On Monday morning 22 June, Sheikh Ahmed Abdo, my team and I discussed submission and assertiveness with Lebanese Muslim teenage boys in Western Sydney, who were fasting as part of Ramadan.
Just before this month of fasting began, I joined a priest on a panel with Soner Coruhlu, another sheikh, who explained the spiritual side of fasting. He put fasting in the context of the inner struggle between the ego and emotions, on the one hand, and submission to God and following higher callings on the other.
In Western culture, we seem to value asserting oneself rather than submission. In Australian culture, we celebrate egalitarianism and irreverence.
At the same time, these boys, like everyone else, are expected to submit to the rule of law and the obligations of citizenship. We talked about the Magna Carta – how even governments must submit to the authority of the courts, and rule in a way that respects the rights of the people.
On the same Monday night, a Muslim man, a self-confessed “idiot at times”, asserted on national television, ABC programme Q&A, that the government “just justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIL”.
This has predictably caused outrage in the Australian media, and inflamed tensions. Living with people with diverse needs and standards, it is necessary to consider carefully how and when we either assert ourselves or yield to the will of others.
I have been thinking about the limits of a self-assertive approach. In the course of my work, I found myself confronted by a person who defied my guidance. He told a personal story, with a political reference, to a group of students in a context in which this was inappropriate. When I gently pointed out to him what I thought was his oversight, he asserted his own view and told me that the political aspect of his story was intentional.
The fact that I am a leader in the field of cross-cultural bridge-building, counted for nothing. Unfortunately, he saw no need to accept any guidance. In contrast to this, I shared an anecdote with the boys about how I submitted to the guidance of an Aboriginal elder, which, although hard at the time, I am very happy about after the fact.
In the current Torah readings, there is a strong message about submission. We read an extreme story promoting the virtue of “followership”: a man, named Korach, who refused to submit to the authority of Moses, was swallowed up by the earth as punishment.
We also read about a ritual involving the slaughter and burning of a red cow, as a means of purification, after contact with death. Death can be interpreted as symbolic – being completely disconnected from God. The ritual of the red cow is seen as a commandment without any rational explanation that we are forbidden to question.
An interesting question raised by one of the boys during the discussion, was whether it should still be considered as submission if one wants to submit. The sheikh and I both thought the answer is yes.
Submission is not about the self being absent, nor is it about being weak and just caving in or shutting down. Instead, we are called to submit mindfully. This is what happens in loving relationships between parents and children, and husbands and wives. The Torah points to broader applications of this gracious way of being.
There will be times when assertiveness is the correct stance. There are other times that call for some give and grace. A season for submission is an opportunity to highlight this.