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Niedner: Trouble even in Paradise

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: December 3, 2013 6:07AM



I live and work in a town named for Paradise. The word comes from the ancient Persian religion known as Zoroastrianism. It means “enclosed garden” and identified the place where certifiably good people dwell for eternity as a reward for their upright lives.

I don’t know that I have earned a spot in Paradise, but I do know for certain we celebrated one of the truly good guys in our town a couple of weeks ago. Trouble was, we had to do it in the course of burying him. Worse still, he was only 49, and we believed he had so much good left to do and to teach among us. The mayor of our town spoke for many, if not all of us, as we gave thanks for his life and calculated what we’d lost, when he called our friend and colleague a bridge-builder of inordinate degree, a man with a servant’s heart who helped make ours a more welcoming city.

Sad as we were, our community seemed like an outpost of Paradise that day.

Our town has other bridge-builders. Among them is a young woman who works for the university where I teach. She remembers everyone she’s ever met. Her infectious cheerfulness and beautiful, 1,000-watt smile leave you thinking, “Yes, we must be somewhere near Paradise. Here is a place I want to be.”

In the same week we said goodbye to our mayor’s running mate on the ticket of incurable optimism, vandals attacked the welcoming sign we collectively hold up. As our young staff woman walked along a campus sidewalk with a student, three young women in a late-model car pulled up next to them, shouted ugly epithets not repeatable in a newspaper, and hurled a projectile that narrowly missed the two startled pedestrians.

The ugliness of this gratuitous assault seems complicated, if not magnified, by the fact that superficially, its targets look somewhat different from most folks in town. The university staff member grew up in Africa and speaks several languages besides English, and the student hails from Asia. It’s hard to shake the suspicion that the perception of difference somehow triggered this outburst of loathing.

It’s also hard to imagine there are people with whom I live and work, and students in my classes, who would enjoy nothing more than spitting in the face of those who don’t look like them if they could do so without paying some personal price. Obviously, however, such individuals dwell among us.

I have long since quit trying to solve the mystery of why some build bridges while others make a sport of burning them. The ancient theological wisdom that shapes my view of the world says we are all sinners, a species that imagines evil of all kinds continually and from our youth. While we never succeed completely, some of us learn more effectively than others, perhaps, to tame the selfish narcissist who lives in each of us. And perhaps by the time one can drive a car through the streets spewing hatred at total strangers, it’s too late for additional lessons in humility and self-restraint.

If we can’t deter or retrain the vandals, how shall we respond? Bridge-builders will keep on building. It’s what they do. And welcomers will persist in welcoming. Ironically, they also welcome the unwelcoming. Again, it’s simply what they do, not unlike that ancient, open-armed bridge-builder, a young Jew tossed out of Paradise, the one with spit all over his face, who prayed, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”



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