No ground under our feet


No ground under our feet

An attack by an enemy ordinarily unites the surviving victims. The attack by al-Qaeda zealots on 9/11 should have united the American people, but 10 years later every chronicler sees us bitterly divided, polarized, broken.

Sage analysts see and say that at the root of our response is "fear": fear of the enemy, fear of the future, fear of each other. Christian people are commanded not to fear, but it is natural that they do in crises. At our best, however, we look to the resources of biblical faith to counter fear’s many forms.

Making the connection

To help connect belief and strategy, as we must, an easily overlooked verse (2 Chronicles 20:12) works best. The people of God long ago were threatened by a "great multitude." So they confessed: "We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you."

One profound modern use of these words occurred when the multitude of Nazi Germans induced shattering fear. On May 8, 1932, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached on this Chronicles text and spoke for millions when he agreed that events left believers with no "ground under their feet."

That image came up again in the Christmas message Bonhoeffer wrote in prison in 1942, at a passage on his way to the gallows which took him in 1945. The preacher spoke of the "huge masquerade of evil" that had led to great confusion. Now, after the evil event we call 9/11 there is again no ground under our feet, but after 10 years believers ought to know where their eyes should be, namely on the actions of God.

The others

No writer on the history of these 10 years will assess that the prime story is the coming together of groups of citizens for the common good. Our eyes instead are on "the other," as in the other religion (chiefly Muslim), the other political party, the other philosophy (liberal/conservative), the other racial or ethnic group, the other in the war and peace debate, the other social class.

Check the features in one day’s newspapers, television and the Internet, especially the blogs. Check also to note how often in them God is called down to certify, bless or make truth claims for "our" side and to demonize the other. So, add to the "masquerade of evil" threatened by foreign enemies the open-faced evil we wear on our own faces and see on others, the latter kind being an evil of a sort we could counter.

Serving the other

Some of these generalizations deserve scrutiny and nuance. It is unfair to write off the whole citizenry as paralyzed by fear. From 9/11 on, there have been victories for individuals who work for better relations with neighbors at home or abroad. There are thousands of churches, synagogues, mosques and religious voluntary agencies that have organized themselves to promote understanding and common action.

Interfaith agencies are led by people who risk tirelessly, to ally with and serve "the other." While love never draws media attention as does hate, and while exploitation of anyone who is not like us continues, the record should show that many people are their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Ingeniously and inventively they find or found new programs and efforts to address social evils together, to seek peace together, to seek footing when there is "no ground to stand on." Yet, on balance, these have to fight for attention and support.

They will do well if, like Bonhoeffer in 1932 and 1945, they take the measure of evil, assess the awful power of the enemies, and humbly confess that they don’t always know what to do, but are boldly ready to take initiatives in the name of the neglected or victimized. The Holy One encourages and guides the people who are ready to risk relations with "the other," to be hospitable and courageous.

In this post on, it is in place to see what Luther says about a moment like ours. In a footnote to Bonhoeffer’s "No Ground to Stand On," the editors quote Martin Luther on God-centered theology: "It snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves so that we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience or works, but depend on that which is outside ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God, which cannot deceive." With such promise, we begin to know what to do.


Martin Marty is a professor emeritus at The University of Chicago and an ELCA pastor.

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