“Get over it,” Dave, a member of our Lutheran-Methodist Bible study group, summed it up. We had just watched a film version of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable was Jesus’ response to the question, “And who is my neighbor?”
As we discussed the first-century religious and ethnic divisions between Jews and Samaritans, the discussion moved to 21st-century United States — and how, perhaps, things are not so different than in the first century.
The use of race, ethnicity and religion to divide people is still happening today. Dave talked about how Jesus used the parable to tell the lawyer — and us — to see beyond these humanly constructed barriers, to “get over it,” to get over the barriers that divide us.
September is a month of sad anniversaries — 10 years have gone by since the murders of almost 3,000 people on September 11, 2001. Six years have passed since Hurricane Katrina — and human failure — brought death and misery to people in Mississippi and Louisiana.
As a nation, we have yet to recover from these tragic events. For some, recovery will last a lifetime.
It’s September 2011. The 24-hour news networks remind us of these anniversaries. As we watch ceremonies of names read aloud, prayers spoken, anger fueled and tears shed, what has changed? What, if anything, have we learned?
One person’s nightmare
In the book “Zeitoun,” author Dave Eggers recounts the story of Syrian immigrant Abdulrahman Zeitoun. Zeitoun, as he is called, lived and worked in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Together with his American-born wife, Kathy, they built up a successful painting and construction business. Zeitoun was a family man, reliable both in business and in personal relationships.
Faithful Muslims, Zeitoun, Kathy and their children were a friendly and caring fixture in their neighborhood. As the hurricane neared New Orleans, Kathy and the children moved to safer environs while Zeitoun stayed in the city. He did not think this would be such a serious event. But the levees broke, and Zeitoun’s house was swallowed in water. He pitched a tent on his roof where he would sleep at night.
During the day, he paddled around in his canoe rescuing people — a large elderly woman who could not swim, the Baptist minister and his wife — all trapped in their flooded houses. He heard the barking of abandoned dogs and fed them. He distributed bottled water and other supplies to those waiting to be moved to higher ground. He found help for those he couldn’t personally rescue. Zeitoun certainly was a neighbor to his neighbors.
Zeitoun and Kathy kept in touch by phone daily. Then silence. From Sept. 7 to Sept. 19, no one knew if Zeitoun was dead or alive. The story of what happened to this American family was a nightmare.
There have been controversies about building Islamic centers. While they may not make page one of our local papers, I have noticed more and more angry language used in some of our local media.
I become furious as I watch those representing Jesus opposing the building of houses of worship. I’ve heard the reasons: “They’re a cult, so our Constitution doesn’t protect them.” “Where do they get all that money to build if not from terrorist organizations?” “Their plan is to plant their mosques in rural areas and take over our city councils and then who knows? They will make us follow their laws and force us to stop and pray five times a day.” (Actually, praying five times a day may not be such a bad idea for Christians.)
These “reasons” disguise something ugly — our sinful ignorance and arrogance. It is not the way of Jesus. The hate speech against Muslims has crystallized into “we-they” statements. Listen to people as they are interviewed: “We don’t want them to build the mosque.” “We don’t want them to come to our country. They are all terrorists.” “Our safety is the ultimate reason for doing what we do to them.”
The “we-they” language is not confined to the debate on the Islamic centers. You can hear it in discussions ranging from immigration to church outreach in changing communities.
“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” You are probably an example of this other kind of “we-they.” Your congregation, and you, yourself, are hopefully countering the hateful “we-they” with acts of courage and love. It’s the “we-they” of love that needs to speak louder and clearer than that fueled by fear and ignorance. That’s the kind of “we-they” I can live with.
Fern Lee Hagedorn is the Friday morning voice of WJFF, public radio in northeastern Pennsylvania and the Catskills in New York. She is a member of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Narrowsburg, N.Y.