For the Living of These Days
A Reflection on September 11
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days. —“God of Grace and God of Glory,” UM Hymnal #577
There will be no peace among the peoples of this world without peace among world religions. There will be no peace among the world religions without peace among the Christian churches. The community of the Church is an integral part of the world community. —Hans Küng
This September is the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy. In our living memory, 9/11 has become a landscape of untold loss and withheld sadness. We still have not gotten over the raw woundedness of the painful tragedy inflicted on our nation. I do not think we will for a while.
The community in which I live lost nine that fateful day. Families and friends are still struggling to cope with the loss and tragedy. The recent proposal to build an Islamic cultural center nearby ground zero has ignited outbursts of indignation and raw emotions. Voices are raised and opinions are expressed from many sides on behalf of the living and the dead.
I have been listening, reading and reflecting on some of the emotional debates for the past several weeks. And I am still trying to make sense of it. The motivations behind these tensions are multivariate and interconnected: issues of identity, blame, religious differences and a generalized fear of "the other.”
Speaking on Behalf of the Dead
In the maelstrom of debates and discussions, what really alarms me the most is the flood of presumptuous assertions and rash statements from various camps on behalf of the dead. I am aware that the impact of 9/11 is still felt in the psyche of various communities.
Nonetheless, moving into a safer future is vitally important. Connecting with people’s pain is like connecting with God’s pain, yet we must remember that the past is a different place, whether it is a recent past or a distant past. Speculating about how dead people would react to contemporary controversies is invariably a tremendous and risky exercise—there is no way to know the truth.
In September of 2001 my office was located in the Church Center for the United Nations, about three miles north of the site of the tragedy. Every day I listened to the stories of the survivors and the heroic efforts of the firefighters, and I experienced the resilience of the volunteers.
In that close human space and human time I also heard the media reports of the last-minute conversations the victims had with their families. Many of the perished called their families and dear ones to express their words of love, appreciation and hope. Many of them said, “I love you.” “Take care of the children.” “I hope to see you again.” “I love you no matter what.” None of them, in my understanding, asked the living to take revenge and execute vengeance.
Those who perished came from many different religious and cultural backgrounds. They came from over 70 countries and spoke many different languages. Their stories and messages to their families should mold and shape our consciousness for a glorious present and new future; they should not be used to promote hatred and abhorrence. Pushing aside thoughts of their own personal safety, with their last words they gave the world and the church a vision of agape love and selflessness.
It is presumptuous to speak for the dead. It serves no good purpose to use a person’s memory to politicize the climate into opposed realities and divisive contraries. Speak only for yourselves, or use only the words the victims themselves spoke on that day, which were words of love.
There is no time for hatred; there is only time to be aware that the moments we have on this earth are so transitory and so fragile.
For the Living
In his novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, Morris West describes the visit of a newly elected pope to the streets and apartments of Rome. The pope comes across a dying man. The family has waited too long to seek help. The man has no hope. The pope tries to comfort the family in the face of the impending death. A young woman who has been taking care of the dying man says, “They can cope with death. It’s the living that defeats them.”
Friends, it is the living that often defeats us, too. In death we are the same.
Only the living can have a dialogue. Only the living, out of our own various contexts, can build bridges of understanding. Only the living can find a seat for peace in the midst of the religious emotions that stomp in and out of the physical place and mental space called 9/11. Only the living can make time become an ally of all that is life giving. Only the living can make a place for prayer pilgrimage in one’s mind between opposed realities and forces of stagnation. Only the living can be the messengers who make constitutional and emotional sense.
Only the living can realign themselves with peacemaking instincts.
I submit here for your consideration the thought I shared with my colleagues on the first anniversary of September 11:
The God of the Christians is a betrayed God. The God of the Christians is a crucified God. In Jesus of Nazareth, God entered the victims of the world. God in Christ makes life for the crucified peoples of the world. Where is God? God is with the victims—before 9/11, on 9/11 and in the post-9/11 world here and everywhere.
We, the living, are wounded and yet resilient. We are called to be wounded healers. Let us ask God for wisdom and courage for the living of the hour and continue to engage in dialogue of life with people who follow other religious faiths. Listed below are selected resources for an ongoing engagement for interfaith study and understanding.
Selected Resources on Building Interfaith Awareness
“Called to be Neighbors and Witnesses: Guidelines for Interreligious Relationships.” The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church. Nashville, Tenn.: United Methodist Publishing House, 2008.
Eck, Diana L. A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.
Eck, Diana L., and the Pluralism Project. On Common Ground: World Religions in America [CD-ROM]. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Speight, Marston R. Creating Interfaith Community. Study Guide by Glory and Jacob Dharmaraj. New York: General Board of Global Ministries, the United Methodist Church, 2003.
Trible, Phyllis, and Letty M. Russell, eds. Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.