JOURNEY ON HOLY GROUND
(“Journey on Holy Ground” was a presentation at PrairieBaptistChurch in Prairie Village, Kansas on September 11th 2002.)
September 11th. That is a date which will mean so much for the rest of our lives, much like December 7th meant for an earlier generation, some of you who are still here. I would like to focus our thoughts on the WorldTradeCenter in New York, aware that people also died at the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania. But the WorldTradeCenter was the site of the worst catastrophe that day. Ground Zero was the pile of wreckage and rubble and bodies that took months to clear. It became a pilgrimage site, as millions of people stopped by to somberly watch and reflectand grieve. Now the discussion, the debate even is underway about how to memorialize the horrificevents of September 11th at this site. Ground Zero has become Holy Ground.
I have not been to the Holy Ground that is Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. I did go up in one of the WorldTradeTowers many years ago. I, like you, have watched TV footage, read articles, looked at pictures, transfixedby the horror and sorrow, knowing that even at a distance this is my horrorand sorrow. But I have been to some other places of Holy Ground, sanctified by human suffering. At those places I encountered both the sanctity of sorrows and some disturbing shadows. Those shadows throw some light onto our experiences of Holy Ground, light we
may need on this awful anniversary. So let us take a reflective journey to Holy Ground.
Holy Ground. Ground Zero. The first Ground Zero. As I stood in Hiroshima's PeacePark looking at the stark skeleton of the domed building over which the Atomic Bomb exploded I sensed a bit of the horror of that August day in 1945 when nuclear weapons were first used against other human beings. There is a statue of Sadako Sasaki, the girl who died from leukemia following the bombing. Thousands of brightly colored paper cranes lovingly laid at the base of the statue commemorate her prayer for peace and healing. A mass grave with the ashes of ten thousand people stretched my imagination beyond its capacity to grasp meaning. The most emotionally ripping moment for me was to look at a burned empty school uniform, knowing in an instant the terrible fate of the child who put the uniform on that morning. As an American walking through this Japanese park grief and tears were my constant companions. I was on Holy Ground.
Holy Ground, Yad Vashem. Yad Vashem is the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The eternal flame burns over a stark black surface with the names sculpted in metal: Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Terezen Stadt, Babi Yar, Dachau, Treblinka, Ravensbruk, Buchenwald. Six million Jews perished in an extended and systematic act of genocide, but each one was a person with a name. Each one was a person with people who loved them. Names are important at Yad Vashem, part of the remembering. There was a special place for families and friends to list the names of their loved ones in the memorial. The pictures in the historical museum were familiar to me, but it was the artwhich revealed the heart of both the horror and the determination to survive. "All That Remained" is the title of the work that tore my soul: A sculpture of a pile of shoes, women's shoes, men's shoes, children's shoes. All That Remained. In the museum a single shoe of a child made the work of art even more graphic. That shoe was not a work of art, but an artifact, the shoe of a real child with a real name who vanished into the ovens. The shoes had been removed not in respect of God but in brutal violation of God's image in Jews and in the millions of others viewed as unfit to live by the Nazi regime. For all it’s horror, I was standing on Holy Ground.
These places, and so many others like them, are holy ground. For from these places there is an echo heard from an ancient patch of soil. From these places we can hear the blood cry out even as the blood cried out from the ground when Abel had been murdered by his brother Cain. The Holy Ground cries out with the blood of the slain. These places, places of conflict, places of violence, places of death are also places of Holy Ground because here God’s image is seen. God’s stamp has been placed upon our humanity. It is the essence of our very being as humans. And so when violence seeks to erase a human being by acts of murder, what God has put upon us, that divine stamp, that divine image, that divine reflection of the glory of the Creator cries out. God’s image within us will not be silenced no matter what Cain and all his violent progeny may do.
Holy Ground. New York City. Smoke pours out of a tall square tower. Another plane flies into its companion tower, blossoming into an orange and black flower. The sky rains bits of metal, paper, plastic, people. One stream of people tumbles down the stairs, while another stream, firefighters, trudgesup. “Greater love has no one than this.....” Do they know the love they are about to give? Then the slow crumbling of each tower, the billowing of smoke and dust down the steeland glass canyons. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. The Pile, the smoldering pile beyond our hellish imagining. Holy Ground.
But there is a shadow over Holy Ground. These holy places are not pure places. The shadow comes not from the violence that shed the blood but from the human beings much like us who raised the memorials.
Holy Ground. Ground Zero. At Hiroshima twenty thousand Korean slave laborers perished in the bombing. Japanese racism toward Koreans had led to invasion of the Korean peninsula, the exploitation of Korean people, and the sexual enslavement of tens of thousands of Korean women. Thirty thousand Korean slave laborers worked in Hiroshima that August in 1945, and twenty thousand of them died. Following the bombing of Hiroshima, the Korean dead were not buried but were piled up to be left as carrion for the birds to devour. When the Koreans wanted to build a memorial for their dead in Hiroshima, it was not included in the PeacePark itself, but is across a river from the park. Though the intersection is on the tourist maps and many less significant points of interest are noted, there is no indication of the Korean memorial on any of the guide maps. The shadow of racism has crept into the holy ground where a hundred thousand human beings were slaughtered by the Bomb.
Holy Ground. Yad Vashem. The historical story of the Holocaust in the museum at Yad Vashem concludes with the achievement of independence by Israel. The awful story of genocide against Jewish people finds its ending in the establishment of their own homeland. But there is silence on the cost of Israeli independence for Palestinian people. Palestinian villages were razed, hundreds of thousands fled into exile or into refugee camps. Massacres took place to create the "empty" land into which Jewish settlers could move. None of this is mentioned at Yad Vashem. For many people it seems the power of the Holocaust memory drives the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, an occupation that continues to see Palestinians driven from their land, imprisoned without charge, tortured, and killed, an occupation that still covers the majority of Palestinian territory. Yad Vashem speaks eloquently of the horrors inflicted upon Jewish people in Europe, but for Zionists seeking to expand Israeli territory the memorial feeds the current horror inflicted upon Palestinians. There is a shadow over this holy ground.
Today has been proclaimed as Patriot Day. I must say that feels like a shadow to me. The Holy Ground of remembrance has been made captive to nationalist pride, arroganceand revenge.
We are invited to remember by jumping on the jingoistic bandwagon. We’ve already waged one war, and we are preparing to launch another. In answer to the terror attacks on this land we pursued and bombed our enemies, killingmore Afghan civilians in the process than the number of people killed onSeptember 11th. Not too long ago a wedding party was machine gunned from the sky and offeredbland excuses and justifications. Hey, that’s the way war is. Now the war drums are beating to send us to Iraq, where the war never stopped. Since the Gulf War hundreds of thousands of children have died because ofdamage done to water and sewage systems, the U.S.-led embargo, and, to be sure, the callousness of their own political leader. We call civilians we kill “collateral damage,” sing “God Bless America,” and prepare foryet more war. The shadow smolders on the bare hole left in Manhattan.
What do these shadows over holy ground say to us? What do these places in their complexity tell us about the roots of violence? We want the roots of violence to be like a dandelion root, one big long taproot that may be deep and tough, but you can dig it out, yank it out with one big pull. We want to identify the evil ones, whether great historical figures like Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and Idi Ami, or our local figures of evil, the gang-bangers and muggers and wife-beaters and rapists and killers in our schools, or our current national villains like Mohammed Atta, Osama Ben Ladin and Saddam Hussein.
A couple years ago Newsweek magazine ran a cover with a picture of Slobodan Milosevic and
the title, “The Face of Evil.” Don’t we just wish it was as simple as that. But as we look at the shadows over holy ground I see a far more complex picture. Rather than a simple taproot for violence, I see a massive tangle of roots reaching in so many directions into our souls and our society. The roots of violence are entwined around so much, not just what is blatantly evil, but alsoaround much that we hold in high esteem.
Let’s think again about that cover from Newsweek. It’s true that Milosevic is The Face of Evil. But it’s also true that Milosevic is The Image of God. We could write that right across his photo and be theologically correct. Are we not all made in the image of God? And you can take my photo and write across it with equal truth, The Image of God and The Face of Evil. Our fallen humanness is the mix of both, the glorious image of God stamped upon our very being, but it is cracked, marred, distorted by the evil of sin. This is true of Slobodan Milosovic, Osama Ben Ladin, Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush,Daniel Buttry and each and every one of us.
The root of violence grows deeper, however, when these two labels are ripped apart, separated. Milosevic is only The Face of Evil. The forces of NATO, the United States, are the divine agents of God’s justice, the image of God on earth. Osama Ben Ladin is only the Face of Evil.
So our bombers and troops are the divine agents of God’s justice to root outterror, the image of God on earth. Saddam Hussein is only the Face of Evil. So our forces planning to invade Iraq are God’s army, bearing the image of Godon earth. Mohammad Atta made this split, this theological separation, as he drove that jet into theWorldTradeTower. He saw the U.S. wearing the Face of Evil. Those he was killing were unbelievers. He, Mohammad Atta, was God’s agent, a messenger from Allah, to bring divinejudgment. Our means may vary, our targets may differ, but have we done what he did in our hearts?
That is the violence of denying the image of God in another human being. It is the first act of violence. We create the enemy, and the enemy is not fully human. The enemy has lost the stamp of God’s image, leaving them subhuman or demonic. So we can give them names: The Face of Evil--how can we allow such evil to continue? Call someone different a name: It’s so much easier to grease a gook than to kill a human being. If you call a woman a bitch then what’s so bad about slapping her around as if she’s just a dog?
We create names and stereotypes and distorted images that erode or even expunge the image ofGod in the other, at least within our own minds. And that’s where our violence begins. Once we have separated the image of God and the face of evil, and we have slapped thatlabel of evil upon our enemy, what are we left with? Why, we are the image of God. We are righteous in whatever we do. Because of the evil of the other and the rightness of ourselves we are justified inthe violence we do against the enemy. I have removed the humility that comes with seeing my own propensity to evil and all I’mleft with is the arrogance of playing God.
So the role of divine judge is one I am justified to take up. We can nuke the Japs because they bombed Pearl Harbor in a sneak attack. We can gas the Jews because they are vermin controlling our money. We can gun down Martin Luther King because he s a commie agitating nigger. We can bulldoze Palestinian homes because they’re terrorists. We can throw the poor on the street because they are crackheads and welfare cheats. We can kill gays because they’re perverts. We can slam kids into lockers because they are geeks or goths. We can shoot classmates because they are dumb jocks. We can execute criminals because they are cold-blooded killers. We can ram planes into buildings because they hold unbelieving oppressors. We can do whatever we damn well please because we are justified by our own righteousness in the face of the evil of our enemies.
That’s the shadow that haunts me from these places of Holy Ground. If our sorrows blind us to our sin, then Holy Ground, sacred as it is, can become thejustification for new evil. So where do we turn?
Holy Ground. A hill called Calvary, Golgotha, Place of the Skull. Holy Ground. At the foot of a cross, soil soaked with the precious blood of Jesus. He is the sinless one, the spotless lamb of God. He is the Son of God, God in human flesh, the Word come among us. He is dying, a victim of violence, but not a victim. Yes, Roman might drove those nails in his hands and feet; but Jesus said his life would not be taken from him. He lay it down of his own accord. This was a sacrifice of redeeming love, willing love, love that poured itself out. Holy Ground at the foot of the cross where we have all knelt.
Holy Ground that is shadowed, too. For that cross has been the excuse for unfathomable slaughter. The cross was the emblem on the shields of Crusaders who massacred Muslims, Jews and even countless other Christians, then praised God for the bloodthat flowed. The cross was the rallying symbol for holy wars across Europe and Inquisitions and the genocidal conquest of the Americas. The cross still to this day is a symbol for people to attack people of color or gays and lesbians or Jews or Arabs. It’s not a shadow from Jesus but a shadow from those who lift up the cross to assaultothers in his name.
Yet no matter how much that nonviolent act of self-sacrifice is blasphemed by those whomay raise the cross in violence, there is a redemptive power that comes from thatHoly Ground. Paul, who as Saul of Tarsus was a wielder of violence in the name of God and God’s righteousness, was disarmed by the grace of the one he persecuted. Paul wrote: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvationto everyone who has faith.” (Romans 1.16) In Jesus at the cross the cycles of violence are broken. In his broken body peace is made between me and my enemy. The walls of hostility are dismantled. The way is cleared for repentance and reconciliation.
So how do we find the way through all the violence and shadows to the holy ground whererepentance and reconciliation and healing and justice and peace can grow? Is there any way for us here on September 11, 2002? I find the answers back along the way of our journey.
Holy Ground. The Maruki Gallery. The Maruki Gallery is a small art gallery outside of Tokyo. Iri and Toshi Maruki are a married couple, both artists. The grounds of the gallery include both their home and an exhibition of their work. The major exhibit is a collection of fifteen wall-sized paintings on folding screens of theexperiences of those in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The Marukis traveled to the smoldering city a few days after the bombing to search for missing relatives. Their paintings capture the horror, the disorientation, the anguish of the people of
Hiroshima. But two paintings brought in a theme absent from the peace park. One depicted the crows feasting on the piles of Korean dead left unburied. The other portrayed the fate of American POW's who survived the bombing only to be torn limb from limb by their enraged captors. The Marukis' poetic comment beside their depiction said, "Our hands tremble as we paint." In an adjacent room was yet another large painting, this one of the "Rape of Nanjing,”recalling the terrible three-day orgy of violence where some 300,000 Chinesepeople were slaughtered by Japanese. The Marukis vividly presented the suffering caused by the bomb, but they also couldrecognize with profound grief the violence in which their own society had played the leading role. Their sorrow did not blot out the sorrow of other victims, including those labeled as "enemies."