In last Sunday’s New York Times reporter Habib Zahori wrote a front page article about a citizen of Kabul, Khwaja Naqib Ahmad, who buries pieces of suicide bombers and unclaimed bodies of their victims. Muslim custom requires burial of the dead within twenty-four hours, so Mr. Ahmad hastens to finish this onerous and thankless task. In winter when the roads are impassable and he cannot use a car for transport he lifts the bloody burdens across his shoulders, smearing his clothes with the scent of the dead. Five years he has born this distasteful duty. It is taking both a physical and psychic toll. He wants to be relieved, but no one is stepping forward. In fact, when word comes of another bombing, villagers make fun of him, telling him to make ready for more work.
Some would say that terrorists don’t deserve a proper burial. By their heinous disregard for the safety of innocents they behave so inhumanely that they forfeit any right to be treated humanely themselves. But Mr. Ahmad doesn’t see it that way. “I look at them as humans and treat their bodies with respect because I believe that they were full of hope and life when they were alive,” he declares; and continues, “Every single Muslim’s duty is to bury his Muslim brother, no matter how rich he is, poor he is, or what social status he comes from. To me, my job is important. I don’t care who I am burying. I see no difference between the addict or the bomber.”
Such radical compassion offends conventional morality.
In the early seventies I attended a sermon in the Duke University Chapel delivered by the Baptist minister, writer, and white civil rights activist, Will Campbell. In the early 60s Will risked his life in the deep south registering black voters. His text for the morning was Matthew 25:40 where Jesus taught his listeners through a parable that whenever they feed or clothe or shelter people in need, “even the least of these” (i.e.,Jesus’s outcast brothers and sisters), they feed, clothe, and shelter Jesus himself.
Will went on to say that preachers usually interpret “the least of these” as society’s dregs, the pitiful poor, the powerless and helpless, the almost invisible people. But these are not really “the least of these” contended Will, for in the pile of social rejects they are not at the very bottom. Below them are the grossly bad actors: the incorrigible criminals, the sociopaths, the very meanest of the mean.
Had Will stopped right there this interpretation would merely have been a new twist on an old verse, something interesting to ponder as one shakes the preacher’s hand on the way out, thanking him for a fine sermon. Will didn’t stop there, however. One of the really “least of these” in his own life, he continued, was an officer of the Klu Klux Klan who came to him for counsel on a family matter. Will didn’t turn him away, didn’t tell him to repent of his racism. He gave the counsel requested.
I didn’t shake Will’s hand that morning. I was too angry. As I saw it, he had consorted with the very enemy he had so long opposed. I could neither understand nor forgive this act, for it seemed a betrayal of justice. Surely, Will had carried compassion too far!
Christians sometimes boast that among religious teachers Jesus was unique, for he commanded loving one’s enemies. Reading about Mr. Ahmed burying pieces of suicide bombers confirmed an intuition that first dawned meekly upon me, then gradually took shape and conviction: that loving one’s enemies is not a uniquely Christian aspiration. Besides, whatever one’s spiritual practice, it’s damned hard to live by.