Homecoming: Gracism for 9/11 and Katrina

Ancient Testimony - Psalm 46

September 12, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Two women, both of whom qualify for the senior discounts at the local restaurants, have met every day at 10:00 a.m. on the same bench on the same boardwalk on Miami’s South Beach for twelve years.  Both are widows and they have come to enjoy each other’s daily company.  One day when they meet, the older of the two says to the younger, with tears in her eyes, “Honey, I am so sorry but I have forgotten your name.”  The other bursts into tears and says, “Oh, my.  So have I.  Do you need it right away or can you give me a little time?”

Warren, my life partner for 28 years, and I were on the same train trip this summer.  Last night he told the story of the train trip to an old friend.  He got the story all wrong.  And he thinks I got the same story all wrong, in a different way.  We were on the same train, at the same time, and he thinks one thing happened and I am quite sure that another thing happened. 

In both of these cases, memory is a battlefield.  The women both needed time to remember a name, a name they both actually knew but couldn’t call up.  Warren and I needed an expert in conflict resolution to establish the truth of the trip, the same trip we took together but had experienced on different planets.

As we approach the fall season of fateful anniversaries, 9/11 and Katrina, there are multiple battlefields as well.  For some the memory of 9/11 is a graveyard that cannot be disturbed.  For others, it is time to move on.  Today, I want to talk about the importance of memory.  If you can’t remember something, or if your memory is distorted, you will probably get lost.  You will treat the illness with an erroneous diagnosis, prescribing a pill or a tonic that will not heal.  You will live in a past that may not have existed in such a way that you will also inhabit an unreal present. 

Like the people of Prague you will know that the nation was liberated from Communism right after the Berlin Wall fell.  With the sculptor, Olbram Zoubek, as shown in his multiple memory presentation on Petrin Hill in Prague, you will want to remember something full.  But you may not be able to move your eyes in motion, as they go up and down the hill in a mobile memory, one that includes the way people’s bodies and souls were torn apart by Communism and then the way they reassembled.  Look with me at the picture of that sculpture on the front page of your bulletin.  There you will see memory in motion.  There you will see enormous suffering, bodies disembodied, hearts eviscerated.  You can look at the sculpture both ways, going back to suffering and forward to wholeness and healing, and going forward from wholeness back to a remembered suffering.  Each picture on each step is accurate about one time.  And time refuses to stand still.  Like that train trip Warren and I were both taking together, each step of interpretation has a truth to it.  But only if we look at the whole, with a forward thrust and a simultaneous backward thrust, can we begin to see what it means that Communism fell or the train was late.  Multiple memories involve respect for multiple perspectives.

Right now, in downtown New York City, we are in a fight about how to remember 9/11.  It doesn’t help one bit that the government has yet to erect a suitable anything on the site of the former World Trade Center.  Nine years is a long time to live in an unmarked grave. 

Last spring, while providing grief counseling at session dedicated to the rights of immigrants at Rikers, a group of us were surprised by former DA Robert Morgenthau saying that “the biggest issue in Manhattan today is the inability to mark that downtown grave.”  It turns out the 91-year-old, still active lawyer was right.  He was trying to tell us that we wouldn’t go forward as a city until we went back to that moment and marked it.  He was trying to tell us we were stuck in a past that had not been marked with enough collective meaning to allow the city to go on.  We may have wanted more justice for immigrants at Rikers, where they are often unjustly and illegally deported, but until we dealt with the pre-existing conditions of fear polluting the unfinished atmosphere of 9/11, we would not get it.  9/11 is in the way of a national future.

The right wing noise machine, never one to miss an opportunity to stir the pots of hate and fear, is proving him right.  You can’t build a mosque downtown because it desecrates memory.  The opposite is actually true, but without Fox News’s meanness-making megaphone, good luck in saying it.  The truth is that an Islamic cultural center, with a mosque inside it, could actually begin to sacralize the site.  It could begin to do what George Bush wanted to do: to take care in not confusing Al-Qaeda with Islam.

The word “dementia” comes to mind.   Dementia comes the Latin root “mens,” meaning mind.  Dementia means “de mens,” without mind, out of your mind, or madness.  Dementia means a loss of brain function, affecting memory, thinking, language, judgment, and behavior.  Thankfully, most people with dementia are relatively harmless.  Unfortunately, some people with dementia, like a now famous Florida pastor, are out of their minds in dangerous ways.  They imagine that burning a Koran in Florida might be an antidote to a New York City real estate deal.  Such madness is not abrogated by messages from generals or presidents.  Such madness doesn’t understand that the best way to cause another terrorist attack is to hate all Muslims, giving a great legitimation to those who are also demented about their own former, badly remembered injuries.

Enough has been said already on this ninth anniversary about the proper meaning of the sacred.  Not enough has been said about how we learn to remember.  Memory is so mightily contested that many of us feel like taking a bench at Miami Beach and hoping the ocean’s waves will help us remember our true name as a nation.

The text for today is a good example of memory at its deepest.  It is like the Petrin Hill sculpture, in that it puts memory in motion and allows for more than one picture of the past at the same time.  The text is mightily in the present tense, showing us that memory is always working in the present.  Nothing is ever really over or forgotten.  What did happen matters to what is happening now and what will happen in the future.  Katrina is still happening.  Now it is turning into a metaphor, that great distancing of experience so you can get out of bed in the morning.  9/11 is still happening, although right now it would be hard to find one sentence that said what 9/11 was.  Psalm 46, like most psalms and many great sculptures, has simultaneity of tense.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore, going forward, we will not fear, though—note the intrusion of the past—though the earth should change or the mountains shake into the sea.  Psalmist language is simultaneous.  For now, we won’t fear.  Even though we remember the shake-ups.  And because we won’t fear, now, we will have a future.  If we start to fear now, we get caught in the shake up and are so shaken that we can’t move forward with anything but fear.

Fear creates anger, which is a sin.  Anger is externalized, scapegoating fear.  It is sociopathic fear, fear directed in the hope that someone else can be found who is responsible for our misery.  Fear is not a sin!  It is probably a very realistic response to most situations.  We know that the mountains shake into the sea, that the foundations move, that forces beyond their control disembody people.  Anger can be a good thing.  But right now anger is being given a dangerous moral pass.  Not all anger is righteous or just.  Thomas Aquinas, writing in the fourteenth century, singled out three ways in which anger can be sinful: when we get angry too easily, when we get angrier than we should, and when we hold on to our anger longer than we should.  As writer Anne Lamott observed, hanging onto resentments is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.  Anger helps us participate in our own undoing while faking the opposite.

If we want to get better at remembering, on behalf of our future, we need to start with the fear that breeds the anger and then manage the fear and then manage the anger.  Fear is the foundation of the anger of war, and so far war has been our response to 9/11.  We have the current culture wars with their new scapegoat: Muslims.  We have Iraq.  We have Afghanistan.  Iraq emptied the national treasury so that the great economic stagnation of the moment has no resources that don’t increase the deficit, which these wars have created.  The very people who think we have insufficient money for the poor have no problem throwing money at problems abroad.  Additionally, we have the masculine hijacking of the memory of 9/11:  first responders, firemen, police, all those who deserve serious respect, are positioned against the women in the media who talk about the loss of family.  What we need is full memory, where the men who experienced loss and danger in 9/11 can become articulate and vulnerable about their own loss of family, and the women can become articulate about more than just the loss of family.  War kills our sons.  That is what a good mind knows.  War kills a mother’s sons and a father’s sons.  It also now kills our daughters.  Remember Cindy Sheehan?  She was fine talking about the loss of her son in war.  People just didn’t want her talking about defense policy.  That was outside of her range.  Proper memory of 9/11 will embrace personal loss and public loss.  It will also broach the question of more than war as public policy to stop terrorism.  Soft power and hard power need to shake hands going forward.  Right now we have multiple distortions and dementia.  We have defense policies that have failed to yield security.  Hijacking of memory is the biggest problem we face.  The hijacking of our minds is the biggest problem we face.  War kills our children.  It does not secure us.

Remembering our country’s name is the antidote.  The United States of America has a great constitution, which establishes freedom of religion.  Don’t forget that.  Remembering our own name is the antidote.  We are the people who live near the river whose streams make glad the city of God.

We are the people who find the grace in the racism of Katrina, the glimmer of hope as nations go into an uproar; we hear the still small voice of God, the refuge, the strength, the very present help in trouble.  We refuse to lose our minds or our hearts as the roar increases; instead, we hear the voice of God in the midst of dementia.  We mark the graves and tend the graveyards, down by the River’s side.

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