Reflection offered at the Interfaith Service of Remembrance and Hope for the victims of the London Bombings
“It was only a matter of time,” one Londoner said. Another horrific explosion in another great world city. Terrorism has become part of the fabric of our lives. Watching from afar the events in London the last few days can’t help but evoke for us Americans the darkness of 9/11 and of all the terrorist destruction since – in Bali, Madrid, in Chechnya, in the endless suicide bombings in Israel and Palestine, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But this time it was London on a mid-summer day, a day when the city was still jubilant over their triumph in winning the Olympic Games for 2012. And for Americans, who count the British as part of our extended family, it was especially hard.
And as always it brought the same shattering effect of horror, rage, grief and fear spread across the United Kingdom and around the world. And with all that came yet another reminder of the fragility of civilization itself. I remember years ago hearing that wise commentator Eric Sevareid on the evening news declare that civilization is only about seven meals away from anarchy. What I took him to mean was that the harmony of our common life is a tenuous thing, and we human beings can quickly turn on each other when we panic. Perhaps we might even say that civilization is only a few terrorist explosions away from chaos.
Perhaps. Certainly that is what the terrorists believe. Yesterday’s New York Times quoted Joseph Conrad’s novel of a century ago about terrorism, The Secret Agent, in which a character states that a terrorist act “must be purely destructive… Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it either by threats, persuasions or bribes.”
Terrorists believe that civilization itself is evil, and that ordinary life disguises its insanity and injustice. And so they set out to undermine it, to throw us back into our most primitive fears, to stir up hatred, to make it impossible for us to live together.
The goal is to make things fall apart. William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” continues to evoke for many of us this fundamental dread that things could unravel. You remember how it begins with the image of a hunting falcon spiraling up in the sky, until it’s out of reach of the voice of its master the falconer:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Forces are at work driving us apart, Yeats says. Everything that constitutes ordered, civil life is weakening.
And ‘Why?’ he says. Because “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” When the falcon’s circling takes it too far, it loses its bearings and gets lost. That’s the terrorists’ goal. To create such noise, such chaos, that we will be unable to hear the voice that centers us, that grounds us, that calls us home.
And yet… Here we are today. People of faith coming together in the shadow of this terrible act to bear witness that there is a center that holds, that terrorism can’t and won’t have its way. We come together as Muslim and Jew and Christian, to grieve, to stand with the people of Great Britain in this time of tragedy, and to listen amidst the cacophony of this disaster for the voice of the falconer.
The challenges of these times are immense. We are being propelled helter-skelter through one of the great transformations in human history, what is called “globalization.” It surely ranks among the great shifts in human history – along with the shift from a hunter-gatherer age to an age of agriculture, with the untold impact of the printed word on human society, with the emergence of the industrial age. We are now in a world where everything is instantaneously connected in a way no one envisioned even a few decades ago.
And that brings with it tremendous possibilities for global prosperity, and, as we are seeing, for terrible destruction. And so people of faith have their work cut out for them. The very word “religion” comes from the Latin “religare,” which means “to bind.” That is what religions are meant to do, to bind people to one another and to God.
But religions can be part of the problem too, because they often emphasize difference, exclusion, and rejection of the outsider. It was that 18th century Englishman Jonathan Swift who said that we have, “just enough religion to make us hate one another but not enough to make us love one another.”
And so we gather here today as a testament to our conviction that we people of faith are called to be agents of hope and healing. We are called through our various languages and holy texts, to proclaim that there is a center that holds, a great mysterious Holy One, beyond the capacity of any one to contain or fully to know. And we are here to witness to each other and to the world, that the ways of this Holy One are ways of peace, of celebration of diversity and difference, of compassion and love.
We hear the voice of the falconer in our texts today. “Come to the mountain of the Lord,” the Hebrew scripture proclaim, and there the people “shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
The Muslim scripture declares, “To God belongs all glory and power… Goodness and evil are not equal. Repel evil with the good,” and if you exercise patience and restraint, then the one you hated will become your friend.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” the Christian scripture says, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
The falconer speaks here in different tongues – in Hebrew and Arabic and Greek. But through them all this Holy One is calling us to be people of healing and compassion.
And so this service of prayer and remembrance joins with countless other gestures of defiance of the terrorists as people rise up to say no to their deadly work, no to religious voices that divide and alienate, no to the power of fear and hatred in these unsettling times.
Those of us on this side of the Atlantic have watched with admiration the way the people of Britain have faced this crisis. Their Prime Minister refused to allow the explosion to deflect him and the other G-8 leaders from the urgent work of fighting the devastation of extreme poverty and environmental destruction around the globe. How easy and how tragic it would have been for them to be pulled away by the bombings. And how powerful was their determination to press on.
We have seen the British people pick themselves up and begin to resume their lives with the same grit and strength that saw them through the air raids of the Nazis and the bombings of the I.R.A. We see the religious and political leaders hastening to protect the vulnerable Muslim communities in their midst. In the quiet, ordinary strength of the British people we see their own affirmation that the center holds.
And so we pray this day –
For strength and healing for the people of Great Britain, and especially for the victims of the explosions and their families;
We pray for the leaders of the world, and for all who put their lives at risk in the cause of a safe and just life on this globe for all;
We pray that we people of faith may plumb the depths of our own traditions to learn the ways of reconciliation and peace;
And finally we pray that people of faith everywhere may continue to bear witness in their life and work to the falconer, the Holy and Blessed One, whose ways are ways of righteousness, compassion, and peace. That is the center that holds.