On the day after the tragedy I drove through Washington, surprised to find it uncongested and tranquil. I drove past the battered Pentagon, where cars crept along the interstate at a few miles an hour as people craned their necks to see and comprehend our national wound. A few miles further, down among the suburban office towers, is a tiny old white clapboard church.

I stepped inside the cool interior, which was dimly lit and covered on walls and ceiling with paintings of Christ and the Apostles, of biblical figures and heroes from long ago. I took a seat to wait for my spiritual father and looked around. I saw faces of men and women who had known suffering, much more severe than what I had ever experienced, even as rocked as I felt just then. They stood serene around the walls, many holding symbols of victory.

Father George Calciu came out from beside the altar and greeted me. He is a small, resilient man, unusually vigorous for his 76 years. His hair and beard are thick and white, and his face is permanently creased with the marks of indomitable good cheer. Cheerfulness is an unlikely attribute, given his story. In his native Romania Fr. George challenged the communist authorities repeatedly and forcefully, with a courage that defied self-preservation. He was confined in brutal prisons, subjected to brainwashing, and formed a lifelong friendship with a fellow prisoner, Richard Wurmbrand, author of Tortured for Christ.

Today the first thing he asked me was, "Why do you think that happened yesterday?"

I was stumped for a minute. I hadn't thought of exactly that question. I said, "I don't know."

Fr. George said, "It was the punishment of God."

Well, there's something I hadn't thought of. Though I wondered why I hadn't; I've just finished an intensive study of the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and knew that the Jews have always seen even that brutal and sacrilegious tragedy as divine retribution for their sins. In fact, that seems to be the Old Testament pattern; anytime Israel suffered a military defeat, they responded with repentance. It didn't replace other strategic responses, but was an indispensable companion.

This isn't just an Old Testament phenomenon. When people told Jesus that Pilate had killed worshippers at the Temple, he responded, "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3). There seems to be a biblical pattern here: national suffering should bring about repentance.

I have often wondered what might return our sick culture to health. I've sometimes felt overwhelmed at the ugliness of America's spiritual condition, at 40 million children killed by abortion, at the promotion world-wide of sexual promiscuity and materialism, the contempt of God, the spreading infection of American culture.

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I've often wondered what might turn us around. Everything moves in cycles, and some sick cultures do return to health; it can happen in a generation. But I have never heard of a historical example that wasn't inaugurated by catastrophe. Healing is the fruit of repentance, and repentance comes in the wake of suffering. There aren't many examples of spontaneous remission from this sort of illness.

Fr. George told me that the night before he had opened his Bible and it had fallen to Psalm 127. He read me the first verse: "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain." How, he asked me, could the hijackers have overcome such a high level of security unless the Lord somehow permitted it?

He then turned to Daniel 9:12-14.

He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity; for under the whole heaven there has not been done the like of what has been done against Jerusalem. As it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us, yet we have not entreated the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and giving heed to thy truth. Therefore the Lord has kept ready the calamity and has brought it upon us; for the Lord our God is righteousness in all the works which he has done, and we have not obeyed his voice.

Fr. George went on to say that the concepts of repentance and humility are mostly absent in America, and it doesn't seem likely that we'll understand the lesson. When he first came to the U.S. he would sometimes speak of the sins he committed in prison, and people would say, "How could you commit sins? You were in prison." He smiled at this. "Of course you still sin," he said. "You sin in your thoughts."

But Americans, he says, are very proud, and are used to being powerful, and the concepts of repentance and humility are not commonly expressed even among conservative Christians. Over the years I have come to see how these concepts are the very core of the Gospels; they were Jesus' most consistent message.

But we tend to skip over them in our rush to reassure ourselves that God loves us. He does, of course, but you don't really know how much he loves you until you dare to repent. Until you see how much God had to forgive in you, you can't really see the height of his love. Not many churches where that is preached today, conservative or liberal.

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Thus it won't do much good for us to spray on some superficial piety, while not taking it to deep, self-challenging levels. Fr. George said that he was very moved when he saw the Congressmen singing "God Bless America." Then he began to think, in how many of their votes and actions do these same men and women work to cast away the blessing of God?

The thought occurred to me that what the song could really mean is, "God, bless the things we already do; bless the things we have decided to do." A friend of mine says the local strip club has changed its sign to read "God Bless America," which just about sums up the problem.

This gave me a lot to think about. For years I've been thinking that the main thing America needed to do is to be humble and repent. Here comes a blow that looks a lot like things God has done in the past to kindle that response, the kind of suffering that had Israel weeping in sackcloth.

But no one, including Christians, is likely to draw such conclusions. Instead, we'll focus on how much we have been wronged, and smite our adversaries by our own considerable earthly power, and feel satisfied at videotape of young Arab men frying to death in Jeeps. If Fr. George is right, if "repent" is indeed God's message, I'm afraid we'll need more than one lesson to get it.

Related Elsewhere

In the latest issue, World magazine publisher Joel Belz argues that wickedness always carries a big price tag.

A new evangelistic tract by Ray Comfort says, "God's promised blessings of health and protection from enemies are dependent upon something we have forgotten about—righteousness."

In February, Christianity Today reported on an Indian politician who resigned after claiming that an earthquake which killed tens of thousands of people was God's punishment for atrocities against Christians.

Jerry Falwell made well-publicized comments on Pat Robertson's 700 Club that the Sept. 11 attacks were "God's judgment" and he blamed the ACLU and other secular groups for it. He soon apologized—a few times. Coverage of his comments include:

Falwell Apologizes For RemarksThe Washington Post (September 18, 2001)
Falwell blames liberals, gays, judges for terrorPittsburgh Post-Gazette (September 17, 2001)
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Faith can heal, but it can also spawn hatredThe Orlando Sentinel (September 16, 2001)
Wisdom, idiocy from the pulpitThe San Francisco Chronicle (September 15, 2001)
U.S. 'Secular' Groups Set Tone for Terror Attacks, Falwell SaysThe New York Times (September 14, 2001)
God Gave U.S. 'What We Deserve,' Falwell SaysThe Washington Post (September 14, 2001)
Robertson Asks for Return to God — Associated Press (September 13, 2001)

Frederica Mathewes-Green's official Web site has a collection of her articles and books.

Her books, The Illuminated Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation, At The Corner Of East & Now, and Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy are available on Christianbook.com. Real Choices : Listening to Women, Looking for Alternatives to Abortion can be found at Amazon.com.

Mathewes-Green is a regular columnist on Beliefnet.

A former columnist for Christianity Today, Frederica Mathewes-Green's "Your World" articles include:

A Clear and Present Identity (Sept. 5, 2000)
Every Day Is Casual Friday (July 18, 2000)
Get It? (May 18, 2000)
Sex and Saints (Apr. 11, 2000)
Psalm 23 and All That (Feb. 15, 2000)
The Abortion Debate Is Over (Dec. 28, 1999)
The Thrill of Naughtiness, (September 6, 1999)
Escape from Fantasy Island, (July 12, 1999)
Men Need Church, Too, (May 24, 1999)
My Spice Girl Moment, (January 11, 1999)

Christianity Today's previous coverage of the September 11 attacks include:

Day of Terror, Day of Grace | In the wake of fatal attacks killing thousands, Christians steer America toward prayer, service, and reconciliation. (Sept. 25, 2001)
Where I Minister, Grace Abounds Over Sin | At Ground Zero, a New York pastor becomes a symbol that God is present and available. (Sept. 24, 2001)
Books & Culture Corner: Myths of the Taliban | Misinformation and disinformation abounds. What do we know? (Sept. 24, 2001)
Now What? | A Christian response to religious terrorism. (Sept. 21, 2001)
To Embrace the Enemy | Is reconciliation possible in the wake of such evil? (Sept. 21, 2001)
After the Grave in the Air | True reconciliation comes not by ignoring justice nor by putting justice first, but by unconditional embrace. (Sept. 21, 2001)
Film Forum: Shock Waves Tear Through a Shock-Value Industry | How can we think of movies at a time like this? (Sept. 20, 2001)
Was September 11 the Beginning of the End? | Observers say geography and gravity of attacks have led to little prophecy speculation. (Sept. 19, 2001)
The End of the World (Trade Center) | Dispatches from out of the dust. (Sept. 19, 2001)
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Active Christian on Flight 93 Hailed as a Hero | Wheaton College graduate and others "figured out how to do extraordinary things" aboard United plane. (Sept. 19, 2001)
With Grief and Anger, the U.S. Mourns Its Losses | A week of official services and impromtu demonstrations follows shocking attacks. (Sept. 18, 2001)
Orthodox Church Near Ground Zero Hopes to Rise Again | Members hope to rebuild 169-year-old structure, which stood only 500 feet from the World Trade Center. (Sept. 18, 2001)
Churches Meet Needs at Ground Zero | Brooklyn pastors and parishioners thank God for survival, but help victims and families cope. (Sept. 17, 2001)
Church Mourns 'Father Frank' | Fond memories comfort those who knew retired priest killed in World Trade Center attack. (Sept. 17, 2001)
Books & Culture Corner: The Imagination of Disaster | "We thought we were invulnerable." Really? (Sept. 17, 2001)
Taking It Personally | What do we do with all this anger? (Sept. 14, 2001)
'Is That Thunder?' | With metal cracking at the World Trade Center, New York pastors cry out to God. (Sept. 14, 2001)
Shaken Christians Turn to Prayer | Impromptu services usher in the bereaved by word of mouth, road signs, and e-mail. (Sept. 13, 2001)
Christians Provide Comfort in the Shadow of Calamity | Still "stunned and reeling," New Yorkers seek support at prayer service. (Sept. 13, 2001)
Illinois Pastor on Fatal Flight | Jeffrey Mladenik, 43, was involved in workplace ministry, international adoption. (Sept. 13, 2001)
Communication Troubles Challenge U.S. Church Relief Agencies | Aid work continues amid atmosphere of shock, fear, and sporatic harrassment. (Sept. 13, 2001)
Reflections on Suffering | Classic and contemporary quotations for dark times. (Sept. 13, 2001)
When Sin Reigns | An event like this shows us what humans are capable of becoming—both as children of darkness and of light. (Sept. 13, 2001)
In the Belly of the Beast | Christians, calling terrorist attack "satanically brilliant," minister at epicenter of World Trade disaster. (Sept. 12, 2001)
Churches, Agencies Respond to Attacks | Leaders call for prayer, justice, and mercy. (Sept. 12, 2001)
Muslims Fear a Backlash | No matter who is responsible, observers feel a reaction will still be present. (Sept. 12, 2001)
A Wake-Up Call to Become Global Christians | The deadly attacks on America will provoke many responses, but Christians are commanded to love our neighbors. (Sept. 12, 2001)
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Nation's Religious Leaders Urge Calm, Pray for Peace | Churches will maintain prayer vigils for victims and leaders. (Sept. 11, 2001)
Church Leaders Around World Deplore 'Unspeakable Horror' of Attack | Christians urged to unite in prayer as they unite in shock and denunciation. (Sept. 11, 2001)
Experts Say Spiritual Roots Will Aid in Coping With Catastrophe | Pray and connect with others, advise nation's chaplains. (Sept. 11, 2001)
Fear and Hate | In times like this, as in all other times, Christians have a responsibility to love above all else. (Sept. 11, 2001)
God's Message in the Language of Events | In the face of evil, we must focus on keeping our hearts right. (Sept. 11, 2001)

For more Christian perspectives and responses, see various articles posted on Christianity.com, Crosswalk.com, and Beliefnet.com.

The Text This Week, a resource for pastors, has collected sermons and reflections in response to the Sept. 11 events.