Friday, October 8, 2010

A truly Christian perspective on the "Ground Zero Mosque"

I have never posted the thoughts of another person on this blog, but this note from Miroslav Volf at the Yale Center on Faith and Culture is worth sharing widely:

Dear Friends: In recent months a heated debate has surrounded the plans to build an Islamic Center near Ground Zero. The threat of burning the Qur’an by Pastor Jones has added fuel to the fire. Now spirits have calmed down a bit, even if mutual suspicions are strong, and fronts have hardened. But a large question still remains: It is not merely about what ought to happen with the plans for the Park51 Islamic Center, but it is above all about how Muslims and Christians should relate to one another in similar situations in the future—whether they arise in the Western world or Muslim-majority countries.
The media has sought out Joseph Cumming, the Director of the Center’s Reconciliation Program, to give his expert opinion on the matter. This article is longer than our usual e-newsletter pieces in order to adequately address this complex issue. Please enjoy Joseph’s article, which suggests ways forward for Muslims and Christians with reference to wisdom from the Bible and Qur’an. -Miroslav

The Park51 Islamic Center near Ground Zero: Principles from Jesus
By Joseph Cumming, Director, Reconciliation Program

Secular pundits have debated endlessly the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero. Does Christian faith offer resources for thinking faithfully about this controversy? Here are a few:

False witness
Jesus says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Mt 19:18). We sometimes forget that this is one of the Ten Commandments alongside commandments against murder, stealing and adultery. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been accused of supporting terrorism and of other grave offenses. has documented how his words have been taken out of context, distorted, exaggerated or even fabricated.

Love vs. Fear
Scripture says, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1Jn 4:18). Love may not always tell others what they want, but it refuses to give in to fear. Much of the media storm surrounding Park51 has appealed not to our moral sensibilities, but to our fears. Christians must not allow fear to motivate moral decisions.

Do unto others…
Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31). If Christians want Muslims to defend religious liberty for Christians in Muslim-majority countries, then Jesus’ words mean we must speak up for Muslims’ liberty when they are in the minority. In the town of Bekasi, Indonesia a Christian congregation has long sought to build a church on land they own, but has been prevented by Muslims who said to the BBC, “The non-Muslims should understand the feeling of the Muslims here. We are the majority here.” In the meantime the congregation has held makeshift, open-air services on their property, but two Sundays ago their pastor was beaten and one elder was stabbed by Muslim assailants. Last Sunday police barred the Christians from holding their worship service. Christians who would like Muslims to speak up in defense of these Christians’ rights must themselves speak up for Muslims’ rights to build mosques and worship freely.

Someone may object that Ground Zero is hallowed ground and therefore different from Bekasi. Muslims respond that Park51 is two blocks away from Ground Zero, and that four blocks from Ground Zero is a mosque which predates the World Trade Center, and that 32 innocent Muslims died on 9/11. Jesus’ do-unto-others principle adds another dimension: if we would not want Muslims to ban, say, Iraqi Christians from building any churches in the entire Abu Ghraib neighborhood of Baghdad, because Christians committed atrocities there, then we should not deny peaceable Muslims the right to build an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan.

Some argue, “We’ll let them build a mosque there when they let us build a church in Mecca.” But immediately after enunciating his do-unto-others principle, Jesus added, “Do good, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:32-35). We must defend liberty for others whether or not they reciprocate. Christians should set a moral example for the world, not wait for others to lead.

Hate crimes
Last summer a dear American friend and colleague of mine was murdered by Al-Qa‘ida in North Africa because of his Christian faith. I was grateful to Muslim leaders who spoke out condemning this hate crime, and to the government, which erected a monument in his honor highlighting the biblical words “God is love.”

A few weeks ago a Muslim taxi driver in New York had his throat slashed by a college student who cursed him for being Muslim. News media paid only passing attention to this, as it was just one of numerous hate crimes against Muslims in the context of anti-Muslim rage over Park51. Jesus’ do-unto-others principle says that if I want Muslims to speak out against the murder of my friend, then I must speak out about hate crimes committed against Muslims.

“Do unto others” in reverse
Similar to Jesus’ do-unto-others principle, Islamic tradition reports that the Prophet Muhammad said, “None of you has truly believed until he loves for his neighbor what he loves for himself.” This means Imam Feisal and the Park51 team also need to imagine themselves in the shoes of their non-Muslim neighbors, and must be sensitive to the pain Muslims might feel if the situation were reversed.

Shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, some Christians wanted to erect a large cross in downtown Baghdad. They intended to communicate a message of love and reconciliation, but Iraqi Muslims perceived it as a message of militant conquest. I was among Christians who urged that this was not a sensitive or effective way to communicate a message of love. These Christians had a right to free expression, but this was not the wisest way to exercise that right.

Imam Feisal’s goal is to promote tolerance, interfaith understanding and healing. But reaction to Park51 has had the opposite effect, bringing out intolerance, and opening not-yet-healed wounds. The next time I speak with Imam Feisal, I will affirm strongly that he has a right to build his center just as planned, and that I will defend that right. But I will also suggest that he will accomplish his goal more effectively and sensitively if he voluntarily and uncoercedly considers revising his plan – perhaps moving it, perhaps giving it a more thoroughly interfaith character, or perhaps just consulting carefully with friendly Muslims, Christians, Jews and others about how this crisis might be defused. I am encouraged that he currently appears to be doing precisely that.

In the meantime, however, it is not the place of Christians to lecture Muslims about how they should live the Golden Rule. Jesus says we must “Do good, expecting nothing in return.” And Jesus’ words about logs and specks (Luke 6:41–42) suggest we must first defend Muslim fellow-citizens’ liberty, and only then will we “see clearly” to ask Muslims about their actions toward non-Muslims.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

World Famous Hot Beefs in Abbotsford

As we do more speaking on themes related to our book (aging, dementia, friendship and community), Susan and I are becoming practiced Low Budget Travel Warriors. Even if the organization sponsoring the conference is paying our expenses (which is not always the case), we are keenly aware that their budget is very tight. So we have learned the art of identifying the least expensive motel that is not absolutely revolting and finding an inexpensive place to eat that offers some flavor of the local community. Two weeks ago we had dinner at Polecat and Lace in Minocqua. Those who have never experienced a traditional Wisconsin supper club, particularly one located in the north woods, simply have no frame of reference by which to picture Polecat and Lace. In Wisconsin supper clubs, waitresses do not retire simply because they have turned 80; they continue to dish out walleye and broasted chicken with good cheer.

This week we did a full-day workshop at the Clark County Health Center located in Owen, Wisconsin. It is a lovely facility which, like many county nursing homes, was originally a working farm. The nearest motel was in Abbotsford, a city of 2,000 when all the motel rooms are full. The only restaurant in Abbotsford was closed, which is how we found ourselves dining at Duke’s Lanes, home of the “world famous hot beefs.” Duke’s beefs come in three forms: hot beef, hot beef with mashed potatoes, and a hot beef and mashed potato sandwich. So we sat at the bar, eating our hot beefs and watching a woman’s bowling league compete while chatting with Lisa, the bartender, about local demographics (as the rest of Wisconsin ages rapidly, Clark County is projected to remain relatively young, likely because of the large Amish and Hispanic populations).

We had opted to stay at the Rodeway Inn, because the only other option was an eight-room mom-and-pop motel that looked particularly grim. Rodeway’s business model seems to consist of purchasing failed motels and changing the signs; this one was a Sleep Inn that sat vacant for two years. When we checked in the computers were down, and a woman who appeared much older than our waitress at Polecat and Lace was down on her knees behind the counter. “Trying to fix it?” I asked. “Just praying that the guy who knows how to fix it will show up” she answered.

Our room had everything we consider essential: hot water, towels, free wi-fi and a passable bed. It was clean, always a relief, but even though the building was proudly proclaimed to be “smoke free,” the odor of ancient cigarettes wafted from the carpet and drapes. The light over the bed was wired to a motion sensor, so several times when I rolled over in the night the light came on; sometime around three we figured out how to override it. Not a bad night by our standards.

At 6:30 we went down to the breakfast room for weak coffee and raisin bran. I am not fond of motel breakfast rooms with their blaring televisions, preferring silence until I have had my first cup of coffee. There was only one other guest in the breakfast room. Unfortunately, he was a motivational speaker, the kind of man who opens his eyes when the alarm goes off and shouts “I’m going to make this a great day!” I tried to imagine who he was going to address in Abbotsford. A meat-packing plant? An Amish farm? The world is full of wonders.

Things went very well during our presentation at the Health Center. But my favorite moment was when a woman approached us to say “I saw you last night!” Strangers are noticed at Duke’s, and apparently there was much speculation among the bowlers about what we were doing there.

We do this public speaking because we are deeply committed to opening up new ways of thinking about aging and dementia. But the bonus for us is that we get to meet delightful people and experience interesting places we would never have chosen to visit otherwise. The people we meet tend to be kind and friendly, which replenishes our faith in human decency in this era of conflict and division. By the way: we took a pass on the hot beef and mashed potato sandwich, which proved a wise decision. Lunch at the Health Center was hot beef and potatoes.