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My Neighbor's Faith: A Test of Character

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In the fall of 2010, we saw a disturbing rise in religious intolerance in the U.S. From the much-politicized opposition to a proposed Muslim community center near Ground Zero in New York City to a fundamentalist pastor's threat to burn Qurans, a wave of Islamophobia appeared to be sweeping the country.

How should Christians respond? There are some key questions that get to the heart of the issue, and our answers say a lot about ourselves, our own faith and the collective character of our country.

The first question is this: Does our judgment of our neighbors come from their religious labels or the content of their character? I do not advocate a religious pluralism that blurs the significant differences between religions, but I do believe that my religious tradition calls me to be a peacemaker and to love my neighbors, especially when I do not agree with them. When Muslim leaders step up to lead an initiative to reduce tensions and promote understanding, do we judge them by the actions of terrorists (whom those leaders have condemned) or by their integrity and character? This does not mean we have to agree with them on everything, but rather that we're called to love and respect them.

The second question asks: Do we believe in freedom for my religion or freedom of religion? The "establishment" and "free exercise" clauses of the First Amendment were revolutionary statements. They represent ideals to which we aspire but have not always lived up to. Anti-Catholic sentiment, anti-Semitism, and other forms of religious bigotry have reared their ugly heads over and over in our history. But ultimately, many minority groups have flourished here because of our strong history of religious liberty. Whether we allow religious freedom for Americans of Islamic faith -- near Ground Zero or anywhere else -- will give evidence of our own character, the integrity of our faith and our real commitment to the ideals that have distinguished our nation.

Finally, we must ask a third question: In the face of global terrorism, who wins when the U.S. restricts religious freedom? Religious sensitivities, especially around Ground Zero, are understandable. Sept. 11 was a crime against humanity and, tragically, it was the first significant encounter many Americans had with radical Islam or Islam of any sort. But this is why the mission of the Manhattan community center is so important, as it plans to run programs that reduce tensions and build understanding. In order for our country to continue healing, more of us need to build trust with those who are different -- especially with the many Muslims who love this country. There are thousands of interfaith conversations, service projects and relationships that have been built since 9/11. These should be publicized and encouraged.

One good example is that of Heartsong Church in Cordova, Tenn., which -- in a rare departure from the cable networks' steady drumbeat of conflict -- was featured on CNN. In 2008, Heartsong's pastor, Steve Stone, learned that the Memphis Islamic Center had bought land adjacent to his church. Rather than protest the plans, he put up a large sign that said: "Heartsong Church Welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the Neighborhood." The Muslim leaders were floored. They had dared to hope only that their arrival would be ignored. It had not occurred to them that they might be welcomed.

When the Islamic Center's new building was under construction, its members used Heartsong Church for Ramadan prayer services. Heartsong's community barbecues now serve halal meat. Pastor Stone said the two congregations are planning joint efforts to feed the homeless and tutor local children.

Stone also told me that he got a call from a group of Muslims in a small town in Kashmir. They said they had been watching CNN when the segment on Heartsong Church aired. Afterward, one of the community's leaders said to those who were gathered, "God just spoke to us through this man." Another said, "How can we kill these people?" A third man went straight to the local Christian church and proceeded to clean it, inside and out.

Stone says he is just trying to love his neighbors, as he says Jesus instructs him to do. For their part, the residents of that small town in Kashmir told him: "We are now trying to be good neighbors, too. Tell your congregation we do not hate them, we love them, and for the rest of our lives we are going to take care of that little church."

This conflict is really about the role that faith will play in America. It is about whether or not we will accept Muslim Americans as true Americans or as second-class citizens. It is about whether we will blame millions of American Muslims and 1 billion Muslims worldwide for the actions of a small number of Muslims who try to use their brand of faith to murder innocent people. It is a test of our character, and we dare not fail it.

This column is an excerpt from 'My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.'