It is humbling enough for a Jewish woman of a somewhat secular civic disposition to come to preach to an Episcopal congregation on any Sunday of any year. But on this Sunday, the tenth anniversary of what I sometimes call “the day that we Americans lost our innocence,” it is indeed a daunting challenge and, at the same time, an especially great privilege. I am grateful to your rector, Peter D’Angio, for bestowing this honor upon me, and hope that I can even begin to do justice to it.
It is important for us to recall the day– 9/11—it has become a short hand—an iconic term– for terror—that sends chills up and down the spines of people around the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if many if not all of us here have vivid memories of that day—what we were doing when we heard the news, and what we did after we heard the news. I lived in Washington at the time. I had just gotten off the telephone with an artist friend who was visiting from Israel. She was rejoicing at her arrival the night before to what she felt was a carefree and welcoming environment. I went into my bedroom where the television was on and saw the first and then the second World Trade Center tower go down—this juxtaposed to the enthusiasm of a visitor from abroad. It seemed at first to be a commercial for one of those violent sci-fi movies. It took a while to realize that this was real—a very new and shocking reality. I walked to my office a few blocks away—on the way actually seeing and smelling the smoke from the fire that was raging at the Pentagon. The rest of the day is a blur—of sitting before the television in the conference room with colleagues, not talking very much, not exactly connecting to what was being said or to what had happened—but not wanting to be alone. That was the day.
Ten days later my husband and I were at the wedding of a dear friend in New York. It seemed a welcome respite from the outpouring of grim reports of the tragedy, and at the same time the tragedy loomed darkly over the occasion; there were whispered stories of lost friends and family, and on a lighter note, guests who could not get into their downtown apartments and had to borrow clothes. There was the scorched odor that reached into the sunny gentility of the Upper East Side, a wedding sermon delivered by the bride’s father, a Presbyterian minister, that of course had an unusual degree of solemnity, and yet called our attention to the great joy and renewal that the wedding offered us all.
Whatever your particular recollection is, I believe there are commonalities; we felt shock, disbelief and a sense of profound vulnerability. Vulnerability was formally and rudely introduced into our lives as Americans. That said, it’s important for us to acknowledge that terrorism didn’t begin or end on 9/11. We need to reflect on the many acts of terrorism that had been perpetrated long before 9/11 in other places and of course we can very well remember those that have occurred since 9/11, most recently in Oslo, home of the Nobel Peace Prize. Terrorism was not invented on9/11; but for us Americans, it was relatively remote until then.
On that note, I propose that greater empathy be part of the legacy of 9/11: that in addition to mourning the victims of that dread day, we remember those who were victimized before and after by terrorist crimes. It does not lessen the significance of the 9/11 crimes, but it calls on us to put them in a larger context and commit ourselves to a more sane and humane future for all the world’s people. We would like to say “Never Again!” but we know all too well that terrorism begets terrorism, as we have witnessed all too many acts of terror in the past ten years—before Oslo there were Tucson, Mumbai, Madrid, London and Glasgow, to name a few.
We cannot eliminate the acts or the passions that lay behind the acts. But what we can and must do is dedicate ourselves to understanding an increasingly interdependent world and choosing a future that is based on the realities of interdependence and the ethical and moral implications of those realities. Our world has changed—I would say in particular for us Americans, who for most of our history were comforted by our main allies and protectors, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The wonders of the technological revolutions ensure that those vast bodies of water will not serve in those capacities in the future. They are easily crossed in a few hours by jet airplanes and even more significantly in seconds by the information and communications technologies that define our era. They remind us every day that we are in this life together.
It is, in the words of a poet friend, a “new now;” we do not know all of its implications, but we know they are both positive and negative and they are inescapable. I propose that we use this watershed event to understand the world better, acknowledge our interdependence and promise to create that “new now,” a post-9/11 culture. That is our job. Though “never again” is the ideal, we must act as though “never again” is a reality—and work every day to diminish the likelihood of terrorist acts in the future.
Our nation was stunned and distraught and offended by 9/11. After all, this was not war by the rules—nation against nation. It was several young men armed with the zeal of martyrdom, with an obsessive love-hate relationship with Western culture—particularly the American brand, with effective training, both psychological and logistical—boarding commercial jets—ours—armed with box cutters. These are not the weapons of mass destruction that the Americans feared. This was not a regiment of trained men to be felled by our superior armed forces and fighter planes and missiles. This is warfare in the new now.
The US organized an all-out war against terror and instituted a homeland security organization that was probably necessary, but nonetheless created a culture of fear in our nation. While we were looking for nuclear weapons it turns out that terror itself was and is the weapon of mass destruction. It has bred a generalized xenophobia and a very widespread Islamophobia. That Islamophobia is contagious and borders on being a global epidemic. It is misguided and dangerous.
What we need to work on is creating a new now—a now that accepts the realities of our time, that is not a dreamer’s dream of peace in the world, but a citizens’ strategy for living a good life in an imperfect but mercifully interdependent world. There is some comfort in knowing that we are interdependent—that we do not stand alone in the quest for freedom and justice—and peace. And, in the spirit of interdependence, there is enormous responsibility. We must assume responsibility for people we don’t know and might never know—they are part of the human family. And we must assume responsibility for the environment—we must nurture and preserve it so that it will reap harvests for our children and grandchildren. We are more than ever before, our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We must arm ourselves with the will and the skills to do our job well. I promise you that you will never have a more rewarding experience than exerting your powers on behalf of others.
The new now is a time of uncertainty and search. It reminds me of the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt’s description of the period between the two world wars, “Between the no longer and the not yet.”
What we need in this strange and uncomfortable period, to rest our minds and ease our heartache, is a new global ethic—based on respect for people of different faiths and cultures, different gods and symbols, now clearly living together—inescapably– in an interdependent world. New technologies have done a great deal to shape the new now, but it is we human beings who have to craft an ethic and a world view that is suitable for this inescapably interdependent world. When Peter first asked me to give this sermon, the biblical story of the flood and Noah’s Ark came to mind. Why? Are we not living the 21st century version of that tale in Genesis—infinitely larger and more complex than the imagery of a flood and a small boat that accommodates pairs of all living creatures—but still, let’s think. Instead of a flood we’ve got an array of manmade and natural disasters—not, by the way, mutually exclusive categories, including floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, oil spills, nuclear meltdowns, wars, ethnic conflicts, hunger and disease. So what can save us from ourselves and from nature? I don’t believe that there is a divine power out to destroy us—or even out to destroy evil. Indeed, I am not an expert on divine power. But I know that citizens have power—the power of imagination and ingenuity and an inherent desire to improve the prospects for a peaceful world, healthier human beings and a better tomorrow. Our salvation will be joining forces to save the world. Just as Noah’s ark accommodated the couples that would repopulate the world, our social networks are our way to salvation. So let’s build our own virtual Ark—so that the extraordinary creativity of human kind is preserved—and reborn every day; this new Ark can accommodate all of us. It can save lives, save the environment and save civilization.
The culture of interdependence is our modern Ark—its structure is this: a global civic ethic -which comprises our will, combined with the technologically-advanced communications and information networks that link us together inescapably, providing us with the skills—the power, if you will, to change the world. This modern ark won’t lead us to paradise, but it can prevent us from going in the other direction—if we choose to use it constructively. Robert Bellah and his coauthors had this to say in The Good Society, published in 1991: “Accepting the tragedies of the 20th century and the toll they took on all the world’s people is the beginning of wisdom. Paradise on this earth, we have learned, is beyond our capacity. But we can, if we are modest and hopeful, possibly establish a reasonably livable purgatory and escape the inferno. “ You can tell that I’m not wearing rose colored glasses—but I do believe that with a combination of our will to make this world a better place and our skills, we can board this 21st century ARK, the SS interdependence, and escape the inferno. Tomorrow is Interdependence Day. I hope you’ll come aboard. There are numerous allusions to interdependence among the best and the brightest of our political and religious heroes—Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. to name several; let their commitment to working together, expecting and respecting difference, be our guide. Difference and diversity in the natural world are the defining conditions—the optimal conditions—essential for survival. So think of that diversity as the gold standard for human life and let us move beyond xenophobia, beyond fear and contempt for others, and welcome all into our moral and ethical universe.
I am here to promote—as a 21st century project—declaring war against hatred and ushering in the culture of interdependence. It must be interfaith, intergenerational, intercultural and international. Why? Because we are in this life together.
Our best bet is to cling to each other. I don’t think that because you and I hold different beliefs that we aren’t in almost every other way, genetically and culturally alike. We cannot afford intolerance—on religious or racial or economic or social or cultural grounds, in a world in which we are more interdependent—more accessible to and more inescapable from others than ever before.
We in the US have as much freedom and power as just about anyone in the world—we can’t pretend to be helpless; we can’t afford to be disenchanted. It’s too costly for us and too costly for the world. We must be informed and engaged citizens—artisans of the “new now,” builders of tomorrow, and at the same time, go about this daunting task with modesty and hope. Let’s get on the Ark, the SS Interdependence– and save the world—and in Bellah’s terms, avoid the inferno.