Nihilne Sanctum? Is Nothing Sacred?

Just a few weeks before we left the States to move to Dubai, I saw something that bugged me.

In the parking lot of the post office there was a car that had what appeared to be one of those Christian fishes on the back. As I got closer though, I saw that inside the fish was not the name “Jesus” but the words “‘N Chips.” It reminded me of the fish with legs that says “Darwin” in the middle and it helped me figure out why I have never like those.

It seems puzzling to me that in an age when we work so hard to make others feel accepted and grow toward tolerance (which I believe are wonderful things) the one last religious group it seems tolerable to slam on is Christians. If someone had a bumper sticker that took a sacred symbol of Judaism, for example, and made fun of it, people would be (and rightfully so) outraged.

I thought, well maybe Christians are the only ones who would put a sacred symbol on their cars, so maybe they deserve it. But, after I moved to Dubai, I realized that that wasn’t true. Many Muslims here have the Islamic confession on the back of their cars. If someone in the States put it on the back of their car and changed it to make a joke, they would be considered a jackass (and most probably would be a jackass).

I am on two sides of this issue because I am decidedly a Christian, and I also preach tolerance. A real life example brought this home to me last week.

My wife and I were traveling to Oman via bus to visit some relatives in Muscat. We had requested a front row seat because my wife gets very car sick and it helps a great deal if she can see out the front window. Upon boarding the bus we sat down in the two seats directly behind the driver. Across the aisle from us was an older Muslim woman in her abiya. She immediately began complaining to one of the men in charge about us sitting across the isle from her. She was speaking in Hindi, so my wife understood what she was saying.

Initially, she was upset because I was in the aisle seat closest to her and she did not want a male that close. Out of respect then, my wife and I switched seats so my wife was on the aisle. However, the woman was still upset that we were across from her, saying that she had booked her tickets four days in advance and it shouldn’t be like this. At one point her argument with the man about us reached a screaming stage with her threatening to exit the bus and cursing the man for tell her to pipe down.

There are a number of possible cultural explanations as to why she was acting this way, though she never said exactly what bothered her so. One, she most probably assumed that an Indian woman and a white man were not married. The implication is that my wife is easy, so she considered being near us frustrating or she was frustrated that fornicators would have the same privileges (sitting up front) as her. Another possibility is that she had wanted her servant to sit across the aisle from her. The woman was taking up both seats on her side and may have planned that her servant sit opposite her. As it ended up, her servant sat right behind her. And it may have been something else altogether. We’ll never know for sure.

All the while she was screaming and ranting she was holding the Muslim prayer beads. This really put me in a pickle. I preach tolerance, but I was not tolerating her intolerance very well. By definition, tolerance means be tolerant of intolerance, too. I wasn’t feeling tolerant. In fact, if I spoke Hindi I probably may have said something like, “Is this how your faith teaches you to treat people?! You’d better stop praying, then!”

But then I was struck. How am I any better than that woman? I wanted to repay her yelling by yelling at her. Okay, I didn’t do it, but I wanted to. I realized at that point, that the woman was on the outside what we all are on the inside. And if she needs a lesson in tolerance, love and decency, so do I all the more. At that point I prayed, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”

So, I guess people can continue to put whatever they want on their cars.

And though it hurts to have something that’s sacred to me made into a joke, I know that I probably make a joke out of being sacred everyday.

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