9/11 and Small Memories: The Text in My Wallet

Cambridge, MA.The following has been written for posting on a 9/11 remembrance board at Harvard Divinity School:

At Christmas, 2000, I preached on the version of the birth of Jesus we find in the holy Qur’an:


“[The new-born baby] said, ‘Lo, I am God’s servant; God has given me the Book, and made me a Prophet. Blessed He has made me, wherever I may be; and He has enjoined me to pray, and to give the alms, so long as I live, and likewise to cherish my mother; He has not make me arrogant, unprosperous. Peace be upon me, the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I am raised up alive!' That is Jesus, son of Mary, in word of truth, concerning which they are doubting. It is not for God to take a son unto Him. Glory be to Him! When He decrees a thing, he but says to it 'Be,' and it is. Surely God is my Lord, and your Lord; so serve you Him. This is a straight path.” (from “Miriam,” Sura 19 of the Qur’an; Arberry translation)

I do not remember my homily now — I never write them down — but aside from seeking a fresh perspective for yet another Christmas homily, I was working with the conviction that we can and should, without fear, view the truths of our faith through other eyes, including this Qur’anic passage that seems to reject the idea that Jesus is in a unique way God’s divine son. The vulnerability of the Word made flesh includes the fact that this Word, now voiced as small and human, will be read differently by different people, sometimes in ways we would never do.

That I did gave this homily before and not after 9/11/2001 was a nice thing, but it was no great accomplishment on my part. Sensitivity to interreligious possibilities is, after all, part of my job. Readers of this blog know that I have not been much involved in Muslim-Christian dialogue — it is important, but I leave it to others. I do not pretend to have been a significant contributor to Christian-Muslim understanding after 9/11.

But my homily had an afterlife, after 9/11 struck. I had stuck the photocopy of the text in my wallet, to have ready in church lest I forget the words during my homily. After the holidays, the paper lingered in a side pocket of my wallet, mostly forgotten. After 9/11, however, I remembered the text, and have more intentionally decided to keep it there, and so it has remained these past ten years. It has been a reminder and a pledge. 

The text sticks in my consciousness, prods it too. That the Qur’an does not take Jesus to be the Son of God is decidedly a point that does not fit my faith; it has been a prod, a challenge to me. After 9/11, when there was both a great danger to religious harmony and an opportunity for deeper understanding, but facile positive and negative comments — we are radically opposed, we all believe the same thing — are of little help. So it seemed to me wise to keep this reminder nearby: Jesus revered, but understood in a way quite divergent from my Christian faith. Yet I need not close my mind or ears to what I would not say myself.

No everyone agrees that smaller or larger efforts to understand and bridge the gaps are appropriate. When I was in India a few weeks ago and lectured in various places on the importance of interreligious learning today, one objection was that so many people are closed-minded, resentful of the religious other, and quite against learning interreligiously: so why waste our time with a learning that changes nothing and no one appreciates, when it is more prudent to dig in and defend our own in its purity?

Yes, there is a temptation to misunderstand and, just as bad, to refuse to try to understand; many people do not learn interreligiously as they should. But if so, there is all the more need that some of us insist on understanding, learning and meditating across religious boundaries, even when what religious people actually say is difficult and fraught with problems, in a process that remains devoid of tidy conclusions and comforting theological conclusions about how Christians and Muslims understand Jesus. Insisting on bridging differences is all the more important after violence, after clashing interpretations, even if we fall short of sure expertise. I say this to my fellow Christians, but I have said it to Hindus many times, and would say it to Musims too: listen to the other, learn from the other, close no doors simply because others speak of God in ways you do not.

9/11 was a rupture, a violent break we still feel. We need to remember the day in the small details of then, and of our ongoing lives, and not just by large public events. We need to remind ourselves in our own small ways. Holding onto this tattered paper has become a tiny vehicle for me of not forgetting or concealing. Once or twice I have shown the paper to a Muslim friend; the concreteness of having this tattered note in my possession all the time can make an impression, at least indicating that I have kept faith by a small and ordinary, concrete remembrance - a small piece of paper marking a commitment not to erase an inconveniently different view of Jesus, no matter how many anniversaries pass.


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7 years 4 months ago
I agree with you David, so wholeheartedly.   Once we meet people as  people and develop a relationship, a friendship even,  then we can begin to open up and share our deepest thoughts, feelings, beliefs and whatever else we hold so dearly.   I believe accepting our humanity enables us to see and experience the humanity of others.  It begins with a simple acknowledgement of the others' presence, through eye contact or a simple smile.


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