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No culture has a monopoly on humanity at its best.

If you ask me what being a human means to me, two memories come to mind.

The first goes back to a journey to Asia in the spring of 1962. I was going to visit a friend I had known in university who was living with his family in the vicinity of Vellore in South India. On the bus from Madras I arrived in a town along the way, after sunset, with no reservations for the night.

Loaded with suitcases, I started looking for shelter. The streets were already deserted. All signs were in Tamil -- no English version, no Latin script. I might as well have been illiterate. I was about to lose heart when I saw a light beaming from a basement. Through the window, I could see some 20 young men attending a lecture, all eyes glued on their professor. The walls were covered with an unusual combination of pictures: Hindu gods side by side with Jesus, the Blessed Virgin and a few Christian saints.

Feeling reassured, I ventured to the doorway. I was wearing Western clerical dress. Upon seeing me, the teacher dismissed his students and came to me. He spoke English. He readily understood my situation. All hotels and inns were full. An important conference was taking place in town, he said.

He brought me to a kind of restaurant where I was served a tasty meal on a banana leaf. As I ate, I noticed him conversing at length with the manager. He then came back to tell me there was a bed for me upstairs.

At dawn the next morning, I left my little room to catch the bus and continue my journey. To my astonishment as I opened the door, I saw a man wrapped in a blanket sleeping on the veranda floor. I was careful not to wake him, realizing he had given up his place to the exhausted traveler that I was.

Beyond the differences of our religious and cultural worlds, I had been granted the privilege of a threefold hospitality, thanks to the kindness of the teacher, the inn's manager and an unknown guest in a small town of the Indian subcontinent. I never again met these three men, nor did I learn more about them, except that they were human in the full sense of the word.

My other recollection is more recent. It goes back to the 1990 casino crisis in Akwesasne. Akwesasne is a Mohawk reserve located on the shore of the St. Lawrence River and straddling the borders of New York state, Ontario and Quebec. The warriors were running seven casinos there, which attracted bus loads of gamblers from cities as far off as Pittsburgh, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

In order to stop this invasion, which wrecked life on the reserve, the Akwesasne population of traditional bent set up blockades at both ends of the village. The warriors retorted by sending the spiritual chief of the Mohawks, Sakokwenionkwas, an ultimatum. Should the blockades still be there at 8 o'clock the same evening, they would be torn down by force.

Sakokwenionkwas immediately called upon friendly groups beyond the reserve, including pacifists from Montreal, Ottawa and New York City. In response to this appeal, the Intercultural Institute of Montreal, represented by my colleague Robert Vachon and myself, decided to join in.

At sunset, Sakokwenionkwas performed the ritual of spreading sweetgrass ashes on the blockades. I then found myself with a party that was sent to the eastern end of the Akwesasne to the St. Regis River bridge.

At the appointed time, we saw two huge bulldozers coming toward us side by side. They stopped halfway over the bridge. It was the warriors with their AK-47s. The people present had moved forward, unarmed, led by young couples forming a human chain, singing "We Shall Overcome."

At that point a dialogue worthy of a Greek tragedy took place between the two parties. Addressing a clan mother who was probably a relative, a warrior said, "You had better let us pass. Aren't you afraid to die?"

"It's easy to kill me," was the answer, "but remember, I have five children, and you'll have to take care of them if I go."

This confrontation between brute force and moral strength lasted several long minutes, when suddenly a miracle happened. The huge machines were put in reverse and withdrew. This population, tragically divided between the supporters of gambling and the guardians of the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois Nations, had shown itself to be deeply human. The warriors responded to a cry from the heart of a mother.

These two life experiences confirmed my conviction that being human is not the monopoly of any one culture, different as it may be from mine. In Western languages, the word barbarian is synonymous with savage, with the consequence that the foreigner and the forest dweller are equated in the mind of the city-man (civis). In ancient Rome, the "barbarian" and the "savage" were kept beyond the borders of the empire.

But are, in reality, the "civilized" free from violence, cruelty and behaviors threatening to civilization? Who invented bacteriological warfare, nuclear arms, the "final solution" and so many other crimes against humanity? The human family will end up either accepting itself totally, or it will end up disappearing.

In this sense -- and insofar as they remain faithful to their original inspiration -- the great educators of humanity, the religious and cultural traditions, are still our best guarantee of survival, provided these traditions avoid the trap of those who want to turn them into war machines at the service of their personal crusades.

Holy Cross Fr. Jacques Langlais is the founder of the Intercultural Institute of Montreal, devoted to research and education in the field of cross-cultural relations. This essay is excerpted from What Does it Mean To Be Human?, a collection of responses from around the world. It is available from Circumstantial Productions at 914-358-3603.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 19, 1999
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