Getting Through, Not Over, 9/11

September 11, 2011

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

In case you haven’t noticed, something really big happened ten years ago close by in our neighborhood. You have already placed yourself in spatial and spiritual locations regarding these events. While enough could never be said about the 3000 children whose parents died that day (who if were infants then, would now be starting the 5th grade) or the jumpers, or the first responders in their tattered uniforms, standing, staring, breathing, trying to help, today I am going to declare a truce on words. Enough has been said. We have run out of words for the smell that seeped North. We have run out of words for the color of the sky: Wedgwood, Sienna, royal. It was a deep blue. We have run out of words for the silences that developed between people as they stumbled home together or gathered at the Hudson River to stare and carry each other into new time. Enough has been said. Today we can still remember and we may remember forward.

We don’t get over 9 /11, we get through it. Thus, with humility, I add a few thoughts. I direct your eyes to the prayer flags and the bodies that artists have so generously created allowed us to see. Take a minute.

My thoughts are three. The first is about revenge, the second about resurrection, and the third about religious space. Think of it as the three R’s of remembering forward. Revenge proved to be stupid, ineffective and immoral and expensive. Stupid: it never took us to the question of why people did this to us in the first place. Ineffective: it did stop Al-Qaeda, somewhat now a “terrorist organization that uses media to a media organization that uses terrorism,” according to Jarret Brachman, former Director of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, but it did not stop terrorism worldwide. Immoral: the ground on which terrorism rests is the consent of people to objectify and dehumanize each other. Because objectification and dehumanization continue, so will terrorism. The Norwegian terrorist said he had to “do it” to stop Moslems from taking over Europe! Expensive: we have fought foolish wars, wars, which we fantasized; we wouldn’t have to pay for and couldn’t possibly lose. These wars have bankrupted the country, materially and spiritually.

Spiritual bankruptcy is my concern. What is important is not where you were on 9/11 but where you were the night before and where you will be tonight. Did some culture or school or friend or family or disruption already teach you about revenge? That it is stupid, ineffective, immoral and expensive? Did you not already know? And if you didn’t know then, will you know tonight? What will you know on the next 9/11? Revenge, as my friend likes to put it, is like drinking rat poisoning and wondering why the rat did not die. Whatever you were doing or thinking on September 10, 2001, let it change today. On September 12, 2011, waste your heart no more on fear and violence and dehumanization. Find out why people bomb. Think it through. Find out why you paid for bombs in response. Think it through. Attend Good Friday services for bombs. Rise from their death. Every time something bad happens, like an attack, something good is contained within it. Tonight something good is going to happen. And tomorrow.

Third, reconsider religious, sacred space. Across the street from Judson Memorial Church, on the South End of Washington Square Park, a Spiritual Life Center is opening at New York University. Jews, Moslems, Christians, Sikhs and more will cohabit a space. Students will learn a new way of campus ministry. Framed between this new building and our own, which looks increasingly old fashioned in the neighborhood, rises a new tower at the World Trade Center. From the arch at Washington Square Park North, you see all three buildings, as though they were always there, as though we hadn’t lived through a decade of emptiness in the sky or immature religion on the ground. Or Americans, Afghans and Iraqis uselessly dead in wars no one really understands.

I hope you won’t mind a personal story. On Friday, I did a ridiculous thing. I punched somebody out. He was beating up his drug-addled girlfriend and he was also drug-addled. Her eyebrow was bleeding after the first encounter, and after he cursed her out, he hit her again. She followed him, after the first hit and the second hit. On the second encounter, I made a quick assessment of his stoned state and his size, and I pushed him up against the scaffolding and knocked him down. I couldn’t believe how angry I was at him or how easy the violence of my response came. When I talk about my great nation getting over its addiction to violence, I want to make sure you understand that I imagine violence is an answer too. It is not. But that doesn’t mean that drug dealers and drug dealt aren’t safe from Christian Ministers on Astor Place.

Right now the American spirit is dependent on violence, doesn’t understand sacred space and has weak resurrection muscles. Together, by building one human community after another, we can kick our habit, create sacred space and strengthen our resurrection muscles. These are the muscles that allow us to mature enough to live and die well. Rising from the dead takes a life time. There is nothing magical about it at all. Resurrection involves artists and architects, kids gone to drugs, clergy and universities, and arches and ordinary people deciding they’d rather not drink rat poison any more.

The American spirit is broken. We are like a barn bound horse, says Barry Lopez. Have you ever seen a barn bound horse? It circles and circles on itself, its energy caged, its fury building. It goes from one email to another, wondering what to do next, who to be now, how to relax, how to smile. If one quietly opens the door on that born, the horse emerges. It runs fast and silly for a while and then it calms down into something like life. I pray that leaders and people everywhere will open the barn door on the caged horse of the American spirit, on yours and on mine. Just open the door of your mind and your heart. Hear the sound of the door opening. It won’t take a war to do it. It will take an unlatching of our connection to self-destructive, contained energy. Resurrection is often much simpler than it seems.

The American spirit is also like a root bound plant. Have you ever seen one? They are often thrown out on the streets of New York City. They have stopped growing and thriving because they are out of room. Their roots are killing each other. Our nation is out of room. We are out of ideas that don’t cost us and others way too much. We take up too much space on the globe. We need to imagine ourselves as living on a globe and not between a couple of oceans. We need to replant ourselves in the world. And to do commerce and culture and worship with new land, new dirt, fresh soil, new ideas. We don’t need to dominate anything. Would someone send a memo to Thomas Friedman? America’s state of “permanent decline” (Horrors) might actually be quite wonderful. In every death, there is a birth. We don’t have to win every fight we take on, even if we are bigger and stronger, even if we are righteous in beating up a kid who beat up his girlfriend. Even if we are right in our fight, or righteous in our fight, we still need not fight. The American people need to re-earn our virtue, over and over. It is not free with the birth certificate. We can tend and befriend instead of fight and flight – and our spirits will reroot and revive. Imagine what will grow from these plants, from the energy of these free animals. Just imagine what could be if we unlatch the door on what was. Revenge is useless. Resurrection is useful. Change is good. Even death is good. We can remember forward…we can remember our way to a great future. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life. And we will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.” Not the house of America. The great, more hospitable house of the Lord. Amen

Addendum for the Web:

You should see the view from here. The balcony is filled with flowing prayer flags, the meeting room with sculpted bodies of dead women. Candles are lit. A mass choir sang on the stage. The prayer flags were hand-written by artist Carla Shapiro on pillowcases. In the year after the attack, she wrote out each obituary of a dead American on a prayer flag. She then hung them over the Esopus Creek, where they weathered into what can only be called an ancient script. Now their language is blurred, like that on an old tombstone. The language looks Arabic or Aramaic in script but words can no longer be read. Shapiro was trying to tell us something. She was visiting the 9 /11 grave. She was mourning. She was remembering. Ten years later what she remembered is that memories fade. Images blur. Time moves on. After last year’s downtown anti-Mosque campaign, courtesy of the hate people and their signs, “Jesus hates Moslems” and “No Mosque on Sacred Space”, the fading and the blurring is welcome. We will learn again that no one religion can own Jerusalem or Ground Zero or Jesus or God. We will know sacred space in a blurred obituary, a prayer flag, a neighborhood, anywhere and everywhere but in an expensive fight for it. Sacred space will be known by the wars it does not create, instead of for being their instigator.

9/11 Prayer
Leader: Why do we call it 9-11?

People: Because the earth and sky and sea and air shifted that day and we have to lock in the memory.

Leader: Is that really true?

People: It is true in the media and in the economy and in the wars.

Leader: Is it true in your heart? Did your heart shift?

People: My heart is broken open by the anger, in my country and beyond. I pray for a healing love (pause) to clear the air, open the sky, quiet the sea and reorder the earth.

Unison Prayer:

Replace our rigid remembrances of one day with a restored humanity, one made whole by the remembrance of terrible suffering and the hope for a full return of joy. Let us get over, under, around and through 9-11.

Hear us and see us (motion of hands to open door) as we open a door on a new time, a new earth, a new sea, a new sky, and a new air.

Remove the terror from the elements and let our broken open hearts waste themselves no more on fear.



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