The travel day began with the Zambians sending our new South African friend’s bag to Philadelphia and sending our beloved Bethany’s bag to some undetermined place. It ended with waiting in line for about an hour while the skeleton crew at U.S. customs processed us and a Hunger-Games-esque video from Homeland Security repeatedly welcomed us. In between, I watched movies on the plane and tried to sleep in between the baby screams. I watched most of Qatar Airline’s catalogue, I think. I even watched Deadpool, which I had been avoiding (even though no one else did — it has earned $761 million worldwide) – I admit it was clever and funny, even when vile. I think we were in the air for 22 hours, so there was even room for vile.
Near the end of the last leg of the journey, I finally met my row mate. I found out he was an Iraqi returning home to his job at a Red Lobster in Kentucky after attending his mother’s funeral in Najaf, home of Imam Ali’s shrine. When he arrived in Najaf he learned his visit would also include the funeral of his cousin, who had just been killed in an army battle. Eventually we talked about religion, since I also told him why I had been travelling. Part of that conversation is what I want to talk to you about, mainly.
After we both recounted our horror at the bombing campaigns that devastated Iraq at the beginnings of both wars (he evacuated just before the first), he brought up how people should treat each other like they would like to be treated, like it says in the Qur’an – and in the writings of all the other major religions. His version is that Allah is the one God, the same as the Jews and Christians, so we will all be judged by him for how we follow the rule. We had been talking about how refugees, especially in Palestine, never get the justice they want by repossessing their homes, even though everyone knows that they would hate to lose their homes, their friends, their feelings of belonging, and hate to have to work long hours at Red Lobster to buy a ticket to attend your mother’s funeral 6500 miles away.
It seemed, as usual, very tidy of him to sum up all the religions with one rule – the one thing they all seem to agree upon. And, in the case of Islam, to tidy things up with one Ruler who will judge people according to their capacity to fulfill the rule: “Allah knows best how long they stayed. With Him is (the knowledge of) the unseen of the heavens and the earth. How clearly He sees, and hears (everything)! They have no Wali (Helper, Disposer of affairs, Protector, etc.) other than Him, and He makes NONE to share in His Decision and His Rule” (Surah 18:2). In the end, the Muslims are judged according to their full submission to the way of Islam, and their deeds. Like many Christians do with Jesus, Muslims reduce the requirements of belief to following the rules and avoiding judgment — especially following the “golden rule,” since everyone thinks that makes sense.
The problem is, people are very bad at following the golden rule. Israelis are not giving people back the land they know the dispossessed want and Palestinians are not forgiving them for taking it. The people of the United States do not rise up in revolt because the government dropped 265,000 bombs on Iraq in 1991 and did not stop for twenty years, even though they would not like someone to do that to them. We keep learning the lesson, but never seem to get the application right. We don’t treat our children the way we wish we had been treated as a child. We don’t even treat ourselves the way we wish someone would treat us. Even when we think God is treating us well, we don’t love as we are loved. The whole thin plot of Deadpool was about his quest to get his mutated face restored so his girlfriend would not judge him ugly and reject him. He was sure she would not treat him well unless he was unjudgable.
Jesus repeats the common sense of the golden rule. Unlike in Islam or Buddhism, he is not giving people a maxim to sum up justice or balance, he is commanding the self-giving love he will demonstrate on the cross. Regardless, when he says it, it serves to point out just how badly we need a Savior. We all love the golden rule and long for it to be applied, but it never gets applied, even by those who are devoted to it. My Iraqi friend looked at me after he talked about Daesh squeezing into a crack in the system so they could get the power and money that the greedy rulers all want, and he said, “I just don’t see a way for this to change.” I have been thinking of him saying that ever since.
I don’t know everything about Islam or all the other religions. I tend to feel generous about people seeking God from wherever they start. But I don’t think all the seeking merely leads to the need to follow the golden rule no one follows well. I think the seeking leads to Jesus whom God has made the final judge. Life is not about becoming good enough to love or not being bad enough to kill. The way Paul describes his experience with Jesus is that he has already received the mysteries of God and lives with a clear conscience. Not because he is perfectly knowledgeable or faithful, but because Jesus has poured out the love of God. That undeserved grace is holding back the end of time with its inherent judgment. We can live in the hope God gives us in the middle of our personal and corporate failures to follow what we all agree is the truth.
What I finally hear from pondering my conversation with this friendly Iraqi is that Jesus entrusts us with the golden rule, not condemns us with it. Like in the ending of Deadpool, Jesus removes the mask that hides our mutancy and kisses our scarred face, and the scarred soul that goes with it. Only that will undo whatever evil we have committed or will commit – like the impending sequel.