Prophets for Our Tme: Are We Listening?
by Dorothy C.Buck
When I think of Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Muhammad, the ancient Hebrew prophets, Abraham, Elijah, Moses then John the Baptist and Jesus, in fact the religious reformers and visionaries of all cultures and traditions in every age, one word overshadows all else. They knew how to listen, first to God, then to the voices of others in the world around them. As Christians we talk of God callingus into relationship, of the prophets being called to speak publically for God, to challenge and confront the ways that God's voice was not being heard. In the Gospel according to Matthew John the Baptist is heard quoting the major Hebrew prophet Isaiah,
Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! ...A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!(Matthew 3:2, Isaiah 40:3)
Unless we listen to the prophets among us we are likely to wander farther and farther away from the kingdom of God's love into a maze of tempting cultural values and materialistic idols. We hear competing voices inundating our TV programs enticing us with more and more thingswe must have and that we are told will make us happy. Even cigarettes and an SUV are claimed to fulfill our longings for love and companionship, and more and more credit debt is the capitalistic means of achieving the successful consumer lifestyle that feeds our economy, but not our souls.
We have ample voices throughout our short history as a country who have warned us of the dangers of not heeding the call of the poor, of not feeding the hungry, offering a drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and welcoming the strangers in our midst. Now we are challenged, almost beyond our capacity to respond, by the fear of terrorist attacks and the distrust and hatred felt towards this country in many parts of the world. Are we listening?
When Louis Massignon, the French scholar of islam and Catholic mystic started the Badaliya prayer movement in Cairo in 1934 with the Egyptian Melkite Christian, Mary Kahil, he was answering a call to a vocation grounded in love of God and love of others. As the Muslim Arabs became the majority in Egypt, Arab Christians were increasingly marginalized. While Mary Kahil devoted much of her life to both Muslim and Christian Arab women's rights she was also intent on maintaining the visibility and rich cultural heritage of Egyptian Christians in the midst of Islam. The word Badaliya in Arabic means to take the place of, instead of, or substitution, and the prayer is an offering of oneself to God for the well being of others. Louis Massignon invited Mary Kahil to join him in devoting their lives and their prayer to the Muslim people around them. He understood the Badaliya as a call to feeling the pain and suffering of others and joining their experience of it to the sufferings of Christ for the salvation of all humanity. They took these words of Jesus seriously,Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.(Matt.5:44) It is not easy to feel persecuted or marginalized and be willing to pray for those who persecute us let alone feel compassion and love for them.
The Badaliya movement became a means of crossing over to the other, of entering into the Muslim life and community in order to grow in understanding and mutual respect. Louis Massignon was a prophetic voice in his time whose embrace of arabic culture and Islam pointed to a means of interreligious understanding that went beyond dialogue to the essence of Christian love. It led to a Muslim-Christian shared prayer group that survived until 1979 and to an annual Muslim and Christian pilgrimage that continues to this day in Brittany, France. In 1948 when the modern state of Israel was in its infancy Louis Massignon was outspoken in his prophecy of disaster for the whole Middle East if the three religions of Abraham were not reconciled to living side by side in peaceful co-existence. The path towards a Palestinian crisis was already clear to him.Was anyone listening? On June 1, 1962, five months before his death, Massignon wrote:
... We do not tire in repeating that it is necessary to pray together, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, for the advent of this so desired and waited for peace. Every tentative economic and even cultural ageement, if it is not founded on a sincere movement of hearts, united in faith in the God of Abraham, Father of believers, can only frighten the third world and be rejected...
This letter was written 45 years ago.Christians are still being marginalized in Arab countries all over the world and there are communities of Egyptian,Palestinian, Iraqis, and other Arab Christians throughout the Middle East struggling to live together peacefully with their Muslim and Jewish neighbors.The prophets among them are the many grassroots groups working in mental health centers, parents circles, the Holy Land Trust in Israel, Christian Peacemakers Teams, the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, Families Forum and Rabbis for Human Rights, along with many other human rights organizations from all over the world. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,'Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?' Here I am, I said, send me!' (Isaiah 6:8-9)
An Iraqi friend of mine speaks of growing up in Baghdad very much the way a young married Muslim woman wrote in her weblog this past Christmas 2004: Iraqis have strong bonds between them in spite of religion or ethnic differences, we all work together, have neighbors from other religions,visit each other and respect our differences. My neighbors are Shias, my best friends are Christians and Kurds, and I am Sunni, but we all have good relations between us. Christians celebrate Christmas with traditions very similar to our Eid (feast). Muslims and Christians visit each other in Eid (by the way the Christians call their Christmas Eid too)....They serve our traditional Kulaicha besides some pastries just like us. My daughter has her share of gifts for Christmas too, and she always asks me why Santa doesn't come to our house too? I don't know what to tell her so I usually say that Santa brings your gifts and puts them in our friends house so you can take them from there. (Dec.22, 2004. www. rosebaghdad.blogspot.com) Are we listening to the prophets among us?
Here in the United States, in the spirit of Louis Massignon, we recreated the Badaliya prayer for our time two years ago. We are responding to a quite different challenge than he and Mary Kahil were in 1934 since we live in a predominantly Christian society and it is our Muslim neighbors who are a distinct minority. Ancient medieval prejudices and misconceptions still inform our unconscious responses to Muhammad and Islam and we can no longer afford to allow ourselves to remain ignorant of them. Giulio Basetti-Sani was an Italian Franciscan priest who met Louis Massignon in 1936 and continued to refer to him as a mentor until Massignon died in 1962. Basetti-Sani describes his own misconceptions of Islam at the time and realized how influenced he had been by the rhetoric of the medieval crusades of the popes and fears of later 17th century Christian writers. When he presented these views to Massignon the professor answered,The medieval Christian world taught that Muhammad was a messenger of Satan and that the Allah of the Qur'an was not the God of Abraham. We should not do to others what we would not have them do to us.
Basetti-Sani writes, Massignon had alerted me against an unjust condemnation of (Islam) that precluded any sincere and productive dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Islam is a mystery linked with the blessing obtained by Abraham from God for his son Ishmael and Ishmael's progeny. This line of thought, taken from the Bible, is the one to take in order to grasp the significance of Islam. Before we parted Massignon gave me two thoughts meant as guidelines in my reorientation. One was from Augustine, ' Love sees with new eyes', and the other was from John of the Coss,'Where there is no love put love, and you will find Love Himself'. It was true: my eyes had seen badly...Later, when my eyes were to see clearly, I would discover in Islam and the Muslims the reflections of the infinite goodness of God. (Basetti-Sani. 1977. The Koran in the Light of Christ Franciscan Herald Press IL pp..17-18)
The media coverage of Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist groups hardly helps us to overcome our misconceptions of Islam and the teachings found in the Qur'an. Yet, Muslims are very clear about the distortions of their religion and use of it for violent behavior and political purposes by fundamentalist groups. The meaning of the Arabic word, Islam tells us a great deal about those of this faith tradition. Islam means submission and comes from the root for the arabic word for peace, salaam. Muslim believers are called to submit themselves entirely to the will of God, Allah, and to find within that experience an abiding peace. For most Muslims Islam is both a religion and a way of life that leads to peace, mercy and forgiveness.
It may be that Allah will grant love (and friendship) between you and those who you (now) hold as enemies. For Allah has power (over all things); And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.( Qur'an Sura 60:7)
But if the enemy inclines towards peace, you (also) incline towards peace, and trust in Allah for He is One who hears and knows (all things).(Qur'an Sura 8:61)
Are we listening to our Muslim neighbors, co-workers, brothers and sisters in Abraham?At a gathering of Muslims and Christians co-sponsored by the Islamic Council of New England, the Massachusetts Council of Churches, and the Archdiocese of Boston recently there was a newspaper article distributed at the gathering. It is a description with interviews of the detention at the US and Canadian border of 40 Muslims returning to Buffalo from an Islamic conference in Toronto entitled,Reviving the islamic Spirit. Most of those stopped were American citizens and included everyone from the U.S.A. who attended the conference. They were stopped, fingerprinted and held for as long as six hours with no explanation. One 18 year old student was singled out, searched, finger prtinted and questioned. He was forced to go along and when he refused he was told that he legally had no choice. He was initially told that his vehicle was being stopped as part of a random check but he noticed that everyone from the conference was being held.We weren't treated as American citizens. We were treated as suspects. Others described the incident as an odeal, embarrassing, dangerous and un-American, If objections are not raised,what's going to happen in the future? were some of the quotes. The article states,..the Toronto conference was open to the public and featured well-known and well-respected Muslim leaders, many of whom have had discussions with White House officials.(paraphrased and quote from Buffalo News,Jan. 31,2005 by Jay Tokasz,staff reporter).
At the Boston gathering the discussion led to one prophetic voice from a Muslim living in the Boston area, I came to this country seeking the safety of a country with laws that protect my right to live my fatih as a Muslim and to escape living in fear every day. Now I feel fearful again. Someone else asked that we Christians stand with them as they fight against the religious and racial profiling that each of them has experienced after September 11th in the name of homeland securtiy.Are we losing the very democratic ideals that are the foundation of this country in our fear of the strangers in our midst? Have we not yet heard this Gospel passage?
I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me......Then the just will ask him: ....Lord, when did we welcome you away from home or clothe you in your nakedness?....The king will answer them:I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me. (Matthew 25:31-40)
Louis Massignon's experience of compassion was the ground for his spiritual life and a prophetic call for our time. In one of his letters to members of the Badaliya prayer movement he writes:
As long as God leaves us absorbed in our own suffering we remain sterile, nailed to ourselves. As soon as compassion brings us beyond ourselves to another's suffering than our own, we enter into the science of compasson experientially, we discover wisdom in it. In the immortal company of all creatures purified by angelic and human trial we glimpse the joy of tomorrow through the pain of today.
Our desire, Christ's desire, for substitution,badaliya, for the most unfortunate, for the abandoned, for our enemies, make us little by little guess the secret of history, which belongs, Léon Bloy said, to the souls of compassion and pain; and it is through substitution that they decipher it, by achieving it. (Letter #1 1947 )
The Badaliya prayer led Massignon to more and more social action as he responded to the injustices in his country and in the world in his time. He remains a prophetic voice as we continue to face many of the same injustices that he describes so passionately in his letters. Isn't our Lenten fasting, prayer and almsgiving ultimately meant to draw us ever closer to the mind and heart of God, to the fulness of life in God? And doesn't that lead us to greater and greater compassion, hospitality and to the heart of non-violence and love? In 1957 Massignon wrote:
In its edition last August 9th, the Commonweal', the New York Catholic weekly,
completed an article in which the Badaliya was urged to hold firm to its program of non-violent action, in saying," (the Badaliya) remembers that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit injustice, and that is the test which, to a Muslim ("one who has surrendered to God")proves that he is a Muslim. And for us, as St. Augustine pointed out, it is the test of a Christian". (LM Convocation #11)
The essence of the Badaliya prayer movement for our time is poignantly captured by Thich Nhat Hanh.There are many prophetic voices to guide us.May we always listen to them:
If any accident happens to one member of our family, the whole family suffers. When an accident happens to a part of our nation, it happens to the whole nation. When an accident happens to a part of the planet Earth it happens to the whole planet, and together we bear it. When we see that their suffering is our own suffering, and their death is our death, we have begun to see the no-self nature.....Whenever we love, we see that the person we love is ourselves; and if our loved one dies, we also die. Although we are sitting here, and we have the impression that we are alive, in fact we have also died. What happens to one part of the body happens to the whole body.....The pain of one part of humankind is the pain of the whole of humankind. We have to see that and wake up.
(part of a response to the recent devastating earthquake in Asia on Dec. 26,2004, the Tsunami, by the Vietnamese Buddhist --Thich Nhat Hanh)