2011-09-17

Begin Again In Love (9-11, forgiveness, and peace)

Can we begin again? In love? With the arrival of the tenth anniversary of the events of 2001 September 11, I want to ask whether we can begin again. Of course, in one sense we can never really begin again: it is impossible to change the past. In another sense we are always, unavoidably, beginning anew. So we begin again today just like we begin again every day. It's a particularly good time, however, to reflect on those events of ten years ago and to see if maybe there's a way to make the new beginning of this day a beginning that faces our fears and turns toward love. Somewhere in between the impossible and the inevitable is the potential.

About 3,000 people were killed in the collapse of the twin towers in 2001. 3,000. Here are some other numbers for the last decade:

  • Almost 20,000: killed from our fighting in Afghanistan, counting US troops, coalition troops, contractors, Afghan troops, and Afghan civilians.
  • Over 4,500: US soldiers and civilian support personnel who have died in our Iraq war.
  • Over 100,000: Iraqi civilians killed in Iraq by military or paramilitary action.
  • About 5,000: people killed in one city, Juarez, Mexico, in a drug cartel war.
  • Over 200,000: people killed in the 2004 tsunami that struck Sumatra, Indonesia and other places along the Indian Ocean.
  • Over 300,000: people killed in the Haiti earthquake of 2010.
  • About 150 million: children dead from starvation over the last ten years, deaths that could have been prevented at a cost about equal to 10 stealth bombers or what the world spends on its militaries in two days.
Most of that is distant and impersonal. The events of 2001 September 11, however, touched many of us much more personally. We have friends or family who were in New York on that day – who were due to have been in the Twin Towers a day or two later, or who were nearby on that day and barely escaped with their lives.

The tenth anniversary of Pearl Harbor got very little attention. In that case, I think we felt like we knew how to respond, and by ten years out, we had responded. We had dispatched the threat and had turned our attention to cranking out the baby boom. With the September 11 attacks, however, we have been in a state of continuous doubt about how to respond: Have we done enough? Too much? Are we safe yet? In the one case we swelled the armed forces and the factories supporting the war effort. In the other case, we ruefully put shampoo and toothpaste in a separate baggie every time we fly somewhere. In the one case, we rolled up our sleeves. In the other, we take off our shoes…going through security. It’s a very different feel -- bare arms vs. bare feet.

Begin again in love? That would be nice. We began the first time, ten years ago, in fear. And the fear has been much more damaging than the airplanes were. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, it made us think, "oh, well, that’s nothing." Suppose he had said, the only thing we have to fear is that our brains will be seized by a force beyond our control that will cause us to behave irrationally and dangerously? Of course, that’s what FDR was saying.

In the one year after those airplane attacks, Americans were more afraid to get on airplanes. It took about 18 months for air travel levels to return to their pre-9-11 levels. During that time, we drove places more. We have ways of estimating total national automobile miles traveled, and analysis reveals that the ratio of automobile fatalities per million miles driven remained constant. But because there was more driving, there were more auto fatalities. A couple years after 9-11, driving was back down to where it had been, just as flying was back up. An additional 1600 people died in auto fatalities just from the increase in driving in the one year after 9-11. Those were people we can say were killed by fear.

Osama bin Laden single-handedly triggered fear reactions that have been estimated to have cost the US over a trillion dollars in the last ten years. Our costs and losses in Afghanistan make some sense. My sympathies lie with those who seek nonviolent alternatives to war in every case, but I acknowledge that most analysts and most US citizens agree that military intervention in Afghanistan was appropriate – just as fighting Japan after Pearl harbor made sense. But we never had any business in Iraq. And our internal private and public security apparatus has run up costs that could have provided free college for everyone, repaired the nation’s infrastructure, ensured universal health care, and green-fitted our industries to reduce CO2 emissions.

We allowed those attacks to undermine our way of life. The US responded, in our blind fear, by rolling back the freedoms and the civil liberties that I would say were the things about our country that made it worth defending. We responded by undermining our way of life. It’s popular to say that’s just what the attackers were after, but I have to say I really don't think they had passage of the Patriot Act as a specific objective.

"Our way of life" is a mixture of many habits and attitudes. Let me mention two, one very good and one very bad. First, our way of life is liberty and equality. The first amendment rights of free speech, press, assembly, worship; our system of checks and balances that prevent power from being concentrated in any one place; the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, and other protections against discrimination -- these are the shining gems of our way of life. Second, our way of life is consumption, privilege, and usurpation. The US has one-twentieth of the world's population, yet consumes one-fourth of the world-wide energy use -- and we behave toward the rest of the world as though we are entitled to this vastly unequal share, and will throw whatever weight around we need to to make sure we keep it. This is the festering blemish of our way of life.

The part of our way of life that the terrorists of 9-11 ten years ago would have liked to undermine is the part that has for most of a century treated their homelands as our own personal supply pump for the oil that fuels our consumerist way of life. Instead, what they undermined was the much more precious civil liberties part of our way of life. They undermined our tolerance – which has, historically, been problematic, but had seemed to be slowing improving. Too many of our neighbors have behaved abominably toward Moslems among us: mosques and schools burned and defaced, or banned, Muslim cab drivers and storekeepers attacked and threatened, Korans burned – not the way we wanted to put Gainesville on the map – Muslims denied equal protections, profiled and harassed.

Can we start again, please? Can we begin again in love?

Unitarian Universalists have usually not been among the worst offenders, but neither have we done all that we could to insist on liberty, and decent treatment for all. We, too, have been among the fearful: sometimes rigid and inaccessible, sometimes striking out in anger without just cause, inattentive to others needs, and allowing ourselves to be set apart and alone, for losing sight of our essential unity. Let self-forgiveness begin, and be the basis for forgiving others. Let forgiveness be the basis for beginning again in love.

We will begin again in love precisely insofar as we can bring peace to our hearts. Bring peace to our hearts. And I know that peace is not a matter of an intellectual conviction.

One of our members told me a story recently about back in the day, she lived in a commune. Hippie notions of peace and love were in the air. This particular commune had made an explicit commitment to peace and nonviolence in all things. They were deeply chagrined at the Vietnam War, and advocated energetically for peace in foreign relations as well as peace in our individual personal relations. Then one day, one of the members of the commune – I will invent a name for her – Katie – was the target of an attempted purse snatching. The purse snatching did not succeed. As the man pulled on the purse strap, Katie flew into a rage, kicking, screaming, and yelling obscenities and insults. Later, Katie was amazed at herself. There was nothing but a couple dollars in that purse. He could’ve had it. “If he came back now, I’d hand it to him. Here I think I’m all about peace and nonviolence, but I was all over that guy, in a way that was anything but nonviolent.”

Peace in our heads – ideas about living peacefully, a philosophy of pacificism and nonviolence – is not the same thing as peace in our hearts, in our bones, in our deep habits of being. Peace as a cognitive concept, and an intellectual commitment, can, however, be a start. From that start, Katie might be motivated to undertake the deep training of reactivity, rather than merely the shallow training of cognitive thinking. For me, the cognitive was a start. For I, too, have those ideas, hold a philosophy of nonviolence, and that has been true for me since middle school. I did, after all, grow up Unitarian Universalist, shaped by our Religious education and worship services. But I still got irritable. I snapped at people. I was defensive. I was snarky. I mean, a lot snarkier than any of you have seen. Once, in my twenties, I flew at the woman who was then my wife, and tackled her. Peace defined my ideas, my philosophy. Reactivity defined my life.

I still speak with an angry impatience sometimes, but now, it’s almost always at my computer, not at people. Even so, I have further work to do. And I do it. Three or four times a year, I go on a retreat of 5 to 7 days to practice the cultivation of peace in heart and bones and the habits of the amygdala and the limbic system – the emotional channels that short-circuit my better self. From those experiences – from putting the time in, being still and silent and watching the thoughts and feelings that arise, I have been gradually teaching not only my thoughts but my reactive nature that there is nothing that separates us.

Illusions of separation continually arise – they always will – yet we can grow more adept at seeing through them. It is a brain training that takes time. I can tell you how to serve a tennis ball exactly like Venus Williams, and, I can’t but maybe Ruth could, describe how to play a Bach cantata. But only hours and hours in can train you to be able to do it. I can tell you that you and I are one, but only with training can that be more than a moment’s passing thought. My training allows me to speak to you from experience about what it takes to build peace in our hearts, not just in our heads, what it takes to recognize that we are not separate.

I tend not to talk about it much, because talking about this training that I’ve had, if you haven’t had it, seems to throw up a separation – and the whole learning is about grasping that there is no separation. One spiritual teacher was asked by a brand new student: "What really is the difference between you and me?" And the teacher said: "There is no difference -- only, I know that." Yet this, too, is dangerous to say. The difference between people who know there’s no difference and people who don’t know there’s no difference is still a difference. That notion of difference, too, must be wiped away. So it’s hard to talk about at all.

In silence, watching my thoughts arise, and setting them aside one by one – sometimes sooner, and sometimes later after allowing them to carry me away for a while – I see through them. I see that my thoughts are not me, as they love to pretend they are. They are collections of reactive impulses stapled to a calculating machine. There is a true me, which is the same as you. Seeing that guy, hanging out with him for awhile, equips me to come and tell you some things that you, too, know – but which it is so easy to forget in midst of the hustle and bustle – and in the midst of fears. Fear has been such a prevalent mood in the country for the last ten years.

It equips me to coach you in the ways of peace – in accordance with the peace-making statement that this congregation adopted last January, in accordance with our stated slogan that this place be a place to nurture your spirit, and help heal our world – starting with ourselves. It’s from that experience that I offer you little pointers like: it’s not the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. You are not a part of the interdependent web of existence. You are the whole thing. All of it is right there, manifested as you.

Thich Nhat Hanh has been through many more hours and years of that training than I, and he expresses well what he has seen in the stillness and silence. I, too, have plunged deeply into the truth of these words about nonseparation, which I offer to you on the this anniversary of the September 11 attacks. This is the truth that we need, if we are to find peace and begin again in the capacity for love that peace makes possible.

"Rest in Peace," by Thich Nhat Hahn
I am a World Trade Center tower, standing tall in the clear blue sky,
feeling a violent blow in my side, and I am a towering inferno of pain and suffering imploding upon myself and collapsing to the ground.
May I rest in peace.
I am a terrified passenger on a hijacked airplane not knowing where we are going or that I am riding on fuel tanks that will be instruments of death, and I am a worker arriving at my office not knowing that in just a moment my future will be obliterated.
May I rest in peace.
I am a pigeon in the plaza between the two towers eating crumbs from¶someone's breakfast when fire rains down on me from the skies, and I am a bed of flowers admired daily by thousands of tourists now buried under five stories of rubble.
May I rest in peace.
I am a firefighter sent into dark corridors of smoke and debris on a mission of mercy only to have it collapse around me, and I am a rescue worker risking my life to save lives who is very aware that I may not make it out alive.
May I rest in peace.
I am a family member who has just learned that someone I love has died, and I am a pastor who must comfort someone who has suffered a heartbreaking loss.
May I know peace.
I am a loyal American who feels violated and vows to stand behind any military action it takes to wipe terrorists off the face of the earth, and I am a loyal American who feels violated and worries that people who look and sound like me are all going to be blamed for this tragedy.
May I know peace.
I am a boy in New Jersey waiting for a father who will never come home, and I am a boy in a faraway country rejoicing in the streets of my village because someone has hurt the hated Americans.
May I know peace.
I am a general talking into the microphone/s about how we must stop the terrorist cowards who have perpetrated this heinous crime, and I am an intelligence officer trying to discern how such a thing could have happened on American soil, and I am a city official trying to find¶ways to alleviate the suffering of my people.
May I know peace.
I am a terrorist whose hatred for America knows no limit and I am willing to die to prove it, and I am a terrorist sympathizer standing with all the enemies of American capitalism and imperialism, and I am a master strategist for a terrorist group who planned this abomination. My heart is not yet capable of openness, tolerance, and loving.
May I know peace.
I am a citizen of the world glued to my television set, fighting back my¶rage and despair at these horrible events, and I am a person of faith struggling to forgive the unforgivable, praying for the consolation of those who have lost loved ones, calling upon the merciful beneficence of God/Yahweh/Allah/Spirit/Higher Power.
May I know peace.
I am a child of God who believes that we are all children of God and we are all part of each other.
May we all know peace.
May we all know peace.
Amen.