If you’ll allow me to wax editorial a bit more than usual, this week’s Religion Roundup looks at some of the issues surrounding commemoration services this Sunday for the tenth anniversary of 9/11. If you can, please offer your support to all of the groups encouraging interfaith cooperation this September 11th to dispel the hate and intolerance that led to that horrific day in the first place.
Tragedy, particularly on the scale that can evoke tremendous emotion at the mere mention of a date, is beyond any single individual.
As September 11th approaches, the question that seems to cross everyone’s mind is, “Where are we now?” After years of battling fanaticism, dogmatism, ignorance, and hatred – from extremist violence in the Middle East to the damnation of mosque-building in New York – have we really made great strides forward, or just won a few skirmishes here and there? Like most things, the answer isn’t black-and-white, but clues pointing either way may be found in the voices of those organizing commemoration events this Sunday.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has come under criticism from a number of religious groups and individuals for his decision to have an entirely secular remembrance in New York City this Sunday, without the presence of any clergy or religious leaders. Personally, I think this should be not cited as an example of intolerance or censorship, but rather applauded as an example of true, unbiased appreciation of diversity. Rather than choosing which religious groups are most worthy of holding services at Ground Zero, Bloomberg has decided to, in the place where the events of 9/11 seem to have the strongest emotional impact, render the service an entirely personal experience. Whatever their faith background or beliefs about the world, people can reflect inwardly rather than project unto others their emotions. Community is incredibly important, particularly in times of tragedy; yet, Mayor Bloomberg is not dispelling community, he is ensuring that it is one populated not by those of the most popular or powerful religious perspectives, but by everyone despite their religious perspective. An honorable position for a politician to take, to say the least.
At the same time, there is certainly value in gathering amongst people who share a spiritual perspective to reflect on events as significant as these. There have, every year, been no shortage of special religious gatherings on 9/11, but this year something significant and inspiring seems to have ascended: the campaign for events to be inclusive of all faiths, and for individuals to spend this September 11th alongside those of an entirely divergent belief system has had incredible success. The Interfaith Youth Core, the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, Temple Judea in Los Angeles, the Monmouth Center for World Religions and Ethical Thought, and an unprecedented number of other organizations are hosting campaigns and events to encourage faith groups to spend this Sunday in interfaith cooperation, grounded in compassion and with the goal building strong interrreligious relationships, rather than divided along the same lines that led to the tragic events ten years past.
When the Quran asks us to “repel” the evil of the world “with what is better” (41:34), or the Hebrew Bible, to “be a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6), or Jesus to “sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21), it would seem absurd to think that compassion lacks a foothold in any belief system. That shortlist is not meant to illustrate the way people, according to their religious perspective, have to act—rather, how they can act. Our beliefs, religious or secular, universal or divisive, loving or hateful, will reflect an amalgamation of all sorts of sources.
The actions that transcribed on September 11th, 2001 were undoubtedly religiously motivated; it would be a mistake, however, to ignore the fact that religious motivations are not formed in a vacuum. People will always be people. We are molded by experience and the influence of others, and sometimes we look to millennia-old texts for guidance or cite them as our motivations. But none of these guiding factors work alone, they all form the fire triangle that makes up an individual, who can ultimately choose to be either compassionate or malevolent.
This year, to know if we’ve truly moved forward, we should celebrate compassion, and when we criticize the hateful among us, we should do so while bearing in mind that there is potential for good within them. Because whether you were in New York City that day, or across the ocean watching it on a television screen, you would be incredibly hard pressed to find someone who wasn’t hurt deeply by what they saw. Because when tragedy reenters our minds, we have to both sit alone and let it wash through us, as well as sit with others and share the loss.
Because on September 11th, 2001, the sky looked gray.
But the rich, bright blue has, and will continue to come back, so long as we hold hands as we repel the smoke.
Walker Bristol is a student at Tufts University, and the Community Organizer and Interfaith Representative for the Tufts Freethought Society. Originally from North Carolina, Walker was raised in a largely Quaker community before exploring several Christian traditions throughout high school and ultimately becoming a secular humanist at age 15. Walker serves as the chair of the Committee to Establish a Humanist Chaplaincy at Tufts, and this summer interned at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. In addition to being involved in secular student activism, Walker is a hobbyist musician and far-too-avid science-fiction fan.