As an Evangelical pastor in the Lower East Side of Manhattan I’ve received several calls to give my opinion about the building project called Park51 Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York. I have resisted responding for several reasons, not least of which is that emotions are understandably running high given the sensitive nature of this public debate. The truth is that many people are conflicted about how they should respond. A Fox News poll showed that while 61 percent of Americans believe that center has a constitutional right to build near Ground Zero, 64 percent believe it is not appropriate to do so. The challenge is that people are struggling with two sensitive issues: the free establishment of religion; and sensitivity and empathy for those family members of victims of the 9/11 attack that oppose the building of the center.
Of course, this needs much more unpacking and I will attempt to provide some responses as a pastor who has had to answer that question over a 100 times this week, “Pastor, what do you think about the building of the Islamic center down here?” I know that when people ask me that question they also are asking what do you think is the Christian or biblical response. I have no easy answers to these tough questions but I will reflect on the principles that lead me to my position. Principles that I hope reflect both prophetic and Socratic questions that will show us a way forward.
My concern has always been that any commentary instead of being understood as an attempt to practice the injunction in Isaiah to, “Come, let us reason together,” would be misquoted, misinterpreted, or used in ways that would add further combustible to an already heated debate. This week, my colleague Tony Carnes, challenged me by saying, “I have found thatmany Christians around the city are sort of waiting for their leaders to take some leadership on what to do.” That settled it for me. I needed to respond. I don’t propose to have all or even most of the answers to this complex and delicate national dialogue. What I am doing is openly reflecting on how I have approached the debate as a follower of Jesus. My reflection is more an open letter to reason together in ways that I hope will provide a profound Christian witness in this great city and beyond.
I will begin with an attempt at full-disclosure so that readers know my points of entry into this dialogue. I am a Nazarene pastor in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. On September 11, 2001 I lived in Manhattan and like many I was shocked and deeply saddened when I heard about the news of planes crashing into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Stonycreek, Pennsylvania. My wife saw the second plane crash into the WTC from a window at work in the upper West Side (an experience that still produces tears). My cousin, Wanda, was one of the people who narrowly escaped from the WTC site. In addition, I worked as a volunteer near St. Paul’s church adjacent to the WTC providing support to fire department and other volunteers for 3 days in the days immediately following 9/11.
Still, my most important point of entry is that of a Christian interested in emulating Jesus in word and deed. As a Christian pastor I believe that we should give a reasoned account, whenever possible, of why we do what we do and how that is reflective of Christian ethics and discipleship. I also clearly understand that Christians and all good people can respectfully disagree on a course of action and appropriate responses to any given issue.
With this in mind I will highlight some of the principles and commitments (not an exhaustive list) that have informed my position on the Park 51 debate:
#1: Love is a Christian commandment. We must love our God, our neighbors, and even those with whom we disagree. This is the most radical of Christian commitments. Loving others is one of the hardest things to do, particularly with people whom you disagree. In this situation, we are called to love the family members of the victims of 9/11 and also love those who wish to build a mosque near Ground Zero. The Gospel calls us to love them all. As the Christian hymn says, “They shall know we are Christians by our love, by our love…” Jesus in Matthew 5 challenges us to an extravagant love that is a witness to the world. Jesus observed, “If you love only those who love you, what reward will you get?” This extravagant love is what Martin Luther King, Jr showed to those who opposed him, the love that Corey Ten Boom showed to those who persecuted her family during the Nazi rule over the Netherlands, the love that Christ showed to all.
#2: If possible, get all the facts. As Christians one of our commitments is to seek the truth. We should not transact in rumor, innuendo, or bearing false witness. If we are not sure if a statement is true we should not promulgate or repeat it. Spreading falsehoods may contribute to divisive rhetoric that is not in the spirit of the ministry of reconciliation. We should all practice due diligence in our fact checking before we comment on any issue. This means really sorting through news, blogs, and any other commentary with a search for what is true.
#3: Disagree respectfully and engage in civil dialogue: As this debate around Park 51 has ratcheted up on the national scene this has been one of my major concerns. Labeling and demonizing has been the modus operandi of many. As Christians, we are called to transcend labels of liberal and conservative, Democrat, Republican, or Independent and lead with love and truth. As Christians our primary allegiance is to the way of Jesus and the Gospel and we should not succumb to rhetorical demonization that does not reflect Christ’s love for all.
#4 Resist labeling: We should be careful not to conflate the 9/11 attacks and attackers with all followers of Islam. At the same time, we should be careful not to label everyone who is opposed to the building of the center as Islamophobic. In any Christian contribution to the public sphere around sensitive and delicate issues we should eschew facile labeling that does not seek to bring clarity, justice, and reconciliation on any given subject. This is a hard task as often in public discourse heat replaces light. While heat has its place we should not ignore light.
# 5: Seek the highest good: St. Augustine, and several ethicists from the times of Plato, wrote that when deliberating about an ethical decision one ought to seek the summa bonum—the highest good. While people can disagree what the highest good is in this case, few would argue that we ought to seek that which is the highest good, true, and of virtue… (Phil 2). The highest good asks questions about what are our values, commitments, and what makes us who we are as followers of Jesus Christ.
#5: Respect for Freedom of Religion and the right to petition grievances: The United States is a Democratic Republic founded on a Constitution. The first amendment of the Constitution simultaneously assures freedom of speech, the free exercise of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition grievances. As people of faith we should value these freedoms for ourselves and others. Any attempt to not allow these free exercises can be a slippery slope that in the future may affect and impact Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, etc. More importantly, as Christians, we do not sanction the privation of people’s freedom to practice their faith as long as it does not violate the freedom of their neighbor. The first amendment ensures both the right for assembly and the right to petition grievances, so we as Christians can do such activities as long as they consistent with the Gospel.
#6: What is good is not always determined by majorities: Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America wrote concerning the danger of public opinion turning into a tyranny of the majority, “I think that liberty is endangered when this power is checked by no obstacles which may retard its course, and force it to moderate its own vehemence.” What Christians have done historically is reflect on how their opinions are consistent with the teachings of Jesus, Scripture, reason, and the best of Christian tradition. Our ethical deliberations should always be sifted through the lens of our faith.
Having these principles and several others in mind here’s what I have decided. No one disagrees that the leaders of the Park 51 project have a Constitutional right to build an Islamic Center and mosque near Ground Zero. Moreover, I recognize this may be a source of pain and sorrow for many of the families who lost loved ones on 9/11. My task is to act pastorally and as a comforting presence toward those families and respect their pain and right to disagree with the Park 51 mosque and Islamic center.
Nevertheless, as a follower of Jesus I must also ask that we, for the sake of truth, distinguish between the Park 51 project and the heinous acts of the terrorists who acted on 9/11. Moreover, even if a Christian does not agree with the location of the mosque he or she must disagree in a respectful way in the public sphere. As a pastor in Lower Manhattan I will engage all my neighbors with love and respect, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheists, agnostics, etc., for the sake of Christ.
Christians have an opportunity to be a sincere prophetic witness during this national debate concerning the Park 51 project. As an Evangelical pastoring in Lower Manhattan I am hopeful that we will not sink into a name-calling free for all. Rather, what I am hopeful for is that we reason together in ways that bring healing and reconciliation to our great city. We can agree to disagree but what we cannot do is refuse to love throughout. Our response to this issue will either show the world that the reign of God shows a different way or we can continue to rehearse arguments and methods informed by broken systems that do not produce healing for our cities and the world.
For me, it is not about a comparative analysis of practices of other countries, whether or not they would allow for the same religious freedom. Our model is not those practices but God’s love. It is not about political posturing, but being Christ’s people in the midst of a national controversy. Being Christ’s people is not about being popular or unpopular but making decisions based on the Gospel and love of Jesus Christ. Admittedly, all of Christ’s people will not agree on what is best to do. Still my pastoral counsel is in the age-old axiom, “In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.”
Rev. Gabriel Salguero and his wife, Jeanette, are the Senior Pastors of the multicultural The Lamb’s Church. He also serves as the Director of the Hispanic Leadership Program at Princeton Theological Seminary and on the boards of the Latino Leadership Circle, Sojourners, and Evangelicals for Social Action.
Rev. Salguero was honored by El Diario/ La Prensa with the “El Award” as one of the 25 most influential Latinos in New York. Charisma Magazine named him one of the 20 voices of the new generation of Christians. He has written extensively on immigration reform, public policy, ethics and race, and multicultural and indigenous leadership. He serves as a panelist for The Washington Post’s OnFaith blog.