One Beyond The Zero

“A screaming comes across the sky.” When I read these first lines of Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, I instantly thought of September 11, 2001. The novel opens with the character Pirate Prentice watching the world’s first guided missile — a German V-2 rocket — approach London. The first section of the book, “Beyond the Zero,” calls war and violence into question and resists pat answers to the question of evil. As far as I can tell, there are zero neat answers — either in Gravity’s Rainbow or to the questions surrounding 9/11. Anything we have learned 10 years later is beyond simple answers and tidy explanations. Yet, reflect we must, and so I raise the question: How do I get beyond the zero?

Ground Zero, 2001: A screaming comes across the sky. Before then, I’d never seen real people kill and die on TV, and I was overcome by the images in the news: Planes sped across the sky. Smoke and fire covered the front pages of The New York Times. First-hand films captured the audible cries within the buildings and the terror of bodies falling without. We watched planes hit buildings with people in them, and now we can imagine more fully what war is like. There were heroes, yes, but also death, victims, conflict, chaos, hatred. Ground Zero became the empty nothingness that ought to have been human life. On that day, I regret to say I witnessed the worst that is humanity.

Ten years later, are we beyond the Zero? A zero-sum necessitates that one side’s gain must equal the other side’s loss. We are easily pulled toward a zero-balance kind of justice: “Us” vs. “Them.” Retaliation. Fear of Muslims. Lawsuits preventing a Ground-Zero Mosque. The majority of Muslims feeling targeted by terrorism policies. My tendency is to want the losses accounted for, and in a zero-sum world, this kind of accounting makes sense. However, my faith necessitates a different kind of economy and an accounting that draws us into the best that is humanity: restoration, reconciliation, recognition of the other’s personhood. Okay, these are big words and this is a short essay, so I’ll just speak for myself. Ten years out from 9/11, I regret to say that I do not have a single Muslim friend. When I do, I will be One beyond the Zero.

Rev. Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom
Associate Professor of Theology & Ethics

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Professor Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom