What we disagree about less important than how we disagree
President Obama, after saying that building a mosque at Ground Zero fit our "commitment to religious freedom," backtracked, saying he wasn't commenting on the 'wisdom' of building it so close to 'hallowed ground.'
A Fox News poll showed that while 61 percent of Americans believe that Cordoba House has a constitutional right to build near Ground Zero, 64 percent believe it is not appropriate to do so.
Does Obama's hedging show a lack of ethical convictions? Does Hamas' endorsement change the debate? What is behind public opposition to the site? Can you believe in religious freedom but not believe the mosque is appropriate?
America has reached a point where how we discuss the proposed mosque at Ground Zero and the Arizona immigration law is more important than the issues themselves. In our rush to policy solutions, let each of us strive to embody the best of our faiths and the best of America: that because of our principled pluralism we will treat each other with respect while naming and discussing our deepest of political and theological differences.
I am a Christian. I am a former Marine, the fourth of what will soon be eight Marines from my family to serve our country over two generations (five of whom served in Vietnam and Iraq).
I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that I should follow the teachings of Christ to love God and my neighbor. I believe that local and limited government--guided by such national principles as religious freedom and national security--is the best way to do the most good for the most people...that is, to love my neighbor and therefore God.
I'm the kind of guy who bought a second-hand Ford 150 King Ranch truck (from a Ford dealership) after I found out that the Ford Motor Company did not take any money from the government last year.
I have never thought of myself as white but I am nevertheless aware of the responsibility that comes from belonging to the ethnic majority that this country has had since its founding.
I am deeply troubled by the tone of the conversation surrounding the decision by local officials regarding the proposed mosque near ground zero (and other proposed mosques across our country) and the Arizona immigration law. Good people of conviction will have different opinions about these two issues. More important than these convictions, however, is the freedom to responsibly voice them in the first place.
Now we approach a point where we cannot talk about these issues even as the vitriol reduces those impacted most--Muslims and Hispanics--to dehumanized monoliths. As I watch media commentary about these issues, sometimes it feels like we are but moments away from rounding up Muslims and Hispanics and putting them in camps as we did the Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Last month I learned that a relative of mine had kept a Ku Klux Klan robe in his attic. He lived in a northern state in an area with few, if any, African-Americans. No one can remember him talking about or doing anything with the Klan. Yet, for a time, that robe hung in the closet.
The Klan was responsible for lynching thousands of African-Americans, a slow-drip terrorism that undoubtedly killed more than the attacks of 9/11. Rooted in a white-supremacist interpretation of Christian scripture, the Klan thrived, for a time, amidst the silent consent of folks like my relative.
Forgive us our sins, Father, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Using scripture to put down the minority is not new; in fact, it is an old technique used to put down Christ himself. Consider this example from the Gospel of John:
At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"
They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. [Jewish law required execution by stoning only if the woman was a virgin engaged to be married, and if there were witnesses; Roman law did not allow the Jews to practice capital punishment.]
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."
Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
"No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin." (John 8:3-11)
Three lessons stand out. First, it is a paradoxical part of human nature for majorities to experience minorities as a threat. Jesus was a minority himself, a threat to the majority religion, teaching something different in their backyard, the temple courts.
Second, the majority must be addressed before the minority, because the majority will manipulate the laws to control the minority. The Pharisees, representing the majority of believing Jews, manipulated religious law for their own political purpose. Jewish law required the killing of each adulterous party, man and woman; by stoning only if the woman was a betrothed virgin (Deuteronomy 22:22-24). Yet the man is not present nor is reference made to the woman's status. Jesus stood up and addressed the tyranny of the majority, eye-to-eye. Only after doing so, did he, the minority Messiah, address the minority woman.
Third, through Christ there is a third way. Jesus was seemingly stuck between Jewish and Roman law. If Jesus kept the latter--presumably because he did not want to die at the hand of the Romans--he would violate the former, which the Pharisees would use to build credibility among their majority followers. "Trapped" politically, Jesus acts spiritually and therefore practically. Because he did not condone or condemn any one, Jesus convicts everyone (while honoring both sets of laws).
This example is the most difficult to follow. Indeed, no one knew better than Martin Luther King Jr. that the "spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41). On August 28, 2010, America will celebrate the 47th anniversary of King's "I have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Like the Great Emancipator Lincoln--whose 13th Amendment (ending slavery) unfortunately required the 14th Amendment (defining citizenship) and the 15th (protecting minority voting rights) because the white majority was not ready to respect the black minority--King sought a system of laws that at least protected the minority: "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important."
King had every reason to hate but he did not, recognizing that "all men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality" and that "an individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."
And so King reminded his audience on that August day in 1963: do "not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline." Instead of returning hate with hate, he offered a third way that expected the law--rooted in the Judeo-Christian heritage that understood all human beings to be made in the image of God--to not only protect but promote the minority.
Indeed, the principled practicality of the Judeo-Christian command to love God and neighbor was acutely clear to King. "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality."
And that, it seems to me, is our present charge: to live out the practical principle to love our neighbor--no matter their beliefs or status--in a disciplined and determined manner that always respects the dignity of the other. What we disagree about is less important than how we do so.
So what now about the proposed mosque at ground zero and the Arizona immigration law?
First, I think we should be grateful. Local elected officials have made their decisions--decisions that have created a national debate. Despite the bad news of the vitriol now surrounding these two issues, the good news is that they are out of the attic and in the open. This condition is much better than a silent festering that would encourage hate and/or violent extremism.
Second, we must re-catalyze the national conversation with intentionality. We must ask--as Lincoln did in his first inaugural, mindful of the coming horror of Civil War if room could not be found for the minority--to be "touched...by the better angels of our nature."
(Of course, "if men were angels no government would be necessary," as Madison had forewarned in Federalist Paper #51. He thus foreshadowed Lincoln's decision to initiate war soon after his first inaugural and keep the union a whole place where minorities would eventually be celebrated and not just tolerated.)
I suggest CSPAN/new media-covered conferences on both issues that bring together those of the deepest differences with the mutual goal of respectful understanding. There would only be one rule: one cannot interrupt a presentation, question, or answer.
The conferences would have to be hosted by a third party in a place more removed than most from both issues. I propose Montana.
Montana has its own history of lessons learned between a majority (white/Caucasian) and minority culture (Native American Indian). Indeed, this year the University of Montana--built on lands taken from the Bitteroot Salish tribe in 1891--dedicated the Native American Center (the only one of its kind in the United States).
It was also the first state to send a woman--Jeannette Rankin--to Congress in 1917, three years before the 19th Amendment became law (allowing women to vote). A pacifist Republican, she voted against both world wars and helped to start the American Civil Liberties Union.
Montana is also home to Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. For almost 20 years, Mortenson has been building schools for Muslim girls in the mountainous border region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. There is no better demonstration of an ambassador for America's better angels than Greg.
Clearly Montana is a place not afraid to engage the world as it is, past and present, honoring common values and honest differences.
Why not a pair of televised conferences at the University of Montana's Native American Center, convened by Greg Mortenson?
It is a tall order to stoop low, waiting with convicted patience before addressing people eye-to-eye, reminding them with gentle firmness of their sin before calling them to a higher, disciplined, and dignified plane. Yet, this is the teaching of Christ, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. It is the best of America and we need it now.
Chris Seiple, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute for Global Engagement (www.globalengage.org).
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