What memories of September 11, 2001 do you have? Was there some transformative power at work that continues to reveal itself in you today?
I was up early that morning in Seattle, made coffee, returned to bed and then uncharacteristically turned on the TV. The first plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At first glance I thought it was a surreal stunt. And then the second plane hit the South Tower. I reached for the phone and called key staff members telling them what had happened and said, “We’re having an interfaith service; can you meet at the Cathedral in 90 minutes?”
Interfaith services took place across the United States in the days following the events of 9/11. The terror that lived in most of our hearts because of the attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC was compounded by the stories of attacks and hatred directed to members of various religious communities. These attacks came not from abroad, but from within the United States.
As we tried to make sense of what the terrorist attacks, committed in the name of Allah meant, many were also grappling with internal attacks on the founding American principle of religious freedom. President Bush’s suggestion of a religious crusade ricocheted in the hearts of many. It invited the question of whether the violence inherent in a crusade was a descent into greater darkness accompanied by the erosion of the values of liberty and justice that characterize America’s story and ideals.
In the complex mix of emotions unleashed within us, the “other” became a scapegoat for many. We always have the choice of accepting or rejecting the practice of scapegoating. The Sociologist Keith Doubt believes that the scapegoat takes on symbolic significance as we develop a collective understanding of the scapegoat resulting in prejudice, which in turn leads to legitimizing violence under the “cloak of righteousness.” He says that when we scapegoat, human rights become invisible and moral actions become paralyzed.
I kept asking myself, “Where is the light that shines in the darkness? What is that light revealing to us?”
Anxiety, horror, anger, uncertainty, bewilderment and fear were all combustible elements living side by side. For the hundreds of thousands who attended interfaith services across the United States and elsewhere that week there was a flickering hope, a refusal even, to have the dream of a common humanity shattered by a few.
Unnamed and unspoken by most, these gatherings of prayer, lamentation and hope embodied a refusal to scapegoat. They clung to a belief that the darkness of jettisoning human rights and moral paralysis invited a descent into further darkness instead of seeking the possibility of light in the midst of darkness.
In the largest of these services in Seattle, participants came knowing that in the six days following September 11th there had been attacks in that city on members of the Sikh and Muslim communities while synagogues required protection at Rosh Hashanah. Fear had led to threats and actions of violence aimed at people because they were not part of the Christian majority or because they looked different.
At the interfaith service in Seattle I said, “When I light a candle, I say to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ.’” We can beg to differ with the darkest darkness. That night a sea of lit candles filled sacred spaces and then shed light on the streets of Seattle as people walked together in the streets, moving from one sacred space in the city to another. We begged to differ with the darkness whether it was coming from abroad, from our own leaders, from within our own community, or residing among our own unresolved and complex reactions.
The power of people coming together refusing to succumb to fear and darkness pointed to a powerful ancient truth that, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” The light is revealed in our shared humanity, in our oneness and in the Holy or sacred discovered in all. It is a very different engagement with being human than the obsession with crusades reported by The New York Times.
Is the invitation of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 revealed in what it means to discover our oneness as a people together? What it means to find God revealed in the many sacred traditions practiced in the United States and among the human family? What it means to refuse to scapegoat and deny the rights of others? And in the truth that our humanity is revealed when we work together for the well-being of all?
Is the transformative gift of the 9/11 observances discovered in knowing that we need each other as members of the human family now more than ever? That is a power that no hatred or violence can scapegoat.
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