Forgiveness, Fear, and the Mosque at Ground Zero
I've become used to seeing images of protests on the news recently. While a few years ago these were displayed as sure signs of anti-American sentiments, they are now a mainstay on the nightly news. Hardly a day goes by without seeing some sign calling Obama a Muslim socialist or demanding that the government not take away Medicare in order to pay for socialized heath care. But it was seriously disturbing to see the images from New York City yesterday of the protest of the Muslim center going in two blocks from the site of Ground Zero. The planned center is being built in an old Burlington Coat Factory building and will include a fitness center, community meeting rooms, and a mosque. Basically it's the neighborhood YMCA with that weird contemporary church plant meeting in the yoga room on Saturday nights. But it's Muslim and therefore has drawn out the haters.
The organization Stop Islamization of America, a self-proclaimed human rights group, organized the protest on Sunday. This group's mission is to ensure the preservation of freedom of speech against Islamic supremacist intimidation and attempts to make the United States compliant with Shari'a [Islamic law]. After reading about this group and seeing some of the photos Samir Selmanovic posted from the event as he stood in solidarity with Muslims (including the one here), I couldn't help but reflect on the tendency in this country for us to fear and hate the other.
It is an odd balance, American's strike between forgiveness and hate. On one hand we become obsessed with stories of extreme forgiveness. The Amish women who chose to forgive and love the families of the man who killed their children so captured our attention the story was even turned into a movie. We prize such extreme acts of love almost to the point of fetishizing them, and yet when the offenders are too different from us we cling to our hatred. I remember listening to my grandfather's tales of World War II and first realizing this strange tension between forgiveness and prejudice. He fought on the German front as a naval officer, he was part of the D-Day invasion, ferried Patton across the Rhine River, and had his best friend blown away in the foxhole next to him. Year later, as a man of German descent himself, he had easily forgiven the Germans for the war and yet still spoke with extreme contempt about the Japanese. Forgiving those like us is easy; extending mercy to those who are other is where our fear often strangles our compassion.
This fear of the other prevents us from seeing the world clearly. Our belief in our own rightness clouds how we see the other. During my time at Wheaton College there was much debate about changing the school's mascot from that of Crusader. While it was eventually changed to the Wheaton Thunder, many people could not understand why there was any reason to change it at all. They thought it was preposterous that any person (especially Muslims and Jews) would be offended by the image or judge modern day Christians by the past actions of historical Crusaders. Yet, even in the church we daily judge Muslims by the actions of a few of its members. So while we applaud the Amish women for their acts of forgiveness, the fear and hatred sparked by the events of 9/11 still inform the average American's opinion of Muslims. So to the protesters, the building of a Muslim center and mosque so near the site of Ground Zero is just another act of violence -- a threat to American supremacy. There is no forgiveness of the terrorists and the grudge against them is extended to all Muslims.
I, like many of the Muslims involved, understand the need to tread carefully here. Even in working for peace and reconciliation one has to be aware of how one's actions might offend people who have been previously hurt. This is why Wheaton eventually did change its mascot, out of a desire to promote love and healing instead of reopening old wounds. But it is pure fear of the other that is sparking some to say just having Muslims near Ground Zero is offensive. It is heartbreaking knowing that many of the protesters are there claiming to represent Jesus while they scream their message of hate. This isn't just about protesting political ideas but a demonstration of our bondage to sin. The images of the protest hurt as they mock everything the faith I follow claims to uphold. As I wait to see how this current drama unfolds, I can't help but wonder what it will take for American Christians to move from just fetishizing forgiveness to actually letting mercy and compassion for all rule our hearts.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.