The Scene: Two gunmen opened fire outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, where the American Freedom Defense Initiative* was just concluding a “Muhammad Art Exhibit”. They were shot and killed by the police. Some of the neighbors who live around Christ the King Church in Burlington, VT, are complaining about the presence and volume of recorded bells which play three times a day. Does the recording violate the city noise ordinance? And might the playing of the recording put your marriage in jeopardy?
So … We have an organization which is “dedicated to freedom of speech” (also listed as a “Hate Group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center). The exhibit consisted of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad with a cash prize of $10,000 going to the one deemed the “best”. And we have a neighborhood angry at a church for the electronic tolling of bells. (“It sounds like a teenage iPhone recording, like the first generation ring tones that you pay 99 cents for,” said one neighbor, perhaps less enamored of the quality of the recording than the recording itself.)
If community demands anything at all, it demands tolerance. To tolerate is “to allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.” I see a hint of sacrifice implied in that definition. And as we work our way further down the list, we find this pharmacological bent: “To be capable of continued subjection to (a drug, toxin, or environmental condition) without adverse reaction.”
We have a “tolerance deficit” in this county right now. We are so determined to protect our rights – from the right to worship to the right to an unimpeded view – that not only are we willing to consign our planet to the trash heap; we are willing to let our neighbors live there, too. Like the word “compromise”, tolerate suggests to people that we have to relinquish our convictions. If we look more carefully we might also see there is real fear that we stand to lose some of our privileges.
There is a line from Psalm 17 where the Psalmist writes: Hide me in the shadow of your wings, from the wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me. And as I was reflecting on that line I recalled the Peter and Gordon tune from the Sixties – World Without Love. The gist of the lyrics is the request to be locked away until love comes. I don’t care what they say, I won’t stay in a world without love.
I wonder … What if the American Freedom Defense Initiative had refrained from sponsoring an event they knew was inflammatory? What if the gunmen had refrained from resorting to a violent reaction to what they find offensive? What if Christ the King Church decided to quiet the recording or let it ring once a day, or twice a week? What if the neighbors who find it offensive were to decide to grin, bear it and chalk it up to the price we pay for community?
The events which are in the news these days chronicling the violent and all too often deadly provocations and reactions we impose on each other are, in and of themselves, non sequitur flashes which make no sense. I begin to wonder if, lacking anything truly meaningful to do – like working together to end hunger, ridding the planet of disease, caring for the elderly, protecting and educating the children – we have simply decided to make life as miserable for ourselves and our neighbors as we possibly can. Has it come to that? Is our goal in life to be as toxic as we can toward each other?
What is lost in all the rush toward the defense of First Amendment protections is the option of personal and collective restraint. Justice has a hard time discerning motive. Pamela Geller is guilty, in my opinion, of doing something she has a right to do for reasons that are hateful. The art exhibit teetered on the line between passive aggression and a blatant slap in the face. The gunmen didn’t teeter at all. They willfully and violently crossed that line with the abandon of martyrs. I grant each side the right to their opinion. I admit the gunmen carry far and away the greater guilt. I just don’t think Ms. Geller is good for our society. She seems determined to do what she can to insult people she doesn’t agree with. At the end of the day, she did not prove anything other than that she is, in her own way, every bit as dangerous as an armed fanatic. She – and some who defend her rights – claims that what happened last Sunday only serves to prove her point.
I hope the folks in Burlington’s South End can resolve their differences with regard to recorded bells. The goal is to become more tolerant – that is, to be “capable of continued subjection to what feels toxic without manifesting any adverse reaction.” In Christian theological jargon it’s called sacrificial love. But I have to admit that there are days I just want someone to lock me away.
*Founded by Pamela Geller.