Is a Great Awakening of Conscience at Hand?

National Catholic Register

Commentary & Opinion

We certainly need to deal with the evil that was done on Sept. 11: Those responsible and those who assist or harbor them need to be justly punished. 

But might this national horror not also be an appropriate time to examine our own consciences? Could the Holy Spirit be speaking to us through these terrible trials? Our leaders speak of the callous disregard for human life that was demonstrated by the terrorists, and they are right to do so. The Prime Minister of Great Britain, for example, deplored the total lack of regard for the "sanctity of human life" that the terrorists demonstrate. 

Yet, for people of faith, such statements raise a troubling question: Are our leaders blind to the total lack of respect for life that has been enshrined in our own laws and culture? Are they blind to the millions of babies that continue to be aborted? Have they forgotten the barbaric decision by our governmental institutions that permit the continuation of partial-birth abortion where a fully viable infant is murdered in cold blood? 

What about the elderly and handicapped who are dispatched by the will of man rather than the will of God, and the experimentation on human embryos that is permitted in limited cases here and almost without restriction in Britain? Is anybody noticing the irony - the hypocrisy - of deploring others' lack of respect for life while ignoring the same lack in ourselves? 
Pope John Paul II has been gently but firmly warning America for years that its greatness could crumble it if didn't restore its respect for life from the moment of conception to natural death.

And, if we listen closely to the voices of our enemies, they are not only citing political reasons for their attacks. They not only hate us for our virtues, as our leaders insist is the case, but also for our vices. They are angry that America is pouring into the world a flood of filth, immorality and distorted values that are corrupting the young throughout the world. 

What the terrorists have done is very evil and truly demonic, and we must move to punish them and protect ourselves from further attack. But is the West's lack of respect of life - widespread abortion, expanding euthanasia on the very old and laboratory experimentation on the very young - somehow less evil? Does our society's embrace of these evil practices, and our exaltation of sexual immorality, not also cry out for justice? 
In a time like this even more than usual, we are wise to lend an ear to the voice of the Lord in Scripture, where he communicates his wisdom and laws that govern human life. 
One thing Scripture makes very clear is that there is only one "superpower" in the universe, and it's not the United States. It's the Lord. All the nations are passing mists compared to the Lord. It's the Lord who raises up and casts down. And one of his laws is that "Pride goes before disaster, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18). These are divine laws that no legislature or court can overturn.

"Why do the nations protest and the peoples grumble in vain? Kings on earth rise up and princes plot together against the Lord and his anointed: 'Let us break their shackles and cast off their chains.' The one enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord derides them" (Psalm 2:1-4). 

Scripture makes abundantly clear how important it is that we use our prosperity and power in a humble, godly way. Our survival as a nation depends on it.
In the Book of Hosea we read how harshly the Lord dealt with the idolatry, arrogance and immorality of Israel - but not without the purpose and promise of mercy:
"In their perversity they have sunk into wickedness, and I am rejected by them all for the spirit of harlotry is in them and they do not recognize the Lord. The arrogance of Israel bears witness against him They have been untrue to the Lord Upon them I will pour out my wrath like water I will go back to my place until they pay for their guilt and seek my presence. In their affliction they shall look for me: 'Come, let us return to the Lord, For it is he who has rent, but he will heal us; he has struck us, but he will bind our wounds.'"

It is significant that the terrorists targeted the World Trade Center, a striking symbol of America's economic power, and the Pentagon, a symbol of America's military power. The success of a small band of crudely armed men in totally destroying one and severely damaging the other is a reminder that, as great as our power may appear, it can disappear in an instant.

Disaster as Opportunity 
Of course, it would be erroneous to assume that those in the World Trade Center or Pentagon were guiltier than anyone else among us. Jesus himself warns us not to draw this conclusion from a mass tragedy: "Those 18 people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them - do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did" (Luke 13:4-5). 

Jesus specifically invites us to take occasions of disasters like this as an opportunity to examine our conscience and see if we're ready to meet the Lord. If not, he urges us, take appropriate action.

Have we received a stern and significant warning in what has happened? Whatever the worldly causes are for these tragedies and whatever we think of them, isn't it important that we take this as a time of reflection? Isn't it important that "business" (and entertainment and sports) not go on "as usual" and ignore what must be seriously pondered, prayed about and responded to? 

I believe we have received a call to repentance that's serious and urgent. I also believe that the hour is late, and that it's important that we respond now, or what we have just experienced may simply be the beginning of a great unraveling filled with terror. It's time for all of us to return to God, no matter how we may have strayed from or ignored him, and avail ourselves of his mercy - while there is still time.

There are many heartening signs that, indeed, this may be happening. 

The turning to God, the prayer and talk of spiritual realities on major television programs, the crowding of churches and synagogues and mosques, the new sense of solidarity and patriotism - all these are indications that these disasters have profoundly impacted the souls of our nation's citizens. 

God didn't cause these terrible disasters, yet he permits human beings in their freedom to do evil. The good news is, he is able to bring good out of our evil. He is a God who redeems and saves and transforms. 

He takes even the depth of sorrow and sin and changes it into "something beautiful for God." Ultimately, love is more powerful than hatred, hope more enduring than despair, faith more formidable than any force of evil in the universe. 

Let us keep these encouraging realities in mind as we pray for wisdom in our leaders - and an examination of conscience throughout the Western world. 

                      Ralph Martin is president of Renewal Ministries in Ann Arbor, Michigan (