Sunday was the fifteenth anniversary when two airplanes flew into New York City’s twin towers, destroying both and killing thousands. At the same time another airplane flew into the Pentagon, causing massive destructive. All the while, a fourth airplane crashed into the Pennsylvania landscape before it could be flown into the US Capitol. Since that infamous day, terrorism has become a chief topic of concern in our daily lives. Our concern for our safety has been expanded beyond our travel, to athletic events, concerts, and our schools; anywhere a crowd can gather. While political, economic, and culture issues are central to terrorism related issues, what draws the most heat in the conversation is religion; primarily the three Abrahamic faiths, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have all played some role in international terrorism scene.
What seems to be at threat is our spiritual safety. Interfaith groups have taken on the topic of creating safe space in order to express one’s religion, while learning about other religions.
In March of 2010, I was invited to attend an interreligious conference at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) along with my colleague, Ahmad Shqeirat, Imam at the Islamic Cultural Center in Tempe, Arizona. The conference was funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. Twenty Anglican (Episcopal) and twenty Muslim leaders were invited to discuss a peaceful response to what would then be the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
Ahmad and I had been invited because we were leaders of a gathering on September 11, 2009 in Tempe, which was held in response to the threatened burning of the Holy Quran by Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida.
The VTS conference was three, twelve-hour days packed with listening to intense stories. One of the most disturbing stories came from my friend, Ahmad. On November 20, 2006, he and five other imams were escorted off of a US Airways flight bound for Phoenix out of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. Before boarding the plane, the imams had said their noonday prayers in Arabic, apparently making some passengers waiting to board the flight, uncomfortable. Ahmad told us that one imam was blind. All six were handcuffed with their hands behind their backs, escorted off the plane, forced to walk unassisted down a ramp, placed in separate police cars, and taken to a detention center for interrogation. After hours of questioning, a federal agent determined their detention was unwarranted and the six were returned to the airport. US Airways refused to issue them new tickets or let them board another flight. The imams had to purchase new tickets from another airline in order to get home.
This kind of treatment of innocent Muslims who are US citizens is alarming.
Since that time Phoenix mosques, including the one in Tempe, have been defaced and picketed and their members threatened. And of course, in our current Presidential election, the basic rights of Muslim-American citizens have been called into question and the debate has extended to Muslim immigration. Because of fear, the atmosphere in America and Arizona has called into question one of this country’s most cherished constitutional rights—the freedom of religion.
I am not going to try and make any generalized statements about how Christians or people of faith should respond to terrorism, US citizen’s rights, or immigration. I would, thought, like share with you how I try to understand the hard work of peacemaking, creating safe space, and listening.
Let’s take a look at Micah 4:1-5 as an example of how to be peacemakers. Micah was a prophet in the 8th century BCE. He was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. Micah said that religious worship without social justice is meaningless. He was concerned with ethical issues and the exploitation of the unemployed, those who had jobs, and landowners. In chapter four, Micah offered a formula for peacemaking, which I believe still applies today.
Inclusivity—Being in the presence of God is inclusive and welcoming experience. (4:1) God invited all people to the sacred mountain. What does that mean for me? I want to use language that is inclusive and welcoming. I don’t use language like “my God.” God is not my personal God, nor is God exclusive to Christianity.
Accessibility—Everyone has access to the divine teachings. (4:2b) I try to use language about God that doesn’t create a barrier between someone and the divine. In other words, when I speak, preach, or write, I work hard at not using theological lingo, words like sin, salvation, incarnation, or Trinity. Most clergy can’t agree on what these words mean and many people that come to our churches don’t agree on the definitions or these words or don’t know what they mean. Frankly it doesn’t matter. My language should not be a barrier to someone hearing the divine message.
Non-violence—God’s people will lay down their tools of war and become peacemakers. (4:3b) Howard Thurman (1899-1981) scholar, teacher, preacher, prophet, and mystic wrote that, “Non-violence is not merely a mood or climate, or even an attitude. It is a technique…a discipline…it is a rejection of physical force, a renunciation of the tools of physical violence. (Howard Thurman: Essential Writings, 125) He goes to say that, “Not to fight at all is to choose a weapon by which one fights…Of all the weapons, love is the most deadly and devastating.” (122) I personally can’t find any other way to follow the ways of YHVH than to be a pacifist.
Safety—God’s people will accept other people’s differences by creating safe space for all people. (4:4) My own experience has taught me that the only way I can create safe space for another person is to listen to their story. When I went to the VTS workshop we listened to one another’s stories. I listened to Ahmad and he has listened to me. I know about his faith as a Sunni Muslim from his perspective, which is also different from being Shia or Sufi. And he knows about my religious ideas. We have prayed together. We have shared meals. We know about each other’s families because we have met them. And we have been honest with one another about our differences in religious beliefs and practices. In the words of Micah, Ahmad and I sit under our own fig tree and neither of us has made the other one afraid.
For some of us September 11, 2001 is raw in our memory. It’s an event that is seared in our mind. For others, though, 9/11 is something that happened in history, like Pearl Harbor Day—while you understand the significance of the event, it happened before you could remember of before you were born. Or maybe you’re from another country and September 11, 2001 is something you can relate to because attacks like that have happened in your country. Whatever your relationship to September 11, 2001 might be, the threat of terrorism and war is present in our daily lives like a societal cancer. The question is how do we now, fifteen years later, bring about healing and peace?
Yes, we must respect the dignity every person that has suffered; with reverence for those who lost their lives, with grief for families who lost loved ones and friends, with honor for those who willingly gave their lives to save others. But, then, what do we do next? For me, my only response is to live a life of inclusivity, accessibility, non-violence, and creating safe space by listening. By working at peacemaking I feel that this is the best way I can honor those who have suffered—it is also the only way I can imagine that we have any hope for a peaceful future.