Most of us remember all too clearly exactly what we were doing on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. We remember because those hours changed us forever.
Along with the shock, the pain, the fear and the grief, we remember an incredible outpouring of compassion. In our city of Seattle, as in so many other cities, people gathered spontaneously, creating monuments of flowers and cards. Each day, people came together to share and to comfort each other. And we remember the unprecedented international demonstrations of support, as sister monuments took shape in many cities of Europe. It appeared something deeply hopeful was being born.
But then we went to war, and bombs in Afghanistan silenced the voices urging dialogue to better understand what led to the attacks on us. We found ourselves incredibly ignorant of the Muslim faith, but suspected that the terrorists were not speaking the authentic teachings of Islam.
We three, a pastor, a rabbi and an imam, began to work together in order to understand. We realized there were mischaracterizations not only of Islam, but also of each of our faiths. We knew that there were truly spiritual resources within each of our traditions, but we also knew there were elements in each of our texts that have been used to support the exclusivity that too often leads to violence in the name of religion.
9/11 demonstrated the shallowness of much of past interfaith work. The West was quick to demonize not just the perpetrators of that stunningly criminal action, but also the whole of their faith.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam have core spiritual teachings against which all other aspects of those faiths must be measured. While each faith contains all of the core teachings, we found that Judaism emphasizes oneness, and the justice that follows from that oneness; Christianity emphasizes unconditional love, and the community that follows from that love; and Islam emphasizes compassion, and the compassionate action toward self and other that follows.
But we have found major aspects of each faith that do not support these core values. Institutional needs too often eclipse spiritual teachings, leading instead toward exclusivity and the violence that follows. Any interfaith dialogue that is to sustain us in times of crisis must include these difficult areas within our own traditions.
My most important learning since 9/11 is the necessity for spiritual awareness as a prerequisite for translating spiritual teachings into action. By spiritual awareness, I mean a condition made possible by intentional practices such as prayer, meditation and fasting, where the individual self is seen as clearly as possible as a contributing partner to the greater whole of creation. These practices can be rooted in any path that helps to provide purpose and meaning and contributes to the common good. Spiritual practices provide a centeredness by helping the individual to perceive one's deeper being apart from the "doings" and the "havings" of the separate self.
In Christianity, the story of Jesus' time in the wilderness and the temptations of the devil preceding his public ministry of healing and challenge to the status quo (Luke 4:1-13) reflect this necessity. In that story, the particulars are metaphors. The "devil" is the personification of the evil that can so easily fill the emptiness that comes when we are not intentional concerning our spiritual practices.
The moral issues facing us today are so great and complex that we cannot move forward effectively without doing this work that will help us to make the best choices and sustain our energy and hope.
The 10 years since 9/11 have been a story of lost opportunities and lapses into familiar patterns. We learn from history that we do not learn from history. But I would like to focus on hope and vision, on the life-affirming consequences of interfaith relationships in our country.
Sept. 11 laid bare the truth that religious literacy is critical in a multi-religious society. Some entered interfaith dialogue and collaboration with suspicion, but by using their own beings as living laboratories they came to a stunning realization: Interfaith is not about conversion but about completion, about becoming a more complete human being. By being open to the wisdom of other traditions, they deepened their roots in their own traditions.
This effect has led to a significant number of people declaring and practicing what I call a "major and a minor" faith tradition. Looking at an object from different angles gives one a clearer view. Practicing a major and minor creates friendships with the other, and this can lead to epiphanies. A couple of retired missionaries who had been sent to combat the "alarming" number of Islamic converts in Africa confided to me, "What a waste of time! I wish I had spent my time becoming more Christ-like and less Caesar-like." This reminded me of my spiritual teacher who criticized Muslim zealots bent on converting others. Trying to impose our religion on another makes us like the well-meaning monkey who plucks a fish out of the water to save it from a watery grave!
From Us All
Our core teachings call us to a spirituality of inclusivity, a spirituality that supports us in walking oneness, love and compassion into the world we share. In a world splintered by polarization, it is this very inclusive spirituality that supports the kind of interfaith dialogue that will actualize in systemic changes to provide true political, economic and social healing in our world.
A version of this post was published on Yes! Magazine on the ninth anniversary of 9/11.
This post is part of a collection of interfaith reflections on 9/11 and the decade that followed.