Peppers & Tomatoes

On Wednesday I seed-started our peppers and tomatoes. Every year when I do this, I listen to Ralph McTell’s song of the same name. It started back in Scotland when I was using growbags (because the Scottish climate is not friendly to tomatoes, so one must grow them indoors).

The bags say, “this soil is suitable for growing peppers and tomatoes” and Ralph McTell being the songwriting genius that he is, Kosovo being in full swing, and a very weary “same story different people” feeling pervading the general response to the violence, well, he wrote the song based on seeing those words on a growbag.

By now you know his song is not about planting peppers and tomatoes; it’s about growing hatred in carefully cultivated soil. The song spoke to me in large measure because at that time I was working with people who had entered the UK under difficult circumstances.

I ran a library group (as one does) for asylum seekers, most of whom were Middle Eastern Kurdish, African Christians, or Albanian Muslims. (Kurdish could bat for any religious team.)

During the course of an event, Mohiba, a Muslim refugee from Kosovo, and her daughter talked about their neighbors, the rising tension, the dropped comments of “you can buy gold but we are buying guns” and other hints of what was going to happen. Just because you can see something coming doesn’t mean you can get out of its way, Mohiba said. It takes money and strategy to get out of the way fast enough to not get hurt.

But Mohiba had more to say: how the Jews ruined everything, how the One True Religion had saved her, how righteous warriors were avenging the deaths by dealing out deaths of their own. This was at a time when new mass graves were being found in Iraq, where regime violence outweighed (or intermingled with) religious and ethnic violence fairly often. Saddam’s disappeared enemies were being pulled out of unmarked pits.

Naziq, an Iraqi Muslim whose husband got targeted for being an English translator, had begun talking about this, through her daughter Fatima’s translation since Naziq didn’t speak English. She had been watching the coverage non-stop on the BBC—and Mohiba interrupted.

“It is a lie, false news from the Jews who own that network,” she said. Fatima did not translate for her mother, and we tried to direct the conversation to less hate, more healing. It felt a lot like herding snakes.

After the session was over, Fatima came up to me, rigid and livid. She said her mother had been going to tell the group that Naziq’s father, missing for four years, had been identified as one of the pit bodies. He had gone up against Saddam over his policy of separating families who had married across tribal identities, literally sending people to Iran overnight without their families knowing. Grandad paid for it with a bullet.

“It is not the work of anyone else. It is not for anyone else to say such things. And for someone who has endured such violence to say more violence will solve it….” She shook her head, wise beyond her teenage years. “We cannot have these conversations, even.”

Every year, I think about the friends I made then, and how Naziq and Mohiba’s daughters must have children of her own by now. I wonder what they teach their children. And I listen to Ralph McTell’s Peppers and Tomatoes.

The Split

Linda and I worked together in Los Angeles, helping street kids have a place to stay, feeding and chatting with homeless people, and generally being Christian between Santa Monica and Hollywood Boulevards.

We found each other online thirty years later and caught up; she’d married and had a daughter who plays the harp and presented her with grandchildren. I’d acquired a PhD, a husband, and a writing career. And our politics were oppositional; if she thought someone was a moral leader, I didn’t, and vice versa.

Participating together on a list of alumni from that ministry organization, Linda found other posters leaned heavily toward her point of view. While I’m sure Linda enjoyed the affirmation, she didn’t celebrate it or assert that majority creates morality. Instead, she and I discussed our thoughts—in front of people who kept interjecting attempted conversation-stoppers because our dialogue was “a waste of time.”

We started with the acceptance that we both wanted our lives to reflect God’s compassion, awesomeness, and desire to have personal relationships with every human on the planet—even them, where “them” equals anybody we mistrusted. If we both wanted the same thing, and both asked God every day to use us for that purpose, why we were on opposite sides of a political chasm where shouts from both sides included “evil,” “outside God’s will” and even “demonic” for the other team?

We came up with three plausible explanations:

  1. God doesn’t exist; we crafted God in our own image and use the concept to prop up our lifestyles. (Linda and I rejected this argument for many reasons I’m not going into here.)
  2. One of us is not praying hard enough, is deluded, or living in sin and can’t hear God (theology moment!) etc. (The list ran heavily to this, with me the delusional one.)
  3. All the good doesn’t rest on one side, despite what we may be thinking (or being told to think) these days. God is not endorsing a political party. Linda and I sorta agreed on this one, although she kept coming back to abortion, wondering, if a political party could be so out of God’s will in one area, could they be morally right in others? I thought the same about LGBTQ discrimination; denying others the right to exist remained ironically unexplored in both cases. Then we talked about Balaam’s donkey (if you don’t know, Google it and give yourself a fun story).

More and more, this is the awareness guiding when I pray and when I think—and those two things are sometimes indistinguishable, which might exacerbate what we’re talking about here. There is no political point of view that encompasses God’s will. God did not create political parties and does not expect everyone to come to The Truth of one political party. They are human arrangements, like the creation of time, that distract us from knowing God as God. I’m not saying don’t get involved in them, I’m saying that the first time you say “God endorses this party” as opposed to “this party’s position on issue X aligns with God’s will as stated in [Bible verse, and you better back it up with context]” you are getting led down a garden path that is more thorns than roses. Watch out for wolves, because guaranteed they are lurking in those unexplored woods to the side.

Linda and I still pray for each other.