Four years ago today, as I sat in my living room with a few good friends, watching the footage of two planes flying into the twin towers over and over again in what seemed like an infinite loop of media coverage, I could not have known the degree to which that event would exacerbate divisions between America and the Middle East or even exacerbate divisions within our own country.
Western nations and Middle Eastern nations have lived in an uncomfortable tension for over one thousand years as each have vied for the same wealth, power and land. Our latest conflict is rooted in a business deal struck fifty years ago between American oil companies and Saudi Arabia’s Saud family. Western style capitalism and conservative Islamic social norms expanded side by side for fifty years until the inevitable explosion of violence we have experienced the last few years.
Knowing how to respond to the Middle East can be confusing for us, since the violence is the work of a few terrorists, rather than entire nations. A neighbor of mine is a high school counselor in a nearby county. Her co counselor enthusiastically decorates the high school for Christmas every year-Christmas trees, Santas, baby Jesuses, you name it. When her new principal informed her that she would also have to decorate for holidays such as Hannukah, Kwanzaa and Ramadan, she exclaimed, “I can’t decorate for Ramadan, we’re at war with Muslims!”
Now, we’re not at war with Muslims. But for many Americans, 9-11 has shaped the way they view all Muslims, not just terrorists. Christians are suspicious of Muslims because of 9-11 and Muslims are suspicious of Christians because of how they were treated after 9-11. While not much overt violence happened, nearly every American Muslim I know received threatening phone calls, found people blanching in fear when they approached, or watched Christians cross the street in order to avoid them. The conflict in the Middle East is a complicated one and won’t be solved in a ten minute sermon, but I think looking back at the earliest roots of the conflict will lend insight into all the conflicts our country is facing today.
As I did research on the history of this Western-Eastern conflict the last few weeks, I discovered that the Muslim people trace their heritage back to Ishmael-Abraham’s “other” son. Let me refresh your memory of Ishmael’s story. His story appears in the middle of Genesis and is a juicy one-not unlike something you might find on Montel.
God called Abraham out of his native land and told Abraham that he would be the father of a nation. Abraham was married to Sarah, who, as a practical woman, thought that God was off. . . his. . . rocker. After all, Sarah and Abraham were elderly and childless and not about to make babies. In order to help God with his plan, Sarah arranged for Abraham to sleep with Hagar, her maid, who would then be the surrogate mother for their child. Well, eventually both Hagar and Sarah got pregnant and had their babies, and as you might imagine, Sarah soon started to think her life would be a lot better if she could get rid of Hagar and Hagar’s son, Ishmael. She wanted to restore her place of power as Abraham’s wife and ensure her son Isaac, would be the head of this new nation. Accordingly, Sarah forced Abraham to kick Hagar out of the house and Hagar ended up stranded in the desert, where God promised to be faithful to her and create a nation from Ishmael as well as a nation from Isaac.
According to the Quran, this nation that descended from Ishmael later became the Muslim people.
So, metaphorically at least, the very roots of the conflict between East and West spring out of a very individual, very personal conflict between two women who did not know how to forgive.
In our Gospel passage this morning Jesus tells the parable of the king who generously forgives the debt of a slave. The slave then goes out and throttles a man who owes him money.
That’s so like us, isn’t it? We have a hard time internalizing the fact that God loves us, forgives us, and blesses us. Sarah certainly acted like this slave. God blessed her with a reality beyond anything she could have dreamed-she a barren, elderly woman was not only forgiven for laughing at God, but she was also blessed with a son, ensuring her family line would last forever. Instead of extending the graciousness she had been given by God towards Hagar, she becomes afraid that Hagar could threaten her blessing so she banishes her.
What if Sarah had been able to forgive herself for not trusting in God? What if she had been able to forgive Hagar for her capitulation in Sarah’s scheme? What if she had been able to forgive Ishmael for being born? Would Jewish and Muslim people have been able to stay united in one religion? Would the Crusades never have happened? Could 9/11 been avoided?
Obviously we cannot go back into time and change the course of our history. What this story illustrates is the degree to which we each control our own lives and thereby the destinies of countless others.
Now we humans love to have an enemy. Remember the first Olympics after the fall of the Soviet empire? It was kind of sad, right? We didn’t know what teams to hate! No East Germans, no Soviets. . .and those teeny Chinese gymnasts are just too cute to hate. . .
This enemy-making happens on the smallest scale. Even in my own small development in Crozet, factions have developed. As a renter, I catch up on all the latest Home owners association gossip when I run with some of the neighborhood women. There is constantly someone trying to make an enemy out of someone else. Whether the conflict is between single family homeowners versus townhouse owners or the townhouse owners versus the builders. . .where there is not natural hostility, someone will manufacture hostility.
We see this kind of enemy-making in our nation and even in the Episcopal Church. Hurricane Katrina has unmasked hostility between whites and blacks in America. The Iraq War has unmasked hostility between conservative and liberal Americans. Bishop Robinson’s election unmasked hostility between conservative and liberal Episcopalians.
The good news is that this enemy-making is not inevitable. The catch to this good news-is that any reconciliation between Muslims and Christians, blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, single family home owners and townhouse owners is up to us.
This reconciliation is up to us because we are forgiven. As Christians, we understand that though we owed God a huge debt, he not only forgives us, but he blesses us beyond our wildest imagination. This positions us to relate to others in a unique way.
People make enemies because they are anxious. Sarah was anxious about Ishmael’s threat to Isaac. We were anxious about the Soviets using nuclear weapons to obliterate us. Single family homeowners in my development are anxious about the townhouses bringing down their property value. Anxiety. Anxiety. Anxiety!
As people secure in the knowledge of God’s love for us, anxiety does not need to cause us to be threatened by other people. As Christians, we know that we do not need power to be powerful. We do not need money to be rich. We do not need prestige to be important to God or to those in our church family.
Like any psychological or spiritual truth, we can’t just say to ourselves, “Well, God loves me! No more anxiety for me!” To gain a deep knowledge of our loved-ness, we need to spend time in reflection, prayer and in reading Scripture. When we read Scripture, we realize that God loved a murderer (Moses), adulterer (David), a betrayer (Peter), prostitutes, tax collectors, and on and on. The beauty of God’s forgiveness is that it enables a holy God to love profoundly un-holy people. And when we know God loves us, we are enabled to love others.
Without anxiety, we can deeply listen to those who have different opinions from us. Without anxiety, we can dream ways of sharing power that anxious people could never invent. Without anxiety, we can be the bridge makers that help differing groups see the humanity in each other.
And if we don’t act as the bridge makers, who will?