Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, July 24, 2006

A Kingly example for these times

In 1994, the late King Hussein of Jordan did something that should be not only remembered, but also honored and emulated. In these times when President Bush is described by his aides as "mourning the loss of every life" though he never goes to funerals, when Israeli and Hezbollah bombs are killing and maiming children left and right, when world leaders strut the world stage at the G-8 conference and lay wreaths for the dead but show little concern about the human suffering caused by their decisions, King Hussein's remarkable actions should be celebrated. A Muslim monarch behaved like a Christian, with notable results.

Here's the story, summarized from an article by reporter Joel Greenberg (New York Times, March 17, 1994):

When seven Israeli schoolgirls were shot dead by Jordanian soldiers, the King of Jordan made a pilgrimage. Accompanied by his own son and daughter, as well as then-Prime-Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he visited all seven families in their homes. He knelt next to mourners sitting on the floor in keeping with the Jewish custom of mourning. He said to one father, "I feel that I've lost a child." He spent time, lots of it. He said to a family, "I hope you will consider me a brother and a member of the family." One grieving father said that he saw tears in the king's eyes as he knelt on the rug beside him. Ruhama Cohen, mother of one of the slain girls, said that at first she did not want to receive the king's visit. Afterward, though, she said it had helped her cope with her loss. "He strengthened us," she said.

The reporter interviewed people on the streets of Beit Shemesh, a working-class Israeli town with a reputation for hard-line politics. He said that the king's "extraordinary act of conciliation seemed to strike a deep emotional chord." A store manager who watched televised images of the king's visit said, "It gave us a feeling that he cared about us." A secretary said she was moved to tears; "This is such a noble man. A special could see the sadness in his eyes." A young mother said, "I admire him, because no other king would come like that to express his sorrow. It's see that he wants peace."

The mother of one of the dead girls said, "He was very human, very warm. He held my hand very, very tight."

When Willy Brandt, chancellor of Germany, visited the Warsaw Ghetto after World War II, he fell to his knees. This apparently spontaneous act told the whole world that the German nation took responsibility for its guilt. It has been a long time since we have seen anything like that. Bill Clinton's brief, lip-biting public "apology" to the Rwandan people was not even remotely in the same class. If Henry Kissinger cares a fig for the lives of Salvadorans or Cambodians he has never owned up to it. Cindy Sheehan came to the White House with other family members of dead American soldiers not expecting what she found. If President Bush had known her son's name, if he had not acted bored and had not called her "mom," Ms. Sheehan would never have started her protest movement (not that he would have cared one way or the other)...

Most tellingly of all, the action of the late King of Jordan seems to me an image of the Incarnation. Kings are, of course, long since out of fashion; but the symbolism remains. Prime Ministers come and go, but the image of a king kneeling on the floor brings out something lying close to the heart of the human predicament. Here is one who has made himself vulnerable, like us; here is one who has "gotten down" with us; here is one who wishes to share our pain and help us bear it.

When will we see anything like this again?