During Vatican II – a gathering of church officials who reviewed the doctrine of the Catholic church – there was legislation approved called Nostra Aetate, meaning literally “In Our Age.” Nostra Aetate was a revolutionary document that condemned the charge of Jewish deicide (that is, the charge that “the Jews” held the responsibility for the death of Jesus), among other things. It was crucial legislation, and without it, it seems unlikely that Jews and Christians would have made the strides they’ve made to overcome an incredibly negative history. Just to get a picture of how far that relationship has come, it’s worth noting that some members of the KKK, an historically Christian organization for example, have distanced themselves from Christianity, embracing Nordic religions like Odinism, because they regard Christianity as too Jewish, whereas in the past, Judaism was seen as something separate, something other. Nowadays, it’s not entirely uncommon for churches to participate in seders (Passover feasts) around the time of Easter or for pastors to recognize the Jewishness of Jesus, something that was once forgotten or ignored. In our age, interfaith dialogue has made important, incredible strides, and we must be careful to keep moving forward in the field of Jewish-Christian dialogue.
That said, lately I’ve come to fear that in Christianity’s increasing interest and admiration for Judaism, a kind of Zionism has filtered its way into some Evangelical movements. I don’t mean to suggest that the field of Jewish-Christian dialogue has gone too far. Or that Nostra Aetate lead to something negative. To the contrary, I think Jews and Christians still have much to learn from one another, and perhaps continued dialogue would help curb the problem of Christian Zionism. Still, there are some Christians who expect Jesus to return soon and feel rather strongly that they must support Israel financially with the end goal of seeing the reconstruction of the Temple – a kind of strange effort on their part to usher in the eschaton, the end times. To a lesser degree, that’s created the perception that Israel can do no wrong or that any enemy of Israel is an enemy of the United States, or at least of Christianity (for many of these Christians would not separate church and state). I say “lately” but the truth is, this has been going on for a long time, this weird marriage of Evangelical Christianity and the State of Israel.
Albeit briefy, I’ve lived and worked in Israel on one short archaeological excavation, and during that time I traveled in and out of the West Bank. I loved the whole country; I loved its beautiful geography and colorful people. From the rolling plains of Armageddon to lost inside the Holy Church of the Sepulchre to floating in the Dead Sea or waltzing as close as I could get to the caves of Qumran, I have a deep love of Israel. In fact, I had such a deep love of Israel at the time that when someone on a bulldozer plowed through a crowd in Jerusalem while I was in the country, it fed my other perception that those Muslim folks are all just a bunch of crazies who, every time you hear about them, seem to be blowing something up, running someone over, causing havoc this way and that. It would be several years before my perception would change there.
But I’ll never forget one afternoon in the Old City where that myopic viewpoint first got called into question. A few friends and I had stopped for lunch in a cafe in the Arab Quarter, and a Jewish woman came in and sat down with her two children and ate lunch nearby. When she was finished and had eaten everything, she refused to pay claiming the food had been terrible and harassing the owner of the cafe. That was my first experience seeing these tensions between Arabs and Jews in Israel. The owner of the cafe, a Muslim
man, was hurt but unsurprised. He handled the situation with incredible tact and went on to tell us that sort of thing happened all the
I know all too well that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, but in the coming years, between moving to Morocco, studying Islam, and learning Arabic, I’ve taught myself to try to step into the shoes of those whose story is driven too-often by the mainstream media with little complexity. This isn’t intended to be anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian. It isn’t in anyway Zionist or antisemitic or anti-Jewish. It’s one thing: a plea for recognizing how complicated and complex these tensions are. In the few social media arguments I’ve seen, I’ve noticed people rush to say things like, “Well, Hamas started it first,” as if these were events taking place on a third grade playground.
Or, worse, I’ve seen some Christians bemoan the Muslim population entirely and suggest Israel just “wipe them all out.” It’s almost as if the Native American population suddenly decided to start bombing American government buildings demanding to have their land back. Would that be terrorism and wrong? Well, yes. On the other hand, let’s not forget the Trail of Tears, itself a trail of terror. Or let’s not forget that suicide rates are, even today, highest among Native Americans than any other racial group in America. “Terrorism” is in the eye of the beholder. If you were British in 1776, you were probably having to put up with some pesky American terrorists. So, before we rush to label all Gaza or all of Hamas or all Muslims as terrorists, let’s at least recognize the complexity of their history and the pain they – like the Jews they fight – have suffered over time.
How do we do that? We learn to listen to perspectives of others in ways that force us to consider what it’s like living in their shoes. A few years ago, I was at a Jewish-Christian dialogue conference with several seminarians – future Rabbis and Christian pastors, alike. The event was sponsored by an organization that included several survivors of the Shoah who spoke in what was an incredibly moving discussion. But something felt off. When we began to discuss “the land” and the importance of “the land” (i.e. the area now known as the State of Israel but an area that has gone by countless names in the Bible), one point was reiterated by numerous speakers: that Christians must come to recognize the importance of “the land” for the people Israel. There were two things that struck me in that conversation. The first was that we had chosen to have a Jewish-Christian dialogue, not a Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue. To talk about the importance of “the land” without any representation from an entire other religion that has some claim to the land felt off to me. If you want to know why such controversial issues remain so controversial, I think that’s part of why; it’s as if no one even recognized the elephant in the room was the absence of our Muslim brothers and sisters at the table. If we can’t listen to one another, we have no hope of progress. On that note, I also realized that we have to listen not merely to our political differences but to our religious differences, as well. The field of political science goes out of its way to recognize the conflict between Arabs and Jews
as one that’s strictly political and historical, and I’m convinced that’s part of why so little progress has been made. More efforts where Muslims and Jews are praying together and listening to each other’s religious differences and similarities would go a long way.
So, the story is complicated, more complicated than we have a history of giving it credit, and no one’s going to move forward if they can’t listen to each other. Most of that is just common sense, really. But recognizing both of those things, I’ll say why I think Israel is, currently, making a terrible mistake. I had a friend once point out that Israel likes to see itself as David fighting some Goliath when it paints its struggle with the Palestinians, and I think his assessment is probably true. As he noted, David was a weak, lyricist playing on his harp. No one in the family considered him worthy of being a King. That’s not Israel’s role. It’s a powerful force backed by incredible military and financial might. If anything, Israel is Goliath. And when you’re Goliath, if you’re going to be a good Goliath, you have to be careful how you use your power. If Israel wants peace, it won’t wield it with excessive force. Think of the children growing up in Gaza and put yourself in their shoes. If Goliath comes to your town when you’re thirteen or so and starts bombing the heck out of people you love, and you grow up in that place where you’ve struggled to get food and clean water, where you’re forced to stay in the same, poor conditions with nothing better, then the unfortunate, wrong-headed narrative that “Israel should be destroyed” is more likely to prevail under those conditions. And when there’s not a well-organized military to join, it comes as no surprise that some would turn to terrorism as a means of fighting who they regard as Goliath. Ultimately, though, regardless of which side is more right or more wrong, how many people have to die in this conflict or any other before MLK’s words are believed to be true? That “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” That, of course, opens up the usual debates about pacifism and just war, and those are all worth discussing, but just at the very simplest understanding of what all is happening right now in Gaza, I think we can at least agree that a fight that’s leading to such a large number of civilian deaths is not going to encourage long-term peace of any kind. Quite the contrary. There aren’t any short- or long-term winners in this one. And I guess I hold Israel a little more responsible because I expect them to understand that by now.
Of course, there’s this tendency to throw up our hands, I suppose, and say, “What does it matter and what good does it do us to discuss it,” and on one level, I think that’s very true. I’ve seen a lot of that mentality prevailing, too, in the notion that the Middle East has been fighting since the dawn of time, so why even care at this point? On the other hand, how a few of us discuss it on social media or in blogs slowly but surely contributes to how it’s understood more widely in our culture, and that goes with everything. I guess it’s important to me that we discuss it for two reasons. The first is to encourage empathy. We should be a culture that encourages those we care about to stand in the shoes of others before anyone decides how they feel about something. The second is, more simply, that I thrive off being challenged and so I like to challenge others, too. And that’s what this is, an incredible challenge – to Jews, Arabs, and to Christians, and though we won’t solve the Middle East conflict on Facebook or Twitter or anybody’s blog, I think learning how to talk about it with openness to hearing different perspectives is important.
Walking around St. Louis lately, I’ve noticed how the city changes for me the more I get to know it. It’s like when you walk down an unfamiliar street, and the first few times you do it, the color of the pavement blends just enough with the dull tone of the concrete buildings to almost make it into a blurred background image easily forgotten.
Your first time venturing anywhere new, you’re so focused on the destination and on not getting lost that the details of the place just kinda fade. But the more you walk a path, the more familiar it becomes, and the more familiar it becomes, the easier it is to notice the little things. This past week, meandering throughout downtown St. Louis has been that for me as the city morphed from that weird blur of general “downtownness” to something with a personality and a feel to it. There was that one dilapidated Tudor building with the timber framing sitting lonely among the steel-and-glass. Or the way, at night, Washington Avenue is lit-up like Christmas. There was the realization that the Public Library, architectured almost like a great, academic cathedral of sorts, was due west of the apartment and only a few blocks away in relation to everything else that’s come to matter to me since I got here. And, of course, the people – conversations of kindred that even when you don’t know them at all have offered something to the familiarity of the place. Yesterday in the gelato shoppe, a man decked out in a soldier’s uniform walked in with three young, black boys probably between eight and ten years old and bought them all something. On his way out, he confessed, “I don’t actually know them at all. They just saw my uniform and asked for an autograph, so I figured I’d do something nice in return.”
I used to think a place chooses you. Like, if you grow up on a farm, you’re bound to grow into that and the lifestyle that comes with it. I wouldn’t say that I deny the truth of that necessarily, but nowadays, I tend to think we choose the place, too. That it’s a both-and kind of thing. The more familiar a place becomes, the more likely you are to claim it as your own, after all. And St. Louis has become mine in a way that I’ve enjoyed making it mine. Even the buildings that aren’t quite as aesthetically pleasing as the others lend to the familiarity like puzzle pieces filling in the parts to make it whole, and sometimes, it’s the pieces that are the same color as all the others that, without them, keep the puzzle unfinished. In that sense, I’ve come to love and want to know more every nook-and-cranny of the city I can absorb and commit to memory.
To me, St. Louis is a city of choice, a kind of merging of paths. I get why it’s called the Gateway to the West, but a gateway West is a gateway East, too. I sometimes feel as if I’m looking as far down each path as I can see with the naked eye, imagining where it might take me if I choose that path but at the same time perfectly content to simply imagine until something greater pushes me in that direction rather than forcing it. But as I imagine, I’m grown content to be in the here-and-now standing at the entrance neither too eager to enter or exit and recognizing that the door does both at the same time. A city of choices is a city bound to the cycle of life, its ends and beginnings. And I’m grown content to be present to that cycle, however brief or lengthy that may be, without getting caught in the need to move through the doors. It’s a bit like serving as a kind of doorkeeper watching the world pass before me eager to keep some constant pace rushing West or East as though they’re caught in the blur rather than absorbing all the wonderful chaos they might have noticed had they stood still for just five minutes. Having been on both sides of the doorway, it’s nice to just stand there observing, greeting, growing familiar.
you gave rest and recompense
against the wayward wind,
and whistled through the dripping rain
a call to arms of friends
who called back through
the other side of the storm,
not I, not I,
they yelled back to
the thunderclapping form
from here the clouds that hover nigh,
you thought the sun had drowned
or thought the world beyond your clouds
was sunny, bright, and round -
“Right here, right here,
the only spot
it ever rains so hard,”
while those below the suns bright rays
were drifting stranded, charred.
Sometimes, I can be a really nostalgic person. I think the side of me that loves telling stories is that person. But I love remembering the past not to get stuck there but to help understand the present. Suffice to say, I spent a week last week helping out at a camp I had worked at nearly a dozen years ago doing the exact job I’d first held there, the P.U.F., or Program Utilities Facilitator. It’s essentially the camp gopher or could be described as the camp caretaker. It’s the behind-the-scenes backbone of camp jobs schlepping water and food where they need to go, anticipating problems and solving them before they ever became problems. And it’s just something I’m really good at doing. I’m the kind of person that if I could change the whole world without anybody knowing I was the one to change it, I’d jump at that chance.
To step back into that role was both a stroll down Memory Lane and a reminder of who I am and who I’ve always wanted to be. A friend described it comparing it to moving into a new house but not before driving by an old house you’d lived in long ago first. There was the sense that I’d crossed both figurative and literal oceans since having last been there. The swim was absolutely exhausting but those who’d only dipped their feet in the water couldn’t see how anybody could view the swim as anything but fun. I felt at times too old, incapable of describing how vast and dangerous and graceful the ocean really is to those who are yet to really encounter it. That’s not to make their experience thus far sound immature. They were to me incredible, loving people with so much to offer the camp. A few of them even carried a kind of wisdom of their own, perhaps crossing a few oceans a time or two themselves, even teaching and challenging me in powerfully positive ways, and yet, I felt a little like I’d changed in such a profound manner in ten years time so as to almost be silenced or quieted in their presence. Does a stroll down Memory Lane, even if it leaves you with plenty you want to say, not also leave you somehow humbled and voiceless if only for a moment?
In a way, I felt followed. I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that. That I was stepping into the role of a leader, perhaps? On some level, yes, because I chose to step up when that was needed, but I don’t think I mean “followed” in terms of being trusted or believed in. I think I mean something more along the lines of people chasing after me in a loving or caring way, to make sure I felt welcome, really welcome: followers leading, which are the best kind of followers. Whatever you want to call sacred, I think that kind of serving spirit really gets to the core of what we all need to be fulfilled. And in that sense, the week was packed with plenty of genuine conversation, real talks so to speak: in the seat of a little red truck, on a canoe sitting backwards and facing one another, in the beds of an infirmary, rocking back-and-forth on a pontoon boat, or along a dark trail in the middle of the woods.
Somewhere along that trail, I remembered the words I’d heard earlier in the week from the director of the camp who paraphrased someone else – “If you want to know where you’re going, look down at your feet to see what direction they’re moving in. If you don’t like where they’re leading you, turn around.” Sometimes, my feet just turn me in circles, but maybe sometimes we need to go back to where we’ve been to be reminded why we go where we go.
So, my feet have now taken me on to St. Louis, and I’m finally feeling ready to break out in a sprint forward.
Have you ever listened to a song and in that moment that song was exactly what you needed to hear? Like, for me when my grandfather died, I had Blind Pilot on repeat, or there were times in Morocco where certain songs just powerfully spoke to me.
It’s been a few years since my grandfather died or since I was in Morocco, and I still love those songs, but I don’t keep them on repeat anymore. They spoke to who I was in that moment, but I’ve moved on to other songs that capture new moments or frustrations, songs I currently put on repeat.
C’est la vie.
When I was in the fourth grade, I remember going to camp and having my wallet stolen, and I was so angry that some “Christian” would actually steal at a church camp that for years I carried anger with the church over that and even claimed I was atheist for a while all the way into high school. And that’s okay. It’s where I needed to be in that moment. It’s who I needed to be. Like those songs that find us in the right moment, sometimes, we just discover that’s where we are, and anybody asking us to listen to a different song isn’t going to reach us. We know what we need, and that’s not it. So, we keep playing what we need to play until the right tune comes along at the right time, and we fall in love with a new song.
I feel like I can name countless examples over the years of how my songs have changed: A youth director telling me at the beach that, to him, there was nothing wrong with being angry or questioning God and religion; to him, growing closer to what he called God demanded we ask questions, no different than how we’d grow closer to one another by asking each other questions. And then there was a dear professor who handed me a powerful pamphlet he’d written during his sabbatical that got to the heart of some of the questions I was needing to ask. Or, then, there was news of a growing church schism back home that left me bitter and angry and needing to remain in that place for some time. Or, once, a few unexpected emails that were both shocking and profound enough to alter everything about how I pictured the universe at the time. Songs, the lot of them – moments that either defined or changed me in a meaningful way.
I’m not sure if this is one of them because it seems too trivial, but yesterday, I caught an episode of the Daily Show, and John Stewart was interviewing Bill Maher, who is a pretty staunch atheist. Maher bemoaned all of religion. He praised the fact that millennials, he feels, have discovered that “drugs are good and religion is bad.” He commented that he believed Barack Obama is a secret atheist, which reminded me of conservatives claiming Obama is a secret Muslim.
I rolled my eyes at first. To hear Maher lump all religious people together made him seem to me to be just as egocentric as the literalists he was criticizing. He’s always struck me as someone who values being intellectual, so how could he miss the blatantly obvious false dichotomy that suggests you’re either religious or you’re smart. It made me think of how the mainstream media, whenever there’s an argument about religion, always brings only two sides of the argument to the table: the right-wing Evangelical and a liberal. That misses the mark on the number of devout, faithful people throughout history who held their churches and their governments accountable to bring about real progress. People like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Gandhi. It forgets the role churches played (albeit slowly and still many with much left to do) in spearheading the feminist movement (cf. Welter, B.). And it ignores the countless liberal theologians and Biblical scholars who have been writing for decades pushing for gay rights. So, I rolled my eyes at first, annoyed.
And then it kinda hit me: Bill Maher is just a song some people need to listen to because that’s where they are right now, and it’s where they need to be. And that’s okay. Whatever’s happened in their life that’s brought them to that place where they need to be angry with religion (or politics or whatever), Bill Maher is one of the people who may offer them comfort through laughter or critique. Having said that, I think he might argue that I’m suggesting his point of view is a mere stepping stone when he believes it to be the end goal. And if that’s his end goal, that’s okay with me, but for me, I’m more interested in the journey than the destination, and in the sojourning I’ve done thus far, the Bill Maher song is one I don’t need to have on repeat anymore, though it’s had its useful moments.
At the dawn of civilization when life was more tribal, an “us vs. them” image of the world didn’t just make sense; it was crucial to survival. We’re all born a little egocentric, born into that tribal mindset, so to speak, but in the age of the internet and on the cuffs of globalization, we can no longer afford to advocate tribal mentalities. Not in our religions. Not in our politics. Not as Christians. Or as atheists. Or as anything in-between or completely different. If I had to pick where my song was these days, it’s there – advocating something world-centric, something pluralistic, and yet something still faithful and devout – a prayerful journey eager to hear more songs.
And that song, the song that moves me most these days is one that no longer dislikes or bemoans the reality that other people need to listen to their own favorite music at their own pace. And my music isn’t better than anyone else’s. It’s just what speaks to me at the moment. But that’s not to say I’m not interested in seeking out others who want to sing along. So, in this moment of your life, what song are you needing to hear the most? It might be vastly different from the one you listened to years ago or the one you’ll be whistling along to in the years to come. Realizing that we’re all doing that, singing our different songs however we need to, is maybe, just maybe, to bring a little harmony to a whole lot of discord.
A week or two ago, in a Facebook conversation with a pastor who questioned whether the Pope should have allowed Muslim prayers at the Vatican, I offhandedly remarked the little-known fact that, in Islam, Jesus is a prophet who returns at the end-times to sit as the Judge of humankind. My goal was simple: just show that Christians and Muslims may have some common ground, even if just a little. In the name of peace, searching out common ground is crucial as our society grows increasingly more pluralistic. I didn’t really think that was a very heretical thing to suggest, but it unleashed a firestorm where a complete stranger (not the pastor) began quoting scriptures about false prophets, condemning those who were not Christians to hell, and referred to anyone who advocated peace between any religions as pushing something she called “Chrislam.”
There’s a hundred things I could’ve picked apart in that conversation, but the one that I can’t stop churning over in my head is this notion that I’m Chrislamic. What the stranger didn’t know is that I can speak Arabic (although I can’t read the Qur’an yet, and the version of Arabic I know is the Moroccan dialect), that I lived in a Muslim Kingdom for two years, and that I do have a heartfelt love for people of all religions (and, dare I say, those without any). But I have a special heart for Muslims in particular because my interaction with them was, by and large, incredibly positive. Most Moroccans I met as a Peace Corps volunteer put hospitality in the American south to shame. How many Americans do you know who, every time they see you, invite you to lunch? And dinner? And spending the night? Or who just randomly give you gifts when you’re a complete stranger? It didn’t take much time living in Morocco to discover that the American media’s trope suggesting Muslims are terrorists is patently false.
So, I guess in a sense, I am Chrislamic. Although, since Judaism begot Christianity and heavily influenced Islam, maybe I’m Chrislamew. Or since I also love Buddhism, maybe I’m Boddichrislamew. Or maybe this new terminology is just a silly attempt to disempower anyone who doesn’t adhere to an incredibly strict, wooden translation of the Biblical text. In either case, I thought I’d take a brief, closer look at the term “Chrislam:”
From the best I can tell, Chrislam is actually a syncretistic religion that began in Nigeria in the 1980s, a place where Christianity and Islam have often meshed (and not always well). So, too, Chrislam seems to refer to a fictional religion in an Arthur C. Clarke science fiction piece. But when I was told I was adhering to the tenets of Chrislam, I don’t think it had anything to do with Nigeria or a sci-fi novel. Instead, she was referring to a kind of “New World Order,” where at the end times, fundamentalists believe all religions will mesh into one. You can’t make this stuff up (actually, on second thought, you can, and they have, because there’s not really a scriptural basis for any of this unless something, like, the Left Behind series is your “scripture”).
But let’s play what if: What if, indeed, the world’s religions meshed into one. On some level, that sounds great to me. I’ve met and adored some Buddhist-Christians, but because Buddhism is more a “practice” or a way of life than it is a religion, it’s a lot easier for those two to “mesh” together than it is for two religions that say fundamentally different things about their chief prophets. Simply put, while Jesus is greatly esteemed in Islam, he is neither the final prophet (that would be Mohammed, peace be upon him), nor is he divine. I’m not sure how the Nigerians who proposed Chrislam dealt with that basic (if not the most basic) tenet of Christianity, and in that sense, being Chrislamic is absurd. But when I was called an adherent of Chrislam, the critique wasn’t about my beliefs. The stranger didn’t know what it is I do or don’t believe. Her critique came in the midst of my praising an action: Christans and Muslims and Jews praying together. That raises an important question: if people of different faiths pray together or discuss their similarities and differences, are they advocating a “New World Order,” where all religions mesh together to become one? Or, more simply, are they just praying together and having a conversation? The answer seems obvious to me.
There’s more context to this that’s important, however, namely that the Muslims and Jews who were praying together at the Vatican were Palestinians and Israelis who, politically-speaking, haven’t been able to do much historically other than fight. In the realm of political science, there’s this incredibly unfortunate picture of that conflict that paints the conflict’s history and future as one that’s purely a political issue. It’s a fight about land and the history of that land. For Pope Francis to ask Palestinians and Israelis to come together in prayer was to recognize something that’s gone amiss in nearly every single attempt to find peace: that religion and religious differences, are in fact, a crucial part of the inability to find peace. Mind you, that’s an incredibly oversimplified picture of an incredibly complex history from the perspective of one guy’s snooty opinion, but what harm could possibly come from asking people to listen to each other’s prayers or to pray for peace or to ask that G-d, Christ, and Allah guides these three religions toward a helpful resolution?
And it’s not that G-d, Christ, and Allah is going to magically speak from the heavens and proclaim, “Thou shalt get along.” It’s that in listening to one another’s prayers, that in praying together, one would hope they might hear each other in an earnest voice they haven’t heard before – one that lets go of the perspectives people tend to cling to in order to acknowledge other perspectives are just as relevant and meaningful. Or to put that another way, it’s when we listen to each other’s earnestness that we are mostly likely to be moved by our own. In that sense, I welcome being told I adhere to Chrislam or Boddichrislamew or whatever promotes we listen to one another’s differences and work together with each other’s similarities. Rather than waiting for G-d, Christ, and Allah to sort that out later, let’s do what we can now and live with the hope that we can do something.
A Paradigm Shift for Empathy, or the Cultural Case Against War and Violence, or a Review of Maleficent
A little more than a decade ago, when the United States was preparing for war with Iraq, the Bush administration used a lot of dichotomous language, like “axis of evil” or “evildoers” when referring to regimes and terrorist cells, if not large swaths of the Middle East. Like a good Western, there was the “good guys,” us, and the “bad guys,” them. Kipling was probably rolling in his grave. But that’s a theme we’re used to seeing in movies; it’s a theme we read in books. Good vs. evil is so nicely simplistic that even when it gets complicated, we don’t generally lose sight of which side we want to win.
But culture is shifting – and maybe drastically. It’s hard to come across a good television show or movie these days where you don’t find yourself rooting for the “bad guy,” at least on some level. I mean, no one is going to argue (hopefully) that Walter White is a good guy, but we all love him a little. And a Miami serial killer who only kills whomever he decides is a “bad guy”? Or how about Game of Thrones, where every character exemplifies the epitome of human depravity. I don’t think there’s a single “good” character on the show – just characters who murder only when they feel they have to as opposed to those who murder for pleasure.
This week, I watched Maleficent, the story of Sleeping Beauty retold through the lens of the mysterious, evil fairy who cursed Princess Aurora in the original animation. Warning: spoilers ahead. It’s a beautiful film that takes an “evil” woman from the original story and gives her purpose and struggle. We’re made to identify and empathize with her story to the point that we begin to see her not as the self-proclaimed “Mistress of All Evil,” as she was in the original but as someone wounded who, rightfully or not, responds through her wounding. Essentially, it’s a story of how hurt people hurt people and how only love can redeem that hurt. Most strikingly (big spoiler here), as she learns that only her true love – and not the romantic love of a prince in shining armor – can end the curse she cast on Sleeping Beauty, the “evil” fairy Maleficent finds healing, and you almost get the sense that the curse she cast on Sleeping Beauty was actually a curse she’d cast against herself, as the beautiful princess comes across as oblivious and almost unfazed by what has transpired.
If only it were that nice in the real world. I know all too well what it is to be wounded, to need to wound others, and then to again turn inward wounded again by what I’ve done. The wounding stops when someone decides enough is enough and decides not to respond in kind but to take the higher road. It reminds me of the too-often quoted (and yet not quoted enough) MLK quote that goes, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And that’s nice and something we all nod our heads to until a terrorist bombs a train or until a world leader uses drones that accidentally kill civilians or until someone hurts someone you love or hurts you. I mean, if anybody ever tried to harm my dog, Abner, I’m pretty sure all my hippy words would just get tossed right out the window, and I’d go purchase my first 12-gauge (that’s a type of gun, right?). But the philosophy I’m advocating, that’s been advocated a thousand times before me, is spot on. It’ll still be spot on no matter what happens to us that changes our minds. The question is, how do we remember that when we’re loading the guns or preparing for battle?
I think a cultural shift, at least in part, is the answer to that question. To teach the world to step in the shoes of others, to hear their wounded experience from their perspective is about the only way we can ever even hope to replace vengeance with non-retaliation. It’s not a debate about whether or not evil exists, and I’m not arguing for some kind of relativism (at least not intentionally), but to view “evil” as having a cause rooted in grief is to recast the conversation about how that grief should be dealt with. And when I watched the movie this week, I got the overwhelming sense that a call for empathy is the new paradigm and isn’t just something being whispered on the fringes or only spoken by a handful of great men and women the way it once was. We’re slowly but surely teaching each other to step into the shoes of the strangers who hurt us and be profoundly moved by that hurt before we fight fire with fire.
It’s nice to think we can keep selling that message until it takes hold.