The Silence of Holy Saturday

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 hundred-yard fields and pushed, tackled, punted, and passed. Near-capacity crowds were somber, but nevertheless cheered at 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 Desert Storm, 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, when, in stadiums across the country, there was no football—only silence. The silent stadium was a more truthful witness to the moment than were the immediate demands for war; it spoke more poignantly than the immediate calls for peace.

It was the 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 life!"

On the one hand, there was the immediate response of "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, a different 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 understandable."

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, they said. 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, say 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 with obscene swiftness.

It was so with Friends. By Wednesday morning Friends Committee on 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 own jumped into the real-time statement game. In a statement dated September 12th and posted on Earlham’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, knee-jerk verbiage to insulate us from our fear of corporate anger. They included a ceremonial denunciation of the attacks to quiet the masses, then they stated a 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 permits 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 linebackers 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, when the foundations once supporting 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 allay our unease we ingest a panacea that shields 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 neither 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. But this metaxy is the place where God is. On the lengthy Holy Saturday following September 11, I did not stand with chattering academics, military advisors, spin doctors, or resolute pacifists; I chose to stand in-between, beside the padded shoulders of a silent linebacker.

David L. Johns

David L. Johns, a member of Wilmington (Ohio) Meeting and a recorded minister in Wilmington Yearly Meeting, is an assistant professor of Theology at Earlham School of Religion. ©2002 David L. Johns