Rita Nakashima Brock, Ph. D.: Remembering the Sacred Acts of 9/12/01
In attacking Park51, the Cordoba Initiative’s Islamic cultural center, the Geller-Palin-Gingrich-Beck-FOX syndicate has suddenly hallowed an old Burlington Coat Factory that lies two blocks from Ground Zero. Yet it appears that Ground Zero itself is suffering their neglect. They’ve failed to condemn the tacky souvenir stand and Burger King across the street from it, or the porn shops closer than Park51. Of course, this sudden reverence for one spot near Ground Zero is crass political opportunism. But there are things worth hallowing that the syndicate won’t mention because these things don’t serve their nefarious purposes.
I was in New York in October 2001, while rubble was being cleared from Ground Zero. A minister volunteering at the site invited me to visit St. Paul’s Chapel. Built in the mid-eighteenth century, it sits right next to where workers, day and night, labored to clear that vast, smoldering pile of rubble. The Chapel had been closed to the public so that it could be dedicated to providing care for the workers. Inside, the midday din of the street was replaced by whispered voices and quiet footsteps. A few people were sleeping on cots; others ate from plates of hot food provided by volunteer chefs. In a corner, medical workers waited to dispense medical aid, and nearby, a couple of massage therapists worked on exhausted bodies. Near the altar, tucked into the shadows, I saw two men in chairs talking softly; one was weeping quietly.
What I witnessed that day — the mystery of human compassion and loving care — is sacred. Chefs, doctors, therapists, ministers, and chiropractors from all over the city and beyond had volunteered their skills to care for the wearied, hungry bodies and broken hearts of the workers at Ground Zero. They sustained this work for months and months.
In the face of the unspeakable tragedy of 9/11, most of us wanted to do something, anything, to help. Rocked to the core, we reached out and held tightly to each other, often with great courage and sometimes at great cost to ourselves. Nothing is more sacred than our capacity to feel, deep in ourselves, this welling up and spilling over of empathy. The caring we offer and love we receive are how we keep each other safe from the smoking pit of fear and hate that threatens to suck us into its maw of destruction.
I experienced the sacred mystery of compassion that day in St. Paul’s. I also saw it hanging on the walls of the Chapel. From floor to ceiling hung banners, quilts, and notes in dozens of languages offering prayers, encouragement, solidarity, and hope for peace. It was a vast tapestry of human compassion from every corner of the earth. Strands of 1000 paper cranes, many sent from Japan, were draped on screens and message boards; survivors of the A-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had made some of the strands. These many expressions of friendship from the world were there for all who suffered in 9/11, including the Muslim Americans who lost beloved family members and friends in the attack.
With so much anti-Muslim hate being spewed in the name of 9/11 right now, we must remember the sacred things that happened on September 12, 2001. On that day in Tehran, Iran, thousands of people gathered in the city’s streets with candles, standing in silence and sorrow for the people of the U.S. They were not alone. Leaders of many predominantly Muslim countries condemned the attacks and offered aid. Palestinians gathered for a candlelight vigil in Jerusalem, and thousands of people at a World Cup qualifier match between Bahrain and Iran observed a moment of silence, as did all of Europe at noon on that day, September 12.
The world’s care and compassion are sacred gifts; we do nothing to earn them. Instead, we receive them unbidden. Our response is the measure of our own humanity and moral imagination, or lack thereof. The gifts come because we share a common human capacity to feel empathy for strangers stricken by tragedy half a world away, and the gifts renew our faith in love, in our need for each other.
Orson Wells said, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone. ” Nothing could be further from the truth. We are born in relationship, through the body of a living, breathing woman who accompanies us every step of the way into this world — to deny this is ingratitude for life. We live in relationship through those who nurtured and raised us. If people today did not grow and pick our food, purify our water, treat us when we are sick, and educate us, we could not live — to ignore this as if our lives were our own achievement is hubris. Those who know a lifetime of such deep connections do not want to die alone. That desire is so powerful that some people trapped in the towers on 9/11 held hands as they jumped to their deaths.
Human relationship is a given; there is no escaping the biological fact of our social nature. What we do with this truth is crucial. We can continually recreate hell for other people and pretend it never touches us, or we can reach out in love and strengthen that hallowed tapestry of human empathy.
What I call sacred is not confined to religious people. Religion can as easily inhibit the sacred in human life as allow it to flourish. Two of my favorite atheists who started out Christians, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Feuerbach, challenged belief in authoritarian monotheism. They questioned why religious people choose to “believe” in something sacred, rather than to take responsibility for doing what is sacred. Nietzsche, who opposed all forms of facism, religious and political, including Nazism, thought that Christians were enslaved to an immoral and terrifying idea of deity (one infected with testosterone poisoning, I would add). Their fear of divine punishment and their guilt-borne piety trapped them in mediocre, joyless half-lives of cowardly conformity and despair. He thought it took courage to kill that God, to learn to think deeply, to strive for excellence in every dimension of life, and to live with a profound love and joy for life. I agree: I don’t believe in the God he thought should die — religious chauvinism is a pride built on fear and religious isolationism is a failure to love adequately.
Feuerbach, on the other hand, observed that Christians understood merciful love, justice for all, forgiveness and generosity without limit. He noted that instead of claiming these virtues and trying to live them out, Christians projected them onto an imaginary, highly exalted being outside themselves and called themselves depraved sinners. By surrendering moral responsibility and pretending to be helplessly dependent on that higher power, Christians often behaved badly — exactly as they believed themselves to be. Christians have benefited from good atheist critics like these.
Most of the religious people I know — and I know a lot of religious people — belong to a faith community because we want to be challenged, inspired, healed, supported, strengthened and nourished as spiritual human beings. Through a religious community, we seek to make a positive contribution to the world and experience spiritual inspiration. At the same time, we strive to hold each other accountable for being our best selves, knowing that others care about us.
Some religious communities fail — miserably. They or their clergy can be as dysfunctional or criminal as abusive families; theirs are the stories we hear about in the media. We don’t usually hear about the successes, the many thousands of ordinary, everyday mosques, temples, synagogues, covens, meeting houses, circles, and churches that manage to be decent, creative, life-sustaining communities that reweave the sacred tapestry of compassion and love.
In the summer of 2008, a group of us in the Bay Area, tired of two long wars and wanting to do more than protest, had a conversation about how to prevent a third war. Years after public opinion had soured against the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Congress was considering legislation to conduct a naval blockade of Iran, an act of war that would have empowered the most reactionary right-wing forces in the Islamic Republic and mired the U.S. in a third armed conflict with a country three times the size of Iraq.
We decided to create an Axis of Friendship in honor of the global friendship that emerged on September 12, 2001. Our coalition of religious groups, community and student organizations, Iranian American associations, public officials, and peace activists celebrated Axis of Friendship Day with Iran with a press conference and festival of cultural sharing at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco on September 12, 2008. In 2009, two Protestant denominations, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), voted to honor September 12 every year as Axis of Friendship Day, and churches prayed for their Iranian American neighbors. Some designed their worship services to highlight Iranian music, poetry, and prayer and to lift up the Axis of Friendship.
This year, the attack on Park51 has stirred up anti-Muslim hatred and violence across the country. Recently, the construction site for a new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee was torched. Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal Constitution called it an act of terrorism 886 miles from Ground Zero. The 250-member Muslim community, some of whom have lived there for over a generation, are wondering what is next. Essim Fathy, chair of the planning committee for the mosque and community center, said, “Our people and community are so worried of what else can happen. They are so scared.”
All of us have to speak up for our Muslim neighbors and protect them from the rising hostility of Islamophobia. We cannot have religious freedom, or freedom from state religion, without protecting the freedom of Muslims. Only 9 percent of Americans claim to be familiar with Islam, so we have a lot of educating to do in our own communities to counter the hate-baiting of those trying to stop the Cordoba Initiative. If Americans could overcome years of vicious hate-baiting against Japanese Americans and, in 1988, officially apologize for falsely imprisoning over 60,000 Japanese American citizens during World War II, we can also turn the tide of Islamophobia — and maybe, this time, we can do it before we do something that requires a national apology.
Strengthening relationships among Muslims and others living in our communities is a sacred act of friendship. Care for our neighbors, empathy for those who suffer, courage to resist hate — these ordinary acts hallow our expanding circle of humanity and bless the world. That’s what I know is sacred.