We try to be practical for Mother’s Day. I take my wife out to eat every year, but since we both work and Monday always comes earlier than we expect, we usually go on Saturday. It’s kind of a moveable feast for us. The patriarchalist nightmare of the past two years in this country makes it all the more important to celebrate our mothers. Our nation needs to be reminded that without women none of us would be here. When my wife chose an Afghan restaurant I didn’t shirk, although I had to admit I wouldn’t have considered cuisine from Afghanistan if the choice were mine. It would never have crossed my mind. The restaurant was nicely appointed, and busy. One the walls were posters with photos of the mountainous country and its people, stamped with the words “Free Afghanistan.” I realized Mother’s Day is about liberation.
New Jersey, apart from being the most densely populated state, is also the most diverse. Ethnic food here takes on a depth that leaves our days in Champaign-Urbana in the dust. I’d never even heard of an Ethiopian restaurant, let alone eaten in one, before moving here. And each of these diverse countries represented by their food has a story, often involving oppression. Mother’s children everywhere want to be free. The only reason they aren’t is that bullies exist in every language. You can’t go into the swamp any more without being overwhelmed by them. Such men—and they tend to be male—want to assert their control over others. They forget, it seems, that they have mothers.
I struggled to find a way to classify the food I was eating. Years of Euro-centric training led me to place it between the “Middle East” and “Far East,” which, skewed as it is, reflects that Afghanistan falls along the silk road from China to Turkey. Elements of West Asia blend with those of East Asia on my plate. There’s no war here—simply a harmony of tastes that should remind us that we’re all human. We all have the same need for sustenance and we all have mothers. If we thought of the fact that when we harm another we harm that person’s mother, we’d be appropriately ashamed of oppressing anyone. We would come to realize that the secret to being civilized human beings lies in honoring all our mothers.
Religious intolerance again claims lives, and yet the self-righteous never flinch from their smug smiles. What insane pressure drives extremists like Terry Jones to desecrate the symbol of another religion? What did burning a Quran accomplish other than a feeling of personal satisfaction at a religious one-upmanship? Did he even stop to think that his own religion was once persecuted and that this nation that allows him the freedom to spit in the face of other faiths also welcomes his imaginary enemies? Now innocent people are dead in Afghanistan because of his intolerance. It may be that Terry Jones’ personal act of impropriety may soon blow over, but the damage has already been done. These dead will have died in vain.
Putting match to paper proves no superiority of intellect, spirituality, or especially, righteousness. The problem Terry Jones’ brand of Christianity faces is that Mohammed was born before the metaphorical return of Jones’ Christ. It is clear from the (unburned) Christian scriptures that early believers were convinced Jesus’ return was imminent, within their own lifetimes. For those who did not successfully transition to the meaning of the metaphor, it has been a weary two-millennium wait. The emergence of new religions in the meanwhile has become a threat to the superiority of their own. Apocalypticism claims many victims. Now people are dying because Terry Jones can’t cool his heels to see how this one comes out.
Religions that prove their point by trying to brutalize other religions have already shown their true character. Muslims do not burn the Christian scriptures because they accept the validity of Jesus’ teachings as well as those of Mohammed. Has Terry Jones damaged Islam by burning a book? No. Has he damaged the already languishing opinion on western supersessionism? Certainly he has. It is now incumbent on the rest of us to declare that we excoriate the acts of Terry Jones and his contemptuous version of Christianity. Islam need not try to give Christians a bad image; we are quite capable of helping ourselves.
As the economy rolls along like a marble on a pebble beach and the stock market continues its own bumpy road to recovery, apocalyptic thought is again on the rise. It is when times are bad that apocalyptic comes in most useful. Individuals who feel that this world has run out of possibilities generally look to a new future world where things will be radically different. That’s why people flock to movies like 2012 and dream of a new day, a new era.
That’s the way it has always been. Jews being tortured to death under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid tyrant, looked for that day when Michael would take on the “Prince of Persia” and the new world would gush in and overtake this one. Almost two centuries later the early Christian movement, suffering at the hands of Roman emperors such as Nero and Diocletian, reveled in the visions of Revelation — the new world coming. Rental property is free in the New Jerusalem! The earliest exemplars of apocalyptic thinking appear to go back to the ancient Zoroastrians. This early Iranian religion (which may have originated in Afghanistan) took comfort in a dualistic world where good and evil constantly struggled until a cosmic conflict would result in the ultimate destruction of evil. It helped to explain why things could be so bad for good people in the here-and-now.
2012, however, derives from concerns that the Mayan calendar seems to have run out of space at that time slot just over three years from now. Otherwise intelligent people panic; this is an apocalypse of the secular kind! Experts on the Maya (among which I am not) explain that the Mayans use(d) many calendars (there are still Mayans around). Their large-scale, 5000 year calendar may run out on December 21, 2012, but that doesn’t mean the end of the world. In fact, that calendar only began on August 11, 3114 BCE, about 4.5 billion years after the creation of the earth. It was not meant as a road-map to the cosmos. The real apocalypse is in the minds of those suffering from their own private ills in this world. Ever since Zarathustra spoke, people have had an alternative, better future to anticipate.