A few weeks ago I started reading Son of Hamas, the autobiographical story of a young Arab man in Palestine. He relates a beautiful experience of growing up with a family that loved him deeply in a home where happiness radiated from the dinner table and laughter filled the marketplaces. But just because a family is happy it does not mean that their worldview is without serious flaws. In fact the very existence of a wonderful home and family is a strong reason for its members to examine their beliefs carefully under a spotlight, for it’s the ideas in our heads, not the passions in our hearts that will will make us or break us. And who would want to risk allowing a really dumb idea to wreck their world just for the sake of not offending their parents? Sooner or later even the healthiest and happiest person will find themselves being sifted, tempted and then—if they have not thoroughly tested their beliefs for flaws and have not prepared themselves for this ‘evil day’—they will be corrupted and conquered by nothing less than what Jesus described as the Father of Lies. It’s why Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’
One of those poorly examined things in Mosab’s life was the question of what he was supposed to do about his enemies. According to some of the teachers at the mosque, he should hate and kill them, which was ironic given that his father (the leader of Hamas) seemed to show kindness towards them, even when they persecuted him. Mosab’s father also heard what was being said at the mosque and tried to tell his son to stay away from these teachers.
Being a father myself—as I read the story—I empathised with his dad’s obviously conflicted conscience and his attempts to both respect ‘the code’ and to keep Mosab away from the ‘men of blood’ and the mounting tensions between Muslims and Jews on the West Bank. The problem of course was that his father was one of the founding leaders of Hamas and although he himself disliked violence and was not a violent man, he did associate with violent men and felt compelled by his holy book to hold Jihad in the highest honour.
As Mosab talked about the approach of his year twelve exams I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that I had a son of my own who’s final exams were approaching and I wondered whether I might not have ‘sacred cows’ in my own worldview that could also poison my son at this crucial launching-stage of his life.
As it turned out in the book, the pleadings and prayers of Mosab’s mum and dad were unable to stop him from being drawn into what at first seemed like entertainment as he joined his mates in the reckless baiting of Jewish settlers—who were all well armed and had no qualms about spraying automatic weapons in reply to his stone-throwing. Unfortunately Mosab had the Koran on his side and would not be told by his parents. But even so it was awful to read of the broken-hearted pleadings, prayers and tears of his mum and dad as they begged him to give it up and get back to his studies.
He never made it to the examination room. Instead, he found himself being examined and tortured in an Israeli prison by captors who were convinced that the son of a Hamas leader must know some serious facts. But they were deluded and he had nothing to tell them. After long periods of torture and imprisonment, they then offered him a ‘why not work for us’ deal.
Mosab agreed, imagining that he would be able to play double agent and use this as a way of killing Israelis. But what surprised him was that the first thing they told him to do was to make a healthy life for himself: get a University degree, don’t commit adultery and live a stable and responsible life because the best spies are faithful, reliable, hard-working members of their community. As for his question about what to do about his enemies, the more he worked with the Israelis and the more he saw what his own people were doing to each other, the more he wondered who his real enemies were.
He was about to get an answer to both questions when he read that Jesus taught us to love our enemies. He says that Jesus’ teaching on love exploded his worldview and he realised that our only real enemies are things like greed, pride, arrogance and hate. Having gotten this far he ran into something that, for a long time, he simply could not accept: the idea that Jesus is God.
Later in the book, in order to show what happens when moderate Muslims are seduced by Jihad, Mosab uses the metaphor of a barn cat stalking a swallow. The swallow never takes its eyes off it as it paces back and forth, getting closer with each turn. The problem for the bird is that it has no appreciation of depth and doesn’t realise that the cat is getting closer until suddenly there’s a rush of claws, feathers and blood and it’s all over. He points out that Islam is a ladder, with Jihad—the thing everyone tries to forget about—at the top. From there the story follows a predictable script: an Islamic family minding its own business building a home and a family, caring for their neighbourhood and attending the mosque—while out there in the neighbourhood something is shadowing them. Then one day there’s a sudden rush of preaching, anger and blood and they’re snared in the claws of a thing they never wanted to be a part of.
But before we get too indignant about this, we need to have a good look at our own efforts at processing what some are calling the ‘crisis of meaning’ in the west. One writer says, ‘In our modern experience, but probably also in every affluent culture, it is believed that enough power and knowledge can tame the terror and eliminate the darkness … ‘1 And so we feel we have to somehow get as much of this as we can so we are able to write our own script for life and thereby ‘tame the terror and eliminate the darkness’ because we are now in control.
It’s as if this voice says to us, ‘Never mind all that blood and fire stuff out there, just keep your head down, get a nice job, some friends, some pretty gadgets, an immaculate unit and create your own perfect world. If enough of you do this, all that other crap will get out-voted and cease to exist. So just mind our own business and stick to the part where all the fun, freedom and power are.’ The problem with this approach is that it is naïve and speaks to us as if we are totally independent entities living in a vacuum, like an ostrich with its head in the sand—like Mosab’s family and like the Israeli families living on the hill up the road from them. The only difference for us is that we don’t have a text called The Koran and a sacred cow called Jihad but we do have a text called ‘My Opinion’ and a sacred cow called ‘My Life.’
When My Opinion is my authority I become a kind of Western Fundamentalist who launches a My Life attack on the world and suddenly all the possibilities of the universe are shrunk to the size of my own personal imagination. But anyone who knows anything about learning knows that it happens best in the context of robust, and open community. Yes there are self-protective parodies of ‘community’ e.g.: early in Australia’s European history, bible colleges were invited to be part of the learning community of our universities but they chose instead to create their own little enclaves thereby undermining the possibility of an honest, well rounded and well informed education for our church leaders.
The implication in all the rants launched by these My Life attacks—that are authorised by the infallible My Opinion text—being that we can actually invent reality so that it fits around the shape of our delusions. And we can. But reality has the nasty habit of damaging our invented reality frauds. As Mosab discovered and as a famous slogan has it, ‘We can’t make you do anything but we sure can make you wish you had.’*
How wonderful then, that life is a kind of exciting and dangerous quest or voyage of discovery. A feast of learning. A place where we don’t argue for a win but for truth. And it’s all out there in the world of wonder and discovery! Not in here, in the posturing prison of your own dream house. For too long we proud human beings have forced imagination and reason to stand apart like sulking lovers. But they need each other and today reality is calling your imagination to follow her longings over the precipice of her fears into the dangerous world of critical thought, reason, commitment and submission to fact.
So take the plunge. Humbly give yourself to learning in open and honest community interaction—especially with those who disagree with you. Here you discover reality and after a while you will realise you are slowly becoming a part of it yourself. Then those who find you will follow you and be glad. For the only doorway to freedom is truth and if that means asking the question of the right of some precious Jihad Law, My Life or My Opinion text to be sanctioned in your sacred text, then so what? Life’s too short and that bloody barn cat is getting closer.
From a reading of the many books in the Old and New Testaments it would appear that God hopes for the same. As a case in point we have this in the book of Amos, ‘I hate your religious festivals… stop your noisy songs… instead let justice flow like a stream.’2
1 Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.29 Augsburg Fortress 2002
* Band of Brothers (US Army proverb)