Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
When I was young, I remember saying prayers after Mass each Sunday for the "conversion of Russia." I don't think every parish did this, but there must have been enough of us, as the godless Soviet Union is now dissolved and religion is once again permitted in Russia. It occurs to me that we all need to start praying again — this time for an end to all forms of terrorism. Not just Catholics, but all Christians, Jews, Muslims and anybody else who believes that terrorism must be stopped. My vision is that it need not be a long, drawn-out affair, but just a special plea to God at the end of any service. I don't have much influence (although I do intend to discuss this with my pastor), but I thought you could get the word out to those who do influence religious thinking. Do you think such an effort would help?
-- N., East Islip
I'm on your side, to a degree. I believe in the power of prayer, but that power is not like ordering something on the Internet. There's no PayPal account to get God to intervene in human history on our side.
Prayers to end terrorism do have a helpful spiritual role to play in terms of making each of us immune to the barbarism we're forced to watch on the news as terrorists pursue their bloody carnage. Prayer can keep us from succumbing to fear. Fear is the terrorists' goal, and by praying for strength to live our lives exactly as we've always lived them, we deprive the terrorists of their most cherished victory.
"Do not be afraid" is the most repeated phrase in the Bible, and by including it in our prayers, we remember that the victory terrorists seek is to crush our ability to hope, love and live as we like.
In addition to prayer, we ought to embrace other spiritual responses to terrorism. We must reach out to American Muslims. American Muslims hate terrorists even more than non-Muslim Americans because they spread the false impression that all Muslims condone terrorism, and that Islam is a violent religion.
Both of these lies are corrosive and force peace-loving American Muslims to feel isolated and misunderstood. They can't profess their love of America enough to cleanse the stain that Islamic terrorism has placed on the good name of Islam.
My new mission, based upon my experience with the Rev. Tom Hartman, is to do what he described as "reaching over the fence and shaking hands with your neighbor."
Religious institutions can be helpful in creating dialogue groups with local Muslims, and we can do more to find Muslims who feel isolated. It reminds me of a poem I once heard by Edwin Markham:
"He drew a circle that shut me out.
"Heretic, rebel a thing to flout,
"But love and I had the wit to win,
"We drew a circle that took him in."
It's time to take American Muslims into the circle of our lives. The question we must all ask is this: "Are all my close friends exactly like me?" If that's true, we're vulnerable to misunderstanding at best and bigotry at worst.
This is not just pious naivete. I believe that institutions can change, and most importantly, we can change through close personal friendships with people not of our ethnicity or faith. Pope John XXIII changed the Catholic Church and purged it of its anti-Jewish teachings because of his friendships with rabbis.
Martin Luther King Jr. forged a national movement for civil rights because he was able to reach out to white clergy who were his friends and who came to Selma, Alabama, when their friend called on them.
Friendships can change the world. Friendships can defeat terrorism. I know that the war on terrorism also must include armies and bullets and bombs and diplomacy and sanctions, but those tactics are beyond us. They are the tools of governments. Our tool is the human heart, and I believe in the power of the human heart.