Sunday, August 22, 2010

True Piety

A Meditation on Luke 6:32-42 from the Christian Scripture and Sura 2:177 from the Qur'an.


Twenty-three of us are shoulder to shoulder in Nomika Zion’s living room. We’re in the small Israeli city of Sderot, just a mile or two from the embattled and blockaded Gaza Strip. And quietly, even sadly, Nomika Zion looks at her hands and then at us; and she says, “War pollutes our hearts.” Just like that. “War pollutes our hearts.” She’s talking about her country, about Israel, Palestine and decades of conflict. She’s talking about the cost of violence, rockets from Gaza slamming into her neighborhood, Israeli fighters retaliating in kind. She’s talking about her country. But I can’t help thinking about mine. About this country. Is that what war does? Is that what’s happened here? Is it true that war pollutes our hearts?

And I have to tell you that following along with this debate around the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ in New York really makes me wonder. We were promised these wars would make us smart and safe. We were promised these wars would clear the way for partnerships in hostile places. But after seven years of duplicity and war; seven years and thousands of our own sons, daughters, brothers, sisters killed; seven years and who knows how many thousands wounded, maimed, spiritually pummeled; after seven years of war, how is it that we can argue about the location of a community center in lower Manhattan?

We were going to show the world the triumphant tolerance of the American way. We were going to prove to zealots across the Middle East that we were stronger, faster and wiser than they were. And what we get – out of seven hard years of war – is an argument about a mosque? Not even a mosque, really, but an Islamic community center? And talking heads on TV dishing in disgust against that community center, against a place for folks who want to pray and study and see some plays.

So I’m thinking, maybe Nomika’s right. Maybe war really does pollute our hearts. Maybe an eye for an eye, as Gandhi used to say, simply makes the whole world blind. Because there’s a scary kind of blindness in play when we refuse to differentiate between the millions of Muslim-Americans who serve and contribute and care about our country, and the violent terrorists who wish us harm. I came across an op-ed piece in Forbes Magazine this week, an op-ed by a Muslim-American and former FBI special agent. I want to read just his last couple of paragraphs, because they’re telling:

“To those politicians now saying a mosque can’t be built near Ground Zero,” he writes, “I would like them to take a walk through Arlington Cemetery and learn the names and stories of American Muslims who have died in service to our country. They should also learn a bit more about the victims of 9/11, such as Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a Muslim-American who was a New York City Police cadet and paramedic. When he saw smoke coming from the Twin Towers, he ran to assist, where he died helping victims.

Another Muslim who died,” he writes, “was Mohammed Chowdhury, who was working at Windows on the World [on the very top floor] to support his pregnant wife and daughter. He never made it home that day, and his son born 48 hours later never knew his father. Al Qaeda didn’t [distinguish] between Muslims and other Americans when it hit the Twin Towers – and neither should we.”

And that’s what’s on my mind as I sit with Jesus this morning. We have here some of his most familiar, most provocative, most important teaching. Jesus asks, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but you don’t see the log in your own? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself don’t see the log in your own?” This teaching hits us in so many, many ways. Whether it’s in the context of raising kids or local politics or the so-called war on terror. And isn’t Jesus saying that humility’s needed, humility, especially in contentious situations, especially in seasons of violence, especially now? Isn’t he saying that desperate times demand not desperate leaders with desperate measures, but patience and reflection and sobriety? “First take the log out of your own eye,” says Jesus, “and then you’ll see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” If peace is a journey, a pilgrimage, an act of courage, it begins in self-examination, in humility, in sobriety.

So what saddens me most about these last eight years is that we missed a hugely important opportunity – as a nation – to examine our soul, to do an inventory around our values and priorities, to ask about our place in the community of nations. We were promised these wars would make us well. We were promised these wars would make us wise. And it’s just my opinion: but I’m not sure they’ve done any of that.

In my own spiritual life, Jesus insists on self-examination, humility, sobriety. He’s not a cruel taskmaster. I don’t think of Jesus as a mean-spirited puritan looking to catch me in the wrong and throw me in the stocks. But he’s a friend, Jesus, who recognizes my tendency to overreact, especially when I feel threatened or misunderstood. And, again and again, Jesus invites me to take a deep breath, take a step back, and look things over. And this teaching is a daily challenge, a daily opportunity: “Do not judge,” he says, “do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”

My three kids will tell you that I fail as often as I succeed with this stuff. It’s hard. And how grateful I am for Jesus’ patience and wisdom and encouragement. “Do not condemn,” he says, “and you will not be condemned.” And we could boil the entire gospel down to these next six words: “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Forgive-and-you-will-be-forgiven. It’s a hard road, this gospel path, and narrow, but it leads to life.


My friend Ghassan Manasrah is a Sufi Sheikh and Director of the Muslim Peace Center in Nazareth. Just before lunch on Sunday, our last in the Holy Land, Ghassan leads our delegation on an unexpected tour of Nazareth’s remarkable White Mosque. And just inside, he introduces me to Abu Halid, caretaker of the mosque and a key leader in Nazareth’s Muslim community. Abu Halid is warm and generous, and he takes my hand in his. He tells me that his mosque is a community center for people of all faiths: Jews, Christians, Muslims. All of them come to the mosque to work out civic concerns and neighborhood issues. They sit, they have tea. Around Nazareth, the White Mosque is known as a beacon of tolerance; and the old caretaker is understandably proud.

But quickly he moves on to other topics. Still holding my hand in his. He tells me that Islam needn’t be a violent force in the world. He certainly doesn’t see it that way. In a flash, a simple greeting becomes an encounter. “America,” he says, “is so much responsible for what’s happening now. First, they created the communist monster. And they chased that monster all over Afghanistan. Along the way, they created the Al Qaeda monster. Always they need these monsters to fight.” He’s still holding my hand. He wants me to hear this. Abu Halid’s manner is easy and warm. He’s not preaching at me or badgering necessarily. But his point isn’t lost either. “My people,” he says, “my people, we pay the price for this.”

This moment’s over in a flash, and we follow Ghassan to the mosque’s roof for a delightful view of the old city. But I’m haunted, I have to tell you, by Abu Halid’s words for hours afterward. Is it possible that our American obsession with security, with monsters, has consequences from generation to generation? Is it possible that fear pays in our country, that monsters are big business? We gut social services to the poor, we dismember public education; but somehow we summon public will to go after communists all over Asia and Central America, to go after Al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan. Monsters are indeed big business. And there’s a price to be paid.

In bright sunshine, on the roof, a little later, Ghassan Manasrah shares a bit of his Muslim faith and his Sufi teaching with our delegation. His face shines. From the roof we can see historic churches, mosques in every direction. “I look in your eyes,” he says, and he’s looking at Jews and Christians now, at us, “I look in your eyes, and I see God.” And several in the group take a step closer to listen and watch. He means this. “We believe,” he says, “Sufis believe that we can know God only when we know the other. We can love God only when we take time to love the other.” And he finishes by saying that mosques and churches and temples are meaningless if they’re not teaching this kind of love and respect. “I look in your eyes,” he says, again, as we say goodbye, “and I see God.”


Jesus would love Ghassan Manasrah. I have no doubt. Because Jesus too knows that all the churches, all the temples, all the mosques in the world are irrelevant if they’re pushing pride and prejudice and retaliation and rage. Jesus too has a heart that shines with passion for peace and love for friends and foes. If blindness is our disease, a kind of spiritual blindness that refuses to honor difference and diversity and even human weakness; if blindness is our 21st century disease, Jesus knows that healing comes only through love. “So love your enemies, do good,” Jesus says. “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. And so be merciful, just as God is merciful.”

Before we left Nazareth last month, Ghassan Manasrah passed along a slip of paper with a verse from the Qur’an that he’d copied by hand. It sounds a lot like Jesus: “True piety,” it says, “does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or the west – but the truly pious is he who…spends his substance upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings under bondage.” As we embraced there on the street, Ghassan said to me: “We seek the same peace, my Christian brother. We seek the same peace.” And I held him close.