Ordinary Time 28, Year C
[Six years and two wars, I am afraid, have not rendered irrelevant this Ocrtober 2001 reflection that I only slightly revised]
- Not in my bow do I trust, nor does my sword bring me victory (Ps. 44:7)
Our local Vallejo, Calif., newspaper, the Times-Herald, carried last October 11 , an article by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Joan Ryan. Ryan wrote about eight-grader Ali Rafi, the son of an Iranian father and an American mother, and the grandson of a career U.S. Air Force serviceman.
Every fall, recounts Ryan, eight-graders at Rafi’s middle school in Mountain View, Calif., are given the assignment to rewrite Afro-American Langston Hughes’ 1954 poem, “I, Too.” The task requires students to change the words of the poem so that it reflects their own lives. This year’s assignment, by coincidence, came on exactly the day Rafi’s “place in the world had been thrown into turmoil.”
Before this fateful day, Rafi was perceived by his friends, many of whom live on the military base at nearby Moffet Field, to be no different from them. His not eating meat at school did not attract particular attention. Apparently, Rafi’s classmates did not make anything either of his mother’s--a convert to Islam--and sister’s showing up at school events wearing traditional Muslim scarves over their heads.
“But the horror of September 11 suddenly set him apart,” says Ryan, “particularly from the sons and daughters of those who are likely to be deployed to the Middle East to fight a war against radical ... terrorists.” A boy soon told Rafi, loudly albeit jokingly, “You probably helped the terrorists crash those planes into the twin towers!” Another announced his coming with, “Hey, look, it’s Ali, the terrorist.”
“It took me completely by surprise,” Rafi said, “but I kind of shrugged it off.” But as the joking escalated, at lunch and then in the gym, Rafi felt embarrassed. “I felt embarrassed,” he admitted, “because suddenly I was different and I don’t feel different.”
It turned out Rafi’s mother, a “California blonde” whom he resembles, also had her share of surprise and embarrassment. Never mind that she denounced the 9/11 attacks as horrific and unfathomable, taped an American flag to the antenna of her car, and hang another in a front window of their house. None of these patriotic gestures was of help to prevent a woman, at a grocery store, from nodding toward her and remarking quite audibly to another, “If I was younger, I’d slap her face.” Even more embarrassing was when firefighters, passing around their boots to collect money for their New York counterparts, turned away when she approached.
But even after hearing his mother recount these insulting incidents, Ali said nothing about the taunts he was weathering at school. He kept his cool and wouldn’t snitch. He only really came forward when, he read in class his rewritten “I, Too” that goes:
- I, too, am an individual.
- They embarrass me the way they tease.
- When they say I’m a terrorist, I shrug it off,
- But I count them as friends.
- And so, the ridicule continues
- And I must shrug another day off.
- When they joke,
- I will joke back.
- Then they won’t say to me,
- “You probably helped them.”
- They’ll stop after I show them
- Who I am
- And lower their heads.
- I, too, have dignity.
When Rafi finished, the class fell silent momentarily and then broke into applause. At the principal’s request, he would soon be reading the poem over the PA system for the whole school to hear. Concludes Ryan:
- The taunts stopped without Rafi’s ever raising his voice or his fists.
- He knew he couldn't control the attacks, only his response to them. The fact
- that an eight-grader understood this so clearly is enough to feed my faith and hope
- through another anxious week.
And if I may add, I think we need more than the mighty military to attain peace and security. In my opinion, we are in dire need of people, young and old, who will disprove the stereotypes and be the exceptions to the generalizations.
We need people like army commander Naaman who, though proud of himself, of his king, and of his country, including its rivers, nevertheless knew to listen to reason and the stirrings of faith, so that he would subsequently follow Elisha’s instruction and bathe himself in the river Jordan. He would be cured of leprosy, of course, and would later reverse himself somewhat about his country and proclaim in thanksgiving, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.”
We need folks like the Samaritan leper who went back to Jesus to give thanks to God. How most Jews and Samaritans alike probably wished he proved himself the stereotypical Samaritan, an ingrate, like the other nine, and truly deserving of hatred by Jews because he himself was breathing the kind of hatred manifested by those Samaritans who did not welcome Jesus (Lk. 9.52-56), or by those who, according to Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, entered the Jewish Temple secretly and desecrated it by scattering human bones in the sanctuary, thus forcing the cancelation of Temple services and prompting the enactment of strict security measures around the Temple. Feeding such an act of hatred and sacrilege, no doubt, was the memory, passed on from one generation of Samaritans to the next, of the destruction, in 128 B.C.E., of the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim by Jewish High Priest John Hyrcanus and of the Jewish plunder then of Samaria’s territory.
But as it was, the Samaritan did not confirm the stereotype. He, therefore, also provided an opportunity to break the cycle of hatred and violence and to write the beginnings of a better and different history. If he was disarming, along with the other nine lepers, in begging for pity and cure, he surely was even more disarming when he returned to give thanks
I submit that the rejection of the stereotypes of those we tend to avoid and dislike—along with a humble attitude and a spirit of gratitude that characterize Yahweh’s poor and which enable us to see the stranger in the light of faith that saves and trusts that God’s word cannot be chained—makes for peace and security and disarmament better and more effectively than the acts of war and terror that are carried out, sometimes in the name of God and of justice, with mighty and destructive military firepower.