Sunday, September 12, 2010

My Relationship to My Neighbor: The Good Samaritan Meets the Golden Rule


On September 11, which was yesterday, we can’t help recall the tragedies of 9/11/2001 and the emotional aftershock of those attacks by Muslim extremists. Many still feel the pain of that fiasco, let’s say those who lost loved ones in one of the attacks, as if the attacks were yesterday. It’s important for us as a nation to remember those who died needlessly at the hands of enemies of our country, and it’s also important to realize that our own land is not immune from attack by those who hate us. I think, rather than making us trigger-happy, this fact should redouble our diplomatic efforts around the world.

I’m not one to criticize victims of any violent individual or group attack, and we were absolutely the unsuspecting victims on that day. In our case, we didn’t know what was going on; we didn’t know if there would be more, similar attacks. We wanted to protect ourselves and our loved ones, if more attacks were coming; in the mean time, those closest to the three attack sites were challenged to do all they could to help any victims who might still be living at the three attack sites.

At some point, we, collectively, wanted to know who had done this to us so that we could know how to protect ourselves from any further attacks and to hold the aggressors accountable if not to retaliate against them at once. When we found out that some Muslim extremists were behind the well-orchestrated and carefully planned collection of attacks, we wanted to go after the Muslims. The problem from that point until today is related to a problem in many cultures and countries around the world shown in their understanding of other groups in the world--from mysterious neighbors to those who live opposite us on the globe. I’m talking about generalization--the lumping of all people in a racial group or a religious group or a socioeconomic group together and assuming that every person in that group is exactly like every person in that group.

The first Europeans to encounter Indigenous Americans on this continent assumed they were all alike, and in return most of the Native Americans thought all the European visitors and invaders were alike. The white folks in the old south thought all black people, slaves or not, were alike. Even in the information age where we have so much data available to us to prove wrong those generalized assumptions, they persist. So immediately, after 9/11 plenty of US Americans wanted to kill as many Muslims and those whom they took to look like Muslims as they could--those who lived in the predominantly Islamic countries as well as those who lived down the street.

That glaringly and dangerously incorrect assumption has led to nearly a decade of wrong responses based on generalizations that continue to this moment. As it turns out, not all Muslims are alike, and not all Christians are alike. Not all Iraqis are alike, and not all US Americans are alike. Not all educated people are alike, and not all uneducated people are alike. Not all white people are alike, and not all Black people are alike.

Not all Christians interpret Christian scripture the way all other Christians interpret it, and not all Muslims interpret the Quran the way all other Muslims interpret the Quran. Not all Jews interpret Hebrew scripture the way all other Jews interpret Hebrew scripture.

The truth is, in most cases there is substantial diversity among any ethnic or religious group. There are Christians who through the ages and into the present believe that they are supposed kill those whom they take to be enemies of their faith or the country in which they happen to live, and there have been and are those who believe in absolute pacifism. There are extremist Muslims who believe it is their duty to kill off any group whom they perceive to be non-Muslim. There are Muslims who are pacifists, and by the way there were Muslim Americans who were killed in the attack on the World Trade Center; there were plenty of non-Americans killed in those horrendous attacks.

For those US Americans who didn’t take any time to learn more about Islam in the last 9 years, shame on them. In the wars in the homelands of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, even though we officially only wanted to take out Taliban and al-Qaeda types, much more was involved. Naturally, they fought back with a vengeance. This didn’t help with the national perception of Muslims by US Americans.

The United States though founded by some people who were Christian--many of them in a deistic, unitarianish kind of way--is not a Christian nation. No allegiance to God in any general or particular way was required in any draft of the Constitution, and certainly not in the final draft. To the contrary, a wall of separation between synagogue/church/mosque and state was written into the final version of the Constitution. Christians will be valued as much as atheists, but when we say, “Christian,” or, “atheist,” we have to keep in mind that there are many varieties of each.

The President of the United is not required by the Constitution to be a Christian--though the whopping 30 percent of citizens who manage to make it to the polls to vote in this democracy of ours have favored someone with at least a verbal connection to Christianity even if in practice Christianity had never been a significant part of a candidate’s life. It turns out that Barak Obama is a Christian, a longtime active member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, but if he were a Muslim as so many claim these days--some in true ignorance and others who know better but who claim that publicly because such a tag would hurt him in some way--that would be perfectly all right with the Constitution.

Voltaire, brilliant French writer and crusader for religious toleration during the Enlightenment, creates many confused characters--though plenty of them were dogmatic in their confusion--in his brilliant and widely read novella, Candide, in which dares to have a Muslim articulate the most sensible philosophy of life in the book. How dare he! Why didn’t he let his Christian characters clear everything up at the end of the book? Well, one reason is that he had met few Christians in his lifetime whom he perceived to be truly concerned about the well-being of the world as a whole. Another reason was that Christianity hadn’t been very kind to him. As proof that such disdain for him lasted until the end of his earthly life and beyond, when he died in 1778, the Roman Catholic Church to which he was officially connected but that he vehemently criticized as one source of religious INtoleration, would not allow his body to be buried in a Catholic Church cemetery. Eventually, a dissenting Catholic abbey in Champagne agreed to allow his body to be interred in its cemetery until, some years later, in 1791, his casket would be carried to a mausoleum in the Pantheon in Paris where many of France’s great writers and others of note were laid to rest.

So, Candide is plagued with associates who want to philosophize their way through life, and they deal with all the strange turns through which they have lived by continuing to philosophize all the more. Candide, the inquisitive main character, has been through so much danger and nonsense by the end of the tale that he’s mentally and emotionally exhausted with life. He happens to meet this older Muslim gentleman who tells him that the secret of life is to be found not in relentless philosophizing but rather in learning to be content where you are with what you have. This advice from the old Muslim motivates Candide to distance himself from those who dealt with even life’s tragedies with more philosophizing; he politely told them to hush, that their happiness would be found in tending their own garden--the lesson he believed he learned from the Muslim.

In Leonard Berstein’s operatic adaptation of the story, near the end of the opera, the principles are singing about what Candide had gotten from the old Muslim:

Let dreamers dream

What worlds they please

Those Edens can't be found.

The sweetest flowers,

The fairest trees

Are grown in solid ground.

We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good

We'll do the best we know.

We'll build our house and chop our wood

And make our garden grow.

And make our garden grow!


In 1922, the US Post Office burned 500 copies of James Joyce’s book, Ulysses, largely because it was taken by some to have sexually objectionable content. The burning of books is a hateful act, usually intended to demonstrate the superiority of one group over another. In the case of the James Joyce book right here in our democracy, the Post Office thought its morals were superior to those of the Irish novelist.

But holy books are something else. Burning the sacred literature of a faith group is especially hateful and apt to cause retaliation.

In 168 BCE, the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, ordered copies of the Jewish Torah found in Jerusalem to be torn to bits and burned. This was one of several persecutions that would lead the Jews to revolt against Antiochus.

About the year 50, a Roman soldier somehow got hold of a Torah scroll and, “with abusive and mocking language,” burned it in public. This incident almost brought on a general Jewish revolt against Roman rule; however, a Roman procurator, Cumanus, appeased the Jews by beheading the soldier.

Christian books by decree of Roman Emperor Diocletian in 303 were to be burned. This was one part of his intended increased persecution of Christians. At that time, the governor of Valencia offered a Christian man who happened to be a deacon the chance to have his life spared if he would give up his copy of Christian scripture. This deacon would eventually become known as Saint Vincent of Saragossa. He refused the offer and was executed instead of giving up scripture to be burned.

After the Church declared Arias a heretic at the Council of Nicea in 325, his fellow Roman Catholics burned whatever they could find of what he had written. Similarly, in 383, a Christian theologian, Priscillian of Avila, was called a heretic, and he has, I believe, the doubly dubious distinction of being the first person killed by fellow Christians on grounds of heresy. His books were also burned.

Given the circumstances of how the Quran was recorded--with Muhammad speaking presumably verbatim what the angel Gabriel was giving to him directly from God even though over a period of several years--I don’t understand how there could have ended up being copies of the Quran showing up with varying words and word orders. This was not supposed to have been the case even with hand-copying involved. The first men to be called califs in Islam were those who were the heads of the growing religion after Muhammad’s death. The Third Calif--that is the third man to lead Islam after Muhammad’s death--Uthman--appointed a committee in 656 to establish the correct version of the Quran. Once that was accomplished, he had all other copies of the Quran burned.

On March 23, 1984, orthodox Jews in Jerusalem burned several hundred copies of the New Testament. But Terry Jones could never have claimed to hear God telling him to burn copies of Hebrew scripture because, by a strange turn of events, the Hebrew Bible ended up being inseparably connected to Christian scripture so that both comprise what Christians call the Bible.

Though things have changed by the minute for six or so weeks, what I read when I awaked yesterday, a news story written by Daphne Duret, eased my mind by explaining that there would be no burning of Qurans:

Despite Pastor Terry Jones' revelation that he will not burn copies of the Quran today or at any point in the future, police and protestors still have plans to be at his church today. Jones, whose now-canceled plans to torch copies of the Islamic text sparked an international outcry, arrived in New York on Friday and told NBC's “Today Show” that his threats for the burn in commemoration of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had accomplished his goal of bringing attention to radical elements of Islam. “We're not going to go back and do it, it is totally cancelled,” Jones said this morning, later adding: “I can absolutely guarantee that, yes.” Locally, meanwhile, those commemorating the ninth anniversary of the attacks said the controversy surrounding Jones had tainted the day. Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said both the day and Friday’s Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan carried the shadow.

Did Jones have the legal right to burn copies of the Quran? Yes, he did. Should he have done it? No, he should not have done it, and I hope by the time I’m preaching this sermon he didn’t have a change of heart.

It’s the beginning of the term at seminary, and in my second-level preaching seminar Thursday evening, we talked at length about those preachers who believe every thought that comes into their consciousness was put there by God so they attribute all their thoughts and actions to God. They themselves, therefore, come to believe that they are infallible in what they think and above reproach for anything they do. Human beings just don’t achieve perfection. It has nothing to do with sin; sin is conscious rebellion against God. Being human means being imperfect for all sorts of reasons--many having nothing whatsoever to do with moral or ethical norms.

Though I don’t believe in a god who communicates conversationally, I do believe in a God with whom people may commune and, therein, be drawn to greater love, acts of compassion, peace, and self-affirmation. I realize when I say that, that some folks may see those kinds of leanings coming to human beings who comprehend truths about what makes sense for healthy individuals and societies without the involvement of any God. I think it’s a safe bet that if God does communicate through any means God will not be leading any person or group to bring harm to any other person or group.

If God has been waffling back and forth in what God has been telling Pastor Terry Jones, then God needs to learn not to be so wishy washy. Of course, what was going on with Jones had nothing to do with God. He may have some mental problems, and/or he may desperately have wanted mega media attention, which he has gotten. The media in this country keeps teaching lunatics and violent people how easy it is for them to become famous: threaten to do something ludicrous or hurt somebody. Reporters will write about you and talk about you on television til the cows come home.

Do the Muslims who want to build a center a couple of blocks from Ground Zero have the right to build it? If they are citizens or immigrants who get the proper permits, they surely do. Should they? Naturally, that depends on point of view. If we realize that many Muslims lost at what is now Ground Zero exactly what large numbers of Christians and atheists also lost there, and they want to build something nearby to offer opportunities for good near a site where unspeakable evil was done, I can find no problem with that. This is a country of freedom of and freedom from religion; in order for the Muslims to be prohibited from building the mosque near the site of the attack we’d have to become a country that did not practice or allow for freedom of religion.

Is building the mosque in that location the best idea right now? To answer that question, one has to determine if holding back on doing something that is legal and most appropriate in the minds of some, but that will cause protests and attack from those who don’t want it done is worth going through. Sometimes, it’s worth biting the bullet and facing the opposition; and other times, keeping the peace is the preferable way to go. Changing one’s mind or going a different direction is not a sign of cowardice or lack of conviction. Living in a diverse society, yeah a diverse world, making SOME compromise goes with the territory.

Sadly, this conflict comes on the tail end of the Swiss decision to ban the erecting of minarets in Switzerland. They did not say Muslims or mosques were unwelcome there, but rather that the prayer towers, the minarets, cannot be built. Swiss citizens overwhelmingly agreed to this in a referendum. There are four minarets in small Switzerland, and the citizens say, “Four and no more.”

That might seem unfair to you freedom lovers, but shortly before the issue became an issue there, the Turkish Prime Minister had said that mosques were barracks in the Muslim mind, and minarets their bayonets. I have no idea what all that means, but I can’t find anything at all positive or hopeful or conciliatory about it.


The big religious tension with which Jesus dealt was not so much the conflict between powerful, polytheistic Rome and subjugated, monotheistic Judaism. It was the tension between Jews and Samaritans who had a common heritage; it parallels the tension between some Christians and some Muslims today--two religions that also share parts of a common heritage. By that, I mean all three monotheistic religions share the development of monotheistic thought through Jewish experience.

The exact nature of who the Samaritans were ethnically speaking might be all or part of the reason there was tension between the two groups. Many Jews over time insisted that those who called themselves Samaritans were not of Hebrew ethnicity and instead were foreigners who began to occupy the Jewish land while the Jews were in exile. When the Jews returned, there they were. Evidently, they tried to coexist, and there was some intermarriage making their descendants half-breeds and on and on with how racists think.

The Samaritans themselves claim that they are the descendants of the two most northern of the twelve tribes of Israel, many of whom were left behind during the Babylonian deportation and, thus, never experienced the deportation the way the other ten tribes did.

Many years later, there inevitably came conflict between the two groups about which was God’s chosen people. This was a hot item, and eventually the Samaritans stopped worshipping at the great Temple in Jerusalem and built their temple on Mount Gerizim. Theologically, there remained a great deal of commonality, but they became bitter toward each other; and each regarded the other as less than themselves. Think about the tension between Protestants and Catholics in northern Ireland; both Christian groups, but bitter enemies for a very long time.

So, you likely know the story of the Good Samaritan, which was one of Jesus’ parables. A Jewish guy--probably a pious, faithful Jew--had been in Jerusalem for worship at a rather routine time and not for one of the high holy festivals. On the way home, some thugs rob him and beat him up badly and leave him bleeding on the side of the road to die for all they care. Two of his fellow Jews pass by him, but do nothing to help. To make matters worse, they both were clergypersons.

The story is usually told with the priest being on his way to work at the Temple, but the directional adverb used for the priest was the same word used in relationship to the injured man, “down.” The man was going “down” the road, meaning away from the Temple, and the priest also was going DOWN that road--away from the Temple, not toward it. He was tired and ready to get home. He might have been on duty at the Temple a week or so; there was quite an elaborate rotation system for the priests who served at the Temple. The same priests weren’t on duty all the time.

Usually, you’ll hear preachers talk about how the priest in the parable was in a hurry to get to work and didn’t want to get ritually unclean by touching a man who was dead or only half dead but bleeding. He’d just left the Temple, though, and the dynamics are a little different. He’s ready to get home, and if he touched someone who was unclean making himself unclean he couldn’t go home to enjoy the full benefits of his home. I mean, he might have been able to sleep out in the barn or something, but he couldn’t be with his family members. So if he helped the hurt guy, he’d have to turn around and go all the way back to the Temple and get purified by one of the priests who’d just come to work to relieve him. He would never get home. Besides, what could he do? He evidently was on foot. He couldn’t carry the body, if the man were dead. If he were half dead, he wasn’t a doctor; he didn’t know what to do. We can’t let him off the hook entirely, because when Jesus tells the story he makes a point of saying that the priest intentionally walked to the other side of the road, to distance himself from the man who was in some kind of bad shape, and whatever it was the law declared him unclean.

A Levite came by next. A Levite assisted the head priests and often got involved with worship music. We don’t know which way the Levite was going--to or from the Temple, but he did exactly what the priest had done before him. He made a point of passing as far to the other side of the road as the priest had and then got on his way home or to work in the Temple.

One of the really suspicious parts of the story is that people who knew the area knew that road was dangerous and didn’t usually travel alone on it. The injured man had made a bad call and tried it, but it is unlikely that the priest and the Levite were traveling alone. Traveling in a group was the best protection against the robbers who worked those roads all the time. That is speculation because as the story is told there is no mention of companions with either the priest or the Levite--unless they were traveling together, and the priest happened to walk by or ride by the man lying on the side of the road a few paces ahead of the Levite. More speculation.

It’s a parable after all, and not a news account. The priest and the Levite represented the religious leadership among the Jews, and the hurting man represented the rank and file Jew depending on their clergy for ministry and not getting any such ministerial support. The institution was failing the people it presumably existed to serve. What is more important, they were Jews like the injured man. There were two powerful reasons they should have helped him, but they didn’t.

The whole reason Jesus told the parable was to answer the question of someone who asked him how to define “neighbor.” Jesus was teaching, “You must love God first and then your neighbor as yourself,” so some listener said, “I want to do that so help me understand who my neighbor is.”

The awful twist in the story is that a Samaritan, a natural enemy of the injured Jew and presumably a layperson rather than a clergyperson, is the only one who helps the man. He is the only one in the story who acts as a neighbor. He is the only one in the story who loves his neighbor as he loved himself. Had it not been for the help of someone who normally would have taken no interest in any Jew, the man who nearly died would never have pulled through. The Samaritan was not only proactive, but also generous. Why would he do it? Well, there was a Samaritan Torah too--not widely different from the Jewish Torah. He knew somewhere in it there was a verse that told him what to do in situations such as these: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” The Jew wasn’t exactly one of HIS people, but at least he wasn’t a Roman so the Samaritan gave him the benefit of the doubt.

The Jews who heard the story, no doubt, despised it. Your enemies are doing more to help your people than you or your religion are. Slam!

A hard-core, right-wing fundamentalist Christian was attending a meeting in New York City to protest the building of a mosque near Ground Zero. He said, with Muslims present in the same meeting, that he took Muslims, he was sorry to have to say, to be enemies of God and enemies of the Christian faith--not to mention enemies of the western world. He had said that if he had his way, no mosques would be built anywhere in New York and that if they built this one so close to Ground Zero he was sure the building would be bombed--not by good Christians like him, but rather by his fellow Americans who rightly took Muslims to be their enemies. He spoke in the presence of Muslims as if they were all the same, as if they were all extremists, as if they were all violent, as if they were all lesser humans than he. No one interrupted him.

Several others spoke including a Muslim woman who said her husband was at work in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and he died like most of the others in there. Some brave firefighters had fought their way through billowing smoke to get to the shambles that had been his office, but they were too late. She said that she wasn’t alone in that way; that other Muslims lost loved ones in that attack. She said all ground is sacred ground because God created it. There was nothing special about the spot that had been tentatively chosen as the location for a mosque; she said, in her mind the mosque would be a reminder to those who took time to understand that Muslims, too, mourn what happened that day and can only look to God in hope for a better world where events like that don’t take place.

Some in the room applauded. The man who called himself a Christian and claimed to be stating the message that God had spoken to him scoffed at her, sometimes audibly enough that those sitting near him could hear.

The Mayor’s representative thanked all of those who had come and shared their views. The attendees dispersed--to get back to their homes and places of business.

The Christian spokesperson had hoped to be back at work a little sooner so he took a shortcut and found the street he had taken much more abandoned looking and feeling than he remembered from having driven through there a few months earlier. About the time that occurred to him, some thugs came out of nowhere and beat him to a pulp, stealing everything he had including his money and his fancy suit; they left him bleeding there on the side of the street with absolutely no one in sight.

As it turned out, a minister who’d left his church a little early that day in order to have a meeting with his wealth management advisor was also in a hurry and drove down that same street as his shortcut. He got out his iPhone 4 to dial 911, but the AT&T signal was nonexistent in the location so all he could do was to drive on. Getting an appointment with this wealth management woman was next to impossible, and he couldn’t be late much less miss it. Besides, the poor guy on the street was probably dead already.

A few minutes later a minister of music/organist at one of the prominent Financial District churches with an endowment fund to keep that music program golden until the present congregation’s great grandchildren were elderly drove down the same street in his Jag, a gift from his choir on the occasion of his twenty-fifth year of service with the church. He saw the same scene, but he’d forgotten his cell phone. There wasn’t anything he could except try to remember to call the police when he got to his tanning appointment. His younger hulky partner really hated pale, chalky skin so this was a weekly event for him, and nothing really could interrupt it.

A cabbie in a hurry came down the same street next, also using it as a shortcut to get to midday prayers at the mosque he attended. He slowed down when he saw the injured man, and noticed the name “Jesus” tattooed on one of the man’s arms. (The thugs had taken his shirt too.) Islam respected Jesus as a prophet, and he didn’t see how he could pass by a man who must have loved Jesus enough to have his name tattooed into his skin. So, realizing that he’d miss his prayer meeting for the week, he still stopped, and he called 911 on his cell phone and told the operator to send an ambulance and the police; he wasn’t sure what needed to be done. The cabbie got out of his car and sat on the curb with the man until the ambulance arrived. They determined that the man was still alive but in bad shape; they rushed him to a hospital. The cabbie found out where they were going before they sped off.

The cabbie waited until the police arrived and told them what little he knew. They got his contact information and acted halfway like they thought he might have had a part in the crime. Those with whom he worshipped Allah regularly knew that; being a Muslim since 9/11 brought suspicion upon them in any uneasy situation. He couldn’t control that, but he knew his revered Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, had been credited with saying, “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”


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