Undimmed by Human Tears: The Verse for 9/11/02

By Arthur Waskow*

This September 11, we can once more pour out our tears upon the blood of our dead — and yet learn nothing, grow nowhere.

Or we can reflect upon what happened, assess our own responsibility for creating the conditions in which terrorism festered, and learn how to prevent the deaths of others. We can grow to new dignity and wisdom as a society.

Sixty years ago, in the midst of World War II, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — not yet honored for his theology of "God in Search of Man," not yet famous for marching alongside Martin Luther King and saying that "I felt my legs were praying" — wrote an essay called "The Meaning of This War."

He knew that his family in Poland had been murdered, that at least a million other Jews had already been murdered with them, that millions of Poles, Russians, French, Dutch, Italians, Germans, Britons had already died as victims of the war unleashed by Nazism, and that millions more would. He mourned the dead, he cried out against their killers.

Yet he did not merely mourn, or merely denounce. He reflected. He asked, "Who is responsible ... that the war has soaked the earth in blood?"

And he answered:

"Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.... Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed? ...We failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war."

And he added, "Tanks and planes cannot redeem humanity. ... The killing of snakes will save us for the moment but not forever."

If Heschel could write in this way in 1942, what would it mean for an American to think this way in 2002?

As we live through September, let us gather in our churches, mosques, and synagogues, in our PTA's and union halls and Rotaries, and in town meetings, to ask ourselves:

a) In the wake of 9/11, why did we constrict our outpouring of compassion to the boundaries "from sea to shining sea?" As we gather to mourn, should we recite not only the names of those who died on 9/11 but the names of those dying of AIDS in Africa because American drug companies refused to dilute their profits; those dying in Latin America because American companies have won control of their water and are pricing it so high as to force the poor to drink polluted poison; those dying of floods in Europe and China because American oil companies are scorching the air with CO2? As we gather, can we share the stories of sorrow and of courage that come from those victims on the other shores of shining seas?

b) Knowing that our CIA helped arm and train Al Qaeda, precisely because its fanaticism promised greater intensity in the struggle to rid Afghanistan of Soviet forces, how do we view the Bush Doctrine, "Whoever harbors a terrorist is a terrorist?" What has been our responsibility in flooding the world with weapons? In opposing efforts to weave threads — like the International Criminal Court — of an international fabric that could punish terrorists without warring against helpless civilians?

c) In each of the great traditions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, some elements sprout a tribal triumphalism that calls forth violence, and others teach how the particular community can call forth universalist compassion. Can the faith-filled American public embody religious nonviolence instead of "crusades" — religious murder?

d) Can we uplift the role of reflection in society, of pausing not just as individuals but as a community, in a rhythm of life that includes but is not solely about rushing ahead to Do and to Make? Must we obey leaders who are rushing headlong into another war, or can we pause to pray and meditate and talk together, to learn more deeply about Iraq and Islam and oil and water and the law of nations, and perhaps through reflection find responses to danger that do not breed even greater danger?

"America the Beautiful," which we sang with such deep-heartedness a year ago, ends with a verse we rarely read: ":O beautiful for patriots' dream/ that sees beyond the years/ Thine alabaster cities gleam/ undimmed by human tears...." Our cities do not yet gleam, nor the cities of Colombia or Iraq, Afghanistan or Zambia, Palestine or Israel, Can we become the patriots who dream and see beyond this year, to build such cities everywhere?

The song ends, "Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law." One year later, that is the verse we need.

*Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center [www.theshalomcenter.org], author of Godwrestling — Round 2, and co-author of A Time for Every Purpose.