Whether you are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Atheist, Hindu, Buddhist or you identify with any other religion on this shared globe, you can love these two, hurt for them and hope for them. Whether you are Syrian, American, French, Korean, Kenyan, or any other nationality on this immense earth, you can can recognize their humanity, their need and their beauty.
I don’t care what they are wearing, either religiously or culturally… I feel like I’m watching a video of my own grandparents. I see my wife, and I see me. I see love and pain. I see two human beings.
Their marriage sounds so different than our marriage, but then again our marriage (at the ages of 19 and 21) seems more than a little crazy to some of our friends who are just now getting married in their late 30’s and 40’s. I hope that my wife and I can make such joy of our love at such an age. I hope we can one day make a whimsical video about our 65 year love affair.
I also hope we don’t reach that milestone just to be bombed from our home and driven into a refugee camp. I pray that we always know where our children are and that we can see them and speak with them and know they are safe.
Syria is not so far away after all. I haven’t done enough.
Proverbs 3:29-31, “Do not plot harm against your neighbor, who lives trustfully near you. Do not accuse anyone for no reason– when they have done you no harm. Do not envy the violent or choose any of their ways.”
These few verses do a wonderful job of challenging an entrenched individualism and distorted sense of self-preservation that is an undercurrent to a lot of American dialogue… in my humble opinion. The scriptural witness often points us outward to a concern and care for others that at times will seem to defy common sense and definitely push us out of our comfort zones. The verses today are somewhat passive in their nature of “don’t do.” They are also somewhat aggressive in their nature of re-orienting me from one wisdom to another.
What do I not do as a civil person of faith? I don’t plot ill for someone else, especially the “trusting” neighbor. We’ve already mentioned the place of empathy in civility, and now we add a new level of trustworthiness and “neighbor-care.” My neighbor should be able to trust that I’m not plotting against her or him. I hold a responsibility to commit myself to my neighbor’s good.
In the same vein, I will not falsely accuse that neighbor. False accusation is not in their best interest, and therefore is it not an option for me. We sometimes speak of the public trust and what responsibilities the various levels of government owe us as citizens, but do we speak enough of the trust we hold to one another as neighbors? I must not plot and accuse the trusting, innocent neighbor. Civility means I am worthy of their trust.
What about the neighbor who is not so innocent? I mean, if my neighbor steps out of line, well… we have a saying for that, right? We say, “Fight fire with fire!” I would bet the first time I ever heard that saying was in a cartoon, right around the time Bugs Bunny was declaring, “Of course you know, this means war!” But wherever I first heard it, there’s no question it’s an entrenched axiom (a perceived self-evident truth) that we have embraced. Our proverb challenges that with a simple injunction: Don’t envy the violent or adopt their ways.
Wow. My faith is calling me to something greater than fighting fire with fire? I immediately think of St. Paul’s poetic words in Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” That’s such an awesome chapter, right?
Civility in my life will grow from a faithful development of trustworthiness in myself and a refusal to perpetuate the cycles created by a self-centered need to retaliate in kind against offenses to me. I look to my neighbor’s best interests. My neighbor, innocent or not, trusting or not, violent or not, has reason to expect a consistent lack of malice from me. No matter the gain that seems attainable by the ways of the violent, my path is already chosen and set. I pray that my neighbor is always safe with me.
Romans 12:14-16, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.”
St. Paul seems to believe that there is a harmony that exists outside of conformity or agreement, revenge or vengeance. In the face of those who disagree with us, even violently, Paul’s calling us to harmony. If Jesus hadn’t already presented us with the blessing of the peacemaker and the idea of not having enemies, I might just not worry about Paul on this one. But as it is, he’s following the lead of Jesus.
Harmony. What is a harmonizing life and behavior? In Paul’s view it seems to include an intense awareness of the other person and a response to them that meets their best interest and needs. So if the other is happy, be happy with them. If the other is hurting, hurt with them. If the other is attacking you, look into their situation and see their hurt, their pain and their need, and lift that in prayer. I’ve heard several wiser people than I mention the principle that “Those who cause pain do so out of their own pain.” Seeing the offender’s hurt is a needful step in responding in a way that might lead to their healing, and my truest healing as well.
Empathy seems to be a fundamental need of civility. We must learn to see the other and truly recognize where they are coming from and where they are going, otherwise we are just going to keep speaking out of step and missing each other. If we can’t emphasize with the other we’ll surely demonize them. Not only do we run the risk of falling into a cycle of vengeance, but we also miss the chance to share the other’s joy and share the other’s pain. This doesn’t mean we let ourselves be used and abused again and again. It means that we side-step the ego’s demand to retaliate and punish, which opens the door for a better response. Perhaps when we take a step to break that cycle of causing pain and pray for the one least deserving of our prayers, we might open a door to the needed healing.
It seems that harmony is another step away from the idea of dominating, defeating or winning. It sounds more like participating, sharing and supporting. It also sounds costly, because it demands an investment from me: energy, empathy and forgiveness. Honestly, the one persecuting and mistreating may never change. Their behavior might continue to be destructive. Our prayers have a layered effect of helping us maintain our responsibility to be as civil as we can, of helping us lay down the burden and move on with our healing, and of making sure that our voices are not found among the sources of discord and disharmony in the world.
Since we can only do what we can do, harmony is always our effort. Choosing a “way of blessing” for our lives is a daily walk, not necessarily a destination. I might often get a little off course, but hopefully not too often. That simple phrase in St. Paul’s verse “bless and not curse” is maybe the place we most engage harmony. It reminds me of the medical mantra, “first do no harm.” What’s my reflex? Do I move to curse or to bless? Am I a person of cursing or of blessing. What is my way? I guess I’m still working it out, but hoping to tip the scale toward blessing.