The Pros and Cons of Being Distinctly Anything

Like almost ever person I know--in the United States and abroad--I vividly remember where I was when I first heard that the World Trade Center had been struck by a plane. I remember, too, the questions that attack raised for me, most of which are still unresolved.

I was the pastor at the time of the First Congregational Church of Somerville, MA at the time, and by mid-day I put a sign outside the church that said simply, "Pray With Us 7:30 pm". We kept the lights low that night, lit the candles we use on Christmas Eve, and sang a refrain from the Taize Community: "Bless the Lord my soul, and bless God's holy name. Bless the Lord, my soul, who leads me into life." It was probably the realest, rawest communal prayer I have ever experienced.

That week, as I tried to write a sermon for the coming Sunday, the words of that song came back to me again and again. I thought of Moses' final words to the Israelites as they stood at the edge of the Promised Land: "Choose life!" he commanded them. Clearly, there was another option, the one the 9-11 terrorists chose. Although the consequences were horrific, death was a choice that was available to them. It's available to us, to everyone.

So given that choice is not only ours, but everyone's, how can we live? Since we can't eliminate the choice between life and death, we have to try to influence other people as they make that choice. In the end, I have to believe that our choice of life is, in itself, persuasive. By embracing life, loving it, and celebrating it in a hospitable, open way, we can make it easier, more likely that others will choose life as well.

That was, at least, what I preached that first Sunday after 9-11. I still believe what I said, but I'm haunted by one piece of the story of 9-11. The people who committed those attacks lived in the United States for some years prior to their crime. They probably had some bad experiences with Americans, but I'm sure that there were plenty of shopkeepers who wished them a good day, plenty of people who smiled at them on the street, plenty of children who giggled and skipped as they walked past them on the sidewalk. They were surrounded by people who chose life--why didn't they catch it from them?

The answer, it seems, has something to do with living "in but not of" a community, a culture, a people. Somehow, those men were able to live in our culture while holding themselves apart from it. So we didn't influence them. So it was still possible to kill us.

And yet...

One of the things I have come to understand about my own religious life over the years is that I am interested in preserving distinctives. I like being a Christian--being the follower of a particular path--and have no interest in transcending those particulars are becoming One With Everything. I enjoy finding connections between my religious path and those of others, but I don't want to focus only on the things we hold in common. I want hear about the particularities of other paths--cultural distinctives but also the stories and teachings and specific rituals and beliefs that make us distinct. In a recent conversation in an interfaith group, I found myself siding with the rabbi much more than the Unitarians. I like the idea God having particular relationships with particular people, primitive and magical as that can be at times.

So am I part of the problem? Are Christians like me--Christian LEADERS like me--who encourage distinctiveness, who talk about having a distinctive witness to the rest of the world--part of the problem? If we are to choose life, and influence the choices of others in the same direction, do we need to speak more and more in universal, cross-cultural terms? If we do, could we still tell stories?

As this week draws to a close, I still can only wonder....