9/11 reminded us, if we needed reminding, that religious adherence and passions are no guarantee of moral behavior. Every religious tradition can be used to justify war and peace, intolerance and empathy, bigotry and understanding, cruelty and compassion. Those who take religion seriously must determine which option will be activated and applied and which will be repudiated and negated.
This much we know: What was done on 9/11 is evidence of the corrosive power of hatred; that there are those whose souls have been poisoned, whose minds have been corrupted by the evil and the hatred taught them. It was this spirit, whether derived from religious or non-religious sources, that destroyed six million Jews in Germany. It was this spirit that saw the butchering of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children in Rwanda just a few years ago and the Congo today. It was this spirit that caused a church in Birmingham to be bombed, taking the lives of four innocent children. It was in this spirit that Martin Luther King and John and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. It is this spirit that has so ravaged so very many places in this world.
That religion can be one source of such hatred is deeply, deeply troubling to us. Can it really be that religion is capable of encouraging man’s inhumanity to man? Alas, it can be; it is. Every one of the major faith traditions has its strands of extremism, its leaders and activists who believe that their religion calls them to use force and violence to impose their religious, political or cultural views on others.
That is what made 9/11 a wake-up call: How can we, we who stand for peace, for empathy, for understanding and compassion, delegitimize the extremism in our own faith traditions and work in coalition with those of similar concern and conviction from fellow faith traditions?
As disturbing as the fact of 9/11 was to our sense of the uses to which religion can be put, in the days after 9/11, we were encouraged by the remarkable expression of core values that religion at its best has preached and taught and modeled for centuries. We witnessed an outpouring of human kindness, as if instinctively Americans sought to insist that evil’s victory was to be limited; that we would not permit inhumanity to prevail. We seemed committed to show, deeply and stubbornly, that goodness and kindness are more powerful than cruelty. And as public leaders, including religious leaders, called on all Americans in their interpersonal dealings, especially in dealing with those rendered vulnerable by these events, to be fully American, to seek to express, as Lincoln put it, “the better angels of our nature.” - the American people responded.
We donated blood, comforted the frightened, drove more courteously, waited more patiently, offered thanks - or commiseration - more emphatically, strove for a higher level of menschlichkeit.
Yet as we look back on the decade, we see how fleeting that moment was - more a spasm than a transformation. I pray we will never again know the horror of a 9/11; yet I long for the unity, compassion, kindness, and cooperation of those days that followed.
Sadly, as life has returned to what passes for normal (itself a repudiation of the designs of the terrorists who sought to demoralize our spirit and erode the civic life, the democratic freedoms, and the will of our nation), we have returned to too many of the apathetic, indifferent, angry and intolerant modes of behavior as well. There is a distressingly angry, even strident quality to American life these days; there is growing partisan political hostility, a breakdown of reasoned civil discourse and too many manifestations of hate crimes and group hatred. All this is painfully demoralizing.
Yet again, there is a reflection of religion’s vital and distinctive role since 9/11,: Through the decade, the bonds forged by many religious groups in America and throughout the world in the aftermath of 9/11 have held strong. Religious groups have played a forceful and visible role in calling for more civil discourse and in searching for common ground in our politics and culture. In the midst of our economic crises, it is interfaith coalitions that have asserted the moral imperative to protect the poor and the vulnerable, the children and the elderly, the ill and the homeless. Interfaith coalitions have fought together for stronger protections for religious freedom, called for greater religious respect and tolerance, and been at the core of efforts to repudiate the anti-Islamism that permeates some segments of American society and American religion.
Finally, it is religion above all that can teach the world that we are not the prisoners of a bitter and unremitting past but we can be, we must be, we will be the shapers of a better and more hopeful future. At its best - at our best - religion, with its urgent dream of redemption, teaches us, in the words of the Talmud, that though we are not required to complete the task, neither are we free to desist from it. In the enduring battle between good and evil, between kindness and cruelty, between decency and despair, religion comes to keep hope alive, to keep the dream alive, to insist that we choose life.
David Saperstein | Sep 10, 2011 11:18 AM