Monday, January 12, 2009


Several years ago I heard the story of a woman who was very ill. One of her friends said that she was somewhat surprised that she had never heard the woman say, “Why me?” The woman responded, “Why not me?” In a world where there is sickness and all sorts of disasters, why should any of expect to be immune?

Our son told me recently that he had angered some of his acquaintances when, after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, he pointed out that people in many other places had been living with terrorist attacks for many years. Why should we assume that we would be immune? Why should we think now that winning the war on terror means no terrorist attacks on the US, rather than no terrorist attacks anywhere?

There is from time to time talk about American exceptionalism, the strange notion that we are different from the rest of the world’s people and that the rules for us are therefore different. We assert that we have the right, for example, to possess nuclear weapons but Iran doesn’t. Now, I don’t think Iran should have nuclear weapons, but I don’t think the US or Russia or the United Kingdom or France or China or India or Pakistan or Israel or any other nation should either. No exceptions.

I had hoped that after September 11, 2001 we might develop a deeper commitment to solidarity with the rest of the world’s people, learning from the experiences of that day what so many others experience – fear, uncertainty, and incredible vulnerability to forces that they and we cannot control. I had hoped that we might develop a deeper compassion for those who do not have the incredible privileges that we enjoy in this country. I had hoped that we would use the time that we are given on this earth to make things better for what one my friends calls the least, the last, and the lost. It is sad that my hopes have not been fully realized, that, in spite of some signs of hope, we have far too often seen ourselves in battles against “the other, the enemy” and not in a struggle for reconciliation, for solidarity.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addressed last summer's Lambeth Conference of Bishops of the Anglican Communion. In that address, Rabbi Sacks made a distinction between a covenant of faith and a covenant of fate. In the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures, Genesis, God established two covenants, a covenant of faith with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, and a covenant of fate with Noah and all humankind, and not only with humankind but with all life on earth. In making that covenant, in Rabbi Sacks's words, "God says: Never again will I destroy the world. But I cannot promise that you will never destroy the world -- because I have given you free will." I believe that we need to recognize that we are bound together with all people in such a covenant as we suffer together, sharing our fears and our tears, as we did after September 11, and sharing responsibility for shaping the future.

If another terrorist attack happens in our country, and I certainly hope that one never does, perhaps we will not say, “Why us?” but let the experience move us into greater solidarity with those whose daily lives are marked with terror and poverty and disease, and to accepting our shared responsibility for shaping the future.

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