Monday, September 19, 2011

Reflections from Teaching After 9/11

We are now a week removed from the ten year anniversary of 9/11.  Like most people, I also have a memory of where I was when I heard the news.  It was already a sad day at CHCA because many of us were leaving late morning to attend the funeral of a beloved parent.  The juxtaposition of mourning at a funeral mixed with  pockets of discussion and concern over the day's events created a surreal mood.  The weeks after were somber and anxious at the high school, as they were most places around the country. 

The week before the anniversary, I was talking to a class of seniors about what I perceived as a level of cynicism higher than I would expect in a group of high school students.  When I asked them where their youthful idealism was, they answered rather matter-of-factly that they had been raised in the shadow of 9/11 and they did not perceive the world as a place where idealism matched their reality.  I don't know if that attitude was a reflection on the psyche of their generation or was the outcome of the media build-up to the anniversary.  But without a doubt, we all have anecdotal, every day evidences of how our world has changed since that day.

One of the most concrete changes that I have seen has been the shift to a new Other. Let me explain.  Sociologists describe how cultures/groups define themselves to some degree by who they are not, or who is the "other" or outsider.  As someone who grew up in the 70's and 80's, the other was the U.S.S.R.  They became the foil to what it meant to be a freedom- and God-loving American.  They were the enemy.  They were evil.  But with the fall of the "Evil Empire," beginning with the wall in Berlin and the crumbling of the former Soviet empire, we went nearly a decade without a clearly defined, one-size-fits-all enemy.  All that changed on September 11, 2001.

I heard Jonathon Z. Smith, the great religionist and scholar of education at the University of Chicago say that it is the job of the educator to take the thing that is close to the student and move it far away and take what is far removed and bring it close.  Only then do we begin to see our topics of study (and our world for that matter) in clearer focus.  In a popular culture that easily propagandizes our views of Arabs generally and Muslims specifically, our educating students in history, politics, religion, and theology becomes all the more important.  In the teaching that I've done here, I haven't seen a greater shift in students' thinking on a topic than when I've taught  a four week unit on Islam. Our students' cultural influences have so strongly shaped them in their understanding of who is "not us" and why, that they struggle to understand what Islam actually stands for and how all religions have complex histories and diverse cultural manifestations (even our own).  So who is the other and what should my attitude and response be to them?  That is an extremely relevant question in post-9/11 America, both as a citizen in a democratic country that is founded on freedom of religion and as a Christian who follows a Master who calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who curse us.  In fact one could argue that Jesus calls us to reject the entire reality of keeping an outsider as other.  The religious authorities of his day were troubled by the fact that He had no such boundaries.

I will never forget in September 2001 when a colleague who was teaching the World Religions class at the time, still took the class to the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati off of Tylersville Road.  Our Muslim neighbors were shocked.  With the continual threats they received via phone and mail and the constant harrassment of many Muslims and Arabs across the country, they expected us to cancel the visit like all of the other pre-arranged tours.  But when our group arrived with flowers and a letter of support, they were moved beyond words.  And our students learned something very important that day that transcended media images and cultural rhetoric.  I'm happy to say our Western World Religions class still visits the Islamic Center.  And sometimes our hosts still make mention of that visit in 2001.  And I hope as our students learn about cultures, religions and differences, they also learn about how God calls us to be in the world.

1 comment:

  1. I was one of the students that went on that trip to the Mosque back in 2001. I remember vividly the general thunderstruck view the curators of the Mosque had when we did show up for the tour. The news had been filled with violence towards other Islamic centers here in the US already at this point. I think they half expected all of us to perhaps sneer and mock the Islamic Center when we did arrive, but that was not what we were called to do. All of us on that trip had come on a mission of love and understanding. It is still one of my proudest moments I have ever lived.