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Friday, September 17, 2010

Jesus in New York

Statue of Jesus and the twin towers,
(cc) Michael Dolan,
A friend recently posted on his Facebook wall about the parable of the good Samaritan. In this familiar tale, a Jewish traveler is beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Others walk by, including a priest, without helping him. Then a Samaritan (a member of an ethnoreligious group once numerous), stops and helps the Jew. Many of us take the parable as a simple story underscoring the importance of being kind to others, but its lesson is much deeper.

I have actually heard some individual Christians try to qualify the ethical dictate to 'love thy neighbor' by saying that neighbor means other Christians, or Americans, or literally those living around you. They do this in a poor attempt to reconcile the teachings of their savior with the massive military of their country, and what they see in their own lives as the practical necessity of violence in certain cases.

But the whole meaning of the parable of the good Samaritan is an answer to the question, "who is my neighbor?" It was significant that a Samaritan helped the Jew. The term 'good Samaritan' was seen as an oxymoron by Jesus' Jewish audience who would have been shocked to hear this because Jews and Samaritans disliked one another. Tensions were high and the Samaritans had desecrated Jewish temples and had even given Jesus a hostile reception. Yet, here was a Jew teaching other Jews that their neighbor was the Samaritan.

It would be as if Jesus in today's time told a story to Christians in which a Muslim was the hero, and then said: the Muslim is your neighbor, and you are to love him as you love yourself.

Such humility and nobility of character shames us all.

It's unfortunate that so many who call themselves Christians do not take seriously the greatest teachings of the one they claim to follow. It's *easy* to love the neighbor who dresses like you, goes to your church, or lends you sugar on the weekends. This was not Jesus' profound prescription.

Many Christians do try to live by Jesus' teachings, and we need more of them in the spotlight. My father would be the first to tell you he is not a 'perfect' Christian (there are none, of course, as there are no perfect people). But in a modest church in a run-down part of his small town, he decided to help the poor. He played host to the poor, the elderly, the homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes, and others simply on hard times; sharing conversation with them over coffee and a doughnut. Believe it or not, there were times he even took Jesus' example and washed their feet. He never questioned whether or not these people deserved their condition, or whether they would make use of his help to set themselves right, and he never admonished them. That was his 'program' for the poor: compassion. The rest fell into place. Many of them did begin to see a return of hope and improve their condition, and some simply enjoyed doughnuts and coffee.

In the book of Matthew, it is written that if someone tries to sue us for our tunic, we should give them our cloak as well. Peter asks Jesus if we should forgive others as many as seven times, and Jesus responds "seventy times seven" times. Point being, by the 490th time we surely would have lost count.

I am not a Christian by any common use of the term. When it comes to the unknown or the improvable, I prefer the humble approach of making claims only regarding what I can measure and prove to others. As a naturalist, I hold no supernatural beliefs, yet we all have the ability to understand truth when it is presented to us. I have found similar truths in Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Stoicism, and other philosophies; and in these lessons of Jesus there is truth. I know this by the evidence of their efficacy in my life and in the numerous examples I've seen and read in the lives of others.

While I have lost people close to me at other times, I did not lose anyone close to me in the tragedies of 9/11, or any similar attacks. But it is the right and the responsibility of everyone to support and convey wisdom when and wherever it is needed, as well as they can understand it.

Judging by his parable of the good Samaritan, it is easy to know what the Jesus of scripture would say were he to visit New York today. Not only would he say to let the Muslims build their center, but once it had been built he would tell the families of victims of 9/11 to invite those Muslims into their homes, to feed them, and perhaps even to wash their feet.

And if Jesus were to come to New York and when you had heard what he'd said, the counter-intuitive profundity of it would shock you to your core. And, if you truly loved Jesus, you would then realize how huge was the gulf between where you had come to and his teachings; and you would fall to your knees in shame.

But the best part would be what would come next. Because after you had put his teachings into practice, you would understand why he had told you to do this.

The heart of the approach found in the philosophy of Jesus, the Buddha, and others when it comes to one's enemies, is reliance on the fact that there is goodness in everyone, and certainly when you're talking about large groups of people. When others see complete sincerity and kindness, they cannot help but be transformed by it. No one wants to consider themselves "the bad guy". Jesus' teachings are wise because they recognize deeper truths about how human beings operate. They are based on a transformation of the human heart, moved by extraordinary acts of peace, courage, and compassion - especially in the face of danger and hostility.

But Jesus' philosophy is meant to be applied in full, without reservation. If you extend one hand, with the other holding a weapon 'just in case', then what would be an act of peace, humility, and sacrifice becomes an ultimatum. The message is twisted into something like, "I'll offer you peace if you behave the way I want, but if you don't then you're going to get it". This is about as far from Jesus' teachings as one can be, and as such the technique loses all its power.

Your enemy must see and know that you are trusting him. This convinces him that you believe there is good in him, and you are willing to risk yourself in order that the two of you may find it in one another. But it also shows that you believe so strongly in peace that you are willing to give your life for it if you must. Only such a risk and sacrifice has the transformative power in the heart of others - the same transformative power in the story of Jesus' sacrifice which built a faith of billions.

This is what Mohandas Gandhi understood when he forbade his followers to use violence in resisting British rule in India (something which they imperfectly followed). It was the pearl within Dr. Martin Luther King's struggle for equality which endeared him and his cause to so many. It was the Buddha's intention in teaching compassion for all beings without exception.

Thus, you have to be willing to risk - and yes, it is risk because many times an enemy's heart may not be transformed, or it may take longer to transform it than the time until more deaths occur. So many of us are willing to die for a cause - as long as we get to go down with a machine gun in our hands. But this is not the cause which Jesus assigns us. The question is, are you willing to die for his cause; for the cause of peace?

Yet, after doing as Jesus said, breaking bread with the Muslims at the center in New York, and caring for them in your home, you would realize that what he had commanded was not just about helping the Muslims. While the Muslim would leave with a fuller belly and cleaner feet, you would have gained something as well. You would have felt the deep healing such humility, kindness, and forgiveness can create. Then you would see that in the effort to transform the heart of your enemy, yours had been transformed.

Special thanks to Joe, whose post on the parable of the good Samaritan inspired this article.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

To those against the Quran burning: you're doing it wrong

Book burning. (cc) Michael
Bina (mrtwism),
As many know by now, a small church in Gainesville, Florida has gathered national attention with its plans to burn copies of the Quran this September 11th. Muslims, other Christian churches, General David Petraeus (U.S. commander of the war in Afghanistan), the U.S. Attorney General, and even the President have all been urging the church's pastor to call off the event, but their approach is misguided.

At least as far as the General, Attorney General, and the President are concerned, the argument has been that such an event will inflame public opinion, incite violence, and endanger U.S. forces. Firstly, if one was of the mindset of those in this Gainesville church, then confrontation would be expected; perhaps welcome. As for U.S. forces, part of their duty is to fight for our freedom of self expression, so from these folks' perspective, not putting on their event to lessen danger to the troops would undercut a major reason for having troops in the first place.

But worse, the real problem with this line of argument is that it is based on fear. It attempts to motivate with the fear of violent reprisals from extremists. The very endeavor of terrorism is about motivating people through fear of violence. In that regard, this approach turns the President, the General, and everyone else voicing this argument into the media services center for the terrorists. In order to terrorize a people, you must do two things: violence, and make broad threats of further violence unless compliance takes place. People who try to motivate by threatening further violence from terrorists are simply saving the terrorists time and expense on the second part of the terrorism formula. Osama doesn't need to make another video because Obama already has.

Consider that the people in this church already have a mindset based on fear - fear of islam and what it means, and this argument is only more of the same. To make matters worse, the pastor has been getting death threats, which only serve to justify his fear-based views and see himself as some kind of warrior or potential martyr. Fear should never be used as a tool, no matter how good you think your cause or purpose.

The right approach is the truth. The real reason why members of this church shouldn't burn the quran has nothing to do with fear of reprisal. Is that why you don't burn qurans? Simply because you're afriad of Muslims attacking you? If this fear didn't exist, you'd be burning Qurans? I hope not. Let me share with you why I don't burn Qurans...

  1. I am not unaware of the fact that Islam does not equal or necessitate terrorism. I understand that most Muslims are not terrorists and do not condone terrorism.
  2. I believe that two wrongs don't make a right. If I am offended by some Muslims' choice on where to put a mosque, or even by the terrorism of some, it doesn't justify similar behavior. My behavior is based on my values and standards; it is not to be determined or controlled by the actions of others. How I behave is about who I am, not about who they are.
  3. I have tolerance and respect for the beliefs of others, even if I don't share those beliefs. I do this because I would want the same in return, and because I know that's the only productive way diverse people can proceed in the future.
  4. A love for learning gives me a natural revulsion at the idea of destroying books. A respect for reason and thinking brings me to reject the notion of 'dangerous ideas and thoughts'. I believe thinking people can learn about all things, evaluate them, and come to good conclusions without censorship or banning things.
  5. Love of my fellow human beings makes me considerate of their feelings. Even if I think they have bad ideas, I separate the ideas from the person. If I disagree with them, I will try to discuss with them in the spirit of brotherly love.

These are the reasons why we should not burn Qurans, and they are the only legitimate reasons to present. When we resort to fear based arguments, we ourselves forget those principles above. Before long, we start to believe what we're telling the people in Gainesville - that fear of reprisal is the reason for not burning books. If burning the Quran was right, then no fear of reprisal should stop the people of that church or this nation. But, alas, it isn't right, and that's the point.

The issues burdening the people of the church in Gainesville run deeper and are more broad than this one topic. They don't see that, ironically, their position at its core runs counter to these American and Christian ideals and virtues. The only road back from their dark place can be a loving and truthful one. Unfortunately, walking that road may take longer than the time until this planned event, but if we had all been promoting these positive points, perhaps some with a wider conscience at the church may have been reachable. Perhaps they still are.

No matter what happens on the 11th, let us remember that these people are burdened by their own demons, and more of the same toward them is not the way out.

Comment, Tom B:
Hatred does damage to the 'hater'. Violence invites retaliation. Fear is a very unpleasant emotion. So if one wants to be an unhappy, fearful person inviting others to hurt one, go for it. Personally, it's a lot easier to just live in an imperfect world trying to 'get a grip' on one's emotions and 'power' through 'stuff.' Oh, and courage is precisely the refusal to let fear govern one.

Comment, @nervoustwit:
Finally someone says something sensible on this subject. You're right. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. That's not just a biblical idea, any mature adult of any belief system would agree that it is a sensible way to live. The fear factor that dominates the dialogue on this subject typifies our cultural self-centeredness. Similarly, most people who object to sending troupes over-seas usually site the cost, and the risk to American lives as their main reasons.

Comment, little chair:
Thank you for reminding us about the dangers of using fear as a motivator.
It's nice to see/hear/read that some people do not enjoy inciting destructive emotions in other people, for whatever reason. Compassion and tolerance for fellow human beings is the only way to move towards peaceful... times.

Comment, DT Strain:
Thanks for the comments everyone. As for having the right to do this, I do support that right and would not agree with government interference or force from others to prevent it. But not everything we have a right to do, is right to do. And for those who say that it doesn't matter because it's just a book, or that they themselves wouldn't care whether they did it, or that Christians and Muslims 'deserve one another', I'd ask you to consider the following. It's true that it's just a pile of paper. Books are destroyed all the time, when they're old, discarded, won't sell, and so on. And, it doesn't even really matter so much whether others care what you're doing or not - not in itself. What matters is *motivation*. What will performing certain acts based on anger, hate, fear, or even apathy or disregard, do to your 'soul' (or, to your habits, inclinations, and character as a person). Actions condition us over time. What is a person like who would do things needlessly without concern for the feelings of innocent people, or who wish for those they dislike to meet horrible ends, or who justify any kind of action on the basis of the same behavior by their worst enemies? And becoming more like that kind of person - how will that affect your quality of life? When we act from pure motivation - good, loving, and pure motivation, we cultivate a character that is more capable of enjoying a deeper and more genuine joy.