testosterone-driven athletes who sit in the back of the
classroom;” however, it was the chorus of silence sung by
absent line-backers that spoke more wisely than the erudite
prose of any academic.

Our time is distinguished by a certain ambiguity. An
ambiguous time is a time in-between, a place of tension, a time
when simple answers simply do not answer; the foundations
that once supported us have been removed and nothing is
completely settled. Louis-Marie Chauvet has written that even
God does not guarantee our certainties. By scrambling to ease
our dis-ease we ingest a panacea that inoculates us from living
with the pain, the anguish, and the anger of real victims.

Each year in the liturgical rhythm of the Christian
calendar a little noted day is lodged between two more
celebrated days—Holy Saturday. It is often neglected, but
it speaks to this moment in our history. Our time is a Holy
Saturday. The horror of the crucifixion is over; the image of
the embodiment of our hopes broken and bleeding and dead still
lingers fresh and raw. In the liturgy, Holy Saturday reenacts
a waiting for something we know has come. Our waiting is
different. In agony and in fear we want to rush into the tomb
and rescue Jesus, to save him from the chill of the tomb. But when we remove Jesus on Saturday we have nothing but a corpse. Easter has not yet come. And who knows, maybe Easter will never come. But, if it does, who can know what form it will take?

Holy Saturday is a day of wondering, of anguish, of
anger, of gnawing emptiness, of fear, and of the questioning
eyes of children. Holy Saturday is a place in-between, a time of
waiting, a time for tears, a space for grieving. Holy Saturday is
a day to remain silent before the ambiguity of life and death, of
death in life.

In many ways, Holy Saturday is the longest day of the
year. “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord
one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one
day” (II Peter 3:8). This longest “day” began on September
12th , but it has not been respected nor reverenced by us crafters
of words or by backseat legislators. Yet, silent stadiums …

Plato spoke of metaxy as an in-between place, a place
where humans meet God. We are standing now between
horror and hope in a chasm of betweenness, uncertain, messy,
dangerous, ambiguous. Yet, this metaxy is the place where
God is. On the lengthy Holy Saturday following September
11th I did not stand with chattering academics or with military
advisors or with spin doctors or with resolute pacifists; I chose
to stand in-between, beside the padded shoulders of a silent line

This essay will be included in an upcoming book, Quakering
Theology, and first appeared in Friends Journal (March 2002).

David JohnsDavid Johns is Associate Professor of Theology at Earlham School of Religion. He has traveled extensively among Friends in Mexico and Central America and is a regular contributor to Quaker Religious Thought. He resides in Richmond, Indiana with his family.

1 comment:

  1. Nationally, our Holy Saturday has lasted almost 10 years now. We have filled the time, not with silence, but with war. We, as a people, cannot tolerate silence and inaction. We must do something, even if it is the wrong thing, even if it is aimed at the wrong target, even if it brings us all closer to our own destruction. Had we the faith that we claim, we could tolerate the silence, the contemplation that was called for, is still called for. Our Holy Saturday, our day of fear and desolation, will not end until we live that faith.