Sunday, October 2, 2011

Remembering 9/11 at the World Peace Prayer in Munich

This year, 2011, marked the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, but it also marked the 25th anniversary of the interreligious World Prayer for Peace called in Assisi by Pope John Paul II. I was fortunate enough to be able to commemorate Sept. 11 by participating in this prayer for peace here in Munich. The peace prayer is organized by the Community of Sant’ Egidio, a group founded after the first World Peace Prayer to continue the spirit of Assisi. This group also works to foster peace by caring for the poor and the otherwise needy. The local diocese of the host city also plays a key organizational role. Religious leaders from all over the world, from many different religions, come to discuss and to pray and to build friendships. A main message of the World Peace Prayer is that religion does not have to be a source of conflict, but can rather be a path to peace.

The three-day prayer event (Sept. 11-13) started off with Mass in the Cathedral in Munich, at which Reinhard Cardinal Marx of the Arch-diocese of Munich-Freising was the main celebrant. Countless other bishops, cardinals and priests were also present—I hadn’t seen that many pink and red hats since Rome! Many Eastern Orthodox priests were present as well, including the Metropolitan of Minsk and Sluzk Filaret, Patriarchal Exarch of all Belarus, who gave an address and blessing at the end of the Mass. There were also a number of Lutheran bishops who processed in with the other Christian church leaders and addressed the congregation. In the congregation itself I definitely saw some Buddhist monks, and a man who looked like a Muslim, judging by the turban on his head. The readings were so perfect: Sirach 27:30—28:7 “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail.” Psalm 103 “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and rich in compassion.” Romans 14:7-9 “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s”. Matthew 18:21-35: The servant whose debt was forgiven but who refused to forgive his debtor. Hearing these readings, I could only think of the feelings of anger, and probably of revenge (though mostly fear on my part), felt by myself and others after the attacks on Sept. 11. I remembered the homily given by a visiting priest one day in my home town: “If you don’t forgive Bin Laden, you’ll end up in hell right next to him.” Aside from the assumptions made about the state of Bin Laden’s soul, this is pretty much what the Bible says, put plainly. This peace prayer was very symbolic for me, in that I could commemorate these attacks by praying together with peace-loving Muslims. I had wanted to find one and shake their hand in person, but I didn’t end up doing so.
As we left the cathedral (and other events later that day), there was a weak scattering of protestors facing us. I was surprised—who would protest peace? It’s like reverse hippies…I was not happy to see that one of these protestors was waving an American flag. The signs they carried said things like “9/11 was an Islam job” or “Solidarity with persecuted Christians”. They seemed to be accusing us of cooperating with people who should be our enemies. 9/11 may have been an Islam job, but will refusing good relations with those Muslims who actually want peace prevent future attacks? And how can persecuted Christians be better helped than by religious freedom, an important issue in many of the talks? As to the American flag being used to protest peace and interreligious cooperation, all I can say is that our flag represents freedom, which cannot be had without peace, which cannot be had without people of different communities working together.
Speaking of freedom and cooperation brings me to another point: tolerance. I know many good people who say that tolerance is not at all a characteristic of a faithful Christian. This view tends to define tolerance as saying that “all religions are equally true and efficacious for bringing about salvation”. There might be some (or many?) who use this word with such a meaning in mind, but for me, tolerance is first and foremost simply not killing those who disagree with you. We take this so much for granted in the U.S., but so many people all over the world continue to be persecuted and killed for their religion. Live and let live, literally—this is tolerance. Taken a step further, tolerance is establishing a positive, respectful atmosphere in which ideas can be exchanged. Seen in this light, tolerance is a precursor to evangelization—it is only a hindrance when it turns into apathy.
As for me personally, a quality I will need to develop while I am here is what I call “diversity tolerance”. (I took a foreign language pedagogy class in college in which we learned about “ambiguity tolerance”: basically, not freaking out when you don’t understand every word being spoken around you.) By diversity tolerance I mean the ability to deal with the fact that other people believe different things than me. The ability to remain cool and not get angry, the ability to not feel threatened by different views. If my own beliefs are true, then the erroneous beliefs of others cannot hurt them, no matter how badly I argue or debate my point. If my own beliefs are in need of revision, I pray God for the humility to accept the truth. I’ve been faced with this quest to discern the truth almost every day that I’ve been here in Germany. It’s funny—I never saw diversity as a value until recently. I now see it as a value because exposure to other beliefs helps you to better articulate your own beliefs, and to keep evaluating them critically, making sure they withstand all possible tests.
Anyway, back to the Peace Prayer. On Monday the 12th, David Brodman, head Rabbi of Savyon in Israel, spoke to a special group of youth convened by the Community of Sant’ Egidio. What struck me more than anything he said was the fact that he was so open and friendly towards a group of German youth, since he himself had been in a concentration camp when he was a boy. One more thing made an impression on me:  his description of the many peace talks he’d been to where they’d sign an agreement only to revoke it three days later. His tone overall remained optimistic, but after the discussion I was left with the impression that peace talks were not how peace was ultimately going to come about. This one Muslim boy in the group seemed to have a similar idea: “Let’s just close the books and agree not to kill people.” By “books” he meant religious texts, and was referring to the passages in the Koran that seem to condone violence, though he and other Muslims at this peace prayer all found ways of interpreting those passages that did not involve actually killing infidels. He also referred to a passage allowing revenge on those who kill one’s relatives. He said that his family had been in this situation, but had chosen not to do what their book would have allowed them to. He then proceeded to say that the Bible allowed revenge too, definitely a misunderstanding. Maybe the Old Testament in some passages, but certainly not the teachings of Jesus. I wanted to jump up and correct him—and there we would have been, arguing over texts again, talking about doctrine and already misunderstanding each other.
It may never be possible to make all of these religions agree on paper. It may be possible, however, to bring them together in reality. Another thing that left an impression on me was a story the rabbi told us about an Israeli family whose son was killed in a bus explosion. His organs were saved, and the family donated them to save the life of a young Palestinian girl. In the end, the mothers of the boy and girl were simply two mothers who loved their children. Acts of love like this are what will really bring about peace. Peace conferences like this one do have value, however, in that the big discussions spark lots of little conversations between individuals, which is where real progress is made.
To conclude this admittedly gargantuan post, I would like to share the experiences I’ve had since the Peace Prayer. I never did shake hands with a Muslim, but I played soccer with five of them several days after the event. Twice a week I go to an after-school center at which many immigrant kids come for help with their homework, and for somewhere to hang out while their parents are at work. A large number of the kids happen to be from Iraq. They have only been in Germany for two or three years, which means they must have experienced the recent war in Iraq. For years now, the word Iraq has only been associated in my mind with roadside bombs and death counts on the evening news. At the worst of times, I even (not very seriously) entertained the idea that our world would be better off if the entire Middle East just ceased to exist. After meeting these kids, thoughts like that make me sick. Perhaps because of the long war that our country has led in their country, the Iraqi kids have become dear to me, and I feel a certain responsibility towards them. How terrible, if anything had happened to them. I was at first very reluctant to tell them I’m American, but now that’s gotten out and we’ll see how it goes. Despite western panic that Islamic immigrants will spread ideas hostile to our own, I think there are potential benefits to this immigration. The kids in our group are learning (hopefully) that Christians can be their friends, and hopefully they will learn to value democracy by being here in Germany.
One last related thought: at one of the talks at the peace prayer, it was once again disputed as to whether the Israelis and Palestinians could ever live in peace. Someone then said, however, that the integration is already taking place in the schools, where the children play side by side and learn to be friends. This example is one more testament to the fact that peace will only come as a result of concrete relationships and friendships between individual people. Hopefully future World Peace Prayers, such as the one next year in Sarajevo, where there has been much religious conflict, will bring about such friendships.


  1. Thanks for sharing dear Stephanie. Your soul lifting ideas bring lots of hope. Yes, they are beautiful and open the way to true peace.
    Lots of love and prayer from all of US, especially me, your sister Mary Gloria Mar, FMA