This is the first year of the official September 11th Museum and Memorial. Located underground, on the foundation stones of the World Trade Center Towers, it contains more than 10,000 artifacts of the day, 23,000 pictures, and an archive of more than 500 hours of video. Within the collection of artifacts and archives there is also an assembly of audio recordings; Final conversations of those in the towers as they called home, spouses, parents, partners, friends, and left voice mails. Rabbi Irwin Kula is responsible for collecting a good many of these conversations.
In the days after 9/11 he began seeking out the last words and sentences of anyone he could find who was killed that day. He took those words and adapted them into a chant for his synagogue. The tune and meter of the chant he chose was traditionally about the destruction of the Jewish temple. He thought it appropriate for the aftermath of the September 11th attacks.
What he discovered was not only that the words fit the traditional chant perfectly, but also this: All the final conversations he had in his collection were about love. Not a single person used his or her last breathe to say, “Kill those bastards for what they have done…Be sure to get revenge…I hate them for what they did to me…Avenge my memory.” Every last word was an “I love you” of some variety.
Here is what Rabbi Kula learned, “Then I recognized what the real Torah, the real wisdom…the real experience behind religion is…it is about love…and it’s no more complicated than that. As a rabbi, my community of rabbis, and I think priests, ministers, and monks – we’ve made it a lot more complicated than it is. When you make it more complicated than it is, you lose the experience.” Beautifully said.
As I understand the Bible, particularly as I read it through the lens of Jesus of Nazareth, God isn’t much into religion. He’s not interested in carving up the world along tribal or cultic lines. He’s not officiating a spiritual contest, declaring winners and losers in who can most strongly declare how right they are. That’s all much too complicated. Rather, he works to put the world on the right path, on the road to redemption, on the way of love. Jesus came to reveal God’s love to us, to draw it out of us, to show us that love is the beginning, the means, the path, and the end; it’s the only road to travel. This is what Jesus meant, I believe, when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The only way to know God is through the doorway of redeeming love. To choose a different path is to more than “lose the experience,” it is to absolutely corrupt it.
I suppose this makes me an “exclusivist;” one who denies that all religious paths are equal and simply have their own unique twists and turns along the way. No, I do not believe such a thing, for the morbid irony is that religion brought down those iconic towers more than a decade ago. Hard. Inflexible. Dogmatic. Immovable religion (And such religion can be perpetuated as easily by we who are “Christian” as any other group).
God surely can’t be associated with anything of the sort, no matter what name it is called or however right and correct it purports to be. God must be – absolutely must be – in what is loving, absolving, and just, not destructive. For love is what saves us. It is what gives us life. It is the only thing that overcomes hate and injustice. It is the only way.
Memorials built to honor those who have suffered and died as the result of hate are appropriate, and we should “never forget.” But let us never forget that neither hate nor religion will have the last word. That word has already been spoken; in the words of Dorothy Day, “Love is the final word.”