In the immediate aftermath of the September 11th tragedy, there were amazing moments for solidarity between groups and communities rarely experienced. The solidarity was among U.S. citizens across the racial, religious, political, sexual, and economic spectrums. And solidarity within the global community as many nations and peoples were filled with genuine care and compassion for the U.S.
While we were hurting and mourning, angry and scared as a nation, the stance adopted by the George W. Bush White House was to seek revenge against our attackers by villainzing every Muslim in the world, including U.S. citizens.
As a result of this stance, the precious moments of solidarity brought on the wings of tragedy were squandered and lost.
In the aftermath the George Zimmerman verdict regarding the killing of Trayvon Martin, I have been sensing the same solidarity that I witnessed in the weeks after the deaths of innocent people in the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Let me share some parallels I see.
In September 2001, I was serving as the seminary pastor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In that role, I led delegations of students, faculty, staff, and alumni to Ground Zero. We walked the streets among people whose emotions ranged from disbelief, anger, fear. Many wanted revenge. But most wanted to know that their loved ones would come home safe.
Earlier that day, people who simply went to work, run errands, get something to eat, or meet a friend, never returned home. In a flash, they were dead. The lives of their loved ones and those who sought to help, were forever changed.
In the midst of this surreal experience, there was a profound human connection.
As folks from the Union Seminary community engaged in the richest most authentic form of street ministry, we prayed with, cried with and held in our arms people from different religions, national origins, languages, sexual orientations, gender identities, class backgrounds. In the midst of horror, shock, death, and grieving, we were all one human family.
The solidarity of so many different demographic groups was unlike anything I had witnessed before. No one gave any thought to my sexual orientation, race, gender, or religion. All that mattered was that I held them in my arms and in my prayers.
What I experienced in those weeks, extended well beyond Ground Zero and New York City, to individuals and communities across the United States and world. In those weeks, our hearts of compassion were broken open. All around the world, whether or not we knew that the word compassion means to “suffer with,” we were living it, breathing it, and doing it.
Because of common human experiences, we knew the sting of death, or had been touched by the pain of losing someone precious to us, or knew the disorientation of not feeling safe in your own home, people around the world suffered with those who were directly affected by the losses as well as the entire nation.
In their solidarity, Muslims in the U.S. and around the world were among the first to seek justice against the individuals who claimed self-defense against the U.S. as an aggressor nation.
While that situation had many layers of historic relationships and reasons that set the stage for the tragedy that occurred that day, the solidarity and compassion of all people was clear and uncomplicated. Then, because of the stance taken by the George W. Bush Administration to regard all Muslims as terrorists, as haters of the United States, and as persecutors of democracy, all of the caring and goodwill, all of the compassion and solidarity present in those moments were thrown away like the rubble of the destroyed buildings.
While the September 11th tragedy and the shooting of Trayvon Martin do not parallel point for point, there is one major lesson I hope we can glean from the aftermath of September 11th. That is, I pray that we recognize and not throw away the precious solidarity present across racial and other demographic groups when their hearts are stirred and longing to take action for justice.
We can do the opposite of what George W did. Instead of villainzing everyone who looks like or shares some demographic characteristics of the perpetrators, recognize the genuine compassion that is here right now. Be strategic in forming alliances and engaging in much-needed dialogue to help avoid these kinds of travesties from occurring again.
As a gay, black American woman who has been marginalized and stereotyped all of my life in my home nation because of perceptions about my racial group and my sexuality, I feel deep compassion for Muslim Americans who have experienced tremendous marginalizing, stereotyping, and scapegoating because of perceptions about their religion, color, or language.
To point to and label one entire group as responsible for our pain is a seductive path to take.
It is the path that George W. took. That path can fill us with a quick yet false sense of safety. To follow this seductive path, however, results in long-term adverse consequences. One, we don’t identify and fight against who and what the real villains are. Two, we don’t recognize the allies of compassion who are ready to fight with us. Three, we exhaust our emotional energy, finances, and other resources trying to fight alone. Four, after doing all we know to do, we still don’t feel safe.
A lesson learned from George W: Let us pray for spiritual guidance to discern whose hearts of compassion are opened in new ways to be co-laborers for justice, and let us pray for the hearts of those who have been injured and filled with pain to be open to trust. Just as co-laborers for justice are working together toward justice for LGBT individuals, so we must use these sacred moments of solidarity to work together for racial justice. These are the kind of sacred moments facilitated the successes of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. What shall we do with the opportunities that these moments bring?
May it be that Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal offer us new opportunities for solidarity. We have been given precious moments birthing new allies and expanding the networks of compassionate action.
In honor of Trayvon, may we not throw away these precious moments of human connection with the court-decision rubble or the blood-stained grass.