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Considerations on The Present Moment

There have been many responses to what we have now come to call "Nine-Eleven." Here is mine. I had been scheduled to give a service at TPUUF on John Murray (See: The Miracle of the Little Fish Seller) on 9/14/01. I subsequently did deliver the sermon planned for that date; this is a homily that came before it.

Considerations on the Present Moment (9/23/01)

I had intended to speak to you last Sunday, but last Sunday I was flying home from England, five days delayed. At the moment the plane struck the South Tower, I was standing in the Business Center of Airport Hilton, in Manchester (UK) and I was struck both by the moment and by the thought of something we had discussed in a group perhaps a week before.

One of the ways you can sort Americans out is that there are those who remember where they were when John Kennedy was shot and those who don't remember, largely because those who don't are younger. It occurred to me at that moment that we had developed a new way of sorting; that there would be those who would remember where they were when they first heard about the disasters of that day and those who don't remember.

I was also struck at the time by the deep concern that was expressed and the really mixed emotions and tensions that I felt from many members of the congregation at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing. We hold as a group, and individuals, very strongly, for inherent worth and dignity of each person, of every person, and as a result there are many here who oppose capital punishment. And yet at that time there were ones who were really concerned and they were talking in very strong and justice seeking terms; you could sense the internal conflict.

Then within a few days, as I was undergoing my five days of waiting to get back to this country I heard first the President and then the Secretary of State and then other voices in the administration describing the present situation as "war." Now, as I remarked to you in July*, this is not unexpected. We, as a nation, tend to use military phraseology whenever we want to be taken seriously. It doesn't matter whether we are talking about football games, or election "campaigns" or even fund raising; we revert to the vocabulary of warfare to be taken seriously. So it made a great deal of sense, I think, for them to start at that particular point. But it certainly did raise the tension.

I thought about this as I walked up and down the streets and in the fields. And then I came home. And it always happens when I come home, as many of you know I travel a great deal, there is a moment when Toni and I face each other, sometimes across the dinner table, sometimes over a glass of wine, and we say to each other, simultaneously, "Safe at home" And we did that.

Of course, it is an illusion, because, you're not safe at home; we were never safe at home. And the events of September 11th should make that all clear to us, that we were never safe at home.

Now we are facing a very difficult period. As Shakespeare wrote, in Henry the 5th, "Now the argument of blood begins." I expect there will be military action within the next week* and we are going to have to steel our resolve and hold to our principles as that begins.

I want to suggest to you a different way of thinking about this situation. About 20 or 25 years ago, Susan Sontag, the essayist, developed breast cancer. She was stunned at the reaction of her friends, and of the community and of her doctors. Suddenly she was stigmatized, as having cancer; there was a war being fought over her body against the cancer.

She wrote a spectacular essay, published in 1978, entitled Illness as a Metaphor in which she argued very, very strongly against the use of the military metaphor in the treatment of illness. And she said, among other things, "I'm not cancer, and cancer isn't me."

About ten years later, because she is a long term cancer survivor, (we were now in the later '80s and the AIDS epidemic had began to really rise into its full fury) when many of her friends had developed AIDS and a close friend had died, she wrote a second essay "AIDS and its metaphors," making much the same point.

I want to suggest to you that we can go even further than that and we can regard the present situation, not as a military situation, but as a medical situation. We have been encouraged to do that. Donald Rumsfeld, last week, in a speech, even though he is the Secretary for Defense, that is, to say the Minister for War, said that we need a new vocabulary.

I want to suggest to you an appropriate vocabulary is the vocabulary of illness and of grieving. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross has written extensively about grieving associated with death and dying but I think that her comments really apply to people, either singly or in groups, whenever a great loss has been experienced. We have certainly experienced a great loss.

She describes the stages of dying or of loss as: first denial and isolation; certainly I experienced denial when I saw it happening. I just could not believe this was happening. This is then followed by anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.

We are somewhere in the middle, at this point. The anger has risen and, I think, is starting to recede in some places and a certain amount of bargaining: If we do that then this will happen and so forth, is taking place. There will be reverses and there will be depression and finally we will arrive at, I think, acceptance of the situation.

But the reality is that we are one strong body. When I say we, I mean the human race. We're one strong body of six billion cells. And one of the ways to think about terrorists is as good cells gone bad. We treat good cells gone bad in a number of ways: we treat them with therapy, we treat them with medication, and, sometimes, we have to treat them with surgery.

Think about cancer as an example of good cells gone bad. I know we have many cancer survivors in the congregation. I hope that this is on one hand not threatening but on the other hand perhaps they and you can see the parallel.

First there's the discovery. That's the moment when you know you're not safe at home anymore. But that isn't when you got the cancer. You had the cancer for a long time. It was always there; not always, perhaps, but for a long time. And one day it became evident and you discovered it. And as has been said frequently over the last 12 days, "Nothing will be the same again."

Then there's diagnosis, what in the medical profession is called vulgarly "the treasure hunt" when, having found one cancer, you look for all the others; hopefully, you look for where they are not. That is to say, you try to find out if it is just a singular cancer. Or a singular terrorist.

Then there's planning, preparation, treatment, and there is usually an acute intervention. And then a long term chronic treatment, in many cases simply so you can feel that you are doing something good and useful. Finally, if nothing bad else happens in the next five years, you're declared cured.

Now I would propose to you that under the best of all possible circumstances, this is what will happen to us with the issue of terrorism. We've had the discovery, terrorism is always there, we're trying to figure out where all the seats and origins of it are. We may find some, we may miss some. There will be an acute intervention, then there will be chronic treatment and finally after five years, if we have had no other major episodes, we will reach a level of acceptance, of vigilance, and we'll declare ourselves cured.

I say to you, both here in the congregation and in your larger communities, this is a good model, this is a benign model, this is a model which does not stigmatize, this is a model within which we can maintain and preserve our values. Because, and its not original to me, its been said by many others this week and will be said by others in the weeks to come, if we do not maintain and sustain our values, the cancer has won. To paraphrase Susan Sontag, "terrorism is not us and we are not terrorists." We are one strong body. And we are not and should not become terrorists.

Now life will go one. I hope that this service will mark a transition. Next Sunday's service will be explicitly about transitions, transition from summer to fall, from vacation to school, perhaps from grieving to acceptance.