Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
November 11, 2001
The illusion of separateness
Americans have become "crippled by fear" by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent incidents of anthrax, says Dr. Carl Hammerschlag (WCR, Oct. 29). In this age of terrorism, no place is totally safe. But while terrorism can be fought militarily, it cannot be defeated militarily. And the more innocent people who are killed by "smart bombs," the more terrorism will grow.
Right now, terrorism is winning. It is spreading fear among the people and separating one person from another. Hammerschlag advised, "We cannot be looking at other people with suspicion." That gives the victory to the terrorists.
Henri Nouwen expressed this in terms of prayer: "Whenever you pray and leave out your fellowman, your prayer is no longer real prayer."
Thomas Merton tells of a young priest who preached one Sunday in New Orleans during the integrationist era of the 1960s. He told the congregation that the two-fold commandment - love of God and love of neighbour - applies to the problem of racial segregation. Whites and blacks should love each other to the point of accepting one another in an integrated society.
One man stood up and said: "I didn't come here to listen to this kind of junk, I came to hear Mass." Another man shouted that what the priest was preaching was 'crap." The two men left the congregation followed by about 50 others.
Later in the same book (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander), Merton recounted his own experience: "In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
"It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. . . .
"I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words, 'Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.'"
Merton's was a profound spiritual awakening. It was the awakening of solidarity - that what hurts you, hurts me and that what makes you more whole, also makes me more whole. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "The principle of solidarity, also articulated in terms of 'friendship' or 'social charity,' is a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood" (n. 1939).
We can't be human without being in solidarity with others, especially in dangerous times. Luigi and Marie Beltrame Quattrocchi, recently beatified by Pope John Paul, supported Mussolini in the early years of Italian fascism. But when the true face of fascism appeared, they were quick to put their own lives at risk by helping Jews and political dissidents escape.
No doubt they felt fear - a fear more immediate than that felt by many today who fear anthrax. But for them solidarity was more important than fear. Their own humanity was at stake and it would not be smothered by fear.
Pope John Paul said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks should push believers to work harder to build a world of brotherhood and solidarity (WCR, Oct. 29). Religious believers are called to look after their neighbours, "especially if (they are) weaker and in need of daily bread."
This is a test of faith for us. Where do we stand? What can we do to make solidarity real?
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