Nearly twenty percent of all national news coverage for the week of September 6 – 12 was devoted to controversies over the proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan and the anti-Muslim sentiment it has aroused. The economy and midterm elections received seventeen and twelve percent, respectively, according to the News Coverage Index by the Pew Center. The ninth anniversary of September 11th has come and gone, along with its dueling protest rallies and the threat of Koran-burning services. I’d guess that the level of attendant controversy and commentary, which had been building steadily for the past two months, will slowly start to decline, but one never knows.
Our church meets in a public school, which sits about the same distance from the World Trade Center site as the proposed “downtown mosque.” The building we use each week for worship colors my view of this whole episode: we’re currently awaiting a ruling from the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, deciding whether we’ll be permitted to stay in our current location or be forced to find another venue. If the New York City Board of Education has their way, churches will be barred from using school property for worship services altogether, displacing some one-hundred or so congregations.
That’s why it was hard not to cheer when the Mayor spoke so eloquently at the beginning of August about the importance of government impartiality toward religious groups. I hope the principles of neutrality he extolled with respect to the mosque will also win the day with respect to churches in school buildings. True, the facts of the two scenarios are importantly different, but the basic question is shared: will we allow a group’s religious affiliation to disqualify it from privileges to which a secular group would have access? I hope the answer is always and unreservedly “No,” which is why it’s difficult for me, as a religious American, to see how a forced relocation of the proposed mosque could be anything but a bad thing.
But I am not, primarily, a religious American. I am primarily a Christian. The principal battle I am interested in is not that of religion versus secularism, but of light versus darkness, of Christ versus sin, falsehood, and bondage. The issues of religious freedom and tolerance take a second position in my heart to this greater struggle. Paul urged Timothy to pray for the civil authorities only that we might peacefully be about our business of doing God’s work. America is arguably unmatched in providing such a peaceful, hospitable environment, due in no small part to the prayers of Christians following Paul’s advice. We should continue to pray; religious freedom is better than religious persecution. But the church marches on under persecution, too. Freedom helps, and is worth fighting for, but is not The end in itself. It should not become a matter of ultimate concern.
Throughout the mosque controversy, I was struck by how similar the responses of Christian leaders sounded to the statements by leaders of other religions, or leaders of no religion at all. Some parroted the right, and others parroted the left; some sided with religious freedom, and others with sensitivity to the surviving families; some answered as generic religious Americans, and others as Americans, plain and simple. But who answered as a Christian? I kept wondering whether the Gospel should make any difference.
One man was confused. He believed allegiance to Christ should mean opposition to spirits or systems of thought that themselves oppose Christ – not an absurd notion – but he also believed that this opposition should take the form of book burning and hateful speech. He did not abandon his plans until half the world knew of them. In the aftermath, the media turned introspective, asking whether they had inadvertently been responsible for the whole mess. But I couldn’t help feeling like another group was to blame: us Christians.
The mainstream Christian response to Rev. Terry Jones, the man behind the plan to burn the Koran, may help explain why someone like Jones would have found an audience to begin with.
When asked about him, other Christians expressed nothing but disgust and shock, and offered nothing but condemnation. In other words, their responses, once again, did not differ in any important respect from the responses being offered by non-Christians. We gave the false impression that we were in full agreement with the rest of Western society: radical, fundamentalist religion is the real enemy, peace is the real goal, and tolerance is the real path. A group of religious leaders, which included evangelicals, offered this statement during a Washington news conference: “We are appalled by such disrespect for a sacred text that for centuries has shaped many of the great cultures of our world.”
But does this sacred text glorify Christ, or denigrate him? Of course, the Koran should not be burned – that assertion is obvious to the point of not requiring a defense. But won’t the Koran-burners of the world always fill the vacuum left when Christians speak with total disregard for the supremacy of Jesus? If Christians speak on behalf and in defense of the Koran – if they seem to suggest that the honor and continued prosperity of “the great cultures of our world” is our greatest concern – then who is left to speak on behalf of Christ?
We’ve become so afraid of guilt by association that we compromise our own witness. If Terry Jones says, “Jesus is Lord above all others,” we shrink from being caught saying the same thing, lest the culture think we’re one of the bad guys. These days it’s only lunatics and jihadists who are willing to seriously claim that they know the truth to which all other peoples and all other cultures should center upon. Yet the psalmist said, “For great is the Lord (Yahweh), and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” And Paul was confident that in the end, every knee would bow to one man.
The difference between Christians and jihadists should not be the courage of our convictions, but rather our methods, which are dictated by substantive differences in our message. The world sees radical religious belief in all its forms as the great evil, and peace as the only good. It supposes that the content of the belief is almost totally irrelevant – “so long as we make sure no one believes anything too sincerely, we’ll be fine.” But Christians see radical faith as the world’s only hope, and violence as something that will and must be suffered to advance it. True followers of Christ differ from jihadists in that while we will suffer violence, we will not perpetrate it.
We should make much of this difference, not because it makes us more palatable to our peace-loving culture, but because it is directly linked to the nature of the God we worship. We should make much of this difference because it underscores the truth that the content of a faith – and not just the fervor with which is it held – actually matters. It is this difference – a willingness to die but not to kill – that should make the world scratch its head in confusion: “Well, this is not tepid religious moderation, but neither is it fundamentalism or religious imperialism. So what is this?” Christians are called to chart a new, third way – a different approach that is only rational if one assumes the death and resurrection of Jesus. We must cut a clear path that resembles neither side, but that makes both sides perk up and take notice.
The debate over the downtown mosque could be summarized in various ways, but here’s one: there are two camps of opinion--some labeled the mosque’s leaders as neighbors and others labeled them as enemies. Those who saw them as neighbors advocated for tolerance, understanding, and golden-rule sympathy; those who saw them as enemies took offense and became protective.
Christians lined up with everyone else on one side or the other. If they joined the “neighbors” camp, they mentioned that Jesus himself had taught the love of one’s neighbor as oneself and had defined neighbor broadly. If Christians joined the “enemies” camp, they actually made little mention of Jesus at all.
But where was the third camp for followers of Jesus’ unique message? Why couldn’t we see this neighbors/enemies dichotomy for what it was: a fat pitch down the middle of the plate – the perfect opportunity for modeling the sort of third way that the Gospel makes possible? Yes, Jesus affirmed love of one’s neighbor, but this hardly makes him unique. I’ve always cringed when this teaching is presented as one of the central tenants of Christian ethics. Loving your neighbor as you love yourself is only a foundation upon which to build a more radical (and distinctly Christian) ethical structure.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes clear that the commandment to love one’s neighbor is only as useful as the prohibitions against murder, adultery, divorce without due process, oath-breaking, and excessive retributive justice. It’s not that these commandments aren’t binding – “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law” – but that they aren’t sufficient. They don’t go far enough. Of the six commandments that Jesus improves upon in Matthew 5, he comes to love of neighbor last: “You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In other words, don’t just love your neighbor as you love yourself, but love your enemy as you love your neighbor.
This higher commandment comes with a very specific rationale: How else are you going to stick out? The whole point of adhering to the commandment is to make others scratch their heads in confusion -- to look different and call attention to oneself, not on the basis of one’s virtue or common sense, but on the basis of one’s likeness to God. For it is God who, flaunting our sense of justice, sends rain and sunshine on good and bad alike. In emulation, we should blindly love exactly the wrong people. This is the perfection that Jesus calls us to – this perfect impartiality modeled after our heavenly Father. After all, who’s going to notice you if you only love your friends? Even money-hungry crooks do that.
Had this principle and rationale formed our response to the downtown mosque controversy, a true third way could have emerged. In the debate over whether the Muslim community center was good or evil – the work of neighbors or enemies -- only Christians could say, “We don’t really care; we’ll welcome them the same either way.”
The absurdity of such a statement is its chief asset. The paradox it embodies – the Gospel tension – is what rescues it from sliding into the camp of the “loving,” who don’t have the courage to admit that Islam is a potential enemy of the Gospel, or of the “courageous,” who have forgotten that loving the enemy is as important as confronting him. What if Christians were both the most outspoken about the problems of Islam, and the most supportive of the downtown mosque? What if they were both the most willing to oppose Islamic teaching, and the most willing to treat Muslims as friends?
If Christians had provided such a response, the perspective of someone like Terry Jones would have been preempted. There would have been no void for him to fill. Instead, we missed our chance, and split along the same lines as everyone else did. I’ve been placing the blame on “Christian leaders” generally, but now might be a good time for me to include myself. As the pastor of a downtown church, I had the opportunity to offer exactly the sort of response I’ve been describing. But when the papers came knocking, I ducked, not knowing what to say. An opportunity to practice the strange ethic of the Gospel was lost. I pray that other opportunities will come -- to me and to all of us -- perhaps even on this issue. And I pray that next time, we won’t squander them.
Note: Lower Manhattan Community Church meets Sunday, 11am at PS 89 201 Warren St (at West St). For more information see lowermanhattanchurch.com. We have asked religious leaders with congregations or church affiliates near Ground Zero to respond to Mayor Bloomberg's speeches on religion and religious freedom in the city and the mosque controversies. OpEds do not necessarily reflect the views of A Journey .