Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Useful Enemies

Muhammad Legenhausen, a Muslim friend of mine who speaks German among several other languages, recently posted the following:

Im Namen Allahs, des Gnädigen, des Barmherzigen

Teur ist mir der Freund, 
doch auch den Feind kann ich nützen, 
Zeigt mir der Freund, was ich kann, 
lehrt mich der Feind, was ich soll.
Friedrich Schiller

The first line means "In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful." It is the first line of all the chapters of the Qur'an save one. Muhammad tends to start all of his posts this way. I translate the quote from Schiller as

Friends are dear to me,
But I can also use enemies.
A friend shows me what I can,
An enemy teaches me what I should.

The ambiguity is interesting. It could be that having an enemy teaches me the harshness I need to dominate and not lose out. It could be that the enemy is my savior from my ignorance and self-approval. It is not both: I don't learn much from people I dominate, other than how to dominate. Choose.

The icon is of the three military strangers whom Abraham hosted and confronted at Mamre. They came to destroy the city where Abraham's nephew lived. Abraham feasted them and negotiated with them, somewhat unsuccessfully. They turned out to be emissaries of God. Choose.

Monday, June 23, 2014

rruuaacchh quotes 6

Taken as propositional belief systems, monotheism, polytheism and atheism (there is one God, there are three million Gods, there is no God) are utterly incompatible. But seen as languages, as well-developed traditions, they all have much to say about the human condition, and we can profit by their being at the communion table.

--from The Healer Messiah chapter 8.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Freddy, I hope life has dealt well with you.

When I was in sixth grade Freddy accosted me in the school bathroom. He was a fifth grader. The bathroom had a door from the hall, but also a door out to the school grounds, and was the easiest way to get out to the ball diamond.

He challenged me to fight. Stood in my way. Said I was afraid.

My folks had told me not to get in a fight. Fighting on the school grounds was forbidden. I was a good pupil. Freddy on the other hand sometimes had issues with teachers.

I was a head taller than Freddy. Freddy was thin, I was solid. He stood there, looking up at me, calling me a coward, daring me to hit him.

I stood there, tears rolling down my face. I told him I wouldn't fight, that I didn't believe that violence solved anything. I didn't back away, but I wouldn't hit him.

I've never been satisfied with that day. All my life I've wondered what I should have done. Now I know.

My family was well off. Freddy's lived down by the tenements. I didn't hang out with Freddy. I was smart, and knew it, and wanted to be a leader. But I was hamstrung by my care for my reputation. If it came to a fight, the teacher's question would be "who hit first?" I wasn't afraid of Freddy, I was afraid of being labeled the one who started the fight. I was afraid for my status in the eyes of adults, the power structure. You can't be a leader with that attitude.

Maybe he wasn't there by choice, and maybe it was frightfully costly to him, but it was true that he dared to spite the system. Freddy was asking "Do you dare to deal with me directly, dare to give me a playing card against you, dare to risk the consequences meted out by the system, or do you stay in the system?"

I hadn't sorted out the difference between being good and being the teacher's pet. I shouldn't be too hard on me--it was a pretty tight fix. If I'd hit him he could have told the teachers I'd started the fight. And if I didn't, he could call me a coward.

I should have dealt with him directly. I should have given him a whack, nothing to really hurt him. Maybe he'd have tried to pummel me. Maybe he'd have told the teachers I had started a fight. I don't know what issues he may have been dealing with. I don't know what the costs to me might have been.

But I know that what I did was unsatisfactory. Non-violence isn't the guiding principle. Wanting fair relationships, regardless of the cost, is. And the best way to a real, fair relationship with Freddy just then was to give him a whack. Not to beat him, not to prove my courage, but to dare sharing his world outside the system. To step onto his turf, into his communion, into his power.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that if confronted with an armed, violent person you shouldn't call in the cops. That's not a question of protecting your reputation, and there's nothing fair about it. But Freddy wasn't a bully 20 pounds heavier than me. He was a scrawny little tough.

Freddy wanted a real peer relationship. He sensed there was something wrong with the way I related to him and others. We were both into fishing in the local ponds and streams, maybe we could have become friends. He had much to offer.

Freddy, I hope life has dealt well with you.

photo credit: Cristobal Viedma via photopin cc