Wisdom Wherever You Find It
We care for people not because they are Catholics, but because we are. James Cardinal Hickey
My professional life has been in the interfaith world for a number of years, and if this short essay doesn’t prove it, nothing will.
The word “davka” is Hebrew and defies explanation. It was the first word I struggled to understand in seminary, where my teacher translated it in the Talmudic text as “specifically” and the dictionary offered “exactly.” In usage, however, it is best spoken while holding your index and middle fingers together on one hand and making a circle in the air, ending with an emphatic point in front of you.
The most misunderstood faith community in America, in my opinion, is the Sikh community. First of all, we pronounce their religion to rhyme with “peek” because the actual pronunciation – rhymes with “stick” – confuses us. Their ritual devotion includes unshorn hair, turbans, and the presence of a symbolic sword (kirpan) always on their person, which the uninitiated and TSA consider to be threatening. And because of stereotyping, uneducated Americans frequently mistake them for Muslims, with sometimes fatal results, putting all of us in a double-bind explaining they are not Muslims, but so what if they were.
To me, the most admirable aspect of Sikh religion is radical hospitality. Anyone who is hungry will find a meal and welcome at a gurdwara, a Sikh temple. Millions of people are fed regularly by Sikhs around the world. They do not do so because the hungry are Sikhs, but because they are. Davka.
Speaking of Muslims, in a Virginia community not so far from where I live is a guy named Qasim Rashid. He has run for office unsuccessfully couple of times at least as much because he is a member of the minority party in his jurisdiction as anything else. But as a “public Muslim,” he was prepared for the kinds of attacks on his identity that are some voters’ idea of appropriate political discourse. One such correspondent’s condemnation was among the grotesque (Rashid’s word) messages he received. Rashid looked into his antagonist’s public declarations and discovered that among the objectionable messages was a GoFundMe campaign to pay off more than $20,000 in medical debt. Rashid made a contribution and encouraged his followers to do the same. The debt was retired.
Did he win the guy’s vote? The answer is irrelevant. A faithful Muslim’s response to suffering is to offer mercy and support. He provided comfort not because his offender was a Muslim, but because he is. Davka.
Among the groups in our various coalitions are those that represent avowed secularists. For some of them it is a matter of principle and for others the equivalent of faith. That is to say, some of them believe our American statutes and practices should be entirely neutral toward any and all religion, and others are atheists. They are among the staunchest defenders of the First Amendment rights to conscience and separation of government and religion in the interfaith community. And they do so even for religious folks who would disqualify them from certain kinds of discourse and service to the country. They do so not because their critics are accurately reading the Constitution, but because they are. Davka.
All of these examples are admirable to me, and I hope to you as well. They are more admirable to me still because none of the folks whom I describe has anything to gain for themselves by their conduct. In fact, just the opposite is true. Sikhs could retreat into their quiet life of making a living and cultivating a calm sense of place in the universe. Muslims, not only Qasim Rashid, could more than occupy themselves with prayer five times a day and less outward-facing upholding of the five pillars. Secular activists could devote themselves to securing their own rights and take the weekends off. The vast networks of Catholic charities that tend to the impoverished, marginalized, disenfranchised and lonely could use those resources to rehab crumbling churches and hire more teachers in parochial schools.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner described love as the willingness to act for another’s benefit against your own interests. When I look at the adherents of the 75 or more communities of faith and no faith on whose behalf my professional life is devoted, it is what I see wherever I look. They offer their time, talent, and treasure on behalf of others because that’s what their belief system demands of them – their God, their Scripture, their philosophy, their mentor. Not always, of course. Not only, of course. Not to the unmitigated satisfaction of others or even themselves, of course. But also, not because there is something in it for them.
They care for people not because those people are just like them. But because without that caring, they themselves would not be authentically who they are. Davka.