9/11 – GOD ON TRIAL.


Here’s a sermon I gave in the Dublin Unitarian Church on 16th September 2001, just five days after the events of 9/11. It was published a few days later in the Irish Times. Twenty years on, there’s not much I would change.

Rev Bill Darlison

                               The American Disaster

An American friend sent me an e-mail on Wednesday.  She lives in Washington and her husband works near the Pentagon, so she was understandably distraught, dazed, and fearful.  After expressing her own concerns, she expressed concern for me.  “It must be a very difficult time to be a minister of religion,” she wrote.  Those words didn’t register too clearly with me when I first read them.  I was still reeling from the shock of the terrible events we witnessed on Tuesday, but the truth of them gradually began to sink in.  After the disbelief, the unreality, there was the activity surrounding the special service we held here on Friday morning, but on Friday evening I was overcome with a feeling of despair, vulnerability, and fear – feelings which, I am sure, we all have now that the numbness has worn off and the pain of it all begins to creep in. 

But, mingled with all those feelings was the sense of responsibility that we ministers have – responsibility to comment, to explain, to advise, to give sermons like this one without much opportunity for reflection, and with none of the perspective that time and distance can provide.

  My friend, Marlena, was right.  It is difficult to be a minister of religion at times like this, so I hope you will understand my problem and excuse the unpolished and halting nature of this effort.  I have written this address while the wound is still raw, and I have undertaken to do it because I feel obliged to do so, but whether I’ll feel quite the same in a few weeks or a few months I cannot say. 

One of the big questions we ministers have to answer in times like these – perhaps the overwhelming question for many people – is, where was God in all this? 

Perhaps for contemporary Unitarians, who tend not to have such a clearly defined sense of divine providence as other religious groups, it is not so pressing, but it still has to be addressed. 

How can God, whom we refer to as Our Father, our loving father, allow such an atrocity to take place?  While we can just about understand how individual personal calamities might escape God’s attention, surely something of this magnitude could have, should have, been averted by divine intervention.

Alas, to think like this is to forget our history and the broader picture of our contemporary world.  Innocent lives are lost by the thousand daily – war, famine, natural disasters, preventable disease – and our past, even our relatively recent past, is littered with examples of human cruelty and terror too awful to contemplate – the Somme, the Holocaust, Stalin’s gulags, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the killing fields of Cambodia.  The list is as endless as it is horrifying, and if we are to call into question the existence of a loving God, we have more reasons to do so than that provided by the events of last Tuesday in New York and Washington.  I cannot even begin to approach this question with a cool philosophical detachment.  It has haunted me all my adult life and will never be satisfactorily resolved.  There are no glib answers.

All I can say is that my instincts tell me to stay with the idea that, despite the suffering and the tragedy, there is some point to all this, that human life is still worth living, that it is moving somewhere however obscure that goal seems to be, and that God is with us even though the pain and the sorrow seem to point towards His indifference and, at times, even towards His absence.

Elie Wiesel, the Jewish writer who lost his family members in Hitler’s concentration camps, tells the true story of a mock trial held by the Jews in Auschwitz. 

The rabbis in the camp decided to put God on trial for failing in his biblical promise to be the protector of Israel.  There was a defence and a prosecution, a judge and a jury; witnesses were called and questioned and, finally, the members of the jury were asked to vote.  And there, in the midst of the horrors of Auschwitz, God was found guilty as charged.  When the deliberations had ended, the senior rabbi spoke on behalf of the whole assembly:  “Now let us say our evening prayer,” he said.

The story speaks for itself, and that’s where I want to leave it. 


This sermon by Bill is a good sermon addressing why the loving God allows very things to happen.

I used this sermon yesterday with my own congregation to discuss the same big question.

Our conclusions were:

1. This is a difficult question and man’s brain is unable to answer it without saying that a. God does not exist or b. That God is a uncaring God – statements that Christians will not accept.

2. We decided that the heart and not the brain was the right organ with which to deal with God as the heart is capable of extremes when it comes to great joy or great sorrow.

3. We felt the rabbis and the Jews in Auschwitz handled it well, when after finding God guilty they turned to prayer. In this, they were doing what John Henry Newman did when he prayed: “O Lord I believe. Help my unbelief”