July 4, 2010

Shall We Appease A Few Dozen, Or A Few Million?

Originally posted May 25, 2010

In an age-old fable, three blind men examined an elephant. One held a leg and declared, “an elephant is like a tree.” The second grasped the tail and observed, “an elephant is like a rope.” A third ran his hands across the rough weathered hide, and concluded “an elephant is like a tent.”

Which of these accounts is true? Which is false? The answer to both questions, of course, is “all of the above.” Each report was factual, yet none was complete. For each man could only describe the beast from his own limited perspective.

For about the last two years, the government of France has pondered enacting legislation that would forbid the public wearing of a veil or mask that hides a person’s face. The proposed legislation doesn’t specify that it’s aimed at Muslims, but…hey, what other reason could there be? As could be expected, the three blind men have weighed in:

For many Muslims – who require their women to veil themselves from head to toe – this step is an intolerable assault on their religious freedom.

President Nicolas Sarkozy fancies himself a liberator of Muslim women, who wear the veil (he believes) only because their husbands demand it.

For many patriotic Frenchmen, it’s all about cultural assimilation. Immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to change the character of French society. If you want to live here, you should become one of us.

All of these arguments, I believe, have merit. But in a democratic society, how do we take our principled ideals and translate them into an orderly civilization? The answer, as we know, is compromise. No one party gets to have everything their way.

Here in my community, the local merchants seize every opportunity to monetize a holiday. Christmas, Flag Day, Arbor Day, Epiphany? Someone, somewhere, is having a sale. And as for Halloween ? You can wear that Power Rangers costume every day of the year, if it strikes your fancy. But if you want to shop in my store, take off that mask. If you try to rob me, I want to make sure my video camera captures your face. Otherwise, you can take your business somewhere else. My house, my rules. Take it or leave it.

I’m reminded of the plight of the Jews in old Roman-occupied Palestine: Caesar demanded heavy taxes and obedience to civil laws. But as for their religion? The Jews were free to worship their little unseen God as they saw fit. So when the religious authorities arrested a fiery itinerant preacher who claimed to be their king, the Roman governor (initially) refused to condemn him. Did this man steal, murder, or slander the emperor? Well, no. Then he’s not my problem.

Here in the Good Ole USA, we have a similar arrangement. I’m not allowed to sacrifice a virgin into a volcano at every full moon, but otherwise I’m free to worship or pray to my God in any manner that I might choose. A court of law can prosecute me for murder, but not heresy. And as I exercise this freedom I don’t look to you, the government, or anyone else to enable or validate me in that quest. I ask only that you afford me the same courtesy that Rome extended to the Jews: Leave me alone.

For this reason, I don’t particularly care if they allow my son to pray in his public school. Or remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. It matters not if they set up a cross or a nativity scene or a menorah in a city park at Christmastime. The legitimacy of my faith doesn’t rest on governmental approvals.

Around here we have a small community of Sikhs, and they’re building a new temple down the street. Some of them go about town in their traditional dress; I say let’s celebrate our cultural diversity, all day long. In their custom, all baptized Sikhs are to carry a dagger in their waistband at all times. But they know it makes people nervous when they’re waiting in the checkout line at the supermarket; so they proudly sport the robe and the turban, but they leave the knife at home. If they’re complaining about this evil assault on their constitutional liberties, I haven’t heard about it. And believe me, we have plenty of religious whiners here, of every stripe.

For all of our ideals, let’s get real. In a world that lives under the constant threat of violent crime and terrorism, all citizens must work together – despite inconvenience or loss of "freedom" (although I would take issue with that characterization) – for the greater good. And if that means we must show our faces when we walk the streets, so be it. Just as with the new immigration law in Arizona (oh, did I just open up another can o’ worms?), innocent people have nothing to fear from a little accountability.

If it offends you to obey the laws of my country, I say find somewhere else to live. Just send me a postcard sometime. I challenge you to find a place that works harder to defend your freedoms.

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