Of the many unforeseen results of Sept. 11, 2001, what stands out most in my mind is a startling increase of cooperation among open-hearted and open-minded religious leaders across the country. And not just theoretic cooperation, like signing petitions or standing next to each other at press conferences, but a deep unity of purpose as we've shared ways to help our congregations, synagogues, temples and mosques deal with the aftermath of this dreadful day.
Ten years ago I had never read the haggadah, much less a feminist one. I'd not chanted in Sanskrit, not to mention a prayer about climate change. And the list goes on. My world has gotten bigger in ways I couldn't have fathomed a decade ago.
At the same time, alas, we've witnessed a dramatic deterioration of our nation's capacity for inter-religious understanding. It's stunning, really, how far apart we've drifted. The loudest voices talking about religion are either so rigidly and judgmentally Christian that I'm tempted to chuck my Bible at someone, or so smugly secular that I want to pray in public to affirm that faith can be a good thing.
How is it that both greater freedom and hate-filled intolerance resulted from the attacks of 9/11? There is no one answer to this, but as I've learned more about the world's religions, I now see how fully they agree on the need for compassion to heal human brokenness. In other words, they all agree on the persistence of hate in our world (I call that brokenness sin) and the even more dogged reality of enduring love (I call that compassion, grace).
All sacred texts affirm that people of faith must compassionately care for their neighbors by giving shelter to the homeless, feeding the hungry and clothing the poor. This generosity of spirit spilled over 10 years ago and keeps pouring forth today.
Wisdom literature also portrays human brokenness in profound ways. In Judaism, we read about Diaspora and the trauma of being forcibly severed from family and cultural frameworks. Islamic teachings emphasize that no one is spared suffering in this life, including the Prophet Muhammad himself. Hindu culture believes in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, called samsara, whereby how we've behaved in the past affects how we live now. And Buddhist teachings suggest we gratefully accept all of life's experiences, be they joyful or painful.
As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, we must acknowledge the wound inflicted on this day have not healed, but festered. On our own shores, we've seen surviving families ripped apart by divorce, alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. At a global level, the 9/11 attacks led to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so a ripple effect of bloodshed and violence continues. How, then, can we memorialize something that's still happening?
Speaking from my own faith tradition as a Christian, I'll offer the spiritual practice of repentance. What I'm talking about is not simply a question of fessing up, as in, "Mom, I stole a pack of chewing gum from the grocery store last week." No. As described in the New Testament, repentance is a very physical action of being completely turned around, of getting reoriented to look at things in an entirely new way. Repentance can occur on an individual, communal or even national level. It is not an act of weakness, but of strength.
My hope for the future is that we can turn away from aggressive nationalism, as well as the political and religious sectarianism the 9/11 attacks created. And let us reorient our compassion to be mindful not only of who suffered and died then, but who is dying now.
This would be a true and fitting memorial not just for Sept. 11, 2001, but for sorrow-filled, yet irrepressibly hopeful reality we call human history.
This post is part of a collection of interfaith reflections on 9/11 and the decade that followed.