How Can We Live Beautifully in an Age of Vitriol? by Omid Safi

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These are days of snark and bluster. How do we live better and communicate more beautifully?

I spend a lot of my time wondering how to live a beautiful life in an age when the quickest way to get thousands of tweets and retweets is to post something filled with anger and vitriol, something that elicits a response from both avid fans of one side and rabid fans of the other side. How do we live beautifully when so much of dialogue is “marketized” based on how many people we can arouse to one side, immediately capitalizing on division and bifurcations? When conversation seems based less on listening and nuance and more on scoring points and eviscerating the perceived virtual opposition?

Where is not just the common ground but the higher ground?

How do we live beautifully when the president of the country is the provocateur-in-chief? How do we live beautifully when 140 character tweets take the place of careful policy, with worldwide consequences for all of us?

In times like this, I always turn to our faith traditions. Yes, there is profound racism, tribalism, and sexism in our traditions. That is the filth that covers up the jewels. But there are also luminous teachings that we can explore and draw from. This week I want to sit with one of these jewels and figure out how to invite it into my heart.

One of these gems is the African Muslim knight, Omar Mukhtar. The story of this brave warrior was preserved in the movie Lion of the Desert. Omar Mukhtar was a Libyan warrior and leader who led the resistance against the Italian Fascists between 1911 and 1931. The Italian colonial powers inflicted a terrible violence on the Libyans. They imprisoned some 125,000 people in concentration camps. Under the command of the dictatorial Mussolini and the general Graziani, the Italian forces slaughtered thousands of Libyan civilians whose crime was resisting a foreign occupying colonial army.

The Libyan resistance was led by several religious leaders, including a poor and humble teacher of the Qur’an. Omar Mukhtar, a brave Jedi-like Muslim knight who was initiated in a mystical Senussi Order, skillfully fought against the Italians until the eventual moment of his capture and his public execution.

I want to focus on one point in their resistance. After thousands of their countrymen were imprisoned by the Italians, the Libyans were able to capture two Italian soldiers. Many of the Libyans wanted to execute the Italian prisoners in retaliation. Omar Mukhtar refused, stating that this was not the way of Muslims.

The folks who had argued for killing the prisoners objected: “But the Italians killed our prisoners.”

Omar Mukhtar softly responded: “They are not our teachers.”

They are not our teachers. That response has lingered with me for days now.

We have our teachers. We follow our teachers. We imitate the best of our examples. We are not bound to return an eye for an eye, a tweet for a tweet. We can do better. We can rise above. We are not bound to stoop down to the gutter.

This temptation is a huge challenge. I myself know that I fall into this trap time and time again. We live in a culture that prizes a “quick wit,” defined as being able to return an insult with an insult. We have confused wisdom with a sharp wit that can identify the weakness in someone (or their argument) and attack them.

Can we be better? Can we step away from a fight in which no one wins? Can we, as the Qur’an says“repel evil with something that is lovelier?”

No, as we have seen in the case of Charleston and so many other places, it should not be the moral burden of people of color and persecuted communities to always turn the other cheek and set the higher moral example when their systematic and structural suffering goes on. How do we insist on addressing structural violence, state sponsored terror, while also living up to the most luminous example of our own traditions?

These are not our teachers. We have teachers. We have exemplars. We have luminous souls we emulate.

May we be like Omar Mukhtar with the Italians.
May we be like Prophet Muhammad with the Arabs.
May we be like Desmond Tutu with the white South Africans.
May we be like Martin Luther King, Jr. with America.
May we be like the Dalai Lama with the Chinese.

May we follow in their path. May we live up to this beauty. May we become such that someday, others, in a moment of moral conflict, will look to us as their teachers.

May we be our own best selves for those around us and for ourselves. We are all in need of redemption and transformation.

May we be our own lamp, the light that shines within us, around us, above us, beneath our feet.

We have such teachers.
We have such teachings.

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