On Terror

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Mourners in Beirut following the November 12th terrorist attack. Credit: Hasan Shaaban/Reuters

Mourners in Beirut following the November 12th terrorist attack. Credit: Hasan Shaaban/Reuters

In light of the Paris terrorist attacks Friday night and the Beirut terrorist attacks on Thursday, I made the decision yesterday morning to bring a different sermon than the one I had planned to preach. This would have been a forgone conclusion had the attacks happened on American soil. They happened far away—Paris is 3,500 miles from here, Beirut is 5,500 miles. I wondered, could we just light a candle and have a moment of silence? That might have been sufficient if the sermon I had planned to preach would have offered some words of comfort, hope and peace—which is precisely the message I imagined I would want this morning if I were sitting where you are. But the sermon I had planned to preach wasn’t going to do that. I knew I couldn’t stand here and preach it to you without feeling a profound disconnect between my words and world events.

I feel grief. I feel a need to mourn. I am angry. I am frightened. I am confused. I suspect many of you feel similarly. With these feelings at heart, I want to offer a three reflections in response to these terrorist attacks. I hope they will bring comfort, peace and hope to you. I hope they will suggest ways to understand some of the reasons why attacks like these are happening and what they mean. And that I hope they will offer some preliminary ideas for how we as residents and citizens of the United States can best respond.

Grounding

I begin where I always begin in the wake of tragedy: find what grounds you.

It is unfortunate, but we know this first step. We knew it after the Newtown shooting. We knew it after the Boston Marathon bombing. We knew it after the death of our former music director, Pawel Jura. I say unfortunate because over the past fifteen years acts of terror have become not just familiar but highly regular: remember 9/11; remember, around that same time, the suicide bombings of the second Palestinian Intifada (2000-2005); remember the Madrid train bombing (2004), the London underground bombing (2005), the Mumbai attacks (2008), the Norway mass shooting (2011), the Boston Marathon Bombing (2013), the Nairobi Westgate mall attack (2013), the Chibok, Nigeria school girl kidnappings. Remember countless suicide bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria throughout this era. Remember just this year the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, the Kenya University attack, the Tunisia beach attack, the October attack in Turkey that killed 128, the recent Jerusalem attacks. Thursday’s attack in Beirut killed 43, and now Paris again: multiple, coordinated attacks with assault rifles and suicide bombers at a concert hall, a soccer stadium, restaurants; 129 dead, hundreds injured. And following the Paris attacks will come the inevitable and highly under-reported nationalist and white supremacist attacks on Muslim communities throughout Europe and elsewhere, attacks that follow whenever organizations like ISIS commit atrocities in Europe. I won’t begin to add to this list the reality of so many people across the planet, including in the United States, who experience police and military actions as state-sponsored terror. That feels like a different sermon, but it isn’t. The bottom-line is, terrorism works. It makes people afraid. How can it not? Even across an ocean, in the relative safety of the United States, it is frightening. It calls forth those unbidden, stressful questions from our unconscious, ‘am I safe?’ ‘could it happen here?’ ‘Am I prepared?’ For those who are familiar with France and with Paris in particular—those who’ve travelled there, those who’ve lived there, those who have friends and family there—those who might have been there—it is frightening. For those of you who have connections to Beirut and Lebanon, it is frightening. If such large attacks could happen in two cities that are in a perpetual state of heightened alert and vigilance, then they can certainly happen in other cities. They already have. It is frightening.

In order not to be overcome with fear, with anxiety, with despair; in order not to become triggered or wounded; in order not to become numb or desensitized by the images and the media coverage, the Facebook posts and the tweets, find what grounds you. Yesterday, even though I knew I wanted to prepare an entirely different sermon, I made a commitment to not let that work get in the way of the plans I had made with my family. I made breakfast. I took Mason to his archery class. I made lunch. I took Max to his basketball practice. All of us attended the Manchester Art Association Art Auction. We were home at night. We ate dinner together. We watched TV together, which is one of our weekend rituals. Sticking to the plan, engaging in mundane family activities, was grounding for me.

I know it may seem selfish and insensitive to focus on ourselves in the wake of someone else’s tragedy. I understand that, but I don’t think it is. Finding our grounding makes it possible for us to manage the emotions that terrorism generates. Finding our grounding enables us to better understand what has happened, to help if and where possible, and to work toward that goal articulated in our sixth Unitarian Universalist principle: “world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” Ungrounded people cannot do any of this well.

Even if you are one for whom this tragedy feels far away, don’t underestimate the power of these events and so many like them to take a toll on your spiritual and emotional well-being. Don’t underestimate their power to unground you. As I have advised on far too many occasions: start with breathing. Breathe deeply, slowly, fully. Fill your lungs with air and remind yourself it comes from green plants and algae. Remind yourself this air you breathe is evidence of your connection to the whole of life. Not separation, but connection.  Breathe in, and as you breathe, relax, be still, be quiet, be calm. Breathe in, and as you breathe, reach for peace, reach for hope, reach for love. Then, still breathing, when you feel ready, start to move. Move slowly at first, gently at first: bend, bow, stretch, lengthen, extend, reach. Keep breathing. If you can, go outside. Touch the ground, the soil, the earth—the beautiful, dark brown earth. Work in the dark, brown earth. Play in the dark, brown earth. Let the dirt get on your hands, under your fingernails, between your toes. Feel yourself coming back to life. Listen for the still small voice. Hear your own truths, your convictions emerging once again. Then, in time, as you feel ready, create. Creative acts are so essential to moving out of fear and finding our ground: write, compose, sing, speak, act, sculpt, carve, craft, paint, draw. Feel yourself slowly coming back to yourself.[1]

A Ruthless Response

French President François Hollande says the French response will be ruthless. President Obama says the United States stands shoulder to shoulder with France. I confess there is a part of me—a small part, but I won’t deny it is there—that wants a ruthless response, that wants to bomb the perpetrators mercilessly out of existence no matter the consequences. They cannot be allowed to perpetuate this kind of terrorism on the rest of the world. There is nothing that can justify this kind of indiscriminate mass murder of innocent people. Nothing.

This is the part of me that is angry and frightened, but also the part of me that believe it is being pragmatic. A year ago, as the United States-led bombing campaign against ISIS was beginning, I said to you that despite my objection to United States war-making, and despite taking to heart  Dr. King’s warning that ‘returning violence for violence multiplies violence,’[2] I nevertheless have “come to the heart-wrenching conclusion that we cannot abandon the millions of people who live in Iraq and Syria to [the] barbarous tyranny[we are witnessing in that region; and] that there is no solution other than to meet these atrocities not only with every available economic and diplomatic tool, but with resounding military force.” I said “I can barely imagine myself saying such a thing; but a chaotic, relentless, brutal and unfeeling spirit drives the Islamic State. I know of no word to name it other than evil.”[3] The Beirut and Paris attacks, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, are simply more evidence of this evil.

I am sure there will be a ruthless response. And even if a massive, global antiwar movement rose up and said, ‘stop, no more violence, find another way!’ I am fairly confident the response would still be ruthless. It is certainly an understandable response, and it may be the most pragmatic response possible, given that ISIS shows no interest in leaving the battlefield and is, in fact, extending the battlefield. Then again, maybe a ruthless response is not so pragmatic. I note that ISIS claims Friday’s attack was carried out in retaliation for the French bombing of ISIS in Syria, which immediately informs me that returning violence for violence really does multiply violence. And as much as that small part of me is OK with this multiplication because ISIS must be stopped, a much larger part of me actually says, ‘no more violence, find another way.’ Something must give. Some intervention in the cycle of violence must be brought forth. Of course these words sound naïve to that small part of me that wants a ruthless response, that small part of me that believes it is being pragmatic. But to that larger part of me that longs for a more measured, more peaceful, more hopeful response—to that larger part of me that longs for an expansive moral imagination that can see well beyond ruthlessness—it is naïve to think military solutions can remove the threat of terrorism. Violence has only increased the threat. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence. I understand the need for a ruthless response. And I hold out little hope for its long-term success. Somehow, the cycle of violence must be interrupted.

Embrace the Young Dispossessed

When Imam Kashif Abdul-Kareem of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford spoke from this pulpit a few years ago, he said in the talk-back after his sermon that he felt a significant percentage of Muslims globally are being mis-educated  about their faith. He didn’t speak too specifically about what this meant, but he did suggest that many young people were being educated to hate. I suspect the same is true in many countries, in many religions: people—especially young people—are being educated to hate.

I read to you earlier from Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel, the founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core. Patel talks about the faith line, meaning the line between religious totalitarians and religious pluralists, a line that cuts through virtually all major faith traditions. Writing in 2010, he says “we live in an era where the populations of the most religiously volatile area of the world are strikingly young. Seventy-five percent of India’s one billion plus are not yet twenty-five. Eight five percent of the people who live in the Palestinian territories are under age thirty-three. More than two-thirds of the people of Iran are under age thirty. The median age in Iraq is nineteen and a half. All of these people are standing on the faith line. Whose message are they hearing?”[4]

I have two responses to that question. First, while I do not know to what extent young people in these and other countries are hearing the message of the religious pluralists, I am confident the vast majority are not succumbing to the message of religious totalitarianism. Most people who live in these regions don’t become terrorists. Unfortunately, in the wake of terrorist attacks, some politicians, journalists, bloggers and other commentators, especially those with nationalist and racist leanings, become shrill and unskillful in their pronouncements about the perpetrators. One can get the impression, for example, that all Muslims are terrorists. We know this isn’t true. We know Islam as it is most widely practiced is a religion of peace. Our country has a legacy of White supremacist Christian terrorism, yet we know most Christians aren’t terrorists. We know Christianity as it is most widely practiced is a religion of peace.

Second, having said that, many young people across the globe, including in the United States, are becoming increasingly dispossessed. That is, due to poverty, war, modern forms of colonialism, racism and climate change, among many other ills, many people, especially young people, feel hopeless. They feel left out of whatever engines of prosperity exist in their nations, left out of the common good—the concept doesn’t apply to them. They feel abandoned, forgotten, unheard, landless, removed, imprisoned, walled off, barred out, humiliated, dehumanized. Dispossession is a physical, material condition—as in possessing no things, no money, no land—and a spiritual and psychological condition—as in possessing no hope, no sense of self, no sense of a future. The tip of the iceberg is the nearly 60 million people today living as refugees from war, economic collapse and environmental catastrophe. Hundreds of millions more are internally displaced and impoverished. And now we’re beginning to hear more and more about the phenomenon of stateless people. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates there are 10 million stateless people. Statelessness is hyper-dispossession.

I suspect there is a certain percentage of the dispossessed who are susceptible to the message of religious and other forms of totalitarianism. Just like there is a small subset of urban youth in the U.S. who find meaning and empowerment in gangs, there is a small subset of the dispossessed who find meaning and empowerment in totalitarian ideologies and organizations. After a period of involvement with these ideologies and organizations, after a period of mis-education, an even smaller sub-set becomes quite willing to lose their lives in acts of terror.

Yes, I want to discern some way to help ease suffering in Paris. And yes, I want to discern some way to help ease suffering in Beirut. I hope the way will become clear in the coming weeks. But it can’t stop there. There is suffering in Ankara, Jerusalem, Gaza, Nairobi, Chibok, Kandahar and Baghdad, not to mention Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, Cleveland, Hartford, and Manchester. Mindful that terrorism in all its forms impacts so many people across the planet, and mindful that terrorism is a symptom of complex social, political and economic realities, I also recognize that responding to suffering in the aftermath of terrorism will never be enough—and will not always even be feasible. I want to discern how I, how we as a faith community, and how we as a nation, address the root causes of terrorism, one of which is dispossession. I take Eboo Patel’s message to heart. Whatever we can do to advance the message, vision and structures of religious pluralism, here and across the globe, we must do. Much more than a ruthless response, we need to promote viable alternatives to religious totalitarianism. Much more than violence and militarism, we need organizing here and across the planet that replaces dispossession with opportunity, that replaces greed with generosity, scarcity with abundance and inequality with peace, liberty and justice.

Of course, these are easy words to say, hard work to do. If nothing else, remember the dispossessed are everywhere. If nothing else, find some way to work with young people, to support them, to give them some sense of possession—so that they possess themselves, their neighborhoods, their communities, and their future. Indeed, no terrorist ideology can claim the allegiance of people who possess themselves and their own future.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Adapted from Pawelek, Josh, “What Does the World Require of You?” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East on December 16, 2012. See: http://uuse.org/what-does-the-world-require-of-us/#.VkfXznarTrc.

[2] King,Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 62.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “If We Must Go to War,” In “Four Reflections on Atonement,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East on October 15, 2014. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/four-reflections-on-atonement/.

[4] Patel, Eboo, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim and the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010) p. xv.