Edward Wolff

Guest Opinion

Our sanctuaries need more than prayer

Ed Wolff

It seems difficult to believe that 20 years have passed since 9/11 occurred. None of our grandchildren have any remembrance of that fateful day. With no recollection, there is no remembering the anxiety, fear, shock, or anger resulting from the four airplanes used as weapons to attack our nation’s mainland for the first time. Because of the 20-year time line, it brought an additional significance, namely, two decades and close to a full generation.

I thank the Johnson City Press for its extensive coverage, including remarks by our nation’s leaders. It was well done. Part of what I read was that there initially was a national unity that brought our nation together. It did not last. While flags were flying from cars, congregations had special services, and sanctuaries had more people in attendance; it lasted about two months. There was another kind of unity, however. There was unity in fear and anger. That anger resulted in rage and violence.

I was asked to provide a prayer four days after 9/11 at an outdoor gathering promoted by a local radio station and led by its prime talk show host. After a prayer, offering guidance from the Divine for comfort to the families of those who died, along with careful reflection of the future direction of the nation, the focus of the event turned to revenge. My spouse and I left. (Around the same time our national leader suggested we could be patriotic by spending more money and turn our grief into anger.)

Not long after 9/11, a Sikh father was shot and killed in Mesa, Arizona, in front of his store while he was planting flowers. Balbir Singh Sodhi became the first person killed in thousands of acts of hate in the aftermath of the horror of 9/11. Later, a Sikh worship center was destroyed. Furthermore, Islam worship centers were threatened, including ours in Johnson City. Also, I know one local person whose house was shot at during the initial shock of 9/11. I could continue with more of our nation’s “unified” efforts.

In my opinion, those in leadership positions used 9/11 to benefit their own agendas, including lining their own pockets. It also has continued to fester, evolve, and grow distrust and fear until now we are a nation that is highly polarized in everything, including wearing a mask and getting vaccinated. (I just read that 1 in 500 citizens have died from COVID-19.) Where is the anger, fear, and outrage toward the enemy called coronavirus?

There are many factors that provide a basis for the antagonistic dysfunctional atmosphere that exists today throughout our nation’s culture. The first factor, from my point of view, is that our culture believes that the importance of individual rights trumps concern for the community. In fact, I hear the word, “socialism” so often when bringing up community considerations. The indigenous people knew the importance of community. If I understand correctly, all religions of the world stress the priority of community concerns over individual rights. I believe intense individualism nurtures narcissism. (We are, principally, the only species of creation that does not live for the benefit of all.)

Another factor might be called, “the majority influence.” Whether it’s the color of our skin, a governmental system, the corporate culture, a religious affiliation, or a familial group, we have a tendency to embrace values, norms, and perspectives with whom we identity and support. Laws are made, beliefs are enhanced and, now, intensified by social media, that support those actions that principally benefit being in the majority. To some extent this dynamic is understandable. If we don’t connect with “the other,” we only have our group’s values and perceptions from which we base our actions and interactions. This is ironical since we are an immigrant nation encouraging, at least in the past, people of a variety of cultures to be part of a new culture.

However, with all that I have said, I personally believe we can still develop an atmosphere of community within a healthy capitalistic society. However, it won’t be easy or simple. It will take intentionality, commitment, and sacrifice for everyone as a nation to work and live for the benefit of all.

One change for all of us is to commit ourselves to reveal the truth of our historical development. This includes the merciless use of slavery and indigenous genocide. We would continue to lift up courageous historical icons, and the leadership that has moved our nation from control by landowning white males to a greater voice for all people. “Truth” cannot be created by “winners,” but by facts and documentation. It is human research where we all learn from our successes, failures, and mistakes.

Secondly, before we were exposed to television and social media and when the front porch was a community necessity, we knew, to some degree, from our elders how to listen to others. That has all changed. We mostly listen to those who are part of “our majority.” If we are to bring our nation together, we need to develop intentional, disciplined, and committed listening. It needs to begin at the grassroots and at the local level. However, recognizing our ability to listen to “the other” will take much time. It cannot be done in mass meetings but participation in small groups. Participants must come from different backgrounds, cultures, perspectives and value systems. Participants need to have open minds.

What does the future hold for all of us? I wish I knew.

Edward Wolff is a retired minister and the current branch treasurer for the local NAACP. He lives in Jonesborough.

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