Words Overheard in a Restaurant

The words came at me suddenly, from over my shoulder…

“I hate Muslims!”

“Well, of course. And they’re all going to hell, because their religion is satanic. They worship a false god.”

“What about the Jews? And let’s not forget Mormons…”

So I was at dinner with my family, an evening out that was to be followed by a movie, and I heard this conversation going on behind me. I’d known that this was a group of Christian gentlemen, because they’d begun their dinner with prayer. I hadn’t heard most of their conversation at that point, except for the word “libertarian,” which always jumps out at me. Most people don’t use it. Those that do usually have very strong opinions about libertarians, one way or the other. Of those who both use it and have strong opinions, only a fraction probably know what it means.

So when I’d just heard that word and the prayer, I was feeling a certain warm admiration for these people. It’s not easy to observe your religious traditions in public. It’s not the path of least resistance that most people follow, and it invites those who do follow the path of least resistance to make fun of you. So I’m inclined to admire people who make quiet, gentle displays of their faith in public. Not trying to convert anyone, not ramming psalms down anyone’s throat, not knocking on my door when I’m in the damn shower or eating dinner, but just “here I am, this is what I am. No big deal.”

Then I heard a phrase which included the term “homosexuals.” Now the gay people I know, and their families and friends (I’m in both of the latter groups) do not tend to use the word “homosexual” in ordinary conversation. It comes off sounding derogatory when it is used. But I was raised Southern Baptist. I know a lot of nice people who were similarly raised, and I have a certain tolerance for Christians who might just be a little out of touch, don’t personally know any gay people, and might use the wrong word. But I began to be suspicious.

Fortunately, it was after I’d finished eating when the blast of profanity above was uttered. I was able to get up and leave, without having my dinner interrupted. I had only two options once I’d heard that. One was to turn around and confront their bigotry, and the other was to leave. Since it was rude of me to have listened to their conversation in the first place, I chose leaving. Maybe I should have confronted them, explained to them that there’s a certain logical flaw in Christians saying that Islam is satanic, when Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But, again, movie night, family with me…

And yes, I said profanity. You can use four-letter monosyllables (and the odd gerund) around me to your heart’s content. I might look at you a little funny if you use them in an ungrammatical fashion, because I believe swearing is an art from. But I won’t accuse you of being profane. The statements above are how I define profanity. They’re an offense to my idea of graciousness, justice and gentility.

They also crystallized for me some thoughts which had been spinning in my head after the shootings at Sandy Hook and the bombings in Boston. A lot of people looked at those events and asked “why?” and “what’s happening to us?” because they couldn’t conceive of anyone behaving in such a violent manner as to strike out at innocent people. For a while I’ve been noticing attitudes and behaviors in my fellow citizens of the planet which I think make the path to madness and violence a little more level. I just hadn’t really thought about how I wanted to label them.

And then I heard this blast of hatred from a handful of soft-spoken, clean-cut gentlemen who claim to represent the religion in which I was raised, a religion I still think has a lot of inherent virtue, a lot of value to a lot of people.

And that makes me say, “You want to know why? You want to know what’s happening to us? Well then take a tip from the late Michael Jackson and start with the man in the mirror!”  And start by asking if you have in yourself that impulse to declare yourself better than others. Of course you do. We all do. It’s mentally healthy to like being us and to prefer being us to being anyone else. If you’d rather be someone other than yourself, then please seek help. You should be you, and you should be happy being you.

But that does not mean that you’re worth more than the guy standing next to you, the guy across the street (or on the street) or the guy living in Tehran. You might command more money, if you prepared well for your career and focused on your accomplishments, than someone who didn’t. That’s fair. That doesn’t make you better than him. You might be (and should be) worth more to your family and friends and co-workers than a complete stranger would be. That’s natural.

But you are not worth more (or less) in the whole vast configuration of things than another person. All men (and women) are created equal. We each equally share the right to live, to earn our living, to enjoy the fruits of our labors. Madness and violence, like Sandy Hook, like the Boston bombings, like 9/11 and like ALL wars (yeah, I said it, ALL wars. Every single one. Even the ones that make good movies) … Madness and violence begin when you give in to that impulse to say “I’m allowed to hate that person. I’m allowed to live more than that person is allowed to live. God likes me better than he likes that person. My opinion or faith or creed is worth more than that person’s.”  (This ones trick, because an informed opinion is worth more than an uninformed one. But it’s a hard point to defend.) They begin when you mentally transform an innocent person into a demon just because he or she wears the other team’s colors.

You don’t have the right to hate people just because they see the world differently than you do. It’s not okay. When you go around preaching hatred, saying that the beliefs of another person, and especially another whole group, are evil and that they’re going to be condemned by an extra-human authority, you’re planting the seeds of violence. You’re spouting the rhetoric of war. Christians should know better. Americans should know better. Dammit, we should all know better.

And before the non-Christian side of my readership becomes too smug, I’m ranting at you, too. Alongside the endless litany of “Islam is a religion of violence” that I’m subjected to by people who wouldn’t deign to actually, I dunno, read a book about Islam, I’m really, really, really sick of hearing that Republicans are evil and want to kill babies, that proponents of marriage equality endorse bestiality, that anyone who questions the political rhetoric of climate change is anti-science, that anyone who believes in a god is anti-human, that Christians all think the earth is only 6,000 years old, or that you must belong to a particular political party in order to be considered a believer in equality, liberty and morality.

I didn’t like the Moral Majority movement in the 1980s because that was a bunch of people who assumed that anyone who disagreed with them was evil or stupid. I have no more patience for left wingers today who assume the same about those who disagree with them than I do for right-wingers who think that the separation of church and state is an attack on their particular religion, or that burning a book somehow makes your ideas better than the ones it describes.

It takes all kinds of people to make up a balanced, diverse world. We need people with different beliefs, different takes on issues, different approaches to a problem. We can’t all think alike. We can’t. We have to think differently. So let’s not demonize those who think differently than us. We need them. Your opponent on an issue may be uninformed. He may be misguided. And, (gasp!) he may be right!

Those guys in the restaurant weren’t talking to me. Their statements were none of my business. They just drifted into my hearing and upset me. But, if you want to get along with me (and not have me decide that I am better than you, and that you are stupid, evil or crazy), please don’t share with me your hatred of Muslims, or Jews, or Mormons, or Christians, or Atheists, or Republicans or Democrats. I don’t want to hear it. And a lot of people who do hear it may take that hatred a lot further than you ever intended them to.

One thought on “Words Overheard in a Restaurant

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Steve… a very truthful and insightful read !
    My favorite part …” So when I’d just heard that word and the prayer, I was feeling a certain warm admiration for these people. It’s not easy to observe your religious traditions in public. It’s not the path of least resistance that most people follow, and it invites those who do follow the path of least resistance to make fun of you. So I’m inclined to admire people who make quiet, gentle displays of their faith in public. Not trying to convert anyone, not ramming psalms down anyone’s throat, not knocking on my door when I’m in the damn shower or eating dinner, but just “here I am, this is what I am. No big deal.”

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