Wednesday, October 27, 2010


On Yom Kippur, I gave a sermon entitled Mosques and Islam, Hatred and Kindness. It was about two overlapping topics, and, in looking back on it, and talking to some people, I think I did a much better job with one than with the other. I’m going to try to fix that, somewhat, here.

On one level, the sermon was about Islamophobia and, in one specific, important example, the Park51 Islamic Community Center (the “Ground Zero Mosque”). I am extremely distressed by the ongoing demonization of all Muslims. Let me be clear: I think that Muslim Extremists, and Muslim Terrorists, are as evil as they come; I really do think that they are one of the greatest threats, if not the single greatest threat, in the world today, and I have no problem fighting them tooth and nail. I also (I don’t think I said this in the sermon) don’t have much time for those who try to argue that, in some way, we’ve brought this on ourselves. The cliché might be overused, but you don’t blame the rape victim for wearing a short skirt – nothing that the US has done comes even close to justifying 9/11.

But, there is a difference between hating Muslim terrorists and hating Muslims. And, that’s where I felt the need to speak up:

It is our sacred obligation to speak out, as a community, and individually, against hatred. When we hear someone saying that Islam is a religion of evil, we have to speak up and say that Baruch Goldstein, the religious Jew who locked himself in a mosque at prayer-time, armed with an assault rifle, and killed as many Muslims as he could, was evil. But, he didn’t make Judaism evil. The thousands of Jewish supporters who still look to him as a hero, don’t make the rest of us Jews evil, either. When we hear someone saying that “they” are out to get “us,” we have to speak up and remind them that “they” are “us.” Muslims died on 9/11, and Muslims defend this country, every day. Our tradition compels us to speak up for those who are being held down. It never gives us an escape clause, should that innocent face Mecca when he prays.

I still stand by what I wrote, and I’m glad (and a bit proud of myself) that I said it to the full congregation*. But, here’s the part that I don’t think came across very well. I said it, but I think it got drowned out by the more pressing, practical concerns. Ignoring the specifics of the issue at hand – ignoring the Islam/Islamicist distinction, or the Park51 debate, I think there’s an important reality about hatred itself.

* I’m also proud that I’m part of a congregation in which the reaction to that view was overwhelmingly supportive.

So much of public discourse – domestic politics, international politics, religion, climate change, race relations, you name it – is dominated by anger, and by hatred. This isn’t exactly an original insight, I know. But, I don’t think we often acknowledge how toxic that hatred can be – both for the larger debate, but also for ourselves.

So often, when engaged in political discussions, I find myself disturbed not as much by the logical arguments that someone is making, but by the nastiness. Or, at least the lack of caring. Let me take one example (sure to offend some): health care. There are some very rational, important arguments against much of the current reform – for example, it really might be a drain on the economy; I don’t know. But, that’s a different argument from, “why should I have to support freeloaders?” or variations on that theme. I’m not saying that everyone who was/is against Health Care Reform is a mean, insensitive person. I’m saying that much of the debate reflects an underlying insensitive point of view.

I want to be a person who looks at someone suffering, and first thinks, “How sad – I want to help them” rather than “not my fault; not my problem.” I want to raise my kids with that same instinct. This might come across as trite, perhaps even ridiculously so, but I think that, when deciding where to stand on an issue (political, personal – it doesn’t matter), “what’s the kind thing to do?” is a very valuable question. Certainly not the only valuable question, but a good starting point.

Some of you, I’m guessing, are thinking that I’m being somewhat of an idealist, or an escapist. That I’m talking warm-fuzzies about serious, important topics. That may be true. But, I’ve come to an interesting realization. When we talk practical, real-world issues, we tend, by necessity, to be talking theoretically. Take Health Care, again – a very real-world issue, right? But, when we talk about it, the conversation has very little effect on the real world. We can vote – but that that single vote carries very little weight. We can, if we’re truly motivated, raise money or campaign for a cause. But, we rarely do. Usually, it’s that single vote, or less. We have very little real impact.

But, if we start to think of kindness as a primary virtue, and we try to think more kindly, then we’ll potentially have a very real impact – on ourselves. I can’t convince America that a single-payer system is the best way to go. But, I can convince myself that helping the weak, and being kind to them, is commanded by my God. We can have a very minute impact on a major issue, or a major impact on a personal issue. There’s surely a place for both, but it at least serves as a reminder not to write off the seemingly non-practical parts of these discussions – they are, in their own way, exceedingly practical.

I’m still not sure I’m saying all of this right. It’s admittedly hard to talk about the importance of kindness, but to do in a serious way. But, one of the jobs of religion is to make us better people, and I’m pretty sure that being kind is one of the steps towards being better.

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