Governmental, religious, and cultural leaders on all sides have already spoken, written, or tweeted about the proposed Islamic cultural center near the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. So when my friend Eboo Patel asked me to add my voice to the noise, I wasn't sure what new perspective I could offer.
An expert in constitutional law might see the Cordoba House controversy as a First Amendment issue and demand that the Muslim-Americans organizing the project be allowed to proceed without impediment. A politico might see the matter as an opportunity to score easy points with constituents (right or left) by supporting or denouncing the "Ground Zero mosque." And a member of the media might see the issue as a powder keg guaranteed to draw an audience and therefore pursue whatever means to keep the controversy alive. But I'm not a lawyer, a politician, or a journalist. I'm a pastor. And when I look at the matter it isn't the legal or political arguments that get my attention -- it's the fear.
Some with objections about the Cordoba House say it would be disrespectful to the 9/11 victim's families and stand as an insensitive reminder of the religious intolerance that motivated the attacks. Certainly no one wishes to add any burden to the unimaginable pain already carried by these families. And although I do not know the organizers of the Cordoba House, I trust they share this sentiment as numerous Muslims were among the innocent victims on 9/11.
But objections to the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan have gone far beyond sensitivity to victims' families. Some are saying the Cordoba House represents a "beachhead for Shariah" in the United States. In his article opposing the project, Newt Gingrich wrote, "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization." And a self-identified "Christian" website has been launched to fight the project. It calls upon other concerned Christians to take a "stand against evil" by donating to the site.
These examples, and there are many others, reveal how fear is being used to foment anger and political zealotry. Somehow we are to believe that the construction of a 15-story Islamic community center in New York City will be a tipping point leading to the decline of American civilization, the dissolution of Christian faith, and the reversal of hundreds of years of western legal precedent. Amid the panic, opponents of the Cordoba House might be shocked to discover that a mosque has been meeting in the same neighborhood, two blocks from the proposed Cordoba House and four blocks from Ground Zero, for the last 30 years. One wonders how our republic has survived? (Pardon my sarcasm, but sometimes humor is the best way to defuse irrational fears.)
Sadly, the fear-mongering demonstrated by some opponents of the Cordoba House has become commonplace in our partisan society. Fear has proven to be a very effective political tactic for both conservatives and liberals, and it's also a guaranteed way for Christian ministries and non-profit groups to grow their lists and fill their coffers. This is what concerns me most about the present controversy -- not the possibility of a Muslim community center near Ground Zero, but how many within my evangelical community are responding from the most un-Christian of motives: fear.
Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are some of the most familiar, beautiful, and radical ideas found in the Bible (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7). He calls his followers to give generously, put aside anger, vengeance, and greed, live without worry, and even love their enemies. Many read Jesus' instructions and admire their beauty but scoff at their impracticality. "In this world it makes no sense to love your enemies," is what I hear from Christians and non-Christians alike. And they are right. In a dangerous, chaotic, and threatening world where self-preservation is the highest goal, these teachings defy logic. This is why Henri Nouwen wrote, "Fear engenders fear. It never gives birth to love."
As long as we primarily view the world is a dangerous place, we will never find the power to obey Jesus' teachings. This is why he begins his Sermon on the Mount with a new vision of the world as a perfectly safe place for those who entrust themselves to Christ. He presents a world in which the poor, the forgotten, the mourning, and the meek are blessed by God, where death itself is overcome. Only when we see this as a God-with-us world in which our lives and wellbeing are eternally in his care can we abandon fear and answer, by faith, the dangerous and irrational call to love. Perhaps this is why one of the most common commands in the Bible is "do not be afraid." Fear, not doubt, is the great enemy of faith.
So when I see leaders, both political and religious, stoking the fears of Christians regarding the Cordoba House project, it strikes me as profoundly un-Christ-like. Despite their stated intentions, those seeking to inflate your fears about the presence of Islam in America are not inspiring you to be more Christian, but less. They are not leading us toward faith in Christ, but away from him. Because where the raging fires of fear and anger are fed, the inviting glow of Christ-centered faith and love cannot long endure. And such provocations are not leading us to love our Muslim neighbors as ourselves, but instead causing us to believe that our wellbeing necessitates their misfortune. And such "us versus them" conceptions are antithetical to everything Jesus taught and modeled. It is not Christian faith.
Rather than seeing the growing visibility of Islam in the United States, whether through the construction of the Cordoba House or any number of mosques around the country, as a threat to Christianity and reacting out of fear, we can choose to seize this as a new opportunity to reaffirm our trust in Jesus Christ, love our Muslim neighbors, and seek what is good for them as a true incarnation of Christian faith.
I do hope the organizers of the Cordoba House project will proceed with great sensitivity to the victims' families, and will seek to increase their efforts to communicate how the facility and the programming it contains will honor the memory and sacrifices of those lost on 9/11. And whether or not the Islamic community center is built near Ground Zero, I can offer my Christian sisters and brothers this good word: Be not afraid.
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