A homily for the events of Sept. 11
by Dr. Cynthia Landrum
Like many of you, I have been inundated with the thoughts of millions this week. I hear speaker after speaker on television and radio, I read comment after comment in the papers and on e-mail. They blur together--the President, a minister, a fireman, a friend, a teacher, a rabbi, a senator, an imam... I marvel at their coherence sometimes, their ability to capture the depth of tragedy in a soundbite. I found myself unable to put pen to paper all week, still soaking it all in, still trying to make sense out of chaos. What follows here, therefore, is one person's thoughts--still mutable, still very much in turmoil.
My first thoughts, of course, are for the victims and their families of this week's horrible events. I hear phrases like "an end to innocence" and "our world will never be the same," being exchanged, and they resonate within me. Certainly, it feels like a tragedy the likes of which we have not known in this country during my life time. And I applaud the efforts of those who have rushed to help. The way people can come together and set aside differences to work side by side and do what needs to be done is only a small solace, given the extent of tragedy, but it does warm my heart. It is in this that I find hope, and comfort.
As I gather my thoughts as to what the next steps in this country will be, I have two warring sides within me. They are both crying out to be heard. The first is the one we've been hearing the most of. Part of me cries out that justice must be done, that war is needed. This part of me suddenly finds myself crying at the words, "God Bless America" plastered on billboards all up and down the road. I want national unity, a feeling of togetherness, of solidarity in this cause.
But inside myself, I find no unity. The other side of me, too, cries for the victims. It too, mourns endless tears for the people who got up and went to work, only to never come home. But this side of me is critical of some of the rhetoric I've been hearing. I stay with my earlier beliefs: that if there is a god or goddess or gods, he/she/they, if they are in the business of blessing at all, would certainly bless all people. I fall back on Universalism, which says that all are loved by God, that whatever is ultimate in this world, we are equally blessed and embraced, and will all be treated equally in death. This side of me, too, worries at a nation which seems to feel right now that they would give up endless civil liberties for a larger measure of safety. It worries that rhetoric of war too quickly gets acted on in our own back yards against people, our Muslim and Arab-American neighbors, who are just as innocent as the victims of the plane crashes, and just as innocent as you and me.
In such a confusing time, what solace does a religion of questions offer? When we want answers so badly, how can we live with this ambiguity? I want so badly at a time like this to have a certain God, a personal God, whom I can turn to, instead of my endless agnosticism, a field of only more and more questions.
But as events unfold, I know that there are numerous lights that our religion must hold up. In an increasingly conservative world, in a country on the brink of an indefinable war, religious liberalism is needed more than ever. There is a particular role to be filled by us, and only we can do it.
One thing we must do, is stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Stand up for them, ally with them, help protect him. What we deplore is fanaticism and fundamentalism, and any disregard for life, not the religion of Islam itself. Muslim organizations throughout this country have publicized their statements decrying the actions of the terrorists who struck on Tuesday. Yet throughout this country, Muslims, Arabs, middle-easterners, anyone racially resembling an Arab, have found themselves targets of hate crimes.
The Houston Chronicle reported in a small article this week that Arab-Americans have faced "backlash." They tell that six shots were fired at an Islamic center in a suburb of Dallas. An Islamic bookstore in the suburbs of Washington had bricks thrown through it's windows. A sign announcing an Islamic community center in Dallas was defaced. In Sterling, Virginia members of an Islamic community center found their buses defaced when they gathered to go together to donate blood. In Detroit, which has one of the largest Arab populations in this country, my mother asked her Lebanese co-worker about his personal experiences this week. She said, "He seemed to be so relieved that someone would actually give him a chance to speak about them. He, too, has been attacked verbally many times already, and even "shunned" by one of our own staff members with whom he has worked for ten years!"
As religious liberals, the first thing we need to do is be the person who actually speaks to our Arab and Muslim neighbors. We have to be better neighbors than ever before, because so many would dehumanize them, treat them as "other," and not as ourselves.
Another thing we must do is stand up against other forms of hate, for they are also taking place. Televangelist Jerry Falwell, who would have you believe that he is a man of God, has blamed the tragedy on all sorts of liberal groups, from gays and lesbians to Pagans to ACLU members to pro-choice individuals. I think he covered, in his list, just about everybody I know, and much of what I hold dear. Other liberals have found themselves attacked by friends and co-workers for being a voice of dissent, for being unwilling to jump on the bandwagon and immediately cry "War!" Many are moving quickly from the passion of the moment to an unwillingness to allow for multiple voices in this country, an anger which is so deep from the horrible tragedy that has taken place gets quickly unleashed at the closest source they find.
I'm unwilling and unable to say yet, because of the deep confusion and divide in myself, that we must assume an attitude of war. I'm also not about to say, "We brought this upon ourselves." I truly believe that these acts were in no way justified. What I am willing to say is that the strength of our nation, like the strength of our liberal religion, is in our diversity. Our strength is in being able to hear opinions we differ with and not resorting to name-calling and hatred ourselves, whether that cry is against those to the left or to the right of us. Our strength is in respecting all of the world's religions, and in trying to understand them better, to work with them to find common ground, rather than resorting to a rhetoric of a God who blesses only our country, or only our religion, or only those who believe exactly as we do.
The strength of this country is not found in the quick answers of flag or anthems, it is found in the more difficult, onerous work of voting and of free presses, and of dissent. Similarly, the strength of our faith is not that we have an absolute God to fall back on, that we can say will go to war against evil with us, but that we have freedom of belief, and that we embrace our diversity. Our unity must be found in diversity, in knowing that we are a Muslim nation, and a Christian nation, and a Buddhist nation and an Atheist nation and a Pagan nation and a Jewish nation, and so on. Our unity must be found through acts of reason, not passion. Now is a time for deep consideration, as we forge a national identity, that it be one which doesn't ignore these differences but rather embraces them and holds them up as a model for the world. If we cannot avoid fighting against ourselves, against Muslim Americans, against Arab-Americans, against any who disagree with our views, if we cannot avoid terrorist actions against our next-door neighbors, we cannot, with integrity, proclaim this to be a great nation.
Within our own four walls, I hope that we model in our church the best of what this country is, and the best of ourselves. This is the time which will test our faiths most, and the time in which we must not falter. This week has been a time of much hate, but also much love. May we embody the best of it, the pulling together, the helping and volunteering, even as we guard more vigilantly against the hatred which comes so easily. May we live up to our values now, for now is the time when our values are needed in the world.
I close with these words from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted. Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that. We must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. Before it is too late, we must narrow the gaping chasm between our proclamations of peace and our lowly deeds which precipitate and perpetuate war. One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. We shall hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.
"In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us, too, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come out right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out."