Hands of the Strong: The Order of the Teaspoon

The Order of the Teaspoon

The 2015 Lenten Season begins.  “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return” are the words we hear as millions of Christians receive the ashes.  They are daubed on our foreheads or hands in the shape of a cross.  Many enter Lent making plans for a specific “Lenten discipline” (something like giving up deserts, increasing prayer time or fasting at least one day a week).  And, with it goes the prayer that we will do better with our Lenten discipline that we did with that New Year’s resolution made just 45 days ago and already broken.


As we enter Lent, on the first two days, we are met with not one but two major speeches by President Obama.  He speaks on terrorism or as he would have it “violent extremism.”  He says that “we are not at war with Islam; rather we are at war with those who have perverted Islam.”  I agree.  In the background, the chattering classes have been quick to argue that he should use the language of “radical Islam” to talk about the the barbaric, inhumane and extreme actions against innocents by ISIS or ISIL in the Middle East.

I don’t pretend to be a foreign policy expert.  Even so, I remember the mistakes our nation made following the tragedy of 9/11.   In my view we were led into an extended war in Iraq and Afghanistan that was fueled too much by revenge and too little by knowledge.  We allowed understandable but blind retribution propel the U.S.A. into war.  We now can see the terrible price of the last fifteen years in terms of human casualties and wasted treasure.  Some at the time warned of an inevitable “blow-back” that would result.

As we rushed to war I was a part of a minority who felt engaging in Iraq was misguided.  My opposition was in large measure related to the failure to follow the long established ethical guidelines for a just war (proportionality of response, clarity of purpose, authority, prospect for winning, protecting noncombatants).  I remember being invited to speak at a seminar in San Diego on Ash Wednesday in 2002.  Nervous, I was even more on pins and needles when I discovered that the room was full of active and retired military brass.  Still I proceeded to speak about the ethical realities when considering military engagement.

I need not to have worried.  The folks in the room were way ahead of me.  You see, I learned that those who face the reality of warfare are more thoughtful and careful about these matters.  They not only took to my rather tepid presentation on Just War Theory.  They appreciated it.  They also spoke in private conversations about the challenges of fighting our perceived enemies on multiple fronts.  They also spoke of the differences between Sunni and Shiite sects in Islam and of our sloppy language and analysis.  We as a nation were long on emotion and short on facts.

I am not certain we have learned much in the intervening decade.  I have more Muslim friends and have been privileged to know several Imams who encourage their followers in practices that are decidedly open and respectful of persons from other faiths.  Still, in too many ways the current talk of war with ISIS seems strangely like the situation we faced in 2001.

One of the reasons I won’t be using the words “radical Islam” is that many of the people who are encouraging us to do so wouldn’t think of insisting that we speak of “radical Judaism” or “radical Christianity.”  These folks, often encouraged by Christian leaders like Franklin Graham, paint Islam as entirely evil and see us in a great battle of civilizations.  These “Fanatical, Apocalyptic Christians” believe these are the end times.  They suggest that we are facing an inevitable encounter with the evils of Islam.  This is the mirror image of the view of “Fanatical, Apocalyptic Muslims” ready to establish a caliphate.

What do those of us who are not fanatics and do not accept such apocalyptic notions of the future have to bring?  I remember a phone call to an Imam, a man I didn’t know, back in 2002.  “I hear that the children of your mosque are living in fear as they walk to school.  Might we help?”  It was the beginning of a remarkable friendship.

During this Lent, I will give up easy, sloppy language and foolish images about those who differ in their faith.  More I will commit to giving time to study.  Military engagement seems to be inevitable in the Middle East.  I reluctantly understand this.  The Israeli novelist Amos Oz has written a fine essay “How to Cure a Fanatic” (Princeton University Press, 2004).  He writes: “Fanaticism is older than Islam, older than Christianity, older than Judaism, older than any state or any government, or any political system, older than any ideology or faith in the world… Who would have thought that the twentieth century would be immediately followed by the eleventh century?”  (pp. 41-42).  Amos Oz speaks of the value of imagination and humor in the face of such evil.  The volume ends with an interview in which he speaks of the Order of a Teaspoon (pp. 93ff).

Faced with a calamity, say a conflagration, Oz says there are three responses we may have: 1) run away; 2) Get angry, march in protest, blame others and seek to remove leaders from office; or, 3) grab a bucket of water and throw it on the fire.  And if you don’t have a bucket?  Bring a glass of water.  And if you don’t have a glass?  Bring a teaspoon. The fire is huge but we can bring what we can.

Our teaspoons may be the language we select, the prayers we pray, the letters we write, the hands we reach out to greet, the knowledge we seek.

This Lenten season, my discipline will be to bring all of the teaspoons and glasses and buckets I can to put out the flames.  Others may have to fight against evil in far away places; they may sacrifice their lives. 

Remember, “from dust you have come and to dust you shall return.”  It is how you use the spirit-infused life in the here-and-now that is of eternal consequence.  Begin where you are.  Bring your teaspoons full of good will, your imagination and your good humor.  We people of dust will need this and more…