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Peace and War

The Common Good and Common Destiny
by Carl Schinasi

It is a privilege and pleasure to share Carl Schinasi's talk with you. His thought-provoking speech about how each one us can contribute to making peace in the world is well worth reading.

Imam Um’Rani, congregants, guests, and friends, thank you for inviting me to speak here this evening.  I must admit it also comes as a surprise. When Imam asked me to speak, I immediately suggested he contact someone at Temple Emanu-El.  I explained to him that someone there could speak more knowledgeably about Judaism.  When Imam assured me he wanted me to speak, I was thrilled.  I was thrilled because I realized his invitation amounts to a great honor. Here I stand, a Jew from New York speaking in a Mosque at a pre-Ramadan banquet in the Deep South. 

Arab Street Mosque Singapore
Arab Street Mosque, Singapore (Boris Datnow)
After accepting Imam’s invitation, I immediately called my son, Noah. He is the person in this life I share all good news with first.  I said, “Noah, guess what. I have been invited to give the keynote address at a pre-Ramadan banquet.”
My son, a devout and committed Christian (he is Baptist) always enjoys hearing good news. But to this announcement Noah responded with skepticism. Noah understands the importance of my faith to me; that it’s what most makes me me. Still he does not think I am much of a Jew since I do not observe Jewish laws and customs with the same dedication he practices his faith.  
So when I told him about the invitation he said,  “Uh, Dad, do you know Ramadan is a Muslim holiday?”
  “Yes,” I said, “and I’ll be addressing Muslims of all kinds." 
  Still unconvinced Noah asked, “Do they know you are Jewish?” 
“Yes, the Imam asked me for that reason.” I said. 
And then Noah, again, knowing I am an infrequently-observant Jew, replied in all seriousness, ”Boy, did that Imam pick the wrong guy.”

Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem
Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Western Wall, Jerusalem (Boris Datnow)

Noah can say things like that to me. I do not get insulted because he is my son and I am his father and we love each other.  I’ll come back to this idea a little later.  
Imam requested I address my Judaism by speaking tonight on the topic “The Common Good and the Common Destiny.”  The topic, as it turns out, relates closely to my sense of  what it means to me to be a Jew. You'll see why.
I’m thankful to him for suggesting this topic.  It’s a universal one that many of us could address. No doubt all of us, regardless of our differences, share similar ideas about what makes up “the common good.”  Here are some ideals and simple facts of life we would agree count as “common goods”: God, love, family, a nice home, dear friends, honesty, music, faith, good health, hard work, air conditioning, food (well prepared and abundant), clean clothes and (especially since I’ve grown older this has become a common good) a comfortable pair of shoes. I’m sure you’ve thought of some “common goods’ I haven’t mentioned. We probably could make a list of  “common goods” that would ring this block if we put our heads together.
Here’s one “common good” I think the most important.  Before I mention it, let me apologize.  I apologize because the “common good” I am about to reveal will come as no earth shattering surprise. In fact, I’m afraid you may be disappointed since this “common good” amounts to no more than an old platitude.  My idea of a mightily important “common good,” cliched as it may sound, is world peace. 

Muslim Girls SIngapore
Outside the Mosque on Arab Street (Boris Datnow)

Time worn phrase though that it is, it encompasses a “common good” I’m sure we all agree upon.  World peace would be good for everybody. Just think of what world peace would mean, what it would bring.  We wouldn’t have to worry that someone who doesn’t like us would drop a big bomb on our heads.  Immediately, we could say good-bye to armies and soldiers and bombs and killing devices of all kinds. Wouldn’t that be a relief?  If we could leave the house and be sure no one wanted to punch us in our personal or national noses, two things would happen: we’d reduce the amount of stress in the world and we’d save boat loads of money.  We could spend all of that money on something other than medical bills and protection and security.  
Imagine what that would mean right here in America. First, we could do away with our Department of Homeland Security. That alone would save us, get this, 50.5 billion dollars a year! That's Homeland Security's budget for one year! Do we realize what kind of crazy number that is? Here's how crazy: Counting non-stop, at one number a second, it would take 31 years, 251 days, 7 hours, and 39 seconds to count to one billion. That means to count to 50 billion it would take 150 years. Even if we counted faster, say at two numbers a second, it would still takes us roughly 15 plus years to get to one billion. So 50.5 billion, that's one crazy number, especially when you count it in dollars.  
Imagine what we could do with all that money.  How many poor people could we feed, clothe, and house?  We could devote more funds to cleaning up and saving the environment.  Money we now spend on protecting ourselves from getting knocked in the head by another country's weapons we could spend on finding cures for diseases like HIV, all the cancers, debilitating arthritis, migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, and even diseases as non-lethal but still misery making as the common cold and gingivitis.  
Just think what a stress reducer world peace would be. With less stress we would treat each other better.  If we treated each other better we would not have to spend so much money on aspirin, anti-depressants, blood pressure medicines or hospital bills for stress induced heart attacks and strokes. A lot of people might never have to see a physician. The cost of medical insurance might plummet. That’s good because then greedy insurance company executives would start pulling out their hair. Whew, wouldn’t 
that be great! 
I know world peace is a common good.  I also know achieving it remains unlikely. If world peace does not loom immediately on the horizon, maybe we can shoot for half the world at peace.  That would cut 25 billion dollars from the Homeland Security budget.  We could use all that money to our benefit. 
You may be thinking right now: What’s this guy talking about?  All this talk of world peace is pie in the sky.  Given our futile attempts over the years to achieve it, world peace is never going to happen. And then you might think, that stuff about half a world at peace. How silly, or at best, wishful thinking. If you think that , to tell you the truth, I think that, too.  Since we perhaps think alike about the possibility of achieving world peace then you are about to experience what I firmly believe to be our common destiny.

Hindu Temple, Kuala Lampur
Batu Caves, Kuala Lampur (Boris Datnow)

Let's take a breather; let's all pause for a minute of silence.
You just heard the sound of silence.  Wasn’t that peaceful?  It was for me. I didn’t have to listen to myself drone on for a minute. But that silence also represents what I believe to be our common destiny.  I know you don’t want to hear this, but that silence represents the death of planet earth. In my advancing age,  I have come to believe that is our common destiny.  Sorry to be so pessimistic.  
Listen to this:  In 1960, at the height of the Cold War, Herman Kahn, a famous military strategist and systems theorist, wrote a book titled, 
On Thermonuclear War.  In that book Kahn talked about what we should do not if we had a nuclear war.  He pondered what we should do when the war came.  In other words, Kahn believed countries on this planet will some day engage in a nuclear war. In 1960, a lot of people thought Kahn was crazy, or that he was a monster for suggesting such an idea. 
A few years later America found itself embroiled in the Bay of Pigs debacle.  The world teetered on the brink of nuclear war.  So what happened?  First, lots of people began buying and reading Kahn’s book. They soon began agreeing with him. Lots and lots of people built bomb shelters in their homes. This of course made Kahn very happy.  It also made him a very rich man.
All that happened over 50 years ago. At that time, we had less nasty bombs and fewer countries had nuclear capability.  Now we have nastier bombs that can kill more people with one strike.  We also have more countries with this capability.  Some people think certain world leaders who control nuclear strike capability are as cuckoo as Kahn was for proposing his ideas. What does that mean?  Simply put, even with all the sanctions the world has imposed on nuclear weapons, we moved a lot closer to the unthinkable, a nuclear war, than people often realize.  We don’t hear too much about nuclear war today.  We don’t scare our children half to death by making them cower under their desks during goofy air raid drills as children did in the 50s and 60's.  But the truth as Kahn said can not be avoided; the possibility of a nuclear holocaust exists as surely as you sit here.
These days we hear less about the planet dying from nuclear attacks than from the ways we humans have devised to systematically kill the planet.  Former Vice President Gore, of course, with his Nobel Peace Prize to show for it, has become the greatest popularizer of the “inconvenient truth” that we humans are responsible for the destruction of poor old planet earth. We all know Gore’s catch phrase for the planet’s death knell, "global warming."  Gore (and many well respected thinkers and scientists) fears ice sheets will melt, sea levels will rise, and this will trigger climate changes.  These changes will release too much carbon dioxide into the environment thereby disturbing nature’s delicate balance.  Once these changes take hold they become irreversible, and guess what? Bye bye Mother Earth.  Compelling as Gore’s argument is, a man you may not have heard of makes an even more forceful case for the end of days here on earth.  
This man is Dr. Edward O. Wilson, arguably the world’s greatest living biologist. In his book 
Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, Wilson uses his expertise as a scientist and naturalist to argue that:  “climate change alone, if left unabated, could be the primary cause of extinction of a quarter of the species of plants and animals on the land by mid-century."  Wilson does not stop with the ravaging effects of climate control.  He argues that the earth’s biodiversity declines dramatically as a result of our mismanagement of the planet.  

Biodiversity E.O. Wilson
E.O. Wilson and Biodiversity (Boris Datnow)

He cites pollution, human overpopulation, and over-harvesting of nature as means we also use to kill Mother Earth. Wilson argues convincingly that as the earth’s biodiversity declines and all manner of living species disappear, the planet suffers natural depletion in ways for which we have no fix.  He argues that if we continue to destroy so many natural wild species so quickly, species that “enrich the soil, cleanse the water, and pollinate most…flowering plants,” the remainder of human history, will be "nasty and brief."  Not a happy thought. 
If all this sounds depressing, listen to this interesting coincidence.  A few moments ago I took a break from writing.  I turned on the television. Lou Dobbs, a well known radio personality and social critic, was talking  about the population explosion, the same one Wilson warns us about.  Dobbs said that in 40 years the planet's population will be nine billion people. (There’s that troubling billion word again.) What’s frightening about that?  It seems the planet is designed to carry only 10 billion of us.  So we are quickly approaching the planet’s optimum carrying capacity.  In other words, no matter how we conserve them,  the planet will not have enough resources to support all of us.  My first thought upon hearing this idea was: you mean the planet 
right now has enough land, food, water and energy resources to support us?  Whew, if  you think murder and mayhem patrol the planet now, can you imagine the chaos when poor baby number 10 billion gets here and the planet can’t support any of us any more?
By now I know you may be wondering, why did Imam Um’rani invite this guy?  He’s delivering a mean message we know all too well.  To that I answer, yes, my vision for our common destiny is not optimistic.  So what should I do?  What should we do?  Go home, lock the doors, and never come out?  Worse yet, say “the world’s a mess; so what’s the use” and either party ourselves into oblivion (as some people actually do, by the way) or, at the other extreme, put a gun to our heads and end it all right now. Of course, we should not do these things.  So what is the alternative? Let’s return to some of the common goods we mentioned at the outset.  Let me return for a minute to the story I told you about my son’s response to my invitation here tonight.
Remember what he said, “Boy, that Imam sure chose the wrong guy.” That’s pretty funny. But he wasn’t kidding. He meant it. Instead of feeling insulted I thought, maybe he’s right.  In any case, I can’t be upset with him, he’s my son and, as I said, we love each other.  That’s why I didn’t get upset. I know he loves me and I love him back. When someone insults us or threatens us, if we could act always with the kind of love we have in our hearts for our loved ones, we’d all be better off.  People wouldn’t be so insulting or threatening and we’d have more peace. No more road rage, for instance. How's that sound? Surely then the outlook for humanity would not be so bleak.
Let’s return to Dr. Wilson for a moment. By coincidence, Wilson was born and raised right here in Alabama. He was born a Baptist.  He no longer believes in God. He believes in what he calls the Creation, that here on earth “life was assembled by random mutation and natural selection…” You might ask, why should we believe an unbeliever, a man with no religious faith?  We should believe Wilson because he is brilliant scientist, but more importantly, he is a moral, ethical man.  We should trust what Wilson says about science, about the destruction of the planet, and what we need to do to save it.  Wilson does not leave us hanging in despair.  His book makes an appeal to a fictitious Baptist preacher. Wilson acknowledges the differences between himself as a humanist and the Baptist preacher as a man of God; he delivers this appeal anyway. Wilson says this about saving the planet and ourselves.  Since we believe differently, says Wilson, 
What are we to do?  Forget the differences, I say.  Meet on common ground… When you think about it, our metaphysical differences have remarkable little effect on the conduct of our separate lives.  My guess is that you and I are about equally ethical, patriotic, and altruistic. We are products of a civilization that rose from both religion and the science-based Enlightenment.  We would surely …sanctify human life with the same intensity.  And surely we also share a love of the Creation [that is, this mother load of a meteorite we call planet earth]. 
Dr. Wilson’s book unfolds as a testament to faith. He bases his faith not on God’s laws, but on hope, the hope that people are good, and kind, and understanding, and reasonable, regardless of their race, religion, or nationality.  His faith rests in the common good that he assumes resides in all of us.  He hopes our virtues can bring us together to save ourselves and our planet.  It seems to me this is not easy, but not unreasonable either.  
No, it is not easy. Here’s how I know. Let me tell you another story.  I work with a well educated and supposedly highly intelligent woman.  One day she cornered me. Out of the blue, she began sharing her ideas about Jews and Judaism.  She ranted on, going off in all directions and sounding a little nutty to me.  Finally she said, “I admire Jews because they are 
pushy, and they know how to pinch a penny.” An unexpected punch in the nose could not have stunned me more.  I thought, doesn’t she know she has uttered an insensitive and discriminatory insult?  Then I thought, this woman is not insensitive, she’s an idiot.  
Why relate this story?  Because it represents a difficulty we have in coming together.  At that moment I disliked this person intensely.  I thought she was an anti-Semite, a real lunatic. I never wanted to deal with her again.  In my heart of hearts I knew this was not the correct choice.  I knew I must try to befriend her because she was probably more confused than offensive and mean, and she’s not a bad person. I must forgive her, I thought.  But as the old saying goes, easier said than done.   
The lesson here is that difficult as it is to practice, we must forgive. We must open our hearts to all the different beliefs and ideas and try not to judge them so much as to understand them.  Once we do this, we can begin to understand each other better and forgive others for what otherwise we might consider transgressions against us and our beliefs. We must try to do this really hard.  
I haven't arrived there yet, but some day I know I will forgive that woman.  How do I know?  Because I’m working on it. 
Having said all this, I know I am not telling you anything new.  To prepare me for this talk, Imam Um’rami brought me copies of the 
Muslim Journal.  I read through many of the issues.  The saying on the paper's masthead impressed me most.  If you don’t remember it, this is it:  "Bringing humanity together in moral excellence with truth and understanding."  I like that. I like that very much.  It says just what we must do to save our world.  Moreover, so many of the articles I read in the paper concerned interfaith activities. I read about an international interfaith initiative where Muslims, Christians and Jews got together to build the “House of Abraham” in Amman, Jordan.  I read about the first national summit of Imans and Rabbis in New York City.  I read about Hands of Peace, a group of young Israelis and Palestinians, aged 16 to 23, who are willing to give peace a chance, as the article stated.  Can you imagine that!  “From the mouths of babes,” as the saying goes.  I read about an interfaith alliance attended by clergy from many different faiths held in San Diego. They were meeting to discuss methods to strengthen human development.  Perhaps most amazingly, at least to me, I read about the King of Saudi Arabia who is considering allowing religions other than Muslim to worship openly in his country.  That would really be opening doors to acceptance and understanding. These are the kinds of actions we all must take to keep the planet alive.  
Why don’t I hear these activities and initiatives on the nightly news?  Wouldn’t these kind of stories benefit us and motivate us more than the latest doings of some self-absorbed celebrity?  Here's an idea we should all lobby for immediately:  Lobby the television news organizations to broadcast more stories about the good things happening on the planet.  More of us would see the positive actions of people around us, and I’m sure more people would want to do more good.  These upbeat stories would also make us feel better.  I don’t know about you, but it certainly improves my disposition when I hear good news.
You’ve been very gracious and I’ve taken enough of your time.  Let me sum up by saying this.  By inviting me here tonight, you have greatly honored me and my family.  But more than that, you have honored humanity and the planet.  In fact, by inviting me here, you have changed the world.  I sincerely mean this.  So let me say it again: By inviting me here tonight, you have changed the world.  Why do I say this?  Because I believe that every good deed, what we Jews call 
mitzvot, makes the world a tiny bit better. At the outset of this speech, I mentioned tonight's topic relates to what it means to me to be a Jew. That's it; a deep belief in mitzvot defines what it means to me to be a Jew. It's a concept I believe dwells in the large majority of people on this planet. If we practice mitzvot daily I believe we will ensure ourselves a brighter common destiny.
So tonight, although I have expressed my skepticism about our common destiny, with equal certainty I can say we have made the world a better place to live.  Who would have thought a New York Jew would be invited to a Muslim Masjid in Birmingham, AL, on the eve of Ramadan no less! This is truly a wonder.  This kind of positive interaction, when repeated by everyone, over and over and over again, will get this planet, this beautiful creation we call Earth, and all of us, safely home.  Good night and God Bless You All!

Carl Schinasi is a retired English professor. His essays and stories have appeared in many publications including the periodicals Ducts, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, Slow Trains, and the books Baseball/Literature/ Culture, and The Man Who Ate His Hat. He enjoys collecting pottery, painting, and photography. He was last seen in Roebuck Springs, AL rummaging through boxes trying to put his life back together. He has recently spent time with Boris and Claire Datnow who have corrupted him into once again thinking seriously. He's not sure this is such a good thing since in his later years he has come to believe thinking may be a dangerously subversive activity, counter intuitive to living a wholesome and balanced  life.  His favorite saying these days is "Ho Hum."  
 
The Nine Inheritors.
The Nine Inheritors book cover
An intriguing novel of the struggle for peace, and the clash between people of different faiths.
For more information and to purchase,
visit my web site.

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