Thursday, August 19, 2010

if only I read the 'parable of the good Samaritan' like it meant something

I want to preface this by saying very clearly that i have been guilty of not paying enough attention to the crisis going on in Pakistan right now. Joel, however, has been following the news and so he's been taking the lead on us responding. So, I'm not resting on any laurels here, believe me. Quite the opposite in fact.

This is a confession of sorts... not a beating myself kind of confession, but a serious look at my need to be a better neighbour. i've been wrestling with this all week. good thing greenbelt is approaching. i need a good kick up the arse of my so-called faith.

My doctrinal beliefs may be heterodox, if not even my most measures heretical, but when it comes to Luke 10: 30-37, i read it very straightforwardly. i don't think it could be clearer. and i think the entire Bible could be summed up in the lines, "Jesus says, 'Go and do likewise.'"

But it's so easy for me to skip over that bit. I'm jotting it down here so i can see it. But I know others will likely see it. so please know i'm not casting stones at anyone. I'm looking at the stones i'm carrying. This stone is the one that signifies my persistent ability to just walk on by...


Charitable giving is something Joel and I have discussed a lot -- way back in our friendship it's been a theme. In large part those conversations arise because, (aside from the fact we talk everything through at great length anyway - we're never short on conversation; and aside from Joel's personal commitment to humanitarianism) I worked for 4 years in a large emergency aid and development organisation. I walked away from that world having learned I'd never change the world, my impact was limited as an individual and even more: the degree to which charitable giving and disaster relief raises very complex issues.

Now, as we discuss and make charitable donations as a couple, we talk about why we are going to do it; any concerns we have about how it will be spent; the priorities of the charities in question; our own concerns about specific groups in need in a situation; whether we  could or should be thinking about other groups in need that are getting less attention or we overlook and so on...

As a result of seeing things from the inside, I think one should always give where possible to those who are working with others in collaboration, not on their own as lone responders.
Disaster emergencies are by their nature chaotic and they need leadership and co-ordinated professionalism. Otherwise problems risk being exacerbated.
I always want to be sure I'm also giving to  those who've learned from their mistakes as well as successes.
By giving to agencies who are linked with others, and with a lot of experience, there's at least the likelihood that they know what they are good at and let others use their expertise, rather than trying to be all things to all people. There is nothing heroic about getting in over your head. The big co-ordinated efforts in a place like Haiti or Pakistan needs to be backed by the organisational capacity to be around for a long time if needs be, while building up the capacity of smaller, local organisations to be in it for the long term as needs change.
There's a difference between first response and then recovery and, beyond that, sustainable development and in this phase, the needs are urgent and require a lot of expertise and cash to procure and distribute supplies.

So I've spent time today getting a more comprehensive grasp of the situation and looking at the response so far. One thing is clear: what's going on Pakistan is frightening and the situation is one that has humanitarian but also geo-political ramifications.

If you too are in a position to give, please consider it. There is some useful information and the opportunity to donate over at UNICEF (USA), through whom Joel and I are channeling our support. The UK site is here. (UNICEF is part of the UN family but relies solely on public funding and does not receive UN funds.) By no means are they the only organisation responding. But they are working with the other UN agencies and have a long history of experience with working with women and children -- focusing on their particular needs for disease prevention, personal protection & shelter. They have quite rightly focused on clean water distribution, disease control and makeshift shelters. That there are now signs of cholera outbreak in some areas is proof of why that's such a vital priority. If you are unsure of who to give to, or odn't have time to research your choices, use that link. UNHCR, The International Red Cross and the DEC in the UK are also responding.

Both women and children are highly vulnerable in crises like these and UNICEF, like the UN, is rightly concerned that this emergency is not garnering the international humanitarian response it should. The scale of money needed to meet the immediate needs in Pakistan is staggering. Much more is needed. Even if you can't give much, then at least spread the word and encourage others to give to one of the aid agencies involved.


When Joel and I talked about Pakistan & UNICEF last night, I commented that one of the reasons for the lack of adequate attention was that many, just like me, were too distracted by the escalating 'debate' in the US over the Park 51 community center in Manhattan. After our conversation i saw this article, and I was reminded that not only is one a distraction from the other, but they are actually interlinked...and I am grateful that by Joel's compassion and witness to others' suffering, I am reminded that being a good neighbour is not a passive act...


What follows has quite a lot of connection to my thesis, or at least, one concluding theme of it...
it's about what happens when we make an idea more important than the embodied human and we don't allow another their freedom. It's about how far one can slide... until you are torturing someone to free them... it's also about how violence betrays justice... and how easy it is to end up being no different than one's 'enemy'... about how we can hide behind ideology and forget what it means to be a loving human being...


In my distraction I have thought a lot about how misleading the "Ground Zero Mosque" debate is. That name alone is a falsehood. I was really struck last night by this audio, response and discussion over at TNC's blog - which centre's on Howard Dean joining the debate and putting forth a position that leaves many people confused, especially those who are considered 'liberal'. The issue for me is not Dean's political posturing. I think he comes to the wrong conclusion. So I've been thinking through why this is all so troubling to me - why it has to be a non-partisan issue & why I think so many of us are getting so very far from where we need to be...


The only word I can find that adequately describes how I feel about this whole sorry debate is disbelief. I could add despair...

More than once this past couple of weeks, I've found myself thinking of Jon Stewart and his feature, "I give up". The furor over this community center has had me throwing my own hands up several times. But I actually think one has to be braver than that and recognise that one can live with hope - by embodying it and speaking it and choosing to be for good in the world. So, this is not about being against a side in a debate, it's about working out where the good exists.

I believe that this is about more than just the victims who died on 9/11 or one community center. As I experienced it, 9/11 was intended to terrorise and thus victimise everyone with access to a television, radio, to newspapers, and the internet.

That this media debacle is what goes for 'reasonable discourse' is shameful. But it's also  frightening - because opposition to the center's location is not a response that rejects that terror, it is to allow the message being sent via violence to have currency.

That this whole sorry episode is because of the development of a Muslim community centre that plans to encourage community dialogue & embrace diversity, while meanwhile there is no substantive public outcry in response to a supposedly Christian church in Florida publicizing a "Burn the Koran day" to commemorate 9/11, frankly, speaks volumes.
Perhaps I am naive, but shouldn't any outcry be over the latter of those 2 events rather than the first? It says, to me at least, that we really have (at least collectively) learned little (yet) from 9/11. And I include Europe in that. For the sentiments are the same in public discourse about pluralist society. And it's not anything new. We've been doing this in the West over and over and over for a very long time indeed...

It's the frighteningly familiar tones of "Yes, *they* have rights but just not *here*. Oh, it's not that we're racist or bigoted, it's just that these are sensitive issues... someone might be offended, and so we can avoid that offense if only *they* could be to be more sensitive."

What? Sensitive like *us*?

There are many reasons why that is problematic, and why we should remember history and remember that others, even the worst, most violent others, are actually like *us*. The lesson of history is rarely, 'despite the fact these people did normal everyday things and maybe had moments where they seemed rational, they were in fact despots and murderers'. But rather it's the lesson that, 'despots and murderers are not a special class of human being that we can push away. They are, in fact, very much like *us*. And we should be mindful that *we* therefore are like *them*.'

I do not dare speak on behalf those who lost loved ones on that day. I cannot imagine how horrific an experience it must have been and continues to be. There is clearly a lot of grief, and each of those who did lose someone is entitled to their perspective. But to suggest that a Muslim community centre in Lower Manhattan is 'insensitive' to the memory of those 9/11 victims, & the wise decision is to move it, does not in truth honour those victims... because that is not what building peace looks like.

Beyond "rights", (which are designed to protect people because of our persistent inability to do the right thing for others), there is "values" and there is "ethics" - there is our ability to live out of a place of compassion. The very thing that might begin to honor the memory of all people who lost their lives on 9/11 would be to put our "values" where those "rights" are. To do more than just tolerate diversity but to stand up for it. I believe that's what Mayor Bloomberg was speaking to.

This rhetoric of, "what's the wise thing for them to do?" misses that point. It's asking the community building the community centre to be wise, not whoever 'we' are to show wisdom. And that is not how peace-making works. Peace is not built on mere tolerance or respecting of rights -- peace building happens when one person looks at their own responsibility and stands up for the human dignity of another - particularly when in doing so one is refusing to demarcate the other as an "other" at all, let alone as their "enemy" - to treat their neighbour as they desire to be treated.

This talk of, 'They have a right to build it but is it wise given the sensitive to victims' families?' is the same rationale as 'equal, but separate' -- suggesting that it's reasonable to ask folks to move away a few blocks so that no one is offended by their presence is the literal embodiment of wanting to ideologically, socially and politically push those people away. It is a profoundly dangerous kind of discourse. And it is the opposite of peace building.

'Supporting' this community center is not simply a matter of rights being upheld. It's not just that it is 'insensitive' to equate all Muslims with terrorism by suggesting the mere presence of Muslims in a community is 'insensitive to the victims of 9/11'. And it is deeply insensitive to infer that guilt-by-association. This 'they have rights but is it wise and sensitive?' rhetoric, even the most 'reasonable' sounding version such as from the likes of Howard Dean, is just not good enough.
What is desirable, needed, is not just the 'right' thing to do, or the constitutional thing to do. What is needed is the peace-building thing to do, the wise thing to do, the very thing that says we are learning out of a place of trauma and grief caused by violence. That which says, what the perpetrators of 9/11 stood for is unthinkable to us. The center itself, the community that gave it license to develop the property, Michael Bloomberg, and all those that support it recognise that celebrating diversity and working together in community is an act of hope, that builds a better community. That is what repudiates violence.

There are moments when this debate makes me feel like my head will explode. But when I think about the people involved, I end up thinking it's more than anything just heart-breaking. I feel a sense of shame when I consider that there are Muslims fasting and celebrating during Ramadan and this is what media and political discourse has descended to. It may not be open bigotry, or hateful on the part of those who want a 'sensitive' response, but it is far from reasonable. And even farther from embodying peaceful compassion in a diverse society.

I am not without hope. But it is clear that there is a very long way to go if anything is to be learned from 9/11 that will actually transform this world for the better. That the scapegoats right now are people that want this world to be a more peaceful place is ironic to the point of sickening.

This should be a non-partisan issue. I never thought I'd see the day when people on diametrically opposed side of the political debate, like Palin and Dean, were arguing for the same thing. Yet rather than that being a good thing it would turn out to be both: upholding the rights of others but denying them dignity. By allowing this debate to go on makes this world *less*peaceful and more divided.

*This* is how violence wins. How are we ever going to learn?


The words of Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf might be a start. This piece by Hendrick Hertzberg too.

and Speaking of Faith is once again offering a Ramadan series - 30 days, 30 voices over at their blog. Each day a different Muslim offers their personal story and perspective for each day of Ramadan. There is a need to listen...

Adan Onart's contribution was a deep highlight for me last year, and I have thought of him again and again as 'reasonable' people ask 'moderate' Muslims to be 'sensitive' and make a 'wise' decision...


"They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up."

"Pastor Martin Niemoller's words are well known but their context is not well understood [...] In quoting him, I make no direct comparison between the attempts to suppress the building of a Muslim religious center in downtown Manhattan, and the unimaginable nightmare of the Holocaust. Such a comparison is ludicrous. At least it is, now.
But Niemoller was not warning of the Holocaust. He was warning of the willingness of a seemingly rational society to condone the gradual stoking of enmity towards an ethnic or religious group, warning of the building-up of a collective pool of national fear and hate, warning of the moment in which the need to purge, outstrips even the parameters of the original scape-goating, when new victims are needed because a country has begun to run on a horrible fuel of hatred — magnified, amplified, multiplied, by politicians and zealots, within government and without.
Niemoller was not warning of the holocaust. He was warning of the thousand steps before a holocaust became inevitable. If we are at just the first of those steps again — today, here — it is one step too close." - Keith Olbermann.

We need to step back. This so called debate is indeed one step to close. There may be a 1000 steps from here to there but that's no excuse.

I'm recommitting myself this Ramadan to listening better, to understanding better what the Abrahamic tradition, (of which all Jews, Christians and Muslims are a part) teaches about non-violence, compassion and peace-building; I need to be a better witness to those values; I want to transform my thinking so that I don't ever dare countenance the virulent idea that Islam is a homogeneous bloc without diversity, nor confuse peaceful people in my mind with terrorism.
Because the failure to do nothing, to say nothing, to not counteract rejection with words of friendship is just not good enough. We should have worked that out by now. I hope we'll all learn. If I have any hope it's because, even though I can't make others change, I can change. I need to be a better neighbour  -- with more than passivity, more than frustrated despair.

I'm glad & deeply grateful that I'm able to go to greenbelt to be humbled and inspired by others' examples and to get ideas of how I can respond better than I have been of late. I need to embody a lot more hope in my daily life.



  1. i'm so, so happy you're going to greenbelt. i was too scared to ask in case you weren't


  2. My sister, whom I love, posted a petition on facebook for those who think building the mosque "at ground zero" is inhumane and immoral. The first comment was "Yeah, let 'em build it. Them let them fill it up and we'll blow em to hell and build a shit pumping station on it." Her response was "LMAO." The next response was "I like the way you think!" And so on.

    My family doesn't talk politics. Well, we used to, but David and I are at such odds with everyone else, we make every effort to avoid it. I didn't want to get into it with my sister. I knew it wouldn't make a damn difference except maybe fan the flame of their hatred.

    But then I thought about that exact quote you mentioned and realized that even though it probably wouldn't make a difference, I couldn't NOT say something. I thought about Nazi Germany. So I just made a comment about how I taught English to Muslim refugee women, and the women I worked with were lovely, kind and intelligent; their children were beautiful and full of life; and I thought it would be "inhumane and immoral" to blow them up.

    The response was interesting. "We don't hate Muslims. We just don't want them to build their mosque there." My sister sent a private message to me, trying to explain that she didn't hate Muslims. Couldn't she see what she had just written? I tried to point that out, but she was somehow completely blind to it and just insisted that she didn't hate Muslims.

    It was very confusing, BUT she deleted the post. A very small thing. Minute, miniscule, but speaking up DID make a difference - no matter how small.