Moses and the Drunk
Moses used to talk with God regularly and everybody knew about it, according to my favorite Sufi story. As the story goes, one day a righteous man saw Moses passing and called out, "Moses, when you talk with God ask Him if I'm going to heaven or to hell." And Moses replied, "Okay."
As it happens, a drunk who was wandering nearby overheard the conversation and found it extremely funny. So, while struggling to stand upright and make himself intelligible over his own laughter, the drunk called out with a badly slurred voice, "Hey Moses, when you see God, you ask Him for me... ask Him for me if... if I'm going to heaven or to hell. Okay Moses? Okay? You ask Him that for me, Moses. Okay?" The righteous man was visibly disgusted at the drunk's foul, slobbering and irreverent behavior. But Moses simply responded, "Okay," and continued on his way.
When Moses was returning from his talk with God, he found the righteous man and the drunk in the same vicinity again. Moses spoke first to the righteous man: "God said you will go to heaven because of your righteousness." The righteous man nodded and said, "Yes, that is as it should be, because I always do the right thing."
Then Moses told the drunk, "I mentioned your name to God and He said that you will go to hell because you are a drunk." On hearing this, the drunk stopped laughing and asked Moses quite soberly, "God knows my name?"
"Of course," Moses responded. But the drunk didn't hear. He just wandered off repeating to himself: "God knows who I am." The thought so overcame him that he actually forgot about drinking.
The story continues that much later, Moses died and went to heaven only to be surprised to see the drunk walking around there. Then on a hunch, Moses glanced over the side of heaven, and sure enough, he saw the righteous man way down in hell, roasting like a marshmallow at a Girl Scout cookout.
So Moses went to God and asked if there had been some mistake. God responded, "No" and explained that the righteous man was so content with his own righteousness that his smugness condemned him. God further explained that the drunk, on the other hand, had so much love in his heart that he became deserving of God's mercy.
So Which is Which?
This brings us to the subject of the drunkenness of international trade, which is actually a very old topic. For those wondering how the two are related in light of the story of Moses, I pray you read on with the moral of the story in mind.
Many of us were taught in elementary school about the purchase of Manhattan Island, now the home of New York City. Evidently Dutch traders bought the island from American natives for about $24 worth of beads and trinkets. We were taught as youngsters that the traders had made a great deal. We were not taught the inconsistency of claiming to buy land from people who, for the most part, believed either that individuals couldn't own it or that the land belonged to everyone. We were also not taught that nowadays anybody with a decent lawyer could probably get such a deal thrown out of court and have the "purchasers" prosecuted for embezzlement.
In terms of our story, however, we have to ask, who was the real drunk? Was it the unwary native, the ruthless capitalist or we that was drunk? After all, didn't we swallow the trader's version of the story like hungry little fish, "hook, line and sinker" without even asking a few obvious questions? Actually the last part of my question is a little unfair. When I was in school, kids who were astute enough to challenge the Dutch traders were labeled as smart alecks and troublemakers. The teacher would call the cavalry in on them, and I never remember any of the kids actually winning those battles.
Now that we've become adults, however, it may be time to ask some of those obvious questions, as U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) has done by proposing the HOPE for Africa Act of 1999 (HR 772). The act seeks "to overcome a nearly 400 year legacy of unregulated business, investment and trade that gave us slavery, colonialism and widespread human and economic exploitation," according Jackson who introduced the legislation earlier this year. The word HOPE in the Jackson bill is actually an acronym for "Human Rights, Opportunity, Partnership and Empowerment as the basis for a new respectful and mutually beneficial human and economic relationship."
HR 772 was drafted in response to the African Growth and Development Act of 1998 (HR 434), which seeks to open up trade barriers but may be no more beneficial to the indigenous societies of African than was the Dutch purchase of Manhattan.
HR 772 raises obvious questions, such as, "How can some of the economically poorest people in Sub-Saharan Africa benefit from free trade legislation when they are already burdened by $230 billion in debt that, excluding South Africa, consumes 20% of their export earnings?" Beads and trinkets anyone?
So HR 772 offers unconditional debt relief, along with numerous other provisions to safeguard the self-determination, health and environment of people in sub-Saharan Africa. Since it's introduction in February, HR 772 has garnered 73 congressional sponsors, five more than HR 443 gathered during the years that it has been in the making, according to George Seymore, Jackson's legislative director. Yet the progressive HR 772 is meeting resistance from the powerful republican legislators who control congressional committees.
And from their standpoint it's a case of "Why shouldn't the righteous among us protest that people need to pay their debts?" But in truth these people are more self-righteous than righteous. After all, the really righteous among us are sure to remember the creation story in the Bible. You know; humankind was given stewardship, not ownership, of the Earth. And of course the role of a steward would be to employ his charge in service of his fellow creatures as opposed to subjugation of them. Get my drift? Or am I just talking like a drunk?
Ibn Musa directs the Imagine Peace Project at http://www.imaginepeace.org.
Copyright 1999 Ibn Musa