One of the great teachers of my life, the once Jesuit priest Ivan Illich (d. 2002), once said, "I have no interest in 'saving the planet,' but I have every interest in walking decently on the earth." This was not, as it might sound, a statement against the environment. The author of Energy and Equity could hardly be said to lack environmental concern. The statement was, instead, a call for perspective, proportion, and attention to the real in a life. There's no such thing as everything. One can't take it all in. One can live where one is, aware of the world around but not overly caught up in distorted dramas that may or may not represent much of what is.
And so it's perspective I want to write about this week. It comes to mind because of the events of the past days that have gotten so much press beginning with the brutal killing of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three with him on September 11. Demonstrations of varying sizes have appeared in several countries, declared to be in response to a 15-minute video made by a culturally Christian and virulently anti-Islamic one-time criminal (bank fraud) who's now in hiding in Los Angeles. Demonstrations and calls against the film, against the West, against President Obama and against all of America have come for allowing (allowing?) such a film to be made--asking a nation to take responsibility for the speech that the one who spoke it won't claim himself.
By pictures on the news, we're led to believe the whole Muslim world is aflame in Anti-American anger. CNN puts a map of the world on screen with large flames covering each city where a demonstration took place that day—as if the cities are burning like in war. Wolf Blitzer exclaims, "U. S. embassies and consulates under siege today." The week's Newsweek leads: "Muslim Rage." And reporters on the Left and the Right repeat the claim.
Salmon Rushdie calls it a product of the "outrage industry" in the Middle East. Western media has its own version. We're led to believe, perhaps truthfully or perhaps not, that we Americans are being pulled into an existential struggle between Christian and Islamic civilizations, with the fate of liberty itself at stake. And we're led to believe that the battle is being fought in two places: in front of our embassies and in election year sound-bites at home.
So, perspective. These events are worthy of attention, for sure. But how? How are we to keep perspective, proportion, and attention to what's real? Without clear vision, I still want to think that Christians thinkers should seek at least the decency of measure and care in our view.
There are thousands of demonstrators enraged over an incendiary, obscene, insulting video clip. Yes. And many of them are using that offense as an occasion to express other angers. That's surely true, too. And some football hooligans are thrown in too. Maybe it'll expand. Maybe it'll die out, for now. We can grant all of that. But there are also millions upon millions of Muslims whose minds aren't so easily known. Those millions upon millions aren't demonstrating. Cities aren't on fire. Embassies are not under siege (That's a bit of an exaggeration).
So, perspective. Do we focus on an amateurish video made by a hate filled zealot and think that is the object of Arab Muslim anger most worth puzzling over? Or might we look at other objects too? Like frustrated yearnings and confusions within Muslim cultures about the role of government? Like a now 60-year old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that remains unresolved, with justifiable anger at American complicity in the denial of a just and decent future for Palestinians? Like a civil war in Syria that some say has taken 30,000 lives already (some Arabs have noted the irony of the head of Hezbollah condemning the U.S. government over a video the U.S. government had nothing to do with but not condemning his friend President Assad in Syria for its government's atrocities)? Like economic injustice throughout the Middle East, with incredible disparity between the rich and the poor? Like contradictions in our own culture that are so obvious to the world but denied by so many of us? Like ignorance about Islam among Western Christians--Liberal and Conservative alike?
If you're a Christian who feels an impulse to engage these issues as a believer, consider with me whether these are issues are a bit more proportional.
So how do we walk decently? We listen, and to the best of our ability we tend to the real.
That's what I'm thinking this week.