© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, 9-11-11
On a beautiful New York city Tuesday morning, exactly ten years ago today, with a bright sun rising in a crisp and vibrant blue sky, all of America was shaken to its core. As most of us watched transfixed at television images of death and destruction at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we felt many of the usual emotions of trauma – fear, denial, shock and anger. But what most Americans experienced that morning could not compare with that of the victims, rescuers and care-givers.
Edgar Emery was one such person. Working on the 97th floor of the South World Trade Center Tower, he saw and heard the first airplane hit the North Tower. Soon, the space between the two towers was filled with smoke and thousands of papers. He saw desperate people hanging out of flame filled windows and some who jumped to their deaths. Immediately, he gathered together the five women in his team and led them down to a skylobby where the women took an elevator to the ground and to safety. Ed returned to help lead more out, even though the South Tower had yet to be hit.
As he got back to his office, he heard a loud explosion and felt the building sway. The lights flickered and almost immediately he saw black smoke. He called his wife. She could hear people screaming in the background. Ed took time to calm them, asking them to stay with him and he would lead them down.
He led a second group down the stairwell to a point below where the plane had hit. As he encouraged them downward, the group pleaded with Ed to continue with them. He said no. He was going back up to lead more down.
Ed’s wife says this was not Ed’s job to do. He was not a designated fire marshall – as some employees were. He worked in human resources. He had no training in evacuation. But that is what he did anyway – saving at least fifteen people.
After his second return to his office, he again called his wife. She could hear even more panic in the background. A colleague of Ed’s, who was crying loudly, had joined him. Ed reported that smoke was very heavy and he had difficulty breathing. The heat was intense. After trying to reach the stairwell a third time to go down with another group, he found it blocked. There was too much fire and smoke. He and his group retreated back to a conference room.
His wife reported that in the last minutes of his call, Ed told her that she and his girls meant the world to him. And then he proceeded to remind her of his life insurance policy and all of the company contracts and bonuses to which he was entitled. As Ed’s wife said, he was not concerned about himself. He whimpered once as he talked about his love for her, but then he got strong again. He was trying to calm a frightened colleague, saying firemen would get them out, when the phone line went dead. Ed’s wife then saw on TV the south tower collapsing.
Payton Wall was only four years old on that September morning. But she remembers seeing her mom sobbing on the phone as she talked to Payton’s dad, trapped in one of the World Trade Center Towers. Cited in President Obama’s recent speech at ground zero, Payton recalls the last words her dad said to her on the phone, one’s she will never forget: “I love you Payton, and I will always be watching over you.”
Each of us has heard many stories about heroes of 9/11. Firemen and policemen who rushed upwards into a fiery building, never to return. Unsung persons like Ed Emery who led others to safety but died themselves. Unknown persons who soothed and prayed with those trapped on upper floors or those on one of the ill fated airplanes. We know about those who likely foiled another airplane from crashing into Washington DC. And we are daily reminded of the thousands who have died or been grievously wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan – wars fought in reaction to 9/11. Such terrible human loss and misery as a result of that attack.
On this anniversary of that day ten years ago, it is right to remember. More importantly, we might ask ourselves: how can we harness the spiritual energy of those deceased ones now looking down on us? – energy that elevates us and calls us to be our better selves? In that spirit of September 11th sacrifice, commitment and undying love, non-violence is a principle we must continue to revive and renew. We can find again that national embrace of comfort and unity we experienced after the attack. Violence, anger, and hatred must not be permitted to win in our midst. We must not forget the examples of great peacemakers in history: Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. Violence is a cancer that has corroded our very souls. Out of the pain of September 11th, we have become an angry, divided and violent nation – in our actions and in our speech towards perceived enemies and, most worrisome of all, towards each other – fellow Americans.
In this series on revival which began last week, I hope today to pursue a revival of what is decent and loving in our nation and in us. While this day, of all days, is a good one to remember, that is not our goal. To remember victims of horrific violence does no good if we ourselves are not committed to non-violence. And for our purposes today, I seek revival in a national spirit of respect and civility in our speech. Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, recently initiated a campaign for national civility and problem solving saying, “It is time to put citizenship above partisanship.” While many of us may renounce physical violence, too often we engage in violent communication – spewing hate filled, accusatory and judgmental words about our opponents.
It seems we’ve become trapped in feeling the emotions of fear, anger and revenge. We as a nation are retreating into factions, political parties, groups and ethnic identities that separate and pull us apart. As a nation and as a people, we are more polarized than ever.
To now be lovingly honest with ourselves, I believe we are just as guilty. And I am often at the front of that line. As spiritual people, we can engage in speech and actions that divide us more than unite us with our so called political and religious opponents. We can speak in ways that convey an “us versus them” attitude – demeaning those with whom we strongly disagree. In the passion of our beliefs, we fall prey to the mind-set that we as progressives are enlightened and others are not.
While I identify as a progressive – both politically and spiritually – I often fail to stop, listen, understand and have compassion for the beliefs of those with whom I disagree – be it Sarah Palin, Governor Rick Perry, or the Tea Party. I engage in judgement of them and their ideas. I find myself, sadly, to be a part of our larger national problem of disunity and lack of cooperation.
In politics and religion, I see name-calling, open hostility, entrenched thinking and nasty, brutish words. Whether it be from Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow, John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi, Pat Robertson or John Shelby Spong, the same is often true. Where are the words of peace, reconciliation, cooperation, and understanding in my dialogue, in yours, and in those of pundits, religious figures and national leaders? It seems we are very close to what results when two sides engage in a shouting match. Listening ceases. There is no effort to understand the other side. Opinions become solidified and not open to change. Possibilities for solution and compromise are sharply reduced. Anarchy and confusion follow. The recent efforts to raise our national debt ceiling are a case in point.
Proponents of non-violent communication encourage having compassion as the primary motivation for how we speak to one another – especially to opponents. Instead of reacting from thoughts of fear, anger, blame, coercion or justification, non-violent communication invites people to engage in a dialogue of listening, understanding, and respect.
Procedurally, the Center for Non-Violent Communication recommends a four part process for dialogue or negotiation. First, we state our observations of facts. This does not involve analysis or judgement of the actions or thoughts of others. Simply observing and stating facts at the outset of any discussion encourages thinking. If we resort to a judgement of facts, we initiate a counter-productive emotional response. Second, we then communicate our feelings about what we have observed. Statements of feelings cannot be debated. Nobody can dispute them – we feel what we feel. Third, we then express our needs. This encourages empathy and understanding. Our opponent is invited to hear our heart desires. Finally, we communicate requests but never demands. This conveys respect of the opponent or listener. He or she is invited to help us meet our needs.
As an example of how this communication style might work, and it can be adapted to any discussion or negotiation, we could factually observe, for instance, that recent state budget cuts to inner city health clinics have reduced the number of places the poor can find care. Next, we would express the feeling that we are sad and frustrated in behalf of poor people who struggle to find care. Then we would express our need to know everyone has easy access to affordable health care. Finally, we make our request that the state help in providing the poor with health clinics.
Our opponents, using the same method, might observe the fact that there are places like University Hospital where the poor can still receive subsidized health care. He or she might express the feeling of being fearful and worried about tax burdens and budget deficits that result from high spending on things like health clinics. He or she then communicates a need to feel secure that the future economy will not be constrained by large debts. Finally, he or she can make a request that spending cuts be found to avoid future debt.
As in this example, our needs and requests will often seem opposed to those of others. But with non-violent communication, we can establish the basis for sound, reasonable and fair cooperation – or for creative thinking that stimulates solutions where both sides are happy. If we truly work to hear and understand the feelings and needs of the other side, we are better able to empathize with them and thus problem solve. We may not meet their full request, nor will they meet our full request, but the foundations for reconciliation are laid. Instead of anarchy, issues get resolved. Perhaps, in the above example, creative people could determine ways to provide greater access to health care for the poor, at lower costs. Instead of a zero-sum outcome that results from confrontation, a win-win solution might be found, or at least a compromise that prevents either side from losing.
If we use this process of non-violent communication, it may not be employed by our opponents. They may remain stuck in angry and violent confrontation. But that should NOT prevent us from engaging in peaceful speech that intentionally works to diminish conflict. In almost every case, those who are non-violent end up prevailing in the long term. As Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, non-violence does not create new tension. It merely brings to the surface the tension that was previously hidden. And by bringing such tension into the light of day, solutions are found. This approach can be used to revive our inter-personal communication with loved ones, friends and co-workers. Indeed, it was Gandhi who said he first learned his ideas for non-violence from within his marriage.
For our purpose today, the spiritual lessons from September 11th are still waiting to be learned by our nation and, indeed, by ourselves. On a day when people sacrificed their lives for total strangers, when the impulses of compassion, unity and caring swept across our nation, why have we descended back into hatred and disunity? Have we not bought into the violence that was perpetrated against us on that day? If those victims are indeed watching over us now, can our nation learn from them and their actions that day?
I daresay that I do not in any way agree with Islamic fundamentalism or any other religious extremism either. But I must understand and empathize with their underlying motivations – that of fear, disconnection, feelings of exploitation, disrespect and lack of opportunity. In the same way, our feelings of anger, hurt and fear at attacks on us are equally understandable. Can we open a dialogue not just with moderate Muslims but with fundamentalists too?
In the same way, might we find national revival in how we communicate to – and about one another? Can we be civil to one another? Can we honestly share our observations, feelings and needs, between conservatives and liberals, Tea Party members and progressives, and arrive at outcomes that help solve our great national problems? As the Dalai Lama recently noted, “Non-violence means dialogue, using our language, the human language. Dialogue means compromise – respecting each other’s rights. In the spirit of reconciliation there is a real solution to conflict and disagreement. There is no hundred percent winner, no hundred percent loser, but half-and-half. That is the practical way, the only way. The way of peace.”
When I discussed last week our need for a personal mission statement in life, I spoke to one of the universal attributes each of our life purposes should have – whatever values we wish to practice in expressing our purpose, they must be for the good of all – both for ourselves and all others.
That ethic is consistent with a need for a revival of our national purpose to be good and decent and compassionate. We cannot do the work of building heaven on earth unless we are willing to be angels on earth – people of gentle speech and mutual respect for friend AND enemy.
The greatness of humanity is in our wondrous diversity – the beauty of black, white, brown, gay, straight, old, young, male, female, believer, atheist, liberal, conservative. What a boring and ironically imperfect world it would be if we all agreed or were all the same! It is a cliche to say America is a melting pot, but it is truth. In the fiery crucible of our diversity and mixing of so many beliefs and political ideas, comes something golden – something far more powerful in the long march of history. It is in the amalgamation of ideas and peoples – the melting pot – from which true greatness emerges.
Solutions, success, peace and love come from such cooperation and understanding. They come from compromise and refusing to believe you are right and all others are wrong. We can and should claim our unique identities and sincere beliefs, but we should never be so arrogant as to assume ours are always best. Your firmly held beliefs are not perfect. Nor are mine. We must not assume that they are. We must be a humble and compassionate people. We must listen with our hearts to the words of others – our children, partners, co-workers, friends, enemies, political opponents, and fellow church members. We do not need to agree with them but we must understand them, work with them and seek peace.
From this message and from our small congregation we will not, by ourselves, change the national character or dialogue. But we will be the change we want to see. Let us be a people revived in unity and non-violent communication.
Let us join that chorus of angels from September 11, 2001 – singing a song of love, respect and service to all.