Jews, Arabs, Bedouins, Europeans, Easterners, Africans, Americans…Christian, Judaism, Islam, Hindu, Buddhism, Shinto…dark skinned persons, persons of color, white people…straight, gay, trans, nonbinary…poor, rich, middle, homeless. Some want to say all the people standing behind these labels are human beings and as such, should be treated with respect. Some want to say that none of this should make a difference, that all people should be treated equally. Some want to say that it is friendship and commitment to the common good that is important. Some want to say…but others are grounded in negativity. To these folks, all of this makes a difference and one’s place in life is the determining factor in how a person is treated. It is all these differences that determine whether a person is treated with respect. These purveyors of negativity want to believe that it is a person’s position in life that makes all the difference, and their sexuality and/or gender is an important factor in determining equality. When I think of this binary I shudder, for I fear that in our world today it is negativity, not human decency and dignity, that is winning the day.
1,400 revelers are mercilessly slaughtered in Israel. Why? They are Jews. Thousands of Palestinians—men, women and children—are killed by Israeli missile and bombing attacks. Why? They are Arabs and Israel seeks vengeance for the death of their citizens under the guise of self-protection. Hundreds die from gun violence each year in the United States. Why? Because some are Jews, some Islam, some Black, some women, and because of the sexuality of others. When these events occur, we gasp with horror and rush to stand by the victim’s families trying to show our support, but in the end, nothing changes. More die. And in death, an eerie equality floats above the victims. They did not deserve to die. Most of the victims are beloved in their respective communities. Most of the survivors proclaim the dignity and self-worth of the dead. Politicians point fingers of blame, visit the survivors, and pass laws assuring more will die. In life, the differences cause hatred and violence. In death, the differences fade to the background as the muted voices of the dead shout “You had no right to kill me!” In that, they are equal. The gunman did not have the right to kill them because the victims are human beings, they are worthy of respect and wish only to live their lives the best they can. No one has the right to take that away from them. In death, the victims are equal and bestowed with dignity, which demands respect, something that too often is missing in life.
Why must one die before they receive the respect they deserve? Why must a bullet end the hopes and dreams of a person before they can be considered equal? There is no difference in death; there is only death. It is the religions we embrace, the political structures we create and the economic platforms upon which our hopes for prosperity are founded that drives a wedge between folks and denies dignity and equality to all. The longevity of the wedges people create fills them with predisposed hatreds, mistrust, and suspicion of any who do not fit nicely within their group of those who hold similar beliefs. A difference in belief too often justifies robbing a person of their dignity, their equality, and their right to live.
But are beliefs really that valuable? Are beliefs so prized that they render people incapable of tolerance necessary to coexistence? Are they so powerful they evoke hatred of any who believe differently? Do they blind us to what is really important?
Human beings are emotional creatures, emotions that empower beliefs and too often assure that equality, fairness, and dignity play only secondary roles in the social structures erected by people. Beliefs define the lines of demarcation that separate us from one another thereby creating hierarchies that define the value of people, the good ones on the top; the bad ones on the bottom. But because emotionally laden beliefs are the determining factor, location on the hierarchy is arbitrary. It is always relative to the beliefs we hold. From the perspective of the hierarchy there is no equality; there is no dignity ascribed to anyone except those on the top of the hierarchy. The poor go to jail; the rich get away with murder. Right religious belief determines who will be saved and the rest be damned. White comes with privilege withheld from people of color. Socio-economic positioning determines who lives on the right side of the tracks and those who because they live on the wrong side of the tracks must not be trusted nor should they be tolerated. This holds true until those living on the right side of the track get to know those who are on the wrong side of the track. Then, the person becomes a friend, someone worthy of respect.
Stories such as this fill the pages of literature: Germans befriending Jews, Jews befriending Arabs, Whites befriending persons of color, and straight people befriending gays. When friendship precedes beliefs, one finds the dignity and decency we all share as human beings. In friendship, equality has a chance. But a millennium of belief runs deep and the lines of demarcation they define are not easily erased. This is why people need a moral compass that guides them through the unethical minefields set by beliefs. While the outline of this compass begins to appear in the writings and thoughts of ethicists, philosophers, and religious leaders, one will never find North in the dank pages of philosophical and theological tomes. It takes befriending those who think and believe differently to find North, and it is only through such friendships that the moral compass points to goodness. If the entrenched structures of belief are to be overcome, it will only happen as people begin to befriend those different from themselves. Instead of looks of horror or mistrust when encountering folks who are different, greet them will a smile and “hello.” They may respond with a smile of their own, which may be an invitation to friendship. If so, take advantage of it and get to know them and discover how the resulting friendship points North to the goodness of being human.
If people risk friendship with those who are different, the lines of demarcation drawn by beliefs will begin to be erased. If erased, then the dignity and self-worth people have by virtue of being human is restored and equality and tolerance necessary to existence has a chance. This does not mean that beliefs will disappear. Religions will survive and political structures will still define the nations that mark human existence, but if willingness to befriend those who are different becomes more fundamental than beliefs, a moral compass that points to the North, to the common good, will appear showing people the way to respect others and affirm the fundamental equality that comes with being human. Then the moral compass will indeed point North.