Where The Streets Have No Name | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Where The Streets Have No Name

I've flown to Chicago twice in a month to give writing workshops at Northwestern's journalism school, and each time I've been swept up in a wave of compassion and love. I like to think it's because so many Mississippians have made the city their home, but that may well be a bit egocentric of me.

The man who spoke the most directly to me was driving the cab that picked me up at my hotel to drive me the half-hour or more to Midway Airport—and he grew up far, far away from Mississippi, and Chicago. He was in his 50s and clearly from the Middle East.

"Where are you from?" he asked me in a friendly, thick accent as he watched me in the rearview mirror. We talked a bit about Mississippi, and its direct connection to Chicago through so many of the folks who migrated north over the years.

"Where are you from?" I then asked.

His eyes returned to mine. "Pakistan."

"Pakistan," I responded. "How I would love to visit that part of the world." We both knew I wouldn't anytime soon.

"Yes, it's beautiful," he said. "It used to be a great place to visit." He glanced down.

We then started talking about the wars in the Mideast as easily as we might have been discussing the weather in the Midwest.

"I'm Muslim," he said, "and I don't believe in killing people." His eyes were gentle and sad in the mirror. "The Quran teaches us to love one another, not kill people."

I said little. "I don't hate the Jews just because I'm Muslim. They need a home. They need land, too," he said, as I nodded at the mirror. "Everyone needs land, a place to call their own. Why can't we just live side by side?"

I was back in Jackson less than 24 hours when someone e-mailed me a comment posted about me on a blog that likes to tell tall tales about me and the JFP. An anonymous poster had declared publicly that I was clearly not blogging a lot about the Israel-Lebanon skirmish because, if I did, people would figure out that I'm an anti-Semite, and my paper would lose advertisers. The idea that I would hesitate to speak up about anything I think is important out of such fears would normally make me laugh, considering my track record, but this time I just shook my head with sadness.

Would JFP advertisers truly drop from my paper if I told them that I can't stand for children to die on either Israeli or Lebanese streets due to ugly, violent politics? I just don't think so. I closed the e-mail, then said a little prayer for the good people of the world, all of them. In my prayer, I included this blogger—someone so hardened, so confused by world politics that he or she would publicly project such hate on other people.

The truth is, I'm emotionally devastated by the politics of the Middle East. I'm sick of the blame game in a conflict where clearly both "sides" are wrong, and right, and wrong, and right. I'm tired of watching people savage each other and each other's children—all supposedly in the name of God, or G-d, or Allah.

My cab driver perhaps said it best: "Allah taught violence only as a last resort." Ditto for all the great spiritual leaders. It's not the teaching that's the problem; it's the learning.

These teachers have told us in no uncertain terms to help our neighbors. They've told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us. They've told us not to judge. They've told us to distrust the moneychangers and to be in solidarity with the poor—and not just those who look and pray like us. They've taught us that love is the way, and then they have left us to our devices to figure out how to follow their lead, to use love and compassion to guide us. How we must disappoint them.

The bloody conflict in Lebanon is the latest example of the mess we've made, the ways we've ignored our spiritual advice. Hatemongers tell us to take sides. But I simply cannot, and will not, take sides in a conflict where, it seems, everyone waging the battle has lost sight of what they're fighting for. Yes, I want Israel to have their own homeland, to escape religious persecution. No, I do not believe that Israel has the right to itself persecute on the way to that goal. Same for the other side. All of them.

In my personal spiritual quest, I read widely. Recently, I've been inspired by Sister Joan Chittister, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Jewish intellectual Elie Wiesel and, always, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Last night, I finished a book by Marianne Willliamson, a spiritual leader whose unending optimism about curing the world eclipses my own; I turn to her writings when I'm feeling a bit harried in the good fight we must fight every day, in a world where "grace and benevolence" can mean attacking good firefighters and defending brutal police officers.

I was finishing her best-selling "Everyday Grace," and last night read the final chapter, "A Life of Grace." In the book—written since 9/11—Williamson tries to bolster hope in achieving a world where peace is the top priority, where God's love is not used as an excuse for imperialism. "Peace is more than the absence of war; it's the presence of peace, a positive state of being that is predicated on brotherhood and justice and love," she writes.

She then parks the state of the world squarely at each of our doors: "The horrors of the world we live in today arise from spiritual ignorance." We must, she says, reach a place where we identify with people beyond our differences. "We cannot escape one another, and in our right minds we wouldn't want to," she says, calling it "backward" that we spend too much money to protect ourselves from others, rather than work to "build righteous relationships." The good news, she says, is that these connections are made, first, in our own communities. We can fight hate abroad starting in our backyards and in our hearts. Or in a cab.

Just before we arrived at Midway, my driver told me how many people get in his cab, realize he's likely Muslim and sink deeper into their seats, ignoring him. "Then I get people like you who want to talk, and listen," he says.

As I got out of the cab at Midway, I wanted to hug him in that way that Mississippians do. I resisted, instead warmly shaking his hand. "It was so good to talk to you," I said.

"Let's try to keep people talking," he said. "Maybe that will help them love each other."

I nodded. "You're right. Thank you." I walked through the automatic doors, pulling my carry-on with my left hand, as I wiped tears with my right.

Previous Comments

ID
73274
Comment

The greatest sin, which I believe is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, is the way that extremists professing Islam or Christianity distort these religions for evil means -- in spirits of hatred --- when we are taught as little children that God is Love.

Author
FreeClif
Date
2006-08-17T16:49:02-06:00
ID
73275
Comment

They do call Chicago "North Mississippi", you know. :) As to the rest, it's always the extremists people pay attention to, never moderates.

Author
Ironghost
Date
2006-08-17T21:51:12-06:00
ID
73276
Comment

This was a very appropriate response to the bait or attempted set up by one of your enemies, and a perfect illustration of why we must know who we are and what we believe in. No weapon formed against the righteous will ultimately prevail. The almighty won't allow it to be otherwise. Morality and love is bigger than any group or person, and there is no perfection in anyone or any group or any religion or any nation, this one included.

Author
Ray Carter
Date
2006-08-18T09:36:13-06:00
ID
73277
Comment

I meant the grammatical error above. I'm proud of it for once. Morality and love are one in the same.

Author
Ray Carter
Date
2006-08-18T09:39:37-06:00
ID
73278
Comment

Thanks, Ray. This idea was actually brewing because my experience with that cab driver was so rich. But I hadn't worked out in my head how to frame it until I saw that goofy e-mail. That assertion was so absurd -- I love the whole putting-something-hateful-in-someone's-mouth approach; I shudder at the ethics of such a thing -- that the column suddenly started taking shape. Then Monday night, I finished Marianne Williamson's books and, almost by magic, I woke up with this column just pouring out of me. I reached for my pink legal pad and wrote it all in long hand. I've always said that the best thing we can do with haters is allow them to motivate and inspire us. There is a lesson to be found in absolutely everything, no matter how evil.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-08-18T10:25:37-06:00
ID
73279
Comment

donna, i was just in the twin cities, and the diversity there is so great to see, no big deal most places. but what andrew young said recently, yikes. anyway, Marianne W. is good, but Thich Nhat Hanh is - I am at a loss for words , one has to read or listen. Unconditional peace. perhaps I've said this before, I long for the ancient middle east to be a peaceful place, someday. who can guess how much US policies are interfering with that hope everyone has. thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts.

Author
sunshine
Date
2006-08-18T19:32:52-06:00
ID
73280
Comment

I know, he is breathtaking, sunshine. So is Sister Chittister; have you listened to her. I think you can still listen to her interview on http://www.speakingoffaith.org . Do y'allselves a favor.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-08-18T19:35:51-06:00
ID
73281
Comment

Ooo, and Karen Armstrong is this Sunday. That may be a repeat, but well worth it, if so. She's remarkable, too.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-08-18T19:37:02-06:00
ID
73282
Comment

p.s. the twin cities , there are several such. the ones I mentioned are Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. Many hispanic, somali, hmong, arabs, persians, and of course norwegians and swedes and irish, some germans,, ha. and they just had a great hip-hop weekend. no, I don't promote the area, just a little. ha. oh, a great kurdish restaurant too. oh, lots of jewish people too. and there are wonderful peace marches and no one calls people anti-Semite. well, hardly ever. ha. someone was baiting in that email, don't give them the time of day. I actually just heard a young Lebanese guy on public radio today say he would love to visit Israel, it's so nice there, he's heard. They really could get along just fine, if the US gets out. IMHO. Just a thought..

Author
sunshine
Date
2006-08-18T19:48:03-06:00
ID
73283
Comment

donna, are you getting religious on us? ha. speaking of faith is a great program, better than church. karen armstrong has been through it all, and I need to read more,, if only women, and buddhists, ruled the world. ah. well, maybe not Hillary. ..I can't think of any 'bad' buddhists, and what the Chinese are doing in Tibet.. another story. Robert Thurman for president. let's start a list...

Author
sunshine
Date
2006-08-18T19:56:26-06:00
ID
73284
Comment

"Religious"? No, not really. I've simply seen "religion" used for too much bad to consider myself "religious." That's a symptom of the hate the Baptist Church I attended in Neshoba County threw around, I assume. I can't quite imagine "picking," say, Sister Chittister's teachings, and rejecting that of Thich Nhat Hanh, for instance. Or Dr. King over Wiesel—or Keith Tonkel, or Ross Olivier, for that matter. I'm capable, and desirous, of taking all the lessons in, and then trying to live a life based on the best teachings I can find. Delightfully, the core lessons are the same -- and how do you know that if you reject them all in favor of one "faith"!?! Call me a freelancer, like Karen Armstrong. (I tried to attribute that phrase of hers to Annie Lamott just last night to some folks. Oops. But Annie Lamott also has delightful ideas about spirituality. And writing. But I digress.) Thomas Paine said, "My mind is my own church." And I want all these thinkers to help enrich my mind. And more importantly, my heart.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-08-18T20:43:57-06:00
ID
73285
Comment

Ann Lamott is a great example of someone who does 'religion' well, with an expansive heart. Otherwise, religion is too often , as we see sadly, divisive and not expansive. Hard to know what to to make of it. Is it for good or not? Perhaps 'humanism' is best, there is such a thing. And universalists, etc. 'nite all.

Author
sunshine
Date
2006-08-18T21:24:03-06:00
ID
73286
Comment

I would only say: When it's good, it's good. When it's not, it's not. And there are many lessons in the great spiritual texts about what "good" is first and foremost, and it is not found in selfishment and contempt for the poor. Ever.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-08-18T21:28:38-06:00
ID
73287
Comment

... selfishNESS ...

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-08-18T21:29:08-06:00
ID
73288
Comment

I love Karen Armstrong's "freelance monotheist" label! For years I borrowed it. I don't really know where I stand--a good position for a Unitarian to have, I reckon. (I think it was H.L. Mencken who joked that a Unitarian is someone "who disbelieves nearly everything anyone else believes, but has a deep and abiding faith in he doesn't quite know what.") Theologically, I've always had an agnostic streak that has become more pronounced as I've drifted away from the Episcopal Church and realized more and more why I did and why it was probably the right thing for me. Writing the Bible guide had a lot to do with that. In this millennia-old corpus of ancient Middle Eastern literature, including images of trillions (literally) of gallons of blood being drained by giant wine presses, demands for genocide and the mass slaughter of infants, execution for rape victims who don't scream long enough--in this corpus I'm supposed to find my moral center? I'm supposed to find God in all this? And meanwhile, find nothing but the secular, the worldly, "the flesh," in the far more reliable attribute of human love? I keep going back to the story of Abraham and Isaac. Some liberal Christian theologians--whom I respect--say that Abraham actually failed the test by agreeing to sacrifice Isaac, and that God was too kind to tell him so. But I see a deeper, and more disturbing, moral message in there. The story of Abraham and Isaac asks us where our heart is: In total submission to God, or in our human morality? If it's the former, then deep down, we're fundamentalists. And if it's the latter, then deep down, we're humanists. I like shades of grey, but I don't see any here. That's "back against the wall time," as my old Christology professor used to say. And it is the humanists within the world's faiths--within Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and even Buddhism (despite the fact that it isn't technically theistic)--that make compassion and reform possible, that hold fundamentalism at bay, and that allow the progress of human civilization within these religious communities. So I respect religious people who value love of one another over submission to absolute power. I deeply respect them. But my very real doubts about the existence and nature of the Almighty place me to the left of even Armstrong, I think, and certainly leaves me outside the margins of religious orthodoxy. I still characterize myself as a theist, but if someone else calls me an agnostic, I won't argue with that. And because my deepest values are those of the Great Commandment--cosmic love, and love of neighbor--I don't even reject the Christian label, since those values had to come from somewhere and I was raised within the Christian faith. But it's been a long time since I could stand up and recite the Apostles' Creed as an expression of my personal beliefs about the nature of things. Cheers, TH

Author
Tom Head
Date
2006-08-18T22:46:58-06:00
ID
73289
Comment

"Religious"? No, not really. I've simply seen "religion" used for too much bad to consider myself "religious." That's a symptom of the hate the Baptist Church I attended in Neshoba County threw around, I assume. That's why I prefer the term "spiritual". I am Christian, but I don't tune out everything someone else says just because he/she is not a Christian. God uses whomever He wants to. For all I know, he could be using that person to speak to me. I keep going back to the story of Abraham and Isaac. Some liberal Christian theologians--whom I respect--say that Abraham actually failed the test by agreeing to sacrifice Isaac, and that God was too kind to tell him so. But I see a deeper, and more disturbing, moral message in there. The story of Abraham and Isaac asks us where our heart is: In total submission to God, or in our human morality? If it's the former, then deep down, we're fundamentalists. And if it's the latter, then deep down, we're humanists. I like shades of grey, but I don't see any here. That's "back against the wall time," as my old Christology professor used to say. Tom, I always believed that God was testing Abraham to see how much he trusted Him. Why else would the angel stop him from sacrificing his son and then provide a ram? I always looked to this story for strength in times of trouble.

Author
LatashaWillis
Date
2006-08-20T23:20:34-06:00
ID
73290
Comment

Latasha writes: Tom, I always believed that God was testing Abraham to see how much he trusted Him. But that seems mighty cruel to me. If a human being did this, would our first thought be "gosh, that's exactly what a being of pure love, and the ultimate source of all morality, would do"? Besides, doesn't this imply that God doesn't really know how faithful Abraham is? If Abraham had refused to sacrifice his son, would God have been disappointed? Struck him down, maybe? Swallowed him into the bowels of the earth? Turned him into a pillar of salt? Killed Isaac himself, just to teach Abraham a lesson? I can't imagine the God of the Pentateuch, who slaughtered the firstborn of Egypt just to stick it to Pharaoh, saying "Oh, it's okay, Abraham. No biggie." And if God doesn't know how faithful Abraham is, what else is God not in a position to know? How can a God who can't gauge the faithfulness of Abraham be qualified to judge us all based on our faith in Jesus? If he knew how faithful Abraham was and asked him to kill his son anyway, wasn't it just torture? And if he didn't know, what does that tell us about the nature of divine judgment? I'm sorry. You know I think you're a wonderful human being and I'm not going to nitpick your faith--heck, my great-grandfather, grandfather, and uncle are/were all ordained ministers--but I don't see how anybody can rescue the Abraham and Isaac story or the theology that hinges on it, at least for me. I appreciate the fact that you're trying, and if you've found an approach that works for you, that's great. Cheers, TH

Author
Tom Head
Date
2006-08-21T00:38:52-06:00
ID
73291
Comment

Besides, doesn't this imply that God doesn't really know how faithful Abraham is? Maybe the point wasn't for God to find out how faithful Abraham was, but for Abraham to find out. Just a thought. Best, Tim

Author
Tim Kynerd
Date
2006-08-21T08:43:11-06:00
ID
73292
Comment

Tom: From reading your "profession of faith" above (just a little joke, since you don't feel comfortable with the Apostles Creed) I think you and I are in similar positons spiritually, believe it or not. I can't say lots of the Apostles Creed right now either, although I wish I could. So, anway, that means I don't have many answers either. But I do have a few thoughts. The Abraham and Issac story strikes me as myth literature. That doesn't mean something like it didn't happen, or that it is to be dismissed. On the contrary, myth is the most powerful mode of teaching there is, because it speaks in symbolic imagery directly to our subconscious. It's like a dream being broadcast to our inmost being from the waking world. I think that's one big reason why Jesus spoke in parables. In myth, everything is symbolic, and symbols are everything. This gives it more, not less, meaning than history, in terms of communicating spiritual truth. So, Abraham is us, any of us, and Issac is that which we hold most dear, that we would wish to keep from God. God shows Abraham that, if he will trust God with even that which he is afraid to entrust him, then God will provide the sarcifice himself. Of course, when we read it, we immediately think "what about Issac? wouldn't he be scarred for life?" Yes, he would. But Issac is not really a person in this story; he is just that which Abraham holds most dear, and is afraid to entrust to God. The story may indeed be based on a historical event, but it is communicated to us for it's mythical content. It's like the story of Job, which is utterly beautiful to me. It seems like a very , very raw deal for all the family of Job who get slain, and the fact that the whole thing is about proving something to Satan seems unbelievably petty. But the point of Job is just this: life is cruel and unjust. Bad things will happen, and we wil find no good reason why. So what do we do? We only have two choices in the end: Curse God and Die, or Trust God and keep living. Despair, or Survive. That's it. (Incidentally, I suspect that the whole bargain with the Devil part might be a later additon, sicne it doesn't fit all that well. Either way, note that Job himself NEVER LEARNS why everything happens to him -- which is exactly what happens to us in our lives). It would take much longer to flesh all this out, but that's how I see these stories. And, contrary to modern fundamentalism, I think that's how they were originally supposed to be understood (ironically). The funny thing is, children often get this instinctively. As we mature, we tend to confuse things more. Even if all this is true, though, it is still so very cruel that so many people throughout history have read these and other passages different ways, and have thought and done horrible things as a result. And they believed they were reading them correctly. I don't have any answers for that.

Author
GLB
Date
2006-08-21T09:22:50-06:00
ID
73293
Comment

Tom: One more thing. I think I did a poor job of "defining" myth, because I basically just defined it as allegory. I think Tolkien would probably throw me to the Cats of Queen Beruthiel for such a travesty (if you got that reference , you are offficially a huge nerd). Allegory is far to limiting for myth. But I'm not clever enough to improve on the definition here. You might read Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories" to get a better picture. But the speaking to the subconscious part is the most important part, and I think that is still true.

Author
GLB
Date
2006-08-21T09:32:44-06:00
ID
73294
Comment

"Maybe the point wasn't for God to find out how faithful Abraham was, but for Abraham to find out." I think Tim is right. WE, not God, gain knowledge of ourselves and become stronger through the tests that we endure.

Author
FreeClif
Date
2006-08-21T10:09:42-06:00
ID
73295
Comment

Just to take this in a different direction for a moment... I have a cab ride story of my own. When I was living in Arlington Virginia in 1999, I took cab rides on two separate occasions from the same driver, from the Dupont Circle area of DC to my apartment. The driver was from Pakistan, and was an extremely personable and urbane guy. He had a Ph.D. in history but was unable to find a job in academia that paid enough... he made more as a cabbie. We had extremely interesting conversations about politics and culture. The guy had a pretty liberal outlook on things, as I remember... not at all the stereotypical view of Muslims as being anti-Semitic and anti-American. I remember that I asked for his phone number at the end of the second ride, so I could request him the next time I needed a cab ride... that never happened, but I had liked the guy enough that I at least wanted to try to give him more business. I felt badly that a man this educated and intelligent and decent had to drive a cab to support himself in his adopted country. A couple of years or so went by, and someone in Virginia won the Powerball lottery for about 100 kajillion dollars. I read the Washington Post article about it and saw the picture and was stunned... it was that same exact cab driver. I can't remember ever feeling, before or since, so good for someone whom I barely knew.

Author
Scott Albert Johnson
Date
2006-08-21T11:25:16-06:00
ID
73296
Comment

Now, that's karma. Great story, Scott Albert. Thanks for sharing.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-08-21T11:38:40-06:00
ID
73297
Comment

Donna, I thought this column was wonderful. There is power in listening to others & talking to others about the things that matter to us, even if we do not have the answers. & Scott, I loved your story...

Author
Izzy
Date
2006-08-22T11:03:02-06:00

Like independent media outlets around the world, the Jackson Free Press works hard to produce important content on a limited budget. We'd love your help! Become a JFP VIP member today and/or donate to our journalism fund. Thanks for considering a JFP VIP membership or one-time support.

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

comments powered by Disqus