Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Spirituality Forged in Smoke and Fire: A 9/11 Retrospective

[Note: This article was written by Bishop Magness for publication in The Huffington Post.]

As the senior military chaplain for U.S. Joint Forces Command, I was in Arlington, Virginia with my colleagues for an annual meeting of the senior Armed Forces chaplains assigned to the command staffs of our nation's Joint, or unified commands. On the morning of Tuesday, the 11th of September, we were riding in a small bus going down the hill from our hotel to the Pentagon where our meeting would be held in an E-ring conference room near the Pentagon Athletic Center entrance. As stated in the opening sentence of the 9/11 Commission Report, the day “…dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States (p. 1).” Driving past Arlington National Cemetery I recall thinking how placid a place that was. Then I came back into reality and remembered the funerals I had done there as a Navy chaplain who had worked next door in the Navy Annex (to the Pentagon) a couple of years earlier.

We were a few minutes late getting to our meeting because our driver, a man with Middle Eastern features, had missed the turnoff to the Pentagon. We had to go into the District of Columbia, turn around and come back for the correct turn into the Pentagon parking lot.

All in all, it was a pretty normal morning - until American Airlines flight #77 that was still almost full of fuel came in over the northern horizon and slammed into the side of the building. It was only after we had been evacuated from the building that my life began to change. After being sequestered for a few minutes near the Potomac River, it was apparent that what some of us at first thought was an emergency drill had actually been a sizable explosion on the far side of the building. Collectively we knew that the explosion called for a response. We had been called to action. Through the leadership of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chaplain we were organized into small teams headed by the senior medical officer present. Since all of us had been trained in immediate first aid, we were eager to use our combined medical training and pastoral skills to give aid to the injured and comfort to the dying.
As we worked to rescue the injured service members and civilians to give rudimentary medical assistance, simultaneously we worked to find the ambulances of necessity: a small fleet of mini-vans that belonged to persons who worked in the Pentagon.

After an hour or two, it was clear that all the "easy" rescues had already been made. It was time to re-enter the building and get down to the tougher work of the day. Walking through a maze of circuitous routes our team worked our way back down the corridor and into the Pentagon center courtyard. By this time we had almost forgotten about the acrid smoke we had been breathing and even pulled down our make-shift undershirt material face masks. At about 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. it became evident that our work of lifesaving had run its course. There were no more persons to be removed from the rubble. We all agreed that it was time for us to leave and let the fire and rescue people take over. Upon leaving and walking back up the hill to our hotel I remember thinking that my 9/11 work was complete. Goodness, but how wrong could a person could be?

For days on end I contemplated how people of faith, people who affirmed the Abrahamic faith which Jews, Christians, and Muslims embraced, could do such a horrible thing. Now, I'm not necessarily naive about people who do bad things. After all, when I was younger I spent the better part of a year in Vietnam being best friends with an M-16 rifle and a 50 caliber machine gun. I learned plenty about the bad things people, me included, can and will do.

But somehow this was different. I wondered if maybe President Bush could be wrong, and we were in a religious war.

Something was happening in my psyche and in my soul. It was as though I was two persons: light and darkness. I was trapped in my own dualism where two competing opposites held me in tension. This was a type of dualism that had captured many Americans. Back in those days right after 9/11 the smart money was for the darkness to win.

As a priest of The Episcopal Church and a Navy chaplain, I knew that my vocation was to embody, to incarnate God’s grace and forgiveness. Out of the light that was in me, I could affirm such divinely inspired and generous thoughts. However, there was also darkness. There is a ponderable and somewhat strange quotation of Jesus in the Christian Gospel of St. Matthew. Instructing His disciples about their mission, Jesus said "...whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven." (Matthew 18.18, NRSV). From the dark side of my being I wanted to bind those folk and those who sent the aviators-for-a-day to kill; bind them over to hell. I began to wonder if the Islamic people with whom I was familiar were engaged in a coordinated sham to deceive us; that somehow they were all behind everything we had experienced on 9/11.

Out of my darkness I wanted to get even. I wanted to make "those persons" pay for the pain they had caused us. In one of my darker moments, I even contemplated the idea that our wayward bus driver was a part of the scheme. You can believe me that it took a pretty vibrant imagination to entertain the bus driver plot. Actually I learned that when you are living in a world that is dominated by darkness that it's not such a fantastic reach after all.

Instinctively I knew that I had to break out of this dark funk, but how? I prayed the Daily Office of Morning Prayer from my Episcopal prayer book each morning. That didn't do it. I led and attended public worship services. That didn't do it. I talked with a therapist and with my closest friends. Even that didn't do it. What could I do?

Desperately I needed a change of heart. Yet I found that the change would not come easily or quickly. For months I grappled with what had by then become a spiritual dilemma in my life. Then without warning I got a jolt to my soul that awakened me to a new vista; a new way to move into a greater understanding and grasp of God. In my role as a leader of Navy chaplains I was visiting the military chaplains assigned to our new Joint Task Force detention facility at the Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Ever since the facility opened we had assigned a Muslim military chaplain to be on staff and work with the detainees, suspected terrorists of whom almost all embraced the Muslim faith. Upon arrival I was told that there was significant conflict between the commander of the detention facility and my Muslim chaplain. Though to this day I am still not clear about precisely what caused the conflict, I was very aware that in the end a significant part of the problem was based in the commander’s distrust of a Muslim chaplain. On my second day I ended up standing between, quite literally, the commander and my chaplain. Instinctively I knew that as a leader I had to stand up for the person for whom I was responsible. Well, that was it! At that moment the darkness in my life began to ebb away, the light began to shine.

But why? How? The change began when I was able and willing to sacrifice some of my own safety and security, and stand up for a chaplain for whom I was responsible but with whom I had religious differences. That day God had led me to the point at which I had the opportunity to sacrifice my comfortable, condescending, and divisive views about all Muslims. I learned that day that once I could affirm my chaplain, my Muslim chaplain that I could begin to be transformed so that in my soul I could see more light than darkness.

That day I began my journey of learning that at times I have to sacrifice my needs in order to affirm and care for the other. I began learning that the affirmation of our spiritual differences is the only vehicle through which we can build the framework for common ground. That day when I practiced the affirmation of my Muslim chaplain I learned that I could affirm his spiritual needs when I didn't even understand or share those needs. I began to learn that to do anything less, and to try to base our relationship entirely upon our a quest for common ground ends up being little more than a self-fulfilling utilitarian quest in which I have regard for the other only when I can get what I want.

Some of my fellow Christians may believe that an unrestricted affirmation of the other’s spirituality will diminish a believer’s faith and belief. I can only respond that in my own life experience I have experienced something quite to the contrary. Not only does such affirmation and recognition not diminish my Christian faith; if anything it has enhanced my faith. As I guard and stand up for the other, the one who believes differently than me, my own faith grows.

Now it is starting to dawn upon me that two thousand years ago when Jesus was telling his people that whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven, He was talking about the work of being aware of the evil in our midst and in our own hearts, and to behave in such a way as to bind it from spreading and multiplying. Day in and day out the federal chaplains whom I serve in the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Federal Bureau of Prisons are doing the work of binding darkness and being ambassadors of light. Though I can only hope and pray that their work and ministry will hasten the reign of the Lord God in our midst, I know for certain that as they become light in the midst of extreme darkness God’s light has begun to shine.

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