Bishop Paul V. Marshall
Cathedral Church of the Nativity
September 11, 2011
On behalf of the Episcopal Church in these fourteen counties of NE PA, it is my privilege to welcome to this place the distinguished leaders of several Lehigh Valley religious communities, and indeed all of you who are present at this moment of remembrance and hope.
It is, as each of us knows and feels, the anniversary of the vicious destruction of three thousand human lives ten years ago. Our worship tonight beautifully brings the riches or our several traditions together to assist us in the remembrance of those who have died. It expresses our concern for those who still live with the burden of grief or injury. We also remember those whose efforts at rescue and recovery ten years ago have cost them and their loved ones dearly.
Our technology allows us to relive the disasters of 9/11 on our screens at the touch of a button or click of a mouse. That fact informs some, but it has also kept wounds open for many more victims than we might suspect, and we remember all of those who are imprisoned by horrible memories.
Yet the words said and sung here may not in the long run be as significant as the very fact of our gathering together. Our presence enacts our wish to work together in a way that promotes a just peace in every place. We meet not on the level of our strengths or our defenses, but on the level of our grief, on the level of our tears. When we risk being vulnerable in each other’s presence, healing can happen.
The title on your leaflet is “Remembrance and Hope.” Remembrance and grief are well expressed in this worship service. We may have differing notions of what it means to remember the departed before Heaven and to ask the Creator to remember the dead. But surely we agree that to some degree the aspect of hope is left up to us to accomplish. I want to say a brief word about making way for hope.
This is hardly the occasion to say anything new, but I will try to put what we already know, and perhaps feel, into some kind of structured reflection. I hope I do so humbly and carefully.
The first hopeful observation is that tonight we suspend or at least transcend our reservations about those whom we perhaps sometimes presume to categorize as “other.” What we can do today we can do tomorrow, if we want to. Tonight we suspend or transcend our reservations because, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said, while we may not share a single faith we certainly share a single fate. Only a change in all of us at the cellular level can avoid that devastating fate.
There have been, as there always are, people who wish to mitigate the evil of 9/11 through a version of “understanding” the perpetrators. I find that abhorrent. The idea that if one has suffered enough one has license to be a monster must be rejected out of hand. What moral authority organized religion has left must, I think, say that clearly.
The sad truth that concerns us as religious people is that 9/11 happened because an evil man used religious language to foster in alienated and angry people a hatred cold, vicious, and refined enough for them to murder three thousand human beings without warning or opportunity to defend themselves.
We who uphold spiritual values must confront in our fellow believers such a misuse of religion if there is to be hope for the world. It is for each of us to ask how much and how often we have confronted the extremists in our own communities. How often do we give bad behavior a pass because we do not wish to be seen as critical of our own side—and the others are looking?
There are followers of every religion I have encountered who have used religious language and religious loyalties to instill attitudes or even incite deeds that defy the will of the One who called Abram so that all the world might find a blessing. We must forbid that defiance of Heaven—not among others, but among our co-religionists. I speak not of old-fashioned brotherhood or tolerance, of even King Empathy itself, but of the survival of our species.
If there is to be a future, it belongs to our children. In that regard I report that I am essentially a city boy, and have been around long enough to know that every religious group—and lots of religious sub-groups—have words of casual distain for those who are not like them. Our words shape our thinking. Does training for hatred start as our children hear these expressions that are so much a part of many vocabularies? Can we live without them? Do we want to live without them?
I know a country girl whose earliest memory of seeing a black man is neurologically fused with her experience of her mother clutching her hand somewhat desperately as the stranger approached. What might have come from such an experience? Again, I am not interested at this moment in good feelings, but in survival.
In the interest of survival there is a need for every group and nation to cease rationalizing their own behavior or the behavior of those they support while condemning the same acts when others do them. Can we who lead religious groups, while surely decrying the evils we see, also root out in ourselves all that degrades others? Can we root out all that externalizes blames and projects our negativity onto others? And here our various groups very much need each other’s feedback, as difficult as it may be to offer or to hear it. What is a casual remark in one vocabulary may be a grave insult in another.
We who bear, preserve, and hand on religious traditions have a very heavy responsibility in this regard. Religion by its nature touches and moves parts of us that are not entirely rational, not even conscious, and this can be a very good thing. Spiritual practices require a deliberate regression, just as art and music do, if we are to experience meaning deeply. It is because people come to religious moments in a regressed state that they are open to the sublime.
They are also open to demagoguery and hatred in those moments. They are especially vulnerable if they are afraid, or wounded, or if the speaker has some powerful slogans. If there is to be hope, those of us who lead or teach or influence religious institutions must remember the vulnerability of those who hear us and frame our words very carefully. A student once said to a professor that “with a little work you could be a mesmerizing speaker.” The professor told him that he worked even harder not to be mesmerizing. Our religious discourse ought never deprive our hearers of the ability to make moral and ethical judgments on their own, to say, “Hey, this is wrong.”
Just one more point. When I was a student back in the 60s, it was the politics of the left that was very critical and rejecting of the state. At this moment it seems that the right is having that experience. I don’t take a side here, but point out that everyone is capable of an attitude of alienation from their own country. The prophet Jeremiah, whom our several traditions all revere, had a word about that. To captives and exiles who had every reason to be bad citizens, he wrote: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
In its welfare you will find your welfare. I don’t expect to live long enough to see them teaching Civics again to high school students, and that is a pity. We must do it. We need to teach by word and example the values of community, the responsibilities of citizenship, the importance of fair play, and respect for the potential that lies in every human being. Actively seeking the good of humanity right where we live defies narcissism, greed, and hatred--and opens the path to peace. That is a hope worth pursuing if we are to survive and our children to thrive.