An Olympic Snapshot: Flying into History with Jesse Owens

Margaret M. Treadwell

With the seatbelt sign turned off, I approached seats 1A and 1C. “Mr. Owens, would you like a drink after take-off?” I asked with a smile. The gentleman chuckled and ordered a vodka tonic. I turned to 1C. “Mr. Palmer, would you like a drink after take-off?” A loud guffaw punctuated his request for a Coke.

The letter with Pan Am embossed blue logo depicting the world crisscrossed by air routes arrived a few months earlier. I was thrilled to accept the offer to train as a stewardess despite my parents’ trepidations for their only child.

It was a time of adventure and exploration. When I graduated from college and interviewed with Pan American Airways in 1964, it seemed that most of the country was marching on Selma. What better way to evade the sadness of racial tensions in my home state of Alabama than join our premier international airline? I planned to return to my French family in Paris where I’d studied abroad and meet interesting people worldwide.


As it turned out, our eclectic class trained not for my desired return to Paris, but rather to fly “the Orient,” as it was then called. We were sent to our San Francisco base just before the beginning of the Tokyo Olympics, the first Olympics held in Asia — or in any non-white, non-western country.

On my first flight I was scheduled for first class on the Pan Am clipper “Aurora,” headed to Tokyo. The many luxuries of flying first class — white table cloths, fine wines, five course meals we cooked on board — began with stewardesses required to call each passenger by name. So as I checked out the galley, I was also memorizing the seat chart.

Carefully performing my duties, I didn’t realize the two laughing men had switched seats to tease me. When they let me in on the joke that I had mistaken the identities of a white sports announcer, Bud Palmer, and a black 1936 Olympics Champion, Jesse Owens, I learned that celebrities sometimes are a lot less intimidating than I had imagined, and that a self-deprecating sense of humor could take me a long way on any flight.

I knew so little about sports or what the Berlin Olympics had meant. Before Title IX girls were cheerleaders, not athletes, and I was too young to grasp the full import of Jesse Owens’ four Olympic gold medals, which put the lie to Hitler’s Aryan supremacy myth.

Long flights afforded plenty of time to know passengers who wanted to be known, which was certainly the case with Mr. Owens. He had a huge warm smile and could tell a great story like most of my family. His youngest daughter was slightly older than I, and he treated me like a kind uncle as we talked between the courses I was serving him. He told me he was born in Oakville, Alabama, amazingly close to my hometown of Sheffield. While the state had become increasingly polarized and demonized over Civil Rights, I’d tried unsuccessfully to modify my Deep South accent, which I discovered I did not need to do with Jesse Owens. While crossing the Pacific we were crossing barriers unimaginable at home.

At one point, he asked, “What’s your favorite sport?” Since swimming in the Tennessee River was about the only sport available to girls my age, I enthusiastically said, “Swimming!” Mr. Owens replied, “Good news! This is swimming week at the Olympics. Would you like to join me at the Olympic Village to watch tomorrow morning?” I accepted, surprised that my hopes for Pan Am were materializing on this first flight out of the gate.

For two days, my roommate Mary and I found Mr. Owens waiting for us at the Olympic gate prepared to introduce us to swimmers, coaches, and many others of all nationalities who gathered around for his autograph. His inclusive humor, humility and simple presence made me happy to be alive. Some of his tales were tall, but he never boasted. I had to learn from others about the ticker tape parade that was held when he returned a hero to New York City, the disgrace that there was no hotel room available to him in that segregated city, the struggle he had finding work after his fame subsided, the financial troubles he faced, and President Eisenhower’s naming him a “good will” ambassador in 1955.

In Oakville, there is a memorial park with a monument to Jesse Owens. I took our children there to tell this story on one of our many visits back to my family. I am still in awe of this great man and superstar, who honored his roots, became a citizen of the world, and befriended a stewardess from Alabama in October 1964.

Margaret M. (Peggy) Treadwell is a psychotherapist, columnist and teacher in the Washington, DC area. She is co-editor of “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” by Edwin H. Friedman.


by Donald Schell

Hearing the terrible story from Ellicott City, Maryland - a homeless man killing a parish priest and parish administrator and then shooting himself, I felt again how suddenly and completely guns change things. And though I live on the other coast from Maryland, our church is small or our connections wide - Mary-Marguerite Kohn, the co-rector of St. Peter’s had been my daughter-in-law’s teacher in Loyola Maryland’s graduate program in pastoral counseling. The shooting in Ellicott City is our story, our church’s story, and it’s personal.

I was surprised to hear people say of that shooting, “I never imagined something like that could happen in a church.” Church isn’t safe. It never has been safe, but it’s seeming more dangerous today thanks to people’s ready access to guns.

I thought of Dr. George Tiller, murdered while serving as an usher in his church on a Sunday morning because, in his medical practice, he offered women legal abortions.
Closer to my home in San Francisco, I thought the parish in this diocese where a distraught divorced father in a custody fight sent someone to get his children out of Sunday School and shot them and himself in the church parking lot.

In a society that chooses to arm people for violence, the church is no safer than a high school, a shopping mall, a university campus, a post office, an office building or any of those other places where principle- or suffering-crazed obsession or other insanity has triggered random violence.

What would it take our society and nation to develop a will to limit access to weapons designed to kill human beings? What would it take us to make a real public conversation about violence? What would it take us to stand up to the NRA?

Recently The New York Times ran an opinion page piece by a hunter who had resigned his NRA membership because, over the time he’d been a member he’d seen the National Rifle Association, become the Concealed Handgun Association, the Semi-Automatic Weapon Association, and the Armor-Piercing Bullet association. None of this, he said, serves hunting. The NRA doesn’t serve hunters or public safety, it serves the corporate interests of weapon manufacturers who have found a substantial market for the weapons people use against people. America is the most heavily armed nation in the world. And of first world nations our rate of gun suicide and gun murder makes us one of the most dangerous. This hunter’s voice of protest joined police and law enforcement officers have been making the same point for some time. But it’s difficult to find lawmakers who aren’t afraid of the NRA. An elected official advocating reasonable controls on murder weapons know when it comes time for re-election the NRA will target them with massive advertising support for a gun friendly opponent.

As a priest, as a city dweller, as a person who likes to walk and doesn’t believe gated communities make us safe, as someone who enjoys the energy and diversity of great cities, I’m wondering what it would take for shared work and public places that count on easy public access to join forces together to demand new gun laws.

State and national legislators are afraid of the NRA’s money. But is advertising money the final word in electoral politics. Have corporate interests bought the controlling share in our electoral process?

The NRA, liberally funded by gun manufacturers, fiercely defends the ‘safety’ and ‘freedom’ guns give us. Do corporate dollars always speak louder than shared concern expressed in a public voice? What could we learn from other life and death public health struggles? What was the people’s part in standing down the cigarette manufacturers lobbying dollars? How did physicians and cancer researchers and cancer victims and bereaved families enact laws limiting smoking in public places and raise taxes on cigarettes for anti-smoking campaigns. (And what can cautionary tale do we learn from the tobacco lobby’s recent rebound victory in California preventing what initial polls showed would be landslide vote mandating a California tobacco tax hike that would have brought California’s tobacco tax in line with other states?)

Easy access to guns puts all our public assembly places, our gathering places, anywhere services of any kind are offered to friend and strangers at risk. If people who go to church combined their voices with people who enjoy movies and theater, people who shop in grocery stores or malls, people who attend colleges or send their children to schools, could we make a voting voice loud enough that legislators would listen?

Church and so many other activities that we value depend on people’s willingness to venture into public spaces. In a war zone, people don’t venture out to church or school. Stores and theaters struggle to survive. Look at the struggling businesses and tiny churches in our poorest neighborhoods, the prime market for the gun manufacturers. Where are those neighborhoods’ movie theaters? Why do the large grocery store chains that sell groceries at reasonable cost avoid those neighborhoods? The war zone is all around us. How can those of us who believe in community and public life defend the safety of our public places?

No other first world country has a rate of gun deaths like the United States of America. That’s the safety and freedom that the NRA has won for us in their skewed interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

What’s at stake here? Manufacturing profits and advertising dollars convince us that we need to arm ourselves against the criminals and desperate, deluded people that they’re also arming. Responding to “A letter from an exhausted, exasperated young person” posted as the Lead here at the Café, Murdoch Matthew recently offered statistics from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, detailing the radical drop over the past thirty years in public participation, social gathering, and the conclusion that “During the last third of the twenty century all forms of social capital fell off precipitously”

There are undoubtedly other things that have contributed to this precipitous decline, but what caught my attention is Putnam’s reporting an enormous increase in people’s reported fear and mistrust of strangers. In a culture of fear, wouldn’t we expect to lose some ability to gather people whether for pleasure or for the good of others?

Hearing one terrible story after another, gun deaths in America first haunt us, but then they numb us. We avert our eyes because we feel powerless. Numbness, that is our unacknowledged fear and denial make us pretend places like churches or schools are safe.

Ellicott City got me thinking about times guns have come close to home for me. I was startled at thirteen personal gun stories I carry, my fifty years worth. It took me several days of noting down reminders to gather the list, because recalling some of them was an effort. I’m as much in denial as any American. Do you have a list like this -

My 1960’s gun stories -

1. As a young teenage in hiking near my grandmother’s summer place, a friend on I came on a path we’d never seen before. It led to tiny shed in dense forest on a bit of public land, something that sounded like the place the killer had lived near St. Peter’s, Endicott City. Being kids, we looked in and found a stash of porn magazines, the biggest handgun I’ve ever seen, and shelves and shelves of canned beans. We were smart enough to know that staying around there was a bad idea. My friend wanted to take the gun. “That could be trouble,” I said. But we were frightened enough of “the guy” who lived there that we didn’t tell anyone about what we found. Four or five years later, I went back, thinking that if “the guy” was still there that the park rangers should know. The shed was empty and the roof partially collapsed. It had obviously been abandoned for at a couple of winters.

2. In college one night, a drunken classmate screaming his estranged girlfriend’s name repeatedly woke the campus. Next morning, we learned that he’d evaded the campus police for several hours, hiding between his stalking forays while terrified friends who knew he was carrying a handgun tried to find him and let them take the gun away. His friends had finally discovered him shortly before dawn, curled up with his gun asleep under some stairs. They disarmed him (and got rid of the gun) and got him back to his room.

In seminary New York City’s Chelsea in the late 1960’s we heard gunfire every day.

My 1970’s gun stories –

3. The only gun incident I recall from my time as a college chaplain at Yale was a student killed in a mugging. I didn’t know the student though friends did. He’d been walking home after dark through an area of New Haven we generally avoided. And as a Westerner, I remember the uncomfortable irony that Winchester and Colt, ‘the guns that won the West’ and figured in shoot-it-out Western movie and legend had been manufactured in New Haven and Hartford.

4. As a parish priest in Idaho, a homeless transient threatened me in my office with a rifle because I’d told her all the churches in our town contributed to the Salvation Army and they handled all requests for transient aid. She didn’t point it at me. She just said, “I could kill you with this.” And I said, “Please put it away, and let me call my friend the Salvation Army lieutenant to get you the help you need.” She did, I phoned, and he helped her.

5. Our senior warden in Idaho wore a sidearm pistol to church and everywhere. He was mayor of a tiny neighboring town and had fired the town’s police officer for stealing guns from the police stock and selling them. State police told our parishioner he’d better carry a gun and watch his back.

6. Later still serving in Idaho, an elderly parishioner told the congregation she’d wakened to two armed burglars going through the jewelry on her dresser. She screamed the names of her two grown sons with such courage and clarity that the intruders fled, never guessing that the house was empty except for her. Though her presence of mind drove them off, she lost her vibrant good health and her will to live and died of pneumonia (her sons said of a broken heart) months later.

My 1980’s gun stories -

7. My wife and I and our four year old daughter moved to San Francisco to join a handful of people founding St. Gregory’s Church the year after ex-City Supervisor Dan White bypassed a metal detector to kill Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in City Hall. Our first gun experience in the city was a strangely anxious visitor who’d come to church for two Sundays before she showed various parishioners she was carrying an unlicensed concealed pistol in her purse. Parishioners told the clergy and we confronted the woman who showed us the gun. We told her she could not bring the gun to church, and that if she did we’d report her to the police.

8. Later, while St. Gregory’s was still renting a separate chapel of Trinity Church on San Francisco’s Cathedral Hill, our neighborhood of apartment houses, senior homes and hotels, and St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, suffered the skilled assault of a self-trained body-armored ‘survivalist’ laden with semi-automatic weapons. He had hijacked a car after his own broke down. The stranded driver called the police who guessed his route through the city and set up a barricade. His way completely blocked by police cars with their lights flashing, the ‘survivalist’ got out of the car and began shooting, and in a standoff that lasted over an hour he killed police officers and people trapped in surrounding buildings until a police sharpshooter killed him. Two days later we began a candlelit prayer vigil at the shooting site and then marched with people of the neighborhood and a large contingent of San Francisco police officers to continue the service at Trinity/St. Gregory’s, a block and a half away.

9. Downtown at the 101 California Street office tower, a failed businessman armed with semi-automatic weapons killed seven people, and wounded four others before he was killed. After that shooting, the canon pastor of Grace Cathedral and I organized a march downtown with broad citizen and police participation.

My 1990’s gun stories -

10. By this time the church had purchased property and was gathering energy and making plans to build our own church building. Walking home one night from a parish meeting in our new neighborhood, I was robbed at gunpoint, five doors away from my house.

11. The convenience store directly across the street from us has been robbed twice, the second time, the owner tried to resist the robbers and was pistol-whipped. We began a neighborhood watch on our block.

12. Early one New Year’s morning our next-door neighbor had his guns taken away by the police after someone reported he’d been firing them into the sky. He simply bought new guns, but told us angrily that he was convinced it was my daughter who had reported his New Year’s celebratory volleys to the police. A year or so later our neighbor shot and killed a tenant who had threatened him.

13. Our older son was robbed at gunpoint his senior year in high school. He was downtown, on his way home late from a graduation party. The robbers had directed to an ATM to take out as much money as he could withdraw.

My 2000’s gun stories –

14. My uncle in Virginia committed suicide with a handgun. He was grieving my aunt’s death, desperately lonely and struggling with depression. His daughter had gotten the police to take a gun from him because he was threatening to commit suicide with it. He had no trouble getting a new gun.

Retelling the stories, I wonder at what I did and didn’t do, what I did and didn’t think of. I also know as a pastor that when I’ve told these stories and thought about them with people that I’ve heard surprisingly many stories like them. As a preacher I want us to know that life is dangerous and that sooner or later we’ll all die. But as a pastor, when we’re sharing these stories, I’m also hearing my own and others feeling powerless or uncertain how to act when guns are everywhere. Do our gun stories, what we’ve experienced and what we hear, keep some people home while others wonder what someone acting strangely in church might be capable of doing?

What would it take for us together to speak against the profitable business of manufacturing ready means for criminals and madmen to kill? What if we began to tell our stories and listen to others’ stories? Could we find common voice with other people who count on the safety of churches, schools, stores and shopping malls, offices buildings, theaters, and the streets we walk on?

Ultimately the cost of Columbine, of Texas Tower, of Virginia Tech, and of stories like mine and yours, stories of places we live, of friends and neighbors, stories of guns pointed at people we know and love, ultimately the cost is fear, not just fear of strangers but fear of any face-to-face community.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Atlas shrugs. Jesus weeps.

By Richard E. Helmer

I find my recent ministry haunted by none other than Ayn Rand -- a name I barely knew until a few years ago when she came up in a pastoral conversation. Since then, I've learned she was an inspiration at some point in a number of our parishioners' life journeys. Something about her words captured youthful aspirations towards self-actualization and independence. When I at last started reading more about her, I realized in a profound sense that I did know her, or at least her ideas, from my own youthful ambitions as a concert pianist. Rand's perspectives captured in many ways my hyper self-absorbed, rugged, rationalizing pursuit for success in a competitive world where my own mettle and skill -- even in generating something as moving to the soul as beautiful music -- mattered more to me than anything or anyone else.

While our nation's body politic currently is filled with the stench of half-truths, shocking indifference, bureaucratic paralysis, and bitter hyper-partisanship, Rand, though long deceased, has suddenly appeared very close to the forefront of our discourse. I confess a pit forms in my stomach at the thought of paying to see the recently released movie of her wildly popular book, Atlas Shrugged. I can dine on most theatrical fare, but the idea of wallowing in hours’ worth of Rand's philosophy -- if it can rightly be called that -- gives me enormous pause. Objectivism, the heart of Rand's meandering corpus, eyes the world with a mirthless, cold stare. One of our parishioners, before she became a Christian as an adult, explored, amongst various philosophies and belief systems, Ayn Rand's works. Recently, she reflected to me that she once met a thorough-going objectivist who said there was no such thing as a truly happy objectivist. When material reality and our perception of it is all there is, when reason is without divinity and intuition and inspiration are marginalized, when other human beings and the wider world are means to whatever selfish (and Rand used the word in a technical sense) means we devise for ourselves, when life is a race against time to achieve for me and mine alone, what room is there for old fashioned happiness?

In a recent excoriating commentary in Newsweek , Jonathan Chait notes how the new, smart-as-a-whip congressional budget leader, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, openly brings to bear Rand's economic philosophy on his political ideals and budget proposal. It's easy at first to understand why Rand is the resurrected goddess of portions of the neo-conservative, libertarian, and tea party movements. Her strident support for laissez faire capitalism is matched only by the creeping social Darwinism of her attitudes. And her best-known protégé, Alan Greenspan, arguably is the most influential individual on the economic system we have inherited, more so even than any President or congressional leader.

But Donald Luskin in another recent editorial, this one in The Wall Street Journal, reflects how in other respects, Ayn Rand could be considered a liberal's liberal. She was a fiercely independent woman who, by refusing to live in the shadow of any man and by paving her own career path, could be considered among the first wave of mid-century feminists (though she apparently publicly criticized feminism, and her relationship with the movement is conflicted at best). She deplored racism, supported integration of public schools, and staunchly opposed the war in Vietnam. Luskin notes how Atlas Shrugged casts almost as many aspersions on Big Business as it does on the bogey-man of Big Government. Rand, he writes, ultimately offers us a celebration -- though that might not be the right word -- of the innate dignity of the individual.

But for many conservatives and liberals alike, Rand poses considerable moral problems. Her infamously open marriage and her hyper-sexualized characters betray something deeper than simply a political philosophy that fits whatever contemporary agenda we'd like to inflict on her memory, whether governmental spending cuts or individual rights. Ayn Rand was an atheist of a sort that meant that the fiercely individualistic "I" was ultimately self-referential. The element of her conflicted popular philosophy that is mysteriously endearing to the American grassroots psyche is the rugged, no-holds-barred lack of accountability, an amoral construct that is truly all about the individual me. It captures our cultural navel-gazing and our simultaneous fascination with singular supermen and superwomen: our tragic obsession with pseudo-heroic egoism that, if unchecked, risks landing us with a Donald Trump as Commander in Chief, CEO of America, Inc.

The well-heeled intellectual elites of our society have too long dismissively pooh-poohed Rand, much to all our peril. The egoism she promoted, our rampant egoism she reflected in her work, makes for a slavery to self that wreaks havoc on the fabric of our relationships. Integrity, Rand seems to assert, is only internal and individual. But of course it isn't, unless we are prepared to arrogantly chuck out the very heart of thousands of years of moral tradition that has weathered the storms of humanity in multiple cultures and spiritual traditions around the world. The current madness around Rand's legacy is our collective madness, a reflection of our shared humanity wrecked on the rocky shoals of our hyper-protected egos now laid waste by crises too many to number.

The poor, the invalid, the destitute, the homeless: they all threaten our egos by reflecting our interdependence and vulnerability. No wonder we want to shrug them off. But we are not supermen or superwomen, we are frail, yearning creatures capable at times together and individually of awesome works and horrific acts. And sometimes we are plain down and out. We could conceal this messy, fleshy reality from ourselves when times were good. Now they're not, and now we can't anymore.

I am struck, along with many, that ostensibly Christian politicians openly embrace the sometimes ankle-deep and oft-tangled philosophical constructs of someone who once remarked that the Church is little more than "the best kindergarten of communism possible." But I suppose Ayn Rand can be forgiven for this slight. The idea of living to serve others and something far greater than ourselves probably felt far too much like the autocratic threats to essential human dignity of the Soviet regime in her native Russia. And I suppose objectivist eyes cannot see anything but silliness in what I spend a lot of time these days doing: devotion to what a Rand fan I once met somewhat derisively called my "invisible best friend."

The real irony for me is wondering whether or not Rand would welcome the mercy of Christian forgiveness. John Piper, a Baptist pastor in Minneapolis offers a succinct and compelling simultaneous appreciation and critique of Ayn Rand's ideas, concluding that her Godless world view was most critically devoid of mercy: that foundational Christian virtue that understands an imminent and transcendent God loving us and all Creation into being and ultimately -- not because we deserve it but because we need it -- salvation. God shatters Rand's ideal of relationships built on objective transaction, the philosophy of life structured around the quid pro quo. The God of faith, beyond all human logic, needs nothing from us, and yet offers us everything, from our first breath to our last, and beyond.

Our world right now seems littered with odd new juxtapositions. I am caught in this season of Resurrection reflecting on Ayn Rand outside the tomb of Lazarus -- a strange juxtaposition indeed!

Martha notes that our body politic, like the body of her brother, stinks.

In reply, Ayn Rand's Atlas shrugs.

For his part, our Jesus weeps, and then calls forth the dead into life.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif., and a postulant in the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs at Caught by the Light.

In a pluralistic society, mutual respect is a moral imperative

By George Clifford

As a person with dual loyalties to God and country, loyalties that sometimes but not always conflict, the two Florida pastors burning of the Koran and the violent rioting by Afghan Muslims in response left me both upset and concerned about the future of a civilized global community. These events are but the most recent in a string of incidents that include some radical Muslim leaders issuing a religious ruling authorizing Salman Rushdie’s killing after he published The Satanic Verses and the furor that erupted after a Danish newspaper published cartoons that many Muslims believed disrespectful of the prophet Mohammed.

I willingly served in the U.S. Navy for twenty-four years, retiring as a Captain. Like all military personnel, I swore an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I took that oath in good conscience because I believe the rights and freedoms that the Constitution establishes as the basic law of the land provide the foundation for a healthy, progressive society.

Free speech is one important right, enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment. This right includes actual words and “speech acts,” gestures and deeds intended to communicate a message. In broad terms, U.S. law only prohibits speech that directly jeopardizes the safety of others (e.g., yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater) or harms property that belongs to another person (e.g., malicious libel that ruins a reputation or burning a cross on someone else’s lawn). Free speech was instrumental in the U.S. abolishing slavery, extending the vote to women and non-property owning males, and the continuing campaign to eliminate discrimination based on gender, gender orientation, religion, and ethnicity.

The U.S. flag symbolizes our rights and freedoms, a symbol military personnel daily accord special respect. People who display a flag that wind has whipped to shreds or who use flags as decorative items offend my sense of respect for the flag and what it symbolizes. However, I willingly defend their right to misuse the flag in those ways, even to burn the flag as an act of protest if they so choose.

Those “speech acts” may offend me but do not harm me, an important lesson that I learned as a child. I vividly remember my parents’ unflagging efforts to establish and to maintain civility in the household they inhabited with their five sons. Not surprisingly, teasing, taunting, name-calling, insults, and other verbal attacks were almost daily occurrences. Complaints of verbal harassment invariably prompted parental reminders that “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” In doing so, my parents nurtured their sons’ self-esteem, fostered our moral courage, and emphasized that a person can and should control his or her emotions. Furthermore, if the miscreant was one of their sons, my parents, who knew the importance of mutual respect, disciplined the culprit swiftly and appropriately.

These are basic lessons in civility, the type of wisdom that Robert Fulghum distilled in his popular bestseller, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. These are lessons that many in our global community need to learn or take to heart, as current events have emphasized. Two people who need to learn these lessons are the Florida pastors who burned a Koran that they owned. They had the legal right to burn it. Nevertheless, they should have voluntarily restrained themselves from doing so. What is legal is not always moral.

My loyalty to God in Christ defines my moral compass. Jesus taught that his followers should love their neighbor as themselves. I find it impossible to interpret burning the Koran as an act of love for Muslims. The Christian pastors who burned the Koran disrespected Muslims and transgressed Jesus’ command to love their neighbor. Indeed, I value the rights and freedoms established in the U.S. Constitution precisely because I believe that those rights and freedoms are essential expressions of respect for others.

Similarly, a person or group that insists other people’s words and actions always respect certain ideas or practices displays unwarranted hubris that disrespects and dehumanizes those who disagree. Mutual respect without actual tolerance for diverse beliefs and practices is meaningless. Pointing a finger at Muslims who riot in the aftermath of a Koran burning and shouting “Guilty!” is easy. Building bridges to the alienated is more difficult. Having the moral courage to defend free speech in the face of threats and intimidation is still more difficult. Remembering that intolerance is not unique to Muslims can be even more difficult, e.g., an expectation, and often pressure, for people to be “politically correct” is a form of intolerance and disrespect for diversity.

I once had an agnostic sailor stationed aboard a ship for which I was the chaplain come see me. Another of the sailors living in the same berthing compartment was an evangelical Christian. This Christian left a tract (a brochure with the gospel message of God's saving grace in Jesus) on the agnostic’s bunk every day. The agnostic had asked the evangelical to stop doing that. When the evangelical persisted, the agnostic sought to enlist my aid. I asked the evangelical to stop, explaining that being an irritant was inconsistent with Jesus’ command to love our neighbor and that the evangelistic effort, no matter how well intended, was actually self-defeating. The evangelical listened politely but ignored my advice. So, one night the agnostic left a satanic tract on the evangelical’s bunk. Things immediately deteriorated; only when the ship’s executive officer threatened to punish both sailors did the two sailors declare a hostile truce.

Civilian society has no command structure to enforce mutual respect and to establish genuine tolerance for diversity. Consequently, people of good will – and I hope, in spite of the two Florida pastors, that this includes most clergy and Christians – must stand firmly and assertively in defense of mutual respect, tolerance for diversity, and human freedom as non-negotiable basic tenets of civilization and healthy, pluralistic communities.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

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