The saying, "Shatter your ideals on the rock of truth," suggests that the line between idealism and idolatry may at times become imperceptibly thin. In this context, idols might be thought of as ideals that have lost their innocence that have become hard, dry and paradoxically ripe for shattering on the rock of truth. The saying also suggests the deep emotional and psychological pain of stumbling over a pair of unmistakably "clay feet" at the base of ones highest aspirations. Finally, the saying offers hope of finding even higher ideals than the old ones or ultimately of finding the truth itself.
To those of you who have read the previous two Imagine Peace columns and may be tired of U.S. Marine Corps war hero Smedley Butler and his book, War is a Racket, this column completes that discussion, for now. Semper Fidelis, my first column on this topic, describes a painting, Capture of Fort Riviere, Haiti, 1915, that hangs in the Marine Corps Art Collection in Washington, DC, and can be found online by searching on "Smedley Butler". The painting depicts Butler winning one of his two Congressional Medals of Honor along with two comrades. The three are fighting bravely with their backs to a stone wall in a jungle environment. Their guns are blazing against an unseen enemy: unseen except for the dead body of a shirtless and barefoot black soldier who lies beneath their feet.
The U.S. military veteran in me who plays some role in my triple heritage as an African-American Muslim, looks at this painting and sees his highest aspiration, "liberty and justice for all," in the dead Haitian: first in the Americas to throw off slavery only to be trampled by the boundless greed of Wall Street. The black soldiers rifle lies next to him. Unused ammunition is still strapped to his bare chest. Western technology did not set him free. And eight decades later, when the Haitian soldiers descendants fled on leaky and overcrowded boats from their impoverished and despotically ruled land to seek asylum in the affluent and free United States, they were turned back. The ideal has lost its innocence. It has shattered on the rock of truth.
The Muslim in my triple heritage is not happy either. My ideal of Islam as the most excellent code of noble, compassionate and courageous conduct was weakened by observing the same disappointing behavior among Muslims from the traditional Muslim world as among people in general. But I maintained my ideal by painting it as a modern Muslim. In the modern world, however, the heavily subsidized, high-tech, bellicose, expansionist and ethnocratic state of Israel stands as a crowing jewel of Western Judeo-Christian civilization. It also surprised me by emerging as the bedrock beneath the Abrahamic and monotheistic ideals and truths upon which my Islamic faith was built. Approaching half a century of serious devotion to a Judeo-Christian-Islamic ideal of faith, I seem to have stumbled upon the underlying problem (an apparent lack of true spirituality and freedom) at the core of my universal solution (God and country). Deeply ingrained ideals only succumb to very hard and persistent rocks. And when they go, it really hurts like a holocaust of the heart.
"We Africans also believe that we need healing at the hand of the white man. That is why our children leave us," the Shaman said. "You see, its the same world, the same house. When someone is sick, everyone is. Why should we remain passive while the white man searches the whole world for the means to save himself? We are together in this struggle. All our souls need rest in a safe home. All people must heal because we are all sick."
Such elegant truths for my ailing "church and state", from one whom both have long rejected, return us to an earlier column, Semper Fidelis, in which I named Muhammad Ali as my favorite among peace activists. In 1967, when Ali defied the military draft, he was a member of the Nation of Islam -- an organization that has been condemned for many years as "racist" by traditional Muslims, liberal Westerners and many African Americans, including myself. But in the midst of my shattered ideals, it became obvious that Elijah Muhammads Nation of Islam -- as has every religion and mythology throughout time -- gave its followers a set of enabling ideals and a spiritual cosmology that faithfully modeled their experience.
To those who argue there is no need for a Nation of Islam today, I respond quite honestly that there are many "nations of islam": Eastern, Western, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, and so on. And based on the behavior of their adherents, all of the unofficial "nations of islam" are at least as flawed as the African-American Nation of Islam that the others look down upon. As Somé points out, we all need healing. But dont look for me in line at the stadium to hear the next homegrown evangelist, honest politician or foreign holy person. Fresh ideals call for innocence, and mine seems to have been used up over the years. Cant seem to latch on to new ideals like I used to because the truth that my ideals can rise no higher than my behavior can hold them keeps getting in the way. Perhaps thats why the truth sets people free.