Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Saint and the Sultan

Benozzo Gozzoli, 1452
My posting on September 10 was about St. Francis’ peace prayer. One Franciscan scholar suggests that that well-known prayer was prayed aloud before Malik al-Kamil, the Muslim sultan of Egypt. The Saint and the Sultan (2009) is a fascinating book of nearly 300 pages written by Paul Moses, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College. It is mainly about that historic encounter of Francis of Assisi with Sultan al-Kamil in 1219.
Professor Moses explains that he first became interested in the story of Francis and the sultan shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01. In the Introduction he writes, “The story of Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil says there is a better way than resentment, suspicion, and warfare. It opens the door to respect, trust, and peace” (p. 11).
I can understand the resentment that so many Americans have felt toward the 9·11 terrorists, who were radical Muslims, for killing so many people and for wreaking such havoc on U.S. soil. I can also understand how many Americans are also suspicious of Muslims because of those tragic attacks on the Pentagon and especially on the Twin Towers in Manhattan. I have less sympathy for those who think that prolonged warfare in Afghanistan is the proper response to that act of radical terrorists.
In spite of all the problems of the past nine years and the turmoil of the present, I fully agree with Professor Moses that we would do well to learn about respect, trust, and peace and to seek to put those attitudes into practice.
I lived in Japan from 1966 to 2004, going there just twenty-one years after the end of World War II. At that time many Americans still harbored much resentment toward and suspicion of the Japanese people. “Remember Pearl Harbor!” was frequently heard in this country.
But getting to know some Japanese people personally increased my respect for and trust of the people of Japan in general. Very seldom did we meet anyone who bore ill will toward us because of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. I found that most Japanese people were just as, or maybe even more, interested in world peace as I was.
This month one of my friends on Facebook made several references to 12/7/41 in reference to 9/11/01. His point seemed to be that this nation should take decisive action against Islam now as it did against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Both of those terrible events were great tragedies. But whole nations, or religions, should not be demonized because of the misdeeds of a radical minority within that nation or religion.
Nearly eight hundred years ago St. Francis sought to replace resentment, suspicion, and warfare with respect and trust for the sake of peace. That remains a powerful example for us all to this day.


  1. I recently discovered a PBS series on Jews in America. I suspect it is not new, because it is on the second channel, not the primary. Looking back over hundreds of years, clear back to the first Jews arriving in Dutch New Amsterdam, a fascinating and frequently painful process of mutual discovery and adjustment has been taking place between America's Jews and Gentiles. Yet, in the long run, both groups have benefits greatly from the process, even as each has retained much of its original identity.

    Leroy outlines his perspective on the decades long peace process between America and Japan. We have Toyotas. They have baseball. Not everything is ironed out, but we expect a great future between our countries.

    Now we are a few years into a heightened relationship with Islam. We both have been around a lot longer, but hardly noticed each other for quite a while. The road ahead appears neither quick, nor easy. Yet the road behind says we can do it. We need the courage to clearly face a future where both we and they will be profoundly changed. We need the courage to believe we can be true to our ideals and our heritage even as we make profound changes. We need the courage to believe that Islam will change, too. We need the honesty to admit we need quite a few changes, anyway. We need the faith to let God lead us.

    When Christian America opened its heart and mind, just a little, it was rewarded by the likes of Irving Berlin, Albert Einstein and Dear Abby. Now there is a challenge, for both Christian and Jewish America, to open, even if just a little, to Islam (yes, even in America). In centuries gone by the western world received great gifts from Islam. It will not happen just like it happened between Christians and Jews, or between Americans and Japanese. Each time is different, yet the same. We can start by dreaming, and praying. Peace is out there, waiting to bloom. It took nearly two thousand years between Christians and Jews. Perhaps America and Islam can do it a little faster.

  2. As an opener, I would recommend "The Kite Runner" - either the book or the movie which my wife and I watched this evening. It makes another people and culture real, with real troubles of their own.
    Because much of it is set in the United States, it highlights what my friend Damon asks - Do we engage people different from us (or even our neighbors) when we encounter them in the market place of life? A smile? A hello? Al-Salam Aliakum to the Muslim, Gemcho to some Hindu, Shalom to a Jew, Uhali gani to a Bantu. Just a warm smile. He says most immigrants interviewed feel separated, cast out, and have never been engaged by an American in a friendly way.

    I have an Uzbek acquaintance, a refugee to the US, who fought the Taliban during the Soviet invasion. I grew up near a Punjabi ex-patriot in another country. A smile, a hand, a listening ear go a long way toward friendship with average people like ourselves who seek to live life (including our neighbors).

    We had a Japanese family living about two blocks from us in our last town. I regret that we did not know them better.

    I am grateful to my Muslim and Jewish and Latino (and other) friends for inviting me into their cultural celebrations.

    I wish them all Salaam, Shalom, Pax.

    Christ called us to love our enemies. Theses are not our enemies. (I have yet to learn to love my enemy - may that be granted.)

    This blog challenges me to think (and sometimes act).