Though I have taught in the Religion Department at the University of South Carolina Upstate as an adjunct professor for the past several years, this fall is the first time I am teaching the introductory level course, Comparative Religion. In the opening lecture I made it clear to the students that we will approach the study of world religions with respect for all people regardless of their faith orientation. This is a necessary prerequisite if the journey is to lead beyond tolerance to a genuine understanding of faiths other than our own. In my opinion, this approach is a much needed corrective to our current national mindset.
Perhaps never before in my lifetime has there been a more intense atmosphere of doubt and suspicion in our nation. After the atrocities of Adolph Hitler’s Germany, many Americans were guarded in our encounters with people of German heritage, even our fellow citizens. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many Americans became suspicious of people of Japanese origin. The Cold War kept us on edge in our dealings with those of Russian descent.
Yet how deprived we would be without the musical compositions of Germans Telemann, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Think of our poverty without the music of Russians Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky or the writings of their countrymen Tolstoy, Nabokov, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky. The art and culture of Japan has long enriched American life. While we have had legitimate reason to regard the governments certain countries at certain times as enemies, we have also found among those same people individuals who have made our lives better.
On the anniversary of 9/11 Americans will pause to remember the day when the twin towers fell in New York City, the Pentagon burned in Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania became a charred grave. It is impossible to erase the mental images of the destruction of these important landmarks. Even more difficult is our overwhelming sense of loss and grief even after these years.
In worship services and symphony concerts, at baseball games and football games, at community events and candlelight vigils, we will remember. The violent acts of al-Qaeda terrorists that turned our commercial jet planes into instruments of war changed our lives forever.
But, this was not just an attack against America.
The 2,977 victims who died that day were not only Americans. The World Trade Center brought together people from all over the globe. More than ninety countries lost citizens in the Twin Towers alone. This horror was unleashed not only against America. It was also against the world.
We remember not only those who died, but also the more than 6,000 who were treated for non-fatal injuries. We remember the spouses and children of the victims, the parents, the siblings, and the friends who, even now, fourteen years later, continue to grieve.
We remember the heroic men and women who worked to save, rescue, recover, nurse, feed, and console the victims. Some gave their lives in the effort, becoming victims themselves. Many others have since become causalities of war, protecting and defending our national interest.
Like most of you, I remember that day well. I was driving to Morningside Baptist Church on the morning of September 11, 2001, when my wife, Clare, called me on my cell phone. “You need to turn on a television when you get to the church,” she said.
I telephoned the church office. The staff already had a TV on in the office.
When I arrived a crowd had gathered. We all watched in dismay as the second jet plane struck the second tower of the World Trade Center.
The events of that day were confusing and confounding. President Bush was reading to a group of children in Florida when he received the news of the devastation. I, along with many other Americans, will never forget the expression on his face.
I had been asked to open the luncheon meeting of a civic club later that day with a devotion and a prayer. As I considered what to say to that distinguished group of community leaders, a hymn kept coming to mind. My devotion was brief. My prayer included some of the words of a favorite hymn by Martin Luther:
Though this world, with evil filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure….
The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.
Hatred is the motive behind terrorism. Terrorism evokes fear. Fear is the root of prejudice. Prejudice creates adversaries. An adversarial relationship promotes hatred. This vicious cycle must be broken. Otherwise, we become like the terrorists; and they will have defeated us.
A few days after September 11, 2001, Clare and I drove to Greenville. We had seen reports that indicated that Americans were reacting with hostility toward Muslim citizens of this country as well as people who looked like Muslims. Non-Muslim men who wore turbans, like the Sikhs, were victims of violence. Palestinians, even those who were American citizens, had come under suspicion and even under attack. About one third of all Palestinians are Christians and make up the majority of Palestinian refugees. Many have come to America and have become citizens.
Clare and I have often enjoyed eating at the Pita House in Greenville. The restaurant, owned and operated by a Palestinian family, serves sumptuous Middle Eastern food. We wanted to visit them and let them know of our support. When we arrived, the establishment was decked out with American flags. I spoke with the brothers who are the owners. They felt the same horror and grief that other Americans felt. Yet they feared that they might be targeted by those who had become so suspicious and fearful.
Those who died on 9/11 will help us remember an important truth. No one lives, suffers, or dies in vain. Even as we remain vigilant in a world of terror, such acts of hatred will not defeat us. Love is the greatest power in the world. We cannot allow terror to lead us to suspicion and hatred. Our best response to the atrocities of 9/11 is to become more loving toward all people. It is the only way to conquer fear and hate within the human soul.
The words of a prayer by South African Bishop Desmond Tutu ring true:
Good is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours, through Him who loves us.