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Installation Speech by Elenie K. Huszagh
President, National Council of Churches
November 15, 2001, Oakland, California

(Photo Captions, Credits Below)

Elenie Huszagh Addresses NCC General Assembly, Guests at Installation BanquetThe View From Here to Where??

I would like examine the view looking forward as it affects all of us.

In all of recorded human history, and no doubt even prior, humans have always managed to divide themselves into an "us" and "them" configuration. We are all, apparently by our very nature, inclined to divide our relationships in such a manner. This starts at a very early age when "us" is our family and "them" is every one else.

As we become older and more aware, we may come to understand that there are differences between "us" and "them". For example, the first time I had dinner at a friend’s home, I was quite surprised at the tuna casserole and chocolate chip cookies for dessert. "We" had roast lamb and baklava for dessert. I wondered why "we" never had tuna casserole and why Mom never baked chocolate chip cookies. This was an educational and broadening experience as a result of my friendly, non-threatening encounter with "them".General Secretary Edgar, President Huszagh, President Elect Hoyt at Installation

Likewise, nations for geo-political reasons seem to establish their identities under an "us" and "them" configuration of the world. After all, such a scenario provides internal unity and a focused purpose for a nation. Regrettably, it is too easy to think of "us" as the good guys and "them" as the bad guys. This operates not only between nations on a global level, but within a nation it also permits the violation of the civil and human rights of fellow citizens when, because of appearance, national origin, religion, accent, whatever, we somehow confuse them with the bad guys.

I believe this point is important because the NCCC has never understood the world in this manner. Over the years, a major gift of the NCCC to the geo-political dialogue has been our unswerving belief that we are all created in the image of God—and therefore that we all can & should be identified as belonging--as "us."

In our own national history, there have been numerous "thems" – commencing with the British during what we call the American Revolution and through today, the new "them" - the Terrorists.

Let us examine our own national behavior in a couple of "us/them" scenarios. World War II is a good example where we were the good guys--and we were even able to include the Soviets in that category – temporarily – as we were allies against "them" –the evil Nazi regime. It is beyond comprehension that the leaders of a nation would order the extermination of so many people, starting with its own citizens –because of their religious beliefs? And continuing to exterminate anyone who displeased it, e.g. Gypsies, ethnically "inferior" races, homosexuals, political dissidents, etc.? Yes, this was clearly one of the worst examples of "them".

However, during this same period, we, as a nation, created a "them" out of our own citizens. By Executive Order of the president, the Japanese-Americans were suddenly made "them," a threat to national security solely because of their heritage. Whole communities, without ever being charged with any crime or breach of national security, had only a few days to dispose of their property and report for relocation to camps in isolated areas away from the Pacific Coast. Some churches protested the government orders and found ways to help those internees shorten their stay in the camps. Others of us neither said nor did anything. In retrospect, we can say that placing our own people in – in effect – "concentration camps" – was a result of the geo-political climate of the times. Of course, and in spite of the extraordinary evil of the regime of Nazi Germany, we did not incarcerate our German-American citizens – after all, there were too many of them & they were harder to identify.

Once that war was concluded, we as a nation realigned our "us" & "them" geopolitical view of the world. Communism was identified as the great "them". This gave rise to the McCarthy era & the Senate hearings, which destroyed the lives and reputations of so many people. Fear ruled the day. People gave up names of purported Communists in order to save themselves. The "them" of Communism was portrayed so large that we, as a people, were not able to objectively and sensibly deal with it. The NCCC spoke out against the McCarthy hearings and was reviled for doing so. It was accused of being a Communist Front organization – which, in retrospect is almost laughable since many of those making the accusation were themselves members of Churches which comprised the NCCC. As we now know, Sen. McCarthy was a sad, sick & misguided person whose status was enhanced solely because it drove our national need to have an identifiable "them".

Our own history tells us that any one of us can become a "them" – for whatever reason - at any time.

When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, the Communist "them" could no longer be the sole focus of our national attention. Our ability as a nation to determine our geopolitical role was severely impaired. Each international relationship became, of necessity, an ad hoc arrangement and consistency became elusive if not impossible. The critical question became: what were the fundamental marks of our identity so we could distinguish "us" from "them"?

It does not matter that we are the "most powerful", the "wealthiest" nation in the world. We found ourselves virtually disabled in our foreign relationships and national purpose because we had no visible enemy – a "them" that would give meaning and focus to our geopolitical strategy.

On September 11, 2001 a new "them" entered our lives. As a nation and as a people, each and every one of us felt the devastating impact of the tragic events at the World Trade Center & the Pentagon & on the ground in Pennsylvania. Our collective psyche was shattered and worst of all – we are unable to provide ourselves with an identifiable "them".

No longer are we dealing with national differences or even national aggression. Rather, it appears that we are dealing with many diverse and shadowy figures who are all over the world and who receive funding and support from a multitude of sources (many of whom are purported friends of ours). These people seem to have no coherent philosophic or political basis for their actions. Terrorism is simply that – a device to cause fear (terror) in those who are its target and render them dysfunctional. To what end, is often unclear. In fact, what specific purpose was the catastrophe of September 11 supposed to accomplish? We do not really know for certain. Rather, the statement that all we have to fear is fear itself – appears to be the sought after end.

We Americans have been fortunate – until now – having escaped the day to day fear of attack from an unknown and unexpected source. How we adjust our lives and our perceptions of who we are as individuals and as Americans will determine our future. It is, in many ways, our choice.

In times of stress, we have turned to our religious faith to provide comfort and answers to our questions. In recent days, we have seen Americans respond to September 11th with an outpouring of help, donations and, of course, prayers.

We are also asking – is our struggle to be one between Islam and the Judeo-Christian world? Are we facing the possibility of a religious war? How do we act and react in the face of such questions? The terrorists would like the world to believe that they are participants in a religious war as the defenders of Islam. Yet no religion, including Islam, supports a perversions of its beliefs, which allows for the murder of innocent people.

As a community of religious communions, the NCCC does answer the question emphatically NO This is not a war between religions but, in reality, the actions of those who will pervert the teachings of the faith of which they claim to be believers in order to justify their actions.

We, as Americans, must not allow our fear to demonize "them" in order to justify anything we might do in response to our fears. Above all, we must not use our national symbols against our own people in order to evaluate the loyalty of our own people or to otherwise diminish them. It is our meaning, as a nation, to use our faith as well as all of our other resources to assist in making the changes – both within and without our country that will provide a more secure and peaceful life for all.

It is my hope and belief that the role of the NCCC in today’s America, and by extension in today’s world, will be to act as a fulcrum which will assist in attaining and maintaining an essential and constructive balance between "us" and "them." Thus, the blessings of our diversity and the understanding that we are all created in the image of God will enable us to move forward with love – just as we have been instructed by our Lord.

Thank you.

Photos: Credit George Conklin, NCC

(At podium) The new NCC President, Elenie Huszagh, addresses General Assembly members and guests following the installation service

(In church) The Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar (left), NCC General Secretary, introduces the Installation of New NCC Officers: Elenie Huszagh, President for 2002-2003, and Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr., President-Elect for 2002-2003 (he'll serve as President in 2004-2005)

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