"Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here." This was a statement made on August 3, 2010 by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg regarding the heated debate over whether a 13 story Islamic Cultural Center called The Cordoba House should be built two blocks north of the Ground Zero site.
Regardless of your position on the issue, the Landmarks Committee of New York City has unanimously decided to allow the construction of the Cordoba House. One PBS news report shows a woman in Nashville who protested the establishment of a Mosque in her city, which was located next to a baptist church saying, "They're just taking Christ out of everything. And you know with the mosque coming here and right next door to a baptist church, I'm afraid it's just gonna get worse."
On the one side, there are pleas for compassion, sympathy, and wisdom as they request the location be further away instead of within such close proximity to Ground Zero. Advocates for restricting construction say that this is at least polarizing and at worst smacks of a type of sacrilege near a "holy" or "sacred" gravesite for the 9/11 victims. But as one prominent Muslim American spokesperson, Nihad Awad, put it like this: "Emotion does not veto constitutional right." Furthermore, he "refudiates" in the words of Palin, being equated with muslim terrorists and insists that his religion is in direct opposition to that of the Terrorists.
No doubt this is a beautifully complex debate and there are many strains of the dispute worth having. There are many issues raised not least of which question the nature of tolerance, "sacred" ground, and religious freedom. However, I'd like to provoke some thoughts that I hope would be of some encouragement and challenge for those who profess to live under the Lordship and Reign of Jesus Messiah.
My initial reaction to the debate about the construction of this Cultural Center/Prayer Center/Mosque was ill. I just felt a sinking in my stomach and a degree of grief. I didn't lose anyone in the 9/11 attack, in fact I was flying to another country when it happened.
The following months after 9/11 I had a weird sense of identity. At the time I was trying to take on the cultural expressions, customs, and language of the Argentine nation and live open-handed with any markers of my U.S. nationality for the sake of punctuating the fact that my ultimate identity was that of the Far Country. What I mean is, I wanted to stand out because I lived in view of Jesus' authority, power, love, and kingdom, not because my clothes were baggy, and my Passport was of U.S. origin.
It was in the midst of that internal struggle that I felt thrown back into my own country- the United States. People were giving me free Cokes and hot dogs in the plaza near our house in sympathy of my nationality and what my country was suffering. Ironically, the same plaza would be filled with protesters against one such "Yankee" because of the U.S. role in the IMF's refusing to grant Argentina loan extensions to their government and consequently devaluing their peso by at least 300% in 2001.
Nevertheless, for the time I felt caught in between a deep sense of shock, grief, and even national pride. To my surprise I felt united to my own countrymen thousands of miles away and our family found ourselves praying more often for the U.S. and the advance of the good news of a loving and sovereign God through the tragedy. We were trying to make sense of it all like everyone else. Only, we were trying to look to the cross and the resurrection to wrestle with our own confusion and dismay.
I share all of that to say, that I'm not anti-U.S., and I am profoundly thankful that I was born and raised here. But, when I was "born-again" my place of origin changed; my identity was rooted in someone deeper than the Founding Fathers, my future and my past were all rolled into Jesus. Just as the act of baptism symbolizes death, resurrection, and new life, we as followers of Christ must continually renew our allegiance to the King in whom we have died, risen, and been given new life (Col.3:3). The construction of this Islamic Cultural Center is one such occasion for Christians to renew their vows, reconsider the ground of their identity, and their reasons to hope.
Are we first and foremost North Americans? Are we U.S. citizens before we're citizens of heaven, from whom we await a Savior (not a president of our political persuasion)? Maybe the construction and location of the Cordoba House is wrong. Maybe it's insensitive. Maybe it's not. Quite possibly, there are muslims who are in fact sincere adherents to a religion that they are convinced does not advocate physical violence as a means of propagation. Or in the worst case scenario the Cordoba House is being funded by Al Qaeda and it's all part of a global effort to bring all peoples under the rule and reign of Allah via Sharia law.
Whichever the case may be, Christians have the resources to maintain a poise and composure in this conversation, something completely lacking more often than not. Why the vitriol? Why the fear and rage? Why is the U.S. nation defended with the same zeal as the Kingdom of Heaven? I suspect that we fall prey to our own emotions before passing them through a filter of scripture.
I submit that we remember there was once a few generations of Christians or "little Christs" as they were titled who lived under the empire of Rome who advanced the cause of Christ in the context of antagonism not religious freedom. In the first century they spread so much influence through sacrifice, service, compassion, love, and purity that they shocked their persecutors and political contemporaries. They seemed to be spreading like wild fire without revolutionary action! On the contrary, the charge of revolution and violence was only thrown at them to cover the insanity of some rulers (see Nero).
We would do well to remember that the situation of the 1st century Christians is not all that different from that of the underground church in China. Has communism stopped the advance Jesus Kingdom there? Could ancient Rome? Will the Cordoba House? The answer is "No." I suggest that the power that will confront opposition to Jesus in any form must come by the same means Jesus used- the cross. Frankly it's easier to forget that Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow me (Luke 9:23)."
Our power is wielded through our willingness to take up a cross and die, knowing that our deaths have an inevitable and glorious resurrection. Hear me, I am all for the taking up of the rights of others- by all means, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Nevertheless, only when the taking up of our neighbors rights dovetails with the laying down of our own, will God's Kingdom "come on earth as it is in Heaven (Matt.6:10)."
The most often repeated command in scripture is "Do not fear." Therefore, when Jesus teaches us to pray "Your Kingdom come; your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven", we can be sure that if "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to (him)", we don't need to be angry or afraid when an Islamic Cultural Center goes up around the block- even if it's two blocks from Ground Zero.