We will read many perspectives over the next few days about how to honor the 11th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on US soil, and we would do well to read them. Some will call us to unity. Others might promote our nation’s inherent pluralism. However September 11th, 2001 marks a very different anniversary for me. For me, it is a solemn day, a dark day.
September 11th, 2001 marks the day my hatred toward religion was born, and it all began with Islam.
Eleven years ago today, I was a Christian in my Evangelical prime. I witnessed to those I perceived as “lost” (for me, everyone was lost), I read my Bible daily, and I was convinced that Jesus was indeed the “way, the truth, and the life” (Gospel of John 14: 6). My world was contained in a Bible-sized box, and if one found others outside that box, they qualified as prodigal sons, squandering their lives on vain idols of pleasure among Epicurean hogs.
Then, as those towers collapsed in a pillar of dust, smoke, and fire, something happened. My passion for Christ mutated into a crusade for vengeance. Vengeance against whom?
I knew nothing about Islam or any other religion prior to September 11th, yet from my point of view, the perpetrators of the attacks had delivered all the information required. Two weeks later, I joined the United States Marine Corps with one goal: slaughter as many Muslims as possible.
Fortunately, my plans for “holy” slaughter never came to fruition; however, the slope that led to my abandonment of faith and eventual abhorrence of religion began soon after my discharge from the Marine Corps.
News of religious violence and bigotry, one family tragedy after another…my faith in religion and humanity crumbled around me over the next few years, brick by brick, until nothing remained except the emaciated idol I once adored. I soon found myself in the midst of a singularity of hatred and disillusion. Like a star at the end of its life, I collapsed upon myself with nowhere to go but outward in a violent blast of my entire being.
Now I had a choice. How would I direct that energy: devote it toward the complete annihilation of religion, or give my whole being into immersing myself back into humanity?
Either way, I was faced with personal death. As I reached critical mass, I chose the latter and thus, like an infant nebula born from the death of a star, Project Conversion was born.
For the next year (2011) I fully immersed myself in the beliefs, practices, rituals, customs, and lifestyles of twelve major world traditions in order to discover the humanity beneath them all. I submitted myself to the very teachings I condemned, the very people I would have rather seen burn in Hell. These mentors became my masters and I their student.
In the process, my former self was reduced to ashes. Those very ashes provided the fertilizer that soon birthed a new man, one who, through the immersion experience, discovered his humanity.
My journey through hatred and bigotry was indeed difficult, costly, and at times, even deadly, and I am thankful for my transformation. Having said that, I cannot help but wonder: had those Muslim men, who suffered from and were driven by the same anger I was, not plunged themselves to their deaths (taking over 3,000 people with them), would I have ever discovered my path toward healing? Did the actions of these men propel me toward where I am today?
I recently wrote that, had I not experienced Project Conversion, I could have very well become a man like the recent Sikh temple shooter. That is no exaggeration. In light of that understanding, and in reflecting upon the ripple effect initiated by the September 11th attackers, I am forced to contemplate the influences, however minute, we have upon the lives of others. No one is a stranger in this ever shrinking world. We are all surfers upon the ripples of cause and effect begun with the drop of stones from the past. Every smile, every scowl, every word, and every action propels us forward.
The question I have for you and myself as I meditate on this most tragic anniversary is, what will we do with the stones in our hands today?
Photo by the author.