Cook: Coaxing light and goodness out of July 16 tragedy

Cook: Coaxing light and goodness out of July 16 tragedy

July 10th, 2016 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

United States Marines carry the casket of U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. David Wyatt out of Hixson United Methodist Church after his funeral service Friday, July 24, 2015, in Hixson, Tenn. Staff Sgt. Wyatt was killed in the July, 16 shootings at the Naval Operational Support Center and Marine Corps Reserve Center on Amnicola Highway which left five dead, including shooter Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, and a Chattanooga police officer wounded.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Honoring the dead: Rally, memorial, hearse motorcade pay respects to shooting victims

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If you go

 What: Chattanooga Strong Together interfaith event

 Where: UTC Student Center

 When: Saturday, July 16, 2:30-4 p.m.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Love is patient.

And kind.

Love is long-suffering, holds no grudges and sees the best in others.

Love doesn't rejoice in defeatism, obstructionism or enemy-making.

And love, apparently, doesn't win many elections.

"We do the opposite with our enemies in government," said Mark Siljander. "When I was a Republican, we did anything to defeat the Democrats."

In the 1980s, Siljander, a congressman from Michigan, arrived in Washington with the attitude and air of a Moral Majority battle-ax, foreshadowing the Republican takeover that was soon to come.

"Newt Gingrich and I and others did literally the opposite of every single do's and don'ts taught by Jesus," he said.

Yes, Siljander was a Christian.

Sort of.

"I loved God," he said, "and hated my neighbor."

His neighbors? Anyone not like him: Democrat, Muslim, feminist, and so on. Siljander was an early version of the ugly politics we know so well today, a dysfunction within just as many Democrats and liberals as Republicans.

"Just think if Tom DeLay or Newt Gingrich started to treat Democrats the way Jesus taught how to love our enemy or adversary," said Siljander, who was later appointed a deputy ambassador to the United Nations. "It would have caused a complete political revolution."

Siljander may be the most important ex-politician in the U.S. you've never heard of; his cutthroat days are long gone (as is the controversy over a guilty plea for what the feds said was a connection to a charity with terrorist ties), and now Siljander, who once walked off the floor of Congress incensed and offended when a colleague quoted the Quran, travels the world — "145 countries," he said, including Darfur and Pakistan — preaching a new form of politics.

Interfaith reconciliation.


Common ground between Muslims, Christians and Jews.

And love.

"Is love that powerful?" he said. "Yes, I believe it is."

Three hundred and fifty-nine days ago, a young Muslim man, armed with guns and a jihadist's confusion and fury, tried to make us believe otherwise.

Yes, we responded: with ceremonies, memorials, legislation and permanent flags, honoring those killed in every way conceivable.

Yet what is the state of our city's spirit? In the last 359 days, has our love for one another grown and expanded?

Or shrunk?

Are we closer, more understanding of religious diversity and God's kingdom?

Or less?

On Saturday, July 16, Siljander comes to Chattanooga as part of a huge interfaith ceremony at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. It's called "Chattanooga Strong Together," and features many of our city's spiritual leaders.

Rabbi Susan Tendler, of B'nai Zion Congregation.

Pastor Kevin Adams, of Olivet Baptist.

Dave Ketelsen, pastor of Hamilton Community Church.

Mayor Andy Berke will speak, but the ceremony's centerpiece is Siljander, and his story of reconciliation.

"It is our prayer that we could create a space for reconciliation and healing to start taking place, that the lives of the deceased may become the seed for a better city, and as such, their service may continue even after they are gone," said Dr. Gaby Phillips.

Months ago, Phillips, who is the director of Adventist-Muslim relations for the Seventh- day Adventist Church throughout North America, sat down with a beautiful coalition of God's people: Dennis Flaugher (Brainerd United Methodist senior pastor), Charles Neal (pastor-emeritus from First-Centenary) and Bassam Issa (president of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga).

Their work was to plan an interfaith service that sought to coax light and goodness out of the pain of July 16.

They wanted Chattanooga to hear Siljander's message of interfaith community.

"We can start looking at each other with different eyes," said Siljander, whose work has also explored the linguistic connections between the three Abrahamic religions. "Instead of eyes of disdain and heresy, eyes of friendship and potential brotherhood."

Siljander's nonprofit, Bridges to Common Ground, teaches a process of peacemaking — he says it's worked on everything from family relationships to Third World dictators — that is disarming and nonthreatening. The human heart, which can sniff out agendas from miles away, is not interested in being convinced or coerced; instead, real trust comes from relationships.

That's how we turn enemies into neighbors.

"Love always wins," said Siljander.

Even on July 16.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at or 423-757-6329.

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