Walking Humbly

By Rebecca Lynne Fullan

Humility. This week’s readings come praising and encouraging it—but what is it? Is it taking the last place because you really want the first? Is it not asking questions when things get too crazy and messed up? Is it keeping quiet? Inviting the poor over for dinner? Approaching God and not being overwhelmed?

I find it all quite mysterious. The second reading reassures that our experience of God is and will be something approachable, something that does not come “in a blazing fire and a gloomy darkness.” God is powerful, but God will not overwhelm. Everything is in order. Everything will be all right.

Do you believe that? I have more instinctive belief in the overwhelming, the beyond my strength that the first reading talks about. Every day a little more of the beyond my strength comes into view. Today, I woke up and read a news story about a cab driver here in New York City who was stabbed in the neck by a passenger because the cab driver was Muslim. He has survived, but this is very much beyond my strength. Should I be humble about that? What would that humility mean? In the face of the furor over the mosque potentially being built near the site of the twin towers, is humility the right response? And what would humility mean?

I bring them together, this attack and the controversy, because they stand together in my mind in a very particular way. When I started to hear the arguments building about this potential mosque/Islamic center my instinct was to say, well, I think it might be right to build the mosque, but probably they shouldn’t do it. I was picturing violence in the future. I was picturing the windows broken and the place defaced. I was picturing people getting hurt. And I wanted to avoid that, both because I didn’t want it to happen, and because I used to go down to that area every day, when I had Grand Jury duty. I used to walk around past the restaurants and the discount shops and the African Burial Ground National Monument, all pretty near to the World Trade Center area. And I don’t want that ugly violent shit happening in places where I used to walk around.

And then I see this attack and I realize, it’s not the mosque that will bring what I don’t want, what I fear. It’s already here. Whatever this is, whatever will happen if they do or don’t build it, whatever that means… the seeds of it are already here. Ahmed H. Sharif has already bled because of it. His attacker, Michael Enright, is a college student who spent time volunteering in Afganistan with an organization called Intersections International, which promotes interreligious dialogue and supports the mosque. When Enright was attacking Sharif, he said, “Consider this a checkpoint.”

Try to unpack all that. Just try. It is beyond my strength. I have to tell you, I don’t understand it. I don’t want to look at it. I can’t fix it. I don’t know what it means.

Humility means saying that I don’t understand without panicking, I think, without either despising myself for not understanding or thinking therefore that there can be no understanding, that the whole world is spiraling into doom because I have touched a hungry, aching violence that I cannot understand.

When I was serving on the Grand Jury, downtown there, I felt like I was working in the dark. All you get, on a Grand Jury, is some of the prosecution’s case. I always felt as though there were ten important pieces of information just beyond my reach, as I debated and voted and signed the indictments. The first day we watched this video about the history of Grand Juries, and they related the Grand Jury to the Jewish Sanhedrin. This was during Lent. And around me swirled suspicions, doubts, fears, knowledge of the potential and often actual injustice of the justice system: racism, bias against the poor, etc., etc. And into my ear went the facts.

And so I would go, after a particularly tense or confusing day, and walk around the African Burial Ground National Monument. This monument came to be when, in the course of doing some construction, bodies of slaves were unearthed, and a burial ground discovered. After conflict and struggle about what to do, the bodies were re-interred and a monument built. It begins with a tall, narrow enclosure designed to evoke the space of a slave ship. As you pass through this darkened space, you can hear water flowing around you, in a sort of moat that surrounds the monument. When you emerge, it is into a spiral starting below ground level, with the approximate ages and sexes of some of the people buried there engraved into the floor. As you walk through and around and over these, the spiral moves higher, and you end on a walkway with a wall to one side of you, and on the wall are carved symbols of various African cultures and religions, with a description of meaning below each one.

I would ask the people buried there for help, while I walked. I asked for the eyes to see and the ears to hear, the intellect to interpret and the heart to understand, and the humility to accept things that are different from what I wanted to believe.

Is that appropriate, or appropriation? Is that the Communion of Saints, or ancestor worship, and is there any difference, really? Is it real, could they help me? I don’t know. I have no idea. These questions are too sublime for me. But it’s what I did. It’s what I could do.

In this matter of the attack, of the mosque, of how to honor the dead and the living and the differences and sameness and the horror and the hope of being in this world—what is to be done? What is right? What is real? I have ideas. I want to see a place that dedicates itself to peace. I want to see people of all groups trying to understand each other, at the mark of a horrifying, violent breakdown of that understanding, a transmutation of interaction into hate. I want us all to pause, to be humble, to take a breath and wait, and I hope whatever is built there and nearby will facilitate such a response. And I think there is a place in all this for a mosque. I think a mosque belongs in a such a story.

But do I know? Do I know what should be done? I don’t know. I don’t know very much at all. I ask for the eyes to see and the ears to hear, the intellect to interpret and the heart to understand, and the humility to accept things that are different from what I want to believe.

Rebecca Lynne Fullan lives and tries in New York City.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this very reflective post. The fact that you wove the theme of last week’s Gospel into this current situation (rising Islamophobia in the face of the new mosque) makes the reading seem even more relevant to daily life.

  2. Thanks a lot for your comment… I’ve been thinking a lot about the mosque situation lately, and was lucky enough to receive this great email from Tanenbaum, an organization devoted to promoting interreligious understanding, designed to help educators address the issue. I think it’s pretty helpful for everybody who wants to think about it, though, so here it is if you’d like to take a look.

    https://www.tanenbaum.org/programs/education/turning-park51-teachable-moment-curriculum-guide-and-fact-sheets

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