A: Last Thursday (Sept. 15, 2011) my 87 year old dad had surgery at a publicly funded hospital in the Greater Toronto Area. It was a planned surgery — a knee replacement — but it was still a big deal for us. You worry when an 87 year old is having major surgery! Anyway, my mom and I got to sit for several hours in the surgical waiting room and watch all the people going about their day at this major teaching hospital.
As you’d expect there were people of all ages and all ethnicities. Different faces, different voices. But all focused on a common issue — the care and healing of sick people. I think my favourite moment came when a group of new student nurses went past with a supervisor. Ten or twelve young women, all different ethnicities, but all sporting long, shiny hair tied back in a ponytail. Black hair, blond hair, brown hair. United by fashion, I guess you could say.
Anyway, it was a positive environment. A real environment. Very grounded in our lives as human beings, human beings who need each other’s help. Coming so soon after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it seemed like the right sort of answer to the question of why we suffer as human beings here on Planet Earth. We can’t stop change. But we can bring healing to those who are in pain in the aftermath of change.
J: Most days there’s more healing in the pinkie finger of a publicly funded hospital than in the entire body of orthodox Western Christianity.
A: The staff we met at the hospital were upbeat and positive about my dad’s procedure. They were starting with the assumption that if they did a good job on the surgery and he did a good job on the physio and follow up care, his quality of life would probably improve. I liked the fact that self-pity wasn’t encouraged or condoned. They expected my dad to be a full participant in the process of healing.
J: It’s an interesting scientific fact that people’s attitude toward their health and recovery plays a major role in the trajectory of their healing. In particular, anger and self-pity interfere with the healing process because these choices prompt the body to sustain high levels of stress hormones. Stress hormones such as cortisol can damage crucial areas of the brain. In other words, if you choose to hang onto your anger and self-pity, you can damage your own brain.
A: Canadian physician Gabor Mate has written a very readable book on the connection between stress and health — especially how too much stress is linked to illness. (Gabor Mate, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress (Toronto: Vintage Canada-Random House, 2003)).
J: Though fans of Richard Dawkin’s “selfish gene” won’t like what I’m about to say here, there is intentionality on God’s part in the design of DNA on Planet Earth.* All human beings share the same basic DNA, so all human beings are affected by the problem of brain damage caused by stress hormones and other neurophysiological imbalances. As researchers are grudgingly beginning to recognize, the human brain — and thus the wider human community — works a lot better when people make the choice to love and heal and forgive and learn from past mistakes. The human brain also works better when men and women, boys and girls, pool their respective talents as part of a team of different-but-equal individuals. No person is an island.
A: Especially not religious leaders.
J: God doesn’t single out certain individuals to be “chosen” priests or ministers or religious leaders. Those who claim to be chosen by God must answer to their communities for the choices they make. They must answer for their claims that God would want to blow up certain buildings or that God would want to take revenge on certain people. Why would God, who love all their children equally, be in the business of choosing one group over another? The inner heart knows God doesn’t play favourites. It cannot be any other way.
A: In the summer I stumbled across a wonderful article in the Toronto Star about a village in Pakistan where, for decades, hatred and violence between Muslims and Hindus had become the norm. (Rick Westhead, “A life-saving gift: How a Pakistani village plagued by sectarian attacks was transformed by one Hindu man’s blood donation to a dying Muslim woman,” Toronto Star, Saturday, July 30, 2011, p. A3). As reporter Rick Westhead describes, a difficult life in a desert environment was filled with fear because certain people had decided it was okay to beat and rape and even kill their neighbours on the other side of the religious divide. This all changed “in a moment” when a young Muslim mother desperately needed a blood transfusion and the only willing donor was a Hindu man. As word spread of the man’s offer, a group of Muslim men, incensed that medical staff refused to provide separate facilities for Muslims and Hindus, led a charge on the medical clinic to try to kill the blood donor. The doctor intervened. He told the attackers the Muslim woman would die without the transfusion. The leader of the Muslim attackers suddenly had an epiphany. He saw how generous the Hindu donor was. He suddenly felt remorse for his own hatred, and the next day he apologized to the donor: “‘I don’t know what came over me,’ Latif says. ‘I remember thinking that here we were refusing to even shake hands with the Hindus and he was willing to give us his blood. It was a marvelous thing he did. It was the turning point of my life.'”
Today the village is a place transformed by kindness and empathy and mutual assistance — all because of the bravery and compassion of one Hindu man and one Muslim man who were willing to let go of a longstanding “tradition” of hatred. Plus the doctor who stepped in the middle and said what needed to be said.
This reminds me a lot of you when you were healing the poor and the excluded in the towns of Galilee.
J: This is the great truth about God’s children. No matter who you are or what your religion or what the colour of your skin, you’re a child of God. You’re capable of astonishing feats of compassion and courage. It’s who you really are. When you look at your neighbour, whether Muslim or Christian or Jewish or another religion, you need to look at them through God’s eyes. You need to see them as your brothers and sisters, as your family-of-the-soul. Because this is the way God looks at all people — as individuals who are equal but different.
A: I’d like to remind readers of the My Fellow American interfaith initiative that can be visited at http://myfellowamerican.us. When I was watching the 2-minute video yesterday, with its clips of ordinary Americans who happen to be Muslim, I kept thinking of the waiting room at the hospital. I kept thinking of all the people who were there because they share the same human capacity to care. We’re all the same when we’re trying to heal and trying to help others.
J: Two thousand years ago I wrote the parable of the Good Samaritan to talk about this timeless issue. I was once the man who was beaten up by the side of the road (quite literally), and through the kindness of strangers I discovered to my shock that people can actually choose to be the loving and forgiving children God knows us to be. I would never have found my faith and my trust in God without the help of these kind, humble strangers. The people who helped me weren’t famous. They had no status. They had no wealth of the earthly kind. But they had that most mysterious of treasures — the heavenly heart.
A: It’s extraordinary how one act of great kindness and courage can change the world, isn’t it?
* This statement isn’t meant to lend support to Creationists or the Book of Genesis. Far from it. Scientific evidence about the age of the universe and the age of Planet Earth must take precedence over “revealed” teachings from sacred texts.
For more thoughts on the My Fellow American project, please see http://jesusredux.blogspot.com/2011/07/my-fellow-american-interfaith.html