Peacemaking in a Troubled World
John Titus is father of Alicia Titus, a 28 year old flight attendant killed on United Air Lines Flight 175 on September 11th, 2001.
by John Titus
I stand in front of you this morning with a humble heart and a message of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation; a peace borne of the pain and sadness of losing a child to the evil forces that are ever-present in our world, and also within each of us. The battle that rages on around us and throughout our world is a reflection of the battle that we must face inwardly in order to come to a higher place; a place in which the Divine is made manifest and the ego-centric, self-serving aspect of our humanness is kept in check; thus allowing us to feel humility, compassion, love and interconnectedness with all of life. I think that we Christians and people of all faiths must learn to recognize and nurture the Divine that resides in every person and embrace the concept that we are all children of God.
June 11th, 1973, was the beginning of new stage in my life; the miracle of that day changed my life forever. On that wondrous day I had been blessed with a beautiful daughter who taught me to love more deeply, propelled me to search for greater truth, inspired me to look at life with fresh new innocence, increased my capacity to experience incredible joy, and gave me reason to live life more fully. We named our miracle Alicia, which means truth, and she always stayed true to her namesake. Many called her an “old soul”; many relished in her aura of peace; others loved her effervescence and joi de vivre. Whichever, Alicia was a seeker of truth and a truly compassionate soul who felt the interconnectedness with each person and all of life.
I would like to share with you something that she had entered in her journal in 1999, during a time in her life when her heart had been broken and she was feeling the pain of loss. She writes of happiness and it comes from a place of wisdom.
Happiness is such an illusive emotion. One day you’re soaring on its wings, the next you’re looking about, hoping to catch a glimpse of its sunny magnificence, trying to convince yourself it was real and not just a memory of a fairy tale from childhood.
Over the years my recipe for happiness has changed. Used to be, all I needed (or thought I needed) was a knight in shining armor. Then, it was a king and his kingdom; next, I just needed the kingdom, I could rule.
What ingredients do I need today? An infinite amount of love to give and receive freely; a purpose, goal, destination; I’m still working on it.
Those who have known the greatest happiness have opened themselves to the most gut-wrenching sorrow. It’s a gamble; you have to play to win. Or maybe those who have endured suffering have a greater respect for joy and can appreciate it wherever they find it; the smell of a rose, the sight of a baby, an old couple holding hands.
And those who’ve lived their lives in a heart-numbing cocoon of sanity, safety, and contentment don’t have the capacity for pure joy.
Or, maybe this is what I tell myself in order to pick myself up, dust off, and hop on again. Back into battle. Alicia-Journal Entry (1/4/99)
September 11th had always been a day of celebration for me: my grandfather’s birthday; the birth of my first son, Zachery Ian in 1978, and possibly the day Alicia was conceived. Then on September 11, 2001, it became the absolute worst day of my life. One can only imagine the pain, the sadness, the sense of deep forlorn and the utter devastation that we experienced on that day. But, it doesn’t end there: the sleepless nights; endless days of pain and agony; deep depression; utter despair; extreme loneliness. Along with all of that comes a need to rebuild your life and assimilate new perceptions of reality for the old ones don’t make sense anymore. This kind of tragedy is a world stopping experience and has a transformative power or the power to destroy; and it comes at a time when the soul is laid open by the intense pain. The exhaustive effect it has on the emotions, the mind, the body and the spirit are overwhelming. It also has the potential as a time of rebirth, regeneration or, if depression runs its course, a time of hopelessness, despair and destructiveness; sometimes all at the same time. Even at my lowest point, which seemed to compound each day, I was faced with choices; choices which would move me toward new understanding, greater love and deeper compassion; or choices that would lead to self absorption, broken faith, desolation and fear. One’s sense of the Divine grows and expands; or, diminishes and fades from the bitterness and pain.
I can only imagine the hell that life would be without faith, without hope, without God. For, even in the worst of times when I questioned whether life was worth living, when the pain filled every cell of my body and resonated deep within my soul; when I could feel myself slipping into the deep dark abyss, spiraling downward and questioning my ability to stop the depression, I always felt the presence of God and I saw God’s light; although, at times in the faraway distance like a flickering candle in the wind. My faith carried me through these worst of times; and my capacity for understanding and compassion grew in leaps and bounds as a deeper love blossomed out of the depths of my sadness.
My faith has always been strong; even when I was a rebellious adolescent, I believed that God’s love was always with me and His wisdom would ultimately prevail. I do not see God as punitive; I do not sense that God is wrathful or vengeful or makes arbitrary decisions that allow innocent people to die. My God is a God of love, hope, understanding, wisdom, compassion, forgiveness, joy and peace. We humans, through our free-will, through our narrow interpretation of God’s truth; through our fears and ignorance make choices about life and death; we cause incredible pain to one another; we destroy the environment; we place business interests over human interest; we wage wars on one another; and we justify the killing of innocent people to accomplish a perceived “greater mission”. The end does not justify the means! The end must be inherent in the means. If peace is truly our goal, then we must find peace within ourselves, grow our love and compassion, and strive for justice for all people.
Osama bin Laden and all the other narrow- minded, self serving, hate-filled zealots of this world who seek to destroy life and justify it in the name of God are not serving the same God I believe in; and this is not restricted to Islamic extremists. There are Christian extremists who do the same thing. There are otherwise good and descent people who support the killing of innocent people and justify it in the name of “war on terrorism”, Jihad or feel that they are doing God’s will.
“Civilian casualties” from our illusive “war on terrorism” by some estimates is over 100,000 men, women, and children. Over 2300 American soldiers have died in this war; and 17,000 have been physically wounded. Tens of thousands have been psychologically and spiritually wounded. And, there is no end in sight as the war on terrorism seems to create more terror. The casualties mount daily and Iraq is now on the verge of civil war. Afghanistan is being controlled by warlords and the opium production from that country is at an all time high. History has shown us that violence only begets more violence; and hate and revenge will only bring more hate and revenge; our grandchildren will suffer the consequences.
A question we should all ask ourselves is: “Who would Jesus bomb?” And as persons of faith, perhaps we should be seeking a better way; for Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to do unto others as we would have done to us. The only way to conquer hate is through love; the only way to peaceful co-existence is through greater understanding and compassion for one another.
The injustices of the world make it seem so desolate and cold for those billions of people who feel its wrath each day; over half of the world’s population live on less that $2 per day while the wealthiest five percent own fifty percent of the world’s wealth; nearly 40,000 children die each day due to curable diseases and lack of food. But, here is the real tragedy: most of us who are living the “good life” and have all the material amenities needed, are oblivious to the terrible conditions that exist around the world and in our own country; or worse, turn a blind eye to them. Domestic violence is the prominent crime in America and where most of our resources for police investigations are spent: eighty percent of Detroit’s Police budget is spent on domestic violence; and the United States now imprisons more people than any other country in the world! Our solution to the rebelliousness of our youth, who feel trapped by our system, is to build more prisons and lock them up. The irony in this is that eventually they will be released back into society with more anger, more hate, more violence and a significantly less chance of making it in society. We will be made to feel their wrath! Terrorists are recruited from disillusioned youth much like these; the combination of anger, a prevailing sense of injustice, hopelessness and feeling of desperation opens them to the false hope that they can make a difference through violence.
Years ago, I worked with inner-city youth in a Residential Treatment Center and then through a Community Mental Health System in Springfield, Ohio. I worked with teen-age boys who had been severely abused, neglected and rejected, who would soon become adults and eventually parents, oftentimes perpetuating the same cycle of violence. Richard, a bright, athletic, 15 year-old was a born leader; he had been tied down spread-eagle to his bed and had his throat slit by his father when he was 8-years old; Buddy, a likeable, caring youth yet, very self-destructive 15 year-old, had nearly every bone in his body broken by his parents through years of abuse and then was left on the back step of an institution on a cold winter’s night in Cleveland when he was 5 years old and the list goes on. I’ve had a knife stuck to my throat by a 16 year old; I intervened in a suicide attempt by a 16 year-old youth as he slit his throat with a broken pop bottle; and I know personally of a case in which a 15 year-old boy was raped by 14 other boys in an Ohio prison where I worked for a short while. I’ve also worked with pre-adolescent youth who at 6 and 8 years old were daily left unsupervised, ran the streets with older youth, stealing, running drugs, drinking, fighting. The single parents who worked at minimum wage jobs could not afford child care. And this is in America! The atrocities that take place in third world countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Rwanda and others are unthinkable; which is perhaps part of the problem. Americans are comfortably numb to the reality of how much of the world is suffering. We have created an illusion that protects us from the hell that half of the world lives in every day. The problem is this: in God’s creation, we are intimately connected with all of life; the least of these my brethren and even the tiniest sparrow is valued equally in the eyes of God. We cannot choose to ignore this reality any longer. As people of faith who profess the love of Christ and embrace the Golden Rule, we must take action and strive to make a more just world. There can be no peace without justice! And, as I have experienced, our children are not safe in a world that allows such inequity and injustice to exist. We have the resources on this planet; we have the technological capability to make it happen; all we need is the love in our hearts and the wisdom in our actions.
What does this have to do with terrorism! It’s the mentality in this country that allows such atrocities to happen, not only in our back yard, but also abroad that leads to violence everywhere. Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. stated that only love can overcome hate. We must learn the greater love that God has intended for us; agape love as the Greeks called it; a love that does not discriminate; a love that allows us to love our enemies, (but thank God, it doesn’t say we must like them!) We must learn forgiveness and reconciliation; or, if we continue to live by the sword, be ready to die by the sword.
My daughter died by the sword and I say it’s time to learn a new way. Clarity has come to me out of her death and I now understand the wisdom of turning our swords into plowshares. Our government spends nearly a half a trillion dollars per year on military expenditures! That amount of money blows my mind! But what really blows my mind is the good that could result if it were spent to alleviate human suffering and basic needs: every child in the world could have food and medicine; justice could prevail; and the hate for America would surely dissipate as the wielding of our power would be for good, guided by God’s wisdom and love.
Impossible! Some will say. But, I believe it is possible; I believe that this is truly what God wills for us; and, I believe that if every person who believes in God, Allah, Enlightenment, Krishna or Wankan Tanka, the Great Mystery committed to peace, we could overcome the pervasive injustice and create a world that would be peaceful and Divinely inspired. After all, what is the alternative? As Dr. King so wisely stated in 1967, The past is prophetic in that wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.
From Dr. King’s saying came the name for the organization of September 11th families who personally lost a loved one on that day and came together to speak out against using our tragedy to justify waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq. We believed that justice must be served but the killing of more innocent lives must end. We believe that, just like our loved ones who died on September 11th, those Afghani and Iraqi children, woman and men who had nothing to do with September 11th, should not have to die; they are also precious in God’s eyes. Representatives from our group went to Afghanistan and met with victim’s families and then to Iraq. In Afghanistan, death and destruction was everywhere! Whole families were killed; towns were destroyed in a country that had already been devastated by years of conflict, extreme poverty, and ruled by warlords and Taliban extremists; it had been made to feel America’s wrath. I could go on and on about the tens of thousands of innocent victims in Iraq and how that war was waged under false pretenses but, here is a thought that perhaps all of us can agree upon: there has to be a better way of resolving conflict!
Have we not learned the lessons of our warring past? Can we not make a commitment to a greater understanding of the conditions that perpetuate such violence and search for a means of resolution without the senseless killing that results from war? What if we waged peace with the same passion? What if we trained peacemakers and peace keepers with the same intensity that we do in the military? What if we took a portion of our defense budget and sponsored programs, trained people in understanding world cultures and how to wage conflict resolution with the same precision as we train soldiers to kill? And, what if each person of faith were to devote time each day to thoughts of peace and justice? Marianne Williamson, in her book, “Healing the Soul of America” talks extensively about this very thing and says that once we attain a critical mass of people on earth who devote spiritual energy toward peace in a meaningful way each day, it will come to pass. After all, isn’t this is what God wants for us and for the entire world?
At my daughter’s memorial service, the gathering of 600 people held hands and sang, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” I would like to close with a few moments of silent meditation in which each of us closes our eyes and visualizes a world in which peace flourishes and hope runs eternal; a world in which children’s laughter rings out and innocence abounds; a world in which all of life is valued equally and justice prevails. Before this kind of world can ever exist, the human mind must conceive it and then act upon it.
Go in peace. Thank you.
Retreat-St. John’s Episcopal Church
April 1st, 2006