Editor’s Note: The following address was delivered at Morning Prayers at Harvard University on September 20, 2010.
Exactly nine years ago today, on the steps of Harvard’s Widener Library, I took part in a peace vigil to honor those who had lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. We were all terrified back then—still reeling from the carnage, still grieving for our collective loss, all of us overcome with anxiety and anger.
For me, it was the anger that caused the worst anxiety—the understandably human and yet still inhumane call for violent retaliation that only increased in the days, months, and years after 9/11. Resisting that impulse to vengeance—the need to have someone, anyone, “pay” for what happened that day—was what I had in mind nine years ago when I said that “I deplore those who would deploy rhetoric and deploy troops” before they stop to think about the consequences of their words and actions. As some of you know, my words and subsequent actions—on behalf of peace rather than war—got me into some trouble. Lynne Cheney accused me of being “short on patriotism” and Rush Limbaugh suggested I should be deported. I received hate mail and death threats. I was pilloried in the press and caricatured by critics, among them my students, classmates, and colleagues. I’ll never forget those days.
As a Christian, I have always taken very seriously Jesus’ exhortation in the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel according to Matthew: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
These teachings—versions of which exist in every faith tradition—have fallen on deaf ears in our troubled times. Instead of peaceful alternatives, we find ourselves perpetually at war. Rather than search for faith in one another, we live in fear of one another. To varying degrees, we are all to blame—whether we rushed to support military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq or were too late in opposing it; whether we blindly support our troops as they fight and kill or blithely go about our lives as we enjoy the privilege of not having to do this dirty work ourselves; whether we were silenced by the intensity of our so-called “patriotism” or remain skeptical about the impact of our protests. Indeed, the most striking American tragedy in these last nine years—far worse than the tragedy of 9/11 itself—is just how weak we have been in the wake of war.
And this tragedy, I fear, has only gotten worse. We saw it in the military failures of a Republican president, and we are seeing it again in the moral failings of his Democratic successor. We see it not only in the nihilist violence of Muslim extremists but also in the anti-Muslim vitriol of a Christian pastor from Florida and a Jewish publisher of The New Republic. We compound it every time we allow our private suspicions and public silences to confound the better angels of our nature.