The following are remarks I made on Sunday, September 16, 2001, at a gathering in the plaza of the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia.
I speak in the name of God, the Creator of all, the Redeemer of all, the Sanctifier of all.
hen the nation was clamoring for revenge and retaliation for civilian American lives tragically slaughtered by the enemy, and every avenue to avert war had been exhausted, the President of the United States signed the Declaration of War. Then he put his head down on the cabinet table and wept.
The President was Woodrow Wilson. The year was 1917. And the day was Good Friday.
America entered a war that had begun with a terrorist act: an organized assassination. It was the cruelest and ghastliest of all wars this planet had ever known. You can read the Books of Remembrance in British churches and see page after page of names of young men who were slaughtered in the trenches of France. Literally a generation of the young was wiped out in the horror that ensued.
I don’t know why the President wept on that Good Friday afternoon. Did he weep for himself? Did he weep for America? Maybe it was because he knew, as he told a veteran news correspondent and editor, “Once lead this people into war, and they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance….” Or was it because he sensed the deep irony that on that very day when the Christian world was remembering the death of Jesus, he was signing the death warrant for Christ to die all over again in young doughboys who would lie beneath crosses in places like Flanders Field?
We meet today at the monument of the turning point of another great war. We meet in a town where an incredible number of young lives were wiped out in an invasion that ultimately would mean liberation from a regime of unprecedented horror and evil. America entered that war only when, on a quiet sunny morning, enemy bombs had made mincemeat of The United States fleet. President Roosevelt was outraged. The country was shocked. December 7, 1941, is still a day that lives in infamy.
Today we are faced with another momentous occasion. This time, another sneak attack. This time, an act of obscene hatred and violence carried out again against unarmed citizens. But this time, a complicated enemy hard to detect, difficult to pin down, capable of cloning its own violence hundreds of times. And an enemy convinced in righteous indignation that it has God on its side; that its acts of terror and destruction are not only justified but also holy; that its program of retaliation is compelling enough for its warriors gladly to yield their lives to fiery deaths, so right they are.
I talk today about history because human history is exactly what the Judeo-Christian tradition understands to be the sphere of God’s activity. And if we are going to speak about God, we have to look at history, God’s lesson book.
What have we learned? One lesson that we have learned is that violence breeds more violence, and terror begets more terror. We cannot play into that! If, in the best judgment of our leaders, this nation must engage in military action, no doubt the country will support them—no doubt at all. But do not be deluded into believing that that violence will not come at great cost! Far more than the lives we will lose in any one military action, the cost will spiral into an ever-broadening wildfire of hatred and revenge. Through our cries for retaliation and revenge, in so many throats this week, we need to hear and heed the words of Ghandi. He said, “If we live by the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be both blind and toothless.” Pour out instead your prayers for peace and healing as you have never done before. Envision a world wrapped in its Mother’s arms. If this dreadful attack is a wake up call, let it rouse us to double our efforts for peace: peace in our hearts, peace in our homes, peace in our nation, peace for our planet.
What have we learned? We have learned that religious intolerance and hatred, no matter of what stripe, are tools of evil. Hear me carefully. I speak in the name of the Prince of Peace. If we, individually and as a nation, turn against one another in disrespect and outright hatred, we are replicating the same bigotry and self-righteousness of the terrorists themselves. There is no difference between Islamic fanaticism and Jewish fanaticism and Christian fanaticism except the labels. All are life denying and peace shattering. God calls all people of this world into unity with God and one another. Let there be no place in this society, under attack in part because of our openness and acceptance, for finger pointing and blame laying and scapegoating. Reach out in support to Arab Americans. Join with Muslims as with all others in the family of religions and assure them of your good will. Live with courage the words of the hymn, “Who loves the Father as his child is surely kin to me.”
What have we learned? We have learned that God shows up at the least likely of times and in the worst stenches imaginable. Julia Ward Howe wrote that we have seen God in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps. Well, this week we have seen the face of God: in exhausted firefighters, in strangers reaching out to hold the grieving, in physicians and nurses and technicians aiding the wounded, in hands digging down into the rubble to clear a path for life where there is life. “Where charity and love dwell, God is truly there.” In the Persian Gulf War, when some Iraqi soldiers finally came out of their bunkers expecting to be killed by Americans, they found themselves instead washed and fed and treated humanely. That is the spirit of Christ. That is the face of God.
What we have yet to learn is that Jesus was not joking when he said, “Love your enemies.” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who persecute you, pray for those who abuse you.” That is the lesson that the world needs to hear, and that is the way to the healing that we so deeply seek.
Whatever the reason, President Wilson was right to weep, just as he was right to sign the Declaration of War. Sometimes we have to do what we most fear. But, in the end, if we are as open, as humble, as loving as we can be, then, in the long march of history the world will become as God created it to be: free, and whole.