ten years later…

17 Sep

Ten Years Later, by the Rev. Dawn Cooley

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, September 11, 2011.

Listen Here

Responsive Reading #584
A Network of Mutuality, by Dr. Martin Luther King 

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to 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 a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

Ten Years Later

Listen to the poem “One September Voice”, by the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt

Like Rosemary’s poem, whenever we talk about what happened on this day ten years ago, the conversation always seems to start with stories of where we were when we heard the news. I was in upstate Minnesota, spending time with my 2 month old daughter and my in-laws. My mother-in-law’s sister, from New York, was there with us. We turned on the TV after the first plane had struck, and were glued to it for hours.

I watched the second plane hit the tower, the confusion “Did that really just happen?” I remember the news anchor commenting that we all must be asking ourselves what might be wrong with our air traffic control system. I thought to myself “What on earth are you talking about?” knowing that something much more sinister was at work.

My mother-in-laws sister was frantic – all her children and grandchildren lived in NY, and her three sons worked in the area of the towers. When they fell, the despair in the room was so great.

I was lucky. Her kids all made it out of the city without harm. Though I grew up in the Washington, DC area and had many friends who had worked at the Pentagon, no one in my family was hurt or killed, none of my immediate friends.

And yet something inside me broke. The terror in the small room at the resort, being separated from my own primary support system, the flood of postnatal hormones in my body. These all combined, and I broke. I spent weeks attached to my child, not putting her down, crying constantly, wondering what kind of world I had brought her into.

I turned inward, curled up as if in fetal position. Afraid.

As Rosemary writes in her poem, for me and for so many of us, “winter came early, and stayed a long time.”

It is hard for many of us to go back to where we were on 9/11, to think about the events of that day. The media has kept it in our faces all week, increasing our anxiety. I am, truly, exhausted by it. Emotionally and spiritually fatigued. I tried to go next door to see the photo exhibit at the library entitled “Here is New York, the September 11 Photographs” and I just couldn’t do it. Combine the grief and deep sorrow that we feel for the events 10 years ago with the news of a credible threat to NY and DC for today and you have a cultural cocktail of anxiety, exhaustion, and fear.

This fear that started ten years ago was and is tangible. We felt vulnerable. Exposed. Impotent. The naïve myth of our safety had been shattered.

So many of us had been brought up to believe that we were safe here. That terror was something that happened other places, like Ireland, or Israel. Not here. Or at least, very rarely here and only when perpetrated by obviously insane loner types. I never worried about getting on a bus and getting blown up when I was growing up. How many of us conceived of suicide bombers at our suburban malls? A bubble of safety. And the bubble burst. These were things that happen OTHER places, not here. Until, of course, suddenly they did. And then, anything might happen.

And so, as a culture, we went into fight or flight mode. This is what fear does to us. We became, in so many ways, like a trapped animal. We lashed out in fear.

My friends, fear is dangerous. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s was very wise in his first inaugural speech in 1933: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts…”

Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror. Except, mightn’t one argue that our terror after 9/11 wasn’t nameless? Wasn’t unreasoning? Was totally justified? I think that one might have made that argument initially, but when we started reporting the death of innocent men, women and children in Afghanistan as “collateral damage” and then used 9/11 as part of the justification for our war with Iraq, I think that one can safely assert that our leadership harnessed our unreasoning fear and gave it a name, even a false one.

We were afraid, and we lashed out. The voices that called for peace were unheeded. Russian communists were replaced by Middle-Eastern Terrorists in the movies. Racial profiling, war, Freedom fries. We hunkered down, put on a show of how brave we were to cover up how afraid we really were.

Fear, this crippling fear is what to be most afraid of. It denies the possibility of higher brain function. It shrivels our hearts, makes it impossible to live a whole life. Indeed, I believe it is this crippling fear that caused us to become the evil we so deplore, to meet hatred with more hatred, violence with more violence. To allow our leadershup to take advantage of the state we were in. As of today, more than 10,000 civilians in Afghanistan have been killed as a result of our retaliation, and more than 100,000 (and by some counts closer to ¾ of a million) Iraqi civilians. And what have these deaths bought us? Safety? Revenge? Cheap oil? No. Just more fear.

If it is fear that causes us to become the evil that we deplore, how do we not succumb to it? I think that this is one of the most powerful and understated questions that arise from 9/11. And as we know from being under threat today, it is a question whose answer is as urgent as it was ten years ago. If it is fear that causes us to become the evil that we deplore, how do we not succumb to it?

Some say that information is the antidote to fear. But if you are crippled by fear, in this place of near panic, information does not sink in. Rational, reasonable thought does not do it and it is easy, comforting, to believe someone who speaks with authority, who seems to know what to do. Other say deep breathing exercises, or visualization. Trust in a higher power. And these are well and good, provided one can get out of the animal brain for just a moment. But what is it that can get us out of the animal brain?

The answer is so simple, and yet so, so difficult. If crippling fear causes our hearts to shrivel, what is it that causes our hearts to expand? The answer is love. The kind of love that allows us to respect and appreciate that we are connected to everyone, everything on this planet. The kind of love that enables us to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Love that demands peace and justice, not revenge. Love that calls us to take responsibility for our actions.

At first glance, this may seem totally illogical. To love seems to make us vulnerable. And it sure doesn’t seem safe to make ourselves even more vulnerable when we already feel so exposed, and yet this is what is most needed. This is quite a paradox.

We know this is true because it has been passed down to us through the ages by the voices of those who we have recognized as having special insight, special wisdom. Buddha tells us that “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.” Jesus calls us to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Dr. Martin Luther King, in our reading, reminds us that “Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that.”

I trust these voices of wisdom. I know that it was love that eventually enabled me to climb out of the pit of despair, the fetal position of fear in which I felt trapped. The love that I was granted by my family, and the love that I had for my child, which I practiced expanding to all children.

It is not easy. It takes practice. I am still filled with confusion, and with fear on a regular basis. But I trust that if I practice love, then I can be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem. At the very least, I know that I am increasing the amount of love in the world.

Does this sermon sound familiar? It was just three short weeks ago that I preached on compassion. There is a method to my repetition. All around us, we see and hear examples of hate, of dehumanization, of turning some group of people into OTHER whether it is by nature of their religion, politics, nationality.

And when we do this, when we dehumanize an entire group of people, we do violence to our OWN humanity. The truth is, turning someone into OTHER is often so much easier than loving them. But where does it get us? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. identified this cycle of violence, and how difficult it is to get out of it:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Ten years ago, we started to respond with love and care to the victims, to each other. But then we dehumanized those who had attacked us, and it allowed us to attack them. Allowed us to dehumanize the human cost of civilian lives lost in Afghanistan and Iraq – so many innocents lost out of our quest for vengeance.

Except we know that it wasn’t just a quest for vengeance, don’t we? We know now that our governmental policies in Afghanistan helped create the situation from which the Taliban and Al Qaeda emerged. We know now that the Bush administration had prepared to go into Afghanistan and Iraq even before 9/11 happened. We know that the situation is complicated, and has many, many layers.

So part of responding to 9/11 out of love would have been to take responsibility for our part in it. To repent our own complicity. To seek forgiveness, and to make reparations to all those our governmental policies had harmed, both at home and abroad. To have demanded our government not respond with shock and awe.

And so here is the paradox. Imagine how the world would have responded to our vulnerability, to our humility, versus how it did respond to our bravado. All that good will, all that “solace…that came from places expected and unexpected” would have continued, been magnified, if we had shown ourselves as vulnerable, if we had led with love.

But we didn’t. Instead, we responded out of fear.

Next time, for there will be a next time if we continue to try to run the world to our own exclusive benefit, let us learn from this. The best tribute that we can make to those who lost their lives to violence and hate is to increase the amount of love in the world. To find strength in our vulnerability, to work for peace and justice, and to recognize all children as our children.

Ten years ago, and today, we found ourselves “Changed, but not destroyed” Rosemary wrote. “We seek more reasons to live, to love our way through to whatever comes next.”

May we embrace the paradox and allow love for ourselves, for each other, and for all that inhabit the interdependent web to burn away the fear that cripples our hearts. For it is the only thing that can. May we make it so.

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