Some Things Are Sacred

Monday, February 6, 2006 — Before we get to today's blog, I wanted to let you know about something special that I am working on.

Lots of people review old tapes leading up to Super Bowl Sunday, but my hunch is that I’m the only one who spent the morning browsing tapes of interviews with our First Lady, Mrs. Laura Bush: classy, smart, discreet, loyal, independent, and in love. There’s surely a lot more to her…and I hope to find that out this week, not on tape, but in person.

Mrs. Bush will be in Italy to lead the U.S. delegation to the 2006 Winter Olympics. Before making her way northward to Turin, she will spend a day in Rome that will include a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI and a luncheon with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. It is our hope that she can find time between those two important appointments to talk with us. So, if you have any questions for her, don’t hesitate to send them my way and we’ll see what we can do. I’ll give you a further update on Wednesday and hope to tell you when the interview will air.

Now for some news analysis...

As I see the images of the smashed out windows of the smoldering embassies in Syria, Lebanon and beyond, I ask myself what lessons can be learned from this experience.

The first is that some things ARE sacred. The thing considered sacred — freedom of expression, Mohammed, the Bible, diplomatic immunity, peace — may differ from believer to believer, but sad things happen when beliefs clash, things that don’t reflect well on anything anyone truly considers sacred. It is easy to condemn one party in this conflict or another, but the fact is that something sacred was violated, and caused a violent reaction that was just as violating.

Something sacred to a person touches on the core of who they are and how they perceive life. Mocking it is one of the cheapest shots you can take, and a claim that what you consider sacred (such as freedom of expression — in this case, it was the “freedom” to insult) is more important. Our eminently rational society can’t grasp how something that was obviously a joke could provoke so violent a reaction. It just shows people have different ideas of sacred, and that those ideas are dear to them. Respect for what’s sacred to someone is the first lesson to learn from this experience.

It would be easy to write these incidents off as the response of one cultural mindset against another, but the Western world has seen its share of reactions to attacks on the sacred as well, like the short-lived Nothing is Sacred sitcom (if anyone still remembers it) or the recently defunct Book of Daniel, whose creator was incensed that religious leaders would shoot down something that in his opinion reflects the reality of religion today. Never mind that television producers would have probably kept cranking out these shows if viewer ratings had been more favorable. Ordinary people, not just their pastors or rabbi’s or imams, vote with their feet when something sacred — whether it involve ministers or prophets — is portrayed as hypocritical.

A second lesson to be learned is to try to understand what’s sacred to a person instead of ridiculing it or clearly showing that you don’t. The doodlers at fault were acculturated in a religion of tolerance. While they knew the reaction would be violent, they underestimated it all together. They found out that Islam, while certainly claiming many peaceful followers, could hardly be defined as a religion of peace and forgiveness. A Christianity of “turn the other cheek” takes the potshots leveled at it by literary fabrications like the “Da Vinci Code” or cinematic potshots like “Dogma,” but you can ask Salman Rushdie what Islam thought of his “Satanic Verses” and the years he spent in hiding after publishing it.

Muslims rightly claim that the cartoonists crossed the line of “freedom of speech” into blatant disrespect. But burning down embassies also crosses the line of “freedom of speech” into blatant criminality.

The ultimate lesson to learn from this experience is that the sacred sums up everything in a person’s life: It expresses his or her idea of fulfillment, ideals, moral models, and hopes. Respect for belief is just as important as freedom of expression. They were never meant to be at odds with each other.

If you want to embark on one of the most wonderful adventures of discovery in your life, talk to someone about what’s sacred to you, ask them in return about what’s sacred to them, and see how many good things will come out of it, both for yourself and for society.

God bless, Father Jonathan

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