If you’re over the age of 15, you almost certainly remember where you were the day the towers fell, the pentagon was attacked, and a plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. The largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil will never pass from our memories. We recall the huge hole in the pentagon, the complete destruction and months of subsequent work at ground zero, the burning wreckage of an airplane.
As we approach the 10th anniversary of that day, the enormous piles of rubbish have long since been carried away, but the psychological remnants linger. That is the purpose of terror. It is terrifying.
Our sense of security was forever altered. As a country we have found more and more things to be afraid of, and our fears have led us down interesting paths.
Maybe some of that is good. We’re less naïve about real dangers, and perhaps we can better identify with parts of the world where car bombs in the marketplace are nearly daily events. But I also worry that we’ve become so afraid of the “other” that we have lost the ability to judge what things are real threats.
Fear can help us stay safe by avoiding danger. Fear can also allow us to elevate our prejudices and preconceived notions about whole groups of people to the ranks of those to be avoided, disliked, shunned, or hated.
Like most human problems, this isn’t a new one.
This is from the lectionary for the week, a note from Paul to the church at Rome:
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. From Romans 14
In the community of the ancient Roman Christians, the faithful struggled with each other’s beliefs—even regarding whether some days were holier than others, or whether some foods were more acceptable than others. It wasn’t just a difference of opinion; it was a test of faithfulness and holiness. They were “passing judgment” and “despising” each other. No doubt these things were made worse because the church in Rome was under stress, attacked because of what its members believed. A minority religion, Christians sometimes lost their jobs, were estranged from families, were vilified by neighbors, or worse.
They were, understandably, fearful. And they took out their fears on the people around them.
Fear is not a new emotion.
We are still recovering from 9/11. In some ways, those of us who remember it will never be completely out from under its shadow. We have seen the worst of how human beings can terrorize each other, wrongly accuse, be harmed and harm others.
On the other hand, we have seen the best of how people can reach out in times of trouble, show hospitality, and step gently but firmly across the taboo spaces between religions, cultures, races and issues that divide us in order to heal those divisions.
The things that frighten us can turn us into fearful people, always looking over our shoulders and mistrusting anyone who is different. Or they can make us determined (even if cautious) to overcome what terrorists intend. If we open our postures to receive the stranger, open our hands to share, open our hearts to risk knowing and loving the other, open our minds to hear new ideas, we can create the greatest counterterrorism strategy known.
We can slowly sort out the rubbish of our fears, and together build shelters of peace.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2011