[ by Charles Cameron ]
It may be that the hardest thing for a human to wrestle with is the correlation of quality with quantity.
I’m writing this post by way of a response to the comments of J Scott Shipman and Fred Zimmerman on my earlier post, Burning scriptures and human lives — but as I said in a comment of my own there, not in a point by point fashion, more in the manner of a meditation. Our conversation grew out of a discussion of the killing of humans and the burning of Qur’ans, and perhaps I should say at the outset that in my view, the burning of sacred books is in general a pretty offensive business, the taking of human lives in general even more so.
If, however, we wish to know our enemies, as Sun Tzu advises, let alone to love them, as Christ suggests, we might reflect that what is happening these days in Afghanistan in many ways resembles what was happening in Europe a few short centuries back:
A little later, after the definition of the dogma of transubstantiation by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, a new libel surfaced, known as host desecration. According to this calumny, the Jews obtained a consecrated host from the mass, with the assistance of a Christian who retained it from the administration of communion, took it to their synagogue or homes and subjected it to every indignity, including trampling on it and sticking pins into it. … The accusation was made for the first time at Belitz, near Berlin; all the Jews of the town were burned. One hundred instances of the charge have been recorded, in many cases leading to massacres.
William Nichols, Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate, pp 239-40
William Gibson is frequently quoted as saying, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” – and by the same token, the past is still with us, and no more evenly distributed.
For myself, I don’t see how I can condone or judge those whose values are as radically different from my own as those Christians, these Afghans – or the “religious but unstable” woman in Spartanburg County, Tennessee, who chained up and burned her nephew’s dog because it had chewed her Bible and was clearly a “devil dog”. Thankfully, it is neither mine to condemn nor to forgive.
I value human life way more than I value any physical book – and I revere those insights, not infrequently found in scriptures, which encourage love, wonder, compassion, insight, wisdom, peace, generosity, gratitude and praise…
I revere them enough that I can understand Sir Thomas More preferring to surrender his own life rather than to go against that which his own traditions, scriptures, and sacraments had taught him to venerate. Likewise, I can find no fault in the Zen of the monk who famously burned a wooden statue of the Buddha when the firewood ran out… a tale that is worth repeating:
In a famous zen story, a travelling monk was resting in a monastery during a cold night. He took down a wooden Buddha statue and used it as fire wood.When the resident monks saw what he did, they became very angry and demanded to know why he did that.
He replied “I am looking for sarrira (holy relics).
The monks then laugh and exclaimed: “How can one find sarrira in a wooden statue?”
In reply, the travelling monk then said “Well then, can you pass me that other wooden statues also?
I once climbed the many stairs and stood on the small platform atop the head of the great 6th century Buddha of Bamiyan, which just ten years ago was demolished by the Taliban, and I remember that day with great affection.
Historically speaking it is a tragedy for the world and the Afghan people that the Buddhas were destroyed.
What Buddha taught, remains, however. What the Beatitudes taught, remains., despite what dogs may chew. What the Qur’an teaches remains, beyond the pastor’s fire. What the host at the Eucharist embodies, remains…
It is in the sense of what I have written above that I wrote, “The value of one human life is the value of the world. The Qur’an is indestructible. It is deeply inadvisable to threaten, attempt or facilitate the destruction of man, world, or book…”
Mind you, I am not suggesting that others should share my view – my own life experiences just don’t encourage me to use scriptures or credal statements against others until I have first “removed the beam from my own eye”. In the meanwhile, I take my inspiration where I can find it.
And find it I do in this comment on my previous post, from Jimpa:
Books are paper and ink and can be republished. A human life is a miracle of creation (regardless of whose theory is used to explain it.) There is only one of each of us there are no copies of anyone, even cloning can not create a replacement.
To me, this gets to the spirit and clarity of the matter.
The crime was horrific, and the mob outside the jail was angry. They had gathered before and demanded the death of the man inside, but a conservative cleric, who ran a religious school for boys, had appeared and told them all to go home and repent before God. Because the men in the mob were all religious and obeyed this particular cleric, they went home as he had ordered. When the crowd returned a few days later, though, while that cleric was away preaching elsewhere, they fought their way past the guards and found the man for whom they were looking. The man was from a minority group in the area, and though he was actually innocent of the crime of which he had been accused, that did not stop the violent mob from beating him horribly, tying a rope around his neck and throwing him off a bridge while hundreds cheered.
The year was 1906, and the place was my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The name of the man killed was Ed Johnsen, a black man who had been accused of the brutal rape of a white woman, Nevada Taylor. (The conservative cleric? Well, that madrasa he founded has produced several U.S. senators, governors, businessmen and one dyspeptic defense policy blogger.) …
The reason I mention the story, though, is because it popped into my head when I read my friends Dion and Maria’s account of what had happened in Mazar-e Sharif a few days ago when several innocent United Nations workers were brutally murdered because some fundamentalist crank in Florida thought it would be a hot idea to videotape himself burning a Quran. It was not that long ago, we should remind ourselves going into a discussion of what happened in northern Afghanistan and why, when the ugly kinds of mob scenes we saw in Mazar might have also happened in the United States. (The last lynching of an innocent black man of which I am aware took place in the American South in 1981.)
I see those two posts as working together like head and heart — the “soul” and richness of feeling in Abu Muqawama’s post adds depth to the “spirit” and clarity of thought in Jimpa’s. To have a high standard of measurement is fine — to forget one’s own human frailty, not wise at all.
[ to be continued in Of Quantity and Quality II: weighing man against world ]