A Little Lesson in Comparative Religion

The following incident actually happened in one of my classes at Boston College. For purposes of inclusion in my forthcoming novel, it is slightly expanded and the names have been changed. Father Peter is essentially myself. ‘Isa (“Hee-sah”) is my protagonist. His name, a common Arabic/Muslim one, means “Jesus.”

It was Tuesday evening, time for World Religions class at B.C. The course was offered in the Evening College, so there were an equal number of college-age students and older adults in the class, and a good ethnic mixture. ‘Isa sat next to Zvi, a Jewish student with a yarmulke and a black beard. The other two dozen students in the class were all Catholics in varying degrees of embarrassment and “dissent” (their new word for “heresy”). ‘Isa and Zvi naturally sought each other out — not to huddle together for warmth against the Catholic majority, by which neither of them felt at all threatened, but because they sensed a soul-brotherhood: they were the only ones in the class who could feed each other’s hunger for argumentation. They had debated Zionism and the PLO until nearly coming to blows, then laughed and embraced each other, then descended again into the maelstrom, and again nearly came to blows.

Zvi was at B.C. rather than Brandeis, even though Brandeis was the best Jewish university in America and only a few miles down the road, because B.C. gave him a scholarship, and he couldn’t afford to go to Brandeis without one. He also enjoyed being in the minority and confronting, rather than being, the Establishment.

The professor, a white-haired Jesuit theologian, was bright and wise and fair, but ‘Isa thought him a bit wimpy for not taking a strong stand on any of the controversial issues that came up in the course. Father Peter preferred to play Socrates, or intellectual psychoanalyst, to the students. He had a ready sense of irony and a twinkle in his eye, but ‘Isa classified him as a watcher rather than a warrior, a spectator rather than a participant in life’s great jihad — a typical philosopher.

They were beginning the 15-minute break in the middle of the three-hour class, and most of the students were staying in their seats, some to munch food, some because they were too lazy or tired to move, and some because they were so fascinated with the professor that they wanted to catch even his casual remarks. Father Peter was sipping coffee at his desk, waiting for some conversation. Suddenly, Zvi asked: “Father Peter, what is the meaning of that faint cross painted on the wall above your desk?”

Every eye looked up at the pale blue cinder block wall, where a foot-high cross stood out in lighter blue. Father Peter knew the answer, but instinctively passed on the question: “Does anybody know the answer to Zvi’s question?”

“Sure,” said one friendly, fat Irishman. “That’s where the crucifix used to be. They used to have one in every classroom.”

“When did they take them down?” asked Zvi.

“I don’t know, exactly.”

“Two years ago,” volunteered an Italian girl with white nurse’s stockings. “I remember.”

“They didn’t do a very good job painting over it,” observed an older man (probably a painter).

“But why did they take them down?” pressed Zvi, puzzled. ‘Isa was puzzled, too, but no one else was even surprised.

“Oh, you know — ” began the Irishman. “To be more ecumenical.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” Zvi sent the question in the direction of the professor, hoping for an “official” answer. But Father Peter kept silent and let the students answer. ‘Isa thought he saw a small, ironic smile begin to creep onto his face.

“Well . . . you know . . . we didn’t want to be . . . narrow-minded. We wanted to reach out and accept non-Catholics, too. We didn’t want to offend anybody.”

‘Isa and Zvi both looked up, startled. “Offend?” they both said in unison. “Offend whom?” pressed Zvi.

“Non-Catholics,” answered the Irishman in a tone of sweet reasonableness, as if explaining the obvious to a retarded child.

“Jews, you mean? and Muslims? People like us?” Zvi was now beginning to sound confrontational.

“Well, yeah, I guess so,” said the Irishman, a bit hurt that this gesture of friendship seemed to be accomplishing exactly the opposite of what was intended.

“Well, I for one am very much offended!” declared Zvi. The whole class was suddenly quiet and alert, as listening to a fire alarm. “You must think I am a bigot if you think that I, as a Jew, would take offense at a Catholic symbol in a Catholic school. If you came to a Jewish school, would you expect us to remove all our Stars of David? Would you be offended at yarmulkes?”

“No, no, of course not.”

“Why not? I will tell you why not. Because you are not a bigot, and only a bigot would be offended by a Jewish symbol in a Jewish school. Am I right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then, why do you think I am such a bigot that I would be offended by a Catholic symbol in a Catholic school? Your taking down that crucifix was an act of insult to non-Catholics. An act of bigotry, in fact.”

No one could refute the logic. And everyone but Zvi and ‘Isa and Father Peter was totally nonplused by it. Father Peter’s smile grew deeper, and he couldn’t stop his head from nodding its admiration at Zvi’s turning things upside down. He recalled that Jesus had had a similar habit. He wondered whether the habit was typically Jewish.

But they were not off Zvi’s hook yet. “Did the government make you take them down?”

“No.”

“Did you get a government grant only on the condition that you would take them down?”

“What kind of a question is that?” said the Italian girl, now getting insulted.

“If that was the deal, I just hope you got more than 30 pieces of silver this time,” Zvi said with a wicked smile.

Father Peter saw that a few of the Catholics were starting to take offense and others simply didn’t get the joke. So for both groups he tried to go with the humor: “I see, Zvi. You’ve just discovered who was the first Catholic to accept a government grant: Judas Iscariot.”

Scattered laughter.

Something in ‘Isa was provoked at the easy laughter. He waded into the battle at Zvi’s side. “You know,” he began thoughtfully, “we Muslims don’t have any statues or images at all. But if we had pictures of Mohammed, we certainly wouldn’t take them down from our schools, not even if the government paid us a million dollars. Not even if they persecuted us. Not even if we were killed for it. And you took your crucifixes down voluntarily? I just don’t understand that.”

Embarrassed silence all around. All caught with their pants down.

‘Isa couldn’t stop now. A fire was rising in him. “You know, we don’t believe that that man was the Son of God, as you say you do. But we revere him as a very great prophet. If we had pictures or statues of him, we would never take them down, not even if we were threatened. We would fight for his honor, even die for it.

“In fact, I think we Muslims revere this man more than you Catholics do. You say you believe he was the Son of God, but you feel embarrassed at him, and you take him down. Why? Because you don’t want us to look down on you. It looks like you care more about what we think of you than about what he thinks of you. So you’re putting us above your God. You’re really making us your God!”

Zvi added, “First, they call us bigots, then they call us gods.”

The Catholics simply didn’t know what to say. They had never heard such plain talk before. Only Father Peter smiled, and offered up a silent spontaneous prayer of thanks to God for sending two prophets into his class.

 

*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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