February 5, 2017 Click on the left end of the black bar to play/pause
February 5, 2017
Fr. George Smiga
It happened about a year ago in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Asma Jami was having dinner with her family in an Applebee’s restaurant. Asma was born in Africa but immigrated to the United States. She was a Muslim, and she was wearing the traditional Muslim headpiece. She was laughing and teasing her children in Swahili, which was the language of her birth. Another woman present in the restaurant was growing upset that there was a group speaking Swahili in Applebee’s. She stood up and went over to Asma’s table and said, “Why don’t you people speak English or get out of this country?” Asma explained that she was an American citizen, that all of her children had been born in this country, and that all of them did speak English, but when they were relating to one another as a family, they preferred to use their native Swahili. Before she could finish, the woman picked up a beer mug and slammed it into Asma’s face. It took 17 stitches to close the wounds, and she still bears scars from that attack.
As reprehensible as this action is, all of us understand how it happened. People allow prejudices to settle in their hearts and then fuel them with anger. As the anger grows, it can eventually boil over into violence. As much as we see the horror of this kind of a situation, we understand it. We say, “That’s just the way the world is.” What is not the way of the world is the way Asma responded to this attack.
At first, she thought of relocating her family, but in time decided to remain in Coon Rapids. Just recently, at the trial which sentenced the woman who attacked her, she asked the judge if she could speak. This is what she said to the woman who had struck her: “My religion as a Muslim tells me to forgive others, and so I want to take this opportunity to publicly say I forgive you. I know that holding hatred towards another person only eats away at your soul and does you no good. And my hope is that one day you will come to see that it doesn’t matter what I wear on my head, what color my skin is, what language that I speak, because we are both American citizens. I love this country as much as you do. I want you to know that you struck out at someone of whom you knew nothing. My prayer is that someday you will see that we are the same: fellow Americans sharing this great country together.” Those words of Asma Jami are words that do not fit into the accepted practices of our society. In a society that all too often allows anger to fuel more anger, allows hatred to grow, allows violence to beget more violence, Asma’s words were words of understanding and forgiveness.
Jesus calls us to a similar kind of action in today’s gospel when he tells us that we are the salt of the earth. Salt has a distinctive flavor, and Jesus is telling us that as his disciples we can’t simply taste like everyone else. Our flavor must be distinctive so that we can season the world and change its dynamics. We know that being followers of Jesus means that we have to follow his teachings. And oftentimes his teachings run counter to what is expected and popular. When we run into someone who demeans other people because of their race or their religion, we must be the person that speaks up and says, “I don’t accept that. What you’re saying is neither true nor right.” When we encounter people who think that violence is the solution, we have to be people who propose, “Let’s look for another solution.” When people cling on to hurt and hatred, we have to be bold enough to say, “The way forward is by mercy and forgiveness.”
To be the salt of the earth we must have a distinctive taste, because if salt loses its flavor, then we lose our purpose. Now, of course, there is no guarantee that people will understand or accept our beliefs or our convictions. But that is not what Jesus asks us to do. Jesus understands that the only one that can change anyone’s mind is that person him or herself. What we are called to be is to be salt of the earth, to season our environment with Jesus’ teaching so that the world tastes different than it tasted before.