Skip to site content

Others Have Tasted America’s Cup of Sorrow

We could compile a long and startling list of human carnage to remind us that the cup of sorrows has been filled to overflowing for people all over the globe. Americans are novices to the reality that thoughtful people have questioned senseless killing—and evil—for all time.

On that day, the cup of our sorrow was filled to overflowing. What was endlessly repeated on every channel wore the soul down to the bone. By the end of that fateful Tuesday, deep sadness had settled in for many. That’s the problem with events like this: Such immensity of troubles can swallow one in despair and hopelessness.

But Americans are not alone in knowing firsthand mass destruction. Other peoples in our world have felt the same despair because of their own cup of sorrows. A study of world history is a study of human suffering and pain. There have been waves of mass destruction elsewhere in the world that have not engaged an American sense of sorrow.

The writer Annie Dillard explores mass devastation in her book, For the Time Being. She recalls other recent tragedies that were only superficially understood by most Americans.

Where were we on April 30, 1991, she says, when on that one day 138,000 people drowned in Bangladesh? Did the enormity of that fact change our sense of safety and security when we heard the news?

In attempting to interpret the immensity of this crisis to her then 7-year-old daughter, Dillard commented blithely that it was hard to imagine 138,000 people drowning, to which her daughter said innocently in return, “No, it’s easy … (it’s) lots and lots of dots, in blue water.”

How did we respond in 1994 when Rwandan Hutus massacred 800,000 Tutsis in only 100 days?

Where were we when Pol Pot, the leader of Cambodia, ordered the execution of between 1 and 2 million of his fellow Cambodians in the years following our involvement in Vietnam?

What did we do when Stalin decided to export grain, and 10,000,000 Russians died of starvation? What did we do when another 10,000,000 people died in the purges and gulags following the war? The enormity of the numbers numbs to our ability to comprehend. Joseph Stalin spoke for all terrorists when he said, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.”

We could compile a long and startling list of human carnage to remind us that the cup of sorrows has been filled to overflowing for people all over the globe. Americans are novices to the reality that thoughtful people have questioned senseless killing—and evil—for all time.

We are haunted by questions: What do we say to our children who wonder with us about the meaning of these events? What do these events say about our world? What do they say about our country that we would be the target of such an attack? Ultimately, what do they say about God and the nature of our capacity to inflict unrestrained evil?

In the Apostle Paul’s eloquent description of the mystery of love, he said, “We see through a glass dimly.” Eugene Peterson says it this way: “We don’t see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!”

“Through a glass dimly.” In the Greek, the word for “dimly,” sometimes rendered as “darkly,” is the root word “enigma.” In other words, the world and its troubles are a riddle that must be solved. In this case, it’s the questions that have emerged in the aftermath of this great tragedy.

What we want and need are answers. We don’t need the glib and thinly veiled answers of moral hatred like those offered by the thoughtless Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, or more recently by Jerry Vines. And the pounding of the drums of war only deepens the sense of hopelessness.

What we need is hope—hope that only comes from the hard work of making peace and widening our understanding of one another.

Keith D. Herron is senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.