Ten years ago, on 9/11, we knew who we were. Americans were the people who cried together and shoveled rubble together. We were the strangers who became neighbors. We were the citizens who lined up in New York City to give blood even when it became clear that there were no survivors to receive it. We showed up, just as people showed up after Hurricane Katrina to lend a hand and rebuild.
And so it was 10 years later with Hurricane Irene, from the simple loan of batteries and flashlights from neighbors down the hall, to more heroic efforts to pull someone to safety from swirling winds and waters. Americans showed up for each other, regardless of difference and issue to help anyone in need. Responders in such circumstances often remember it as one of the most meaningful times in their lives.
In the past 10 years, people have often recalled 9/11 with nostalgia as a moment of unity -- when polarizing politics, the veneer of American exceptionalism, the illusion of individualism and self-sufficiency gave way to a potent sense of belonging to something beyond ourselves. In times like these we touch one of the greatest mysteries: that our highest calling and deepest joy comes from connection with others. How ironic that a time of collective vulnerability made us feel at our best and strongest and most connected to others around the globe. Christians understand this through the irony of the biblical teaching: You must lose your life to gain it; pouring yourself out for others is the ultimate reward.
In the years after 9/11, we forgot who we were and lost our way as we launched preemptive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and witnessed the results of untrammeled corporate greed, leading to the Great Recession. But some of us felt new stirrings during the Obama campaign. "Yes we can" made us feel a part of a great movement for change, that we were part of advancing history with agency, purpose and belonging. During that campaign we glimpsed again that our American story is not based only on prowess, financial or military might, but on character, care for the most vulnerable, tending of democratic ideals and inclusivity.
Some of us believe that these beneficent energies are not confined only to moments of crisis and calamity or election campaigns, but are present to be tapped in the human spirit in all times, in every season. In fact, we proclaim that a Groundswell is afoot.
At Auburn, we've launched Groundswell, a new multifaith voice for justice and social action. People across lines of faith are joining with secular advocates and activists in concerted actions focused on justice in unprecedented ways. Groundswell taps into the energies of connection and caring to act on our deepest values and commitments to justice. After all, justice is caring writ large or, as Cornel West puts it, "Justice is what love looks like in public." Justice is taking the 9/11 energies and channeling them for systemic and policy change. We are showing up for LGBT equality and healthcare; a moral economy and fair taxation; to end child sex-trafficking and protect the environment; to support religious freedom and the dignity of immigrants. We are showing up in the media, in the streets and at voting booths.
To date, these justice campaigns have often been waged in brave corners around single issues. We believe that the time is now ripe to tap the energies of these existing movements and connect them in a unified, networked, open-sourced multifaith movement for justice. The Groundswell movement shows us that America is at its best when we come together in a tapestry of color, identity, passion and stand up for what is right.
Though we have the right to freedom of speech in this country, some people are still silent about issues of deep concern to Americans for fear of losing jobs, friendships or even their lives. But as we have seen as far away as Tahrir Square, moral courage grows with community support. We have experienced this at Auburn through the formation of a coalition called Prepare New York, focused on multifaith engagement and education in a 9/11 world.
When the Park51 controversy erupted last year, I turned to colleagues at other organizations focused on interreligious understanding. Despite the bridge-building work all of us had done, it was not enough to address the bigotry and fear that engulfed us. And so we banded together in common spirit and cause. Individually, our efforts would seem insufficient, but taken together there is collective impact that feels like a groundswell of hope.
The memory of 9/11 is a spark of conscience and a spur to action. This anniversary quickens our desire for human connection and a hope for the future that is unstoppable. There is a groundswell of people across the U.S. hungry to overcome fear and division. Let us all fuel this rising movement, which is not about single issues or political parties, but a shared moral vision for a better world. The new era of social change begins now.
This post is part of a collection of interfaith reflections on 9/11 and the decade that followed.