After going forth to bless a brother and coming home with my tail between my legs, I realized that I failed to prepare myself in the power and momentum of faith. The duties of brotherhood may rise unpredictably, and our inner obstacles to faithfulness may rise higher and more quickly.
How often do we walk with persons whose needs are great and likely to become much greater? Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas described all human beings as having both infinite dignity and bottomless need. When we go forth to serve in a community of the needy, we may fear the demands that may be made upon us verbally or by implication.
The standard philosophical reply is to distinguish duty from what goes “above and beyond the call of duty.” Often social custom functions to define duty from what goes above and beyond duty.
But there is a challenge to this answer. I heard Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell tell his story of a harrowing ambush by Taliban fighters in which his three comrades were killed; he survived thanks to the extraordinarily resourceful, brave, and merciful generosity of the Muslim villagers in this remote area of Afghanistan. Luttrell’s story is memorialized in the book and film, Lone Survivor. Here is the book summary from amazon.com.
Four US Navy SEALS departed one clear night in early July 2005 for the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border for a reconnaissance mission. Their task was to document the activity of an al Qaeda leader rumored to be very close to Bin Laden with a small army in a Taliban stronghold. Five days later, only one of those Navy SEALS made it out alive.
This is the story of the only survivor of Operation Redwing, SEAL fire team leader Marcus Luttrell, and the extraordinary firefight that led to the largest loss of life in American Navy SEAL history. His squadmates fought valiantly beside him until he was the only one left alive, blasted by an RPG into a place where his pursuers could not find him. Over the next four days, terribly injured and presumed dead, Luttrell crawled for miles through the mountains and was taken in by sympathetic villagers who risked their lives to keep him safe from surrounding Taliban warriors.
This story made sense to me in the light of a book that I had read just a few weeks earlier. Here is the amazon.com summary of the other book.
Besa is a code of honor deeply rooted in Albanian culture and incorporated in the faith of Albanian Muslims. It dictates a moral behavior so absolute that non adherence brings shame and dishonor on oneself and one’s family. Simply stated, it demands that one take responsibility for the lives of others in their time of need. In Albania and Kosovo, Muslims sheltered, at grave risk to themselves and their families, not only the Jews of their cities and villages, but thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis from other European countries.
Over a five-year period, photographer Norman H. Gershman sought out, photographed, and collected these powerful and moving stories of heroism in “Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II”. The book reveals a hidden period in history, slowly emerging after the fall of an isolationist communist regime, and shows the compassionate side of ordinary people in saving Jews. They acted within their true Muslim faith.
Gersham’s memorable book consists of photos of individuals, couples, and families whom he interviewed, accompanied by brief statements they made in explanation of their service. Besa is a code of honor among a group of Shi’ite Muslims. They sought no recognition and would take no money from those they sheltered. Here are some quotations from their statements (I could not help myself from typing out almost all my notes.)
Beqir Qoghja: “My father owned a general store with food provisions. It was the only store of its kind for many miles around. One day a German transport rolled by with 19 Albanian prisoners on their way to hard labor, and one Jew who was to be shot. My father spoke excellent German and invited the Nazis into his store and offered them food and wine. He plied them with wine until they became drunk. Meanwhile he hid a note in a piece of melon and gave it to the young Jew. It instructed him to jump out and flee into the words to a designated place. The Nazis were furious over the escape, but my father claimed innocence. They brought my father into the village and lined him up against a wall to extract information about where the Jew was hiding. Four times they put a gun to his head. They came back and threated to burn the village down if my father didn’t confess. My father held out, and they finally left.”
Lime Balla: “All of us villagers were Muslims. We were sheltering God’s children under our Besa.”
The Prime Minister of Albania at that time was Medi Frasheri, a member of the Bektashi (from the Shia). He gave a secret order to his group: “All Jewish children will sleep with your children, all will eat the same food, all will live as one family.”
Nadire Proseku: “We saw the Jews as brothers. As religious but liberal Muslims, we were only doing our duty. Now my grandson is an evangelical Christian. This is fine with my son and me. There is only one God.”
Xhevnt Domi and Sami Domi: “We were ages ten and three when we sheltered Jews. Our parents were devout Muslims. They never saw any division among Muslims, Christians, and Jews.”
Orhan Frasheri: “For eighteen months we all lived as brothers and participated in all the celebrations, both Muslim and Jewish.”
Isak Kormaku: “It is in the Koran that in the name of God we help all humans.”
Higmete Zyma: “Why hide a Jew? We just did it. It was the thing to do.”
Petrit Kika: “We are secular Muslims. We were never afraid. It was both a great pleasure and an honor to shelter the Jews. We were old friends. It is our tradition.”
Mehmet Yshref Frasheri. “All through the Nazi years were never afraid to save lives. We lived with the Koran’s teaching to take care of the other.”
Nazlie Alla: “As Muslims we welcomed them all. We welcomed them with bread, salt, and our hearts.”
Ismet Shpuza: “It seems strange to be asked why my father did what he did for this Jewish family. Besa is a tradition of the entire nation of Albania.”
Xhevdeti: “We sheltered the Adixhes family out of the goodness of our hearts. We are all brothers and proud of our heritage. If need be we would do it again.”
Sazan Hoxha: “My father’s words to those he took in. “Now we are one family. You won’t suffer any evil. My sons and I will defend you against peril at the cost of our lives.”
“All the people of Vlore participated in sheltering them. My daily prayer is a prayer of peace, friendship, and brotherhood. We lived day to day as one family.”
Kasein Jakup Kocerri: “All the Jewish families of Vlore survived. . . . The Germans massacred many partisans of Vlore, and some were deported to death camps. The Jews and Muslims of Albania are cousins. . . . I salute all the Jews. . . To save a life is to go to Paradise.”
Aferdita Gjergjani: “Sara and I were like sisters. . . . I didn’t have enough mild for my son—Sara nursed both. “It is an Albanian tradition that when the same woman feeds two babies, they become brother and sister. . . . I was once asked if I mind that a Jewish mother had fed my baby. I answered, ‘Jews are God’s people like us.’”
Mustafa Rezniqi: “It is written in the Koran to help those who need help. In our family we respected all religions. We respected our Jewish neighbors with friendship and humanism.”
Drita Veseli: When my husband was asked how it was possible that so many Albanians helped to hide Jews and protect them, he said, “There are no foreigners in Albania; there are only guests. . . . When asked about the possibility of Albanians reporting the presence of Jews to the Germans, my husband said that if an Albanian did this he would disgrace his village and his family. At a minimum his home would be destroyed and his family banished. . . . Our home is first God’s house, second our guest’s house, and third our family’s house.”
Agim Sinani: Why shelter Jews? “We had the biggest house in the village. Any villager would have done the same. . . . We did nothing special. We did what any Albanian would do. We are all human.”
Beqir Kazazi: “Without the Koran there is no Besa. Without Besa, there is no Koran.”
Agim Islam Trimi: We Shengjergj villagers have big hearts. Our village is a righteous Muslim village. We believe that to do good is to get good.”
Gfinovefa Ballo and Bajram Golemi: “The Bektashi sect of Islam is very liberal. We don’t believe in killing. If we find a spider in our house, we clean out the web but do not kill the spider.”
Hamid and Xhemal Veseli: “Four time the Albanians opened our doors: first to the Greeks during the famine of World War I, then to the Italian soldiers stranded in our country after their surrender to the Allies, then to the Jews during the German occupation, and most recently to the Albanian refugees fleeing the Serbs from Kosovo.”
Basri Hasan: “Before the war Mitrovica had eleven thousand inhabitants—Turks, Serbs, Jews, and Albanians. All citizens worked together and respected the individuality of all. My door is always open to anyone in need.”
Sejdi Sylejmani: “Our motivations were not religious. We respected our Jewish friends. They were honorable citizens just like us. Whatever we could do for them in those times, we did.”
After my failure to be a full brother to the person I had set out to help, I radiantly realized two things. First, faith calls me to be fully a brother, without specifying in advance safe limits on what that will mean. Secondly, my fear of an unreasonable demand being placed on me was totally groundless.
When I reflect on this group of inputs, it seems to me that brotherhood calls for courage, including the courage of martyrs. At that level, love is liberating.