In Sunday school many many years ago, I learned the Beatitudes. And I think that my very favorite one has always been, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God." I wasn't exactly sure what it really meant to be a "peacemaker" other than that I shouldn't start fights on the playground, and while I think I might know better now, it's not easy. Peace is not just the absence of conflict. Jesus was talking about the Hebrew understanding of peace as "shalom," which means health and wholeness and reconciliation in our hearts and in our communities. It is not just the absence of conflict, but also the presence of well-being and compassion. Blessed are you who bring about shalom -- for you will be called children of God. It's no small feat to be a peacemaker, but I would venture that, for those of us who call ourselves Christians, there is no higher calling.
I've been thinking about this calling a great deal in terms of my Christian response to the controversy swirling around the proposal to build Cordoba House two blocks from Ground Zero. What does it mean for Christians to be peacemakers in this midst of this controversy? What would that look like?
Unfortunately, many of my Christian brothers and sisters who are opposing this construction, or the construction of other mosques or community centers in communities across the country, have not had much exposure to Islam or Muslims. Too many people's only conscious experience with Muslims is 9/11. And so their response comes from a place of anger and pain when they consider the thought of the construction of this building or any building that represents that faith. And while I think that is unfortunate and misdirected, it is understandable. But even, so how does Christ call us to be peacemakers in this context?
For American Muslims who are not extremists, who are devoutly observant and who want to be able to practice their faith in peace, backlash of this kind is similarly painful. It's not just people saying, "You can build your community center, but not here." In too many places now, "not here" has become "not anywhere." Protests have broken out in communities across the country where Muslim community centers and religious buildings have been proposed for construction. (The controversy surrounding Cordoba House is not an isolated incident.) There has been a serious case of NIMBY ("Not In My Back Yard") syndrome in many places throughout the U.S. since 9/11. Even those who agree that Muslims have the constitutional right to build houses of worship and community centers want them built "somewhere else." Again, how is Christ calling us to be peacemakers in the midst of this?
As someone who has Muslim friends with a devout faith, I want people to understand that it is not the religion, but a perversion of that religion that fueled terrorists on 9/11. But I know that for many it is difficult to distinguish between the two. The only Muslims that we usually hear about on the news are those who are terrorists, but they do not represent the Muslim faith, any more than Timothy McVeigh represents Christianity. However, I do believe that intentional interaction can lead to mutual understanding if both parties are willing to be in a true dialogue with one another. My friend Eboo Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core on the principle that through service and cooperation, youth of diverse faiths will form relationships that allow for understanding and appreciation of religious difference. I have other friends who have spent their entire careers in Christian ministry striving to achieve interfaith understanding, responding to Christ's call to be a peacemaker. This is difficult work, and its ability to come to fruition has been tested-never more so than in the past nine years.
The issue of whether or where to build the Cordoba House is not as black and white as the media would like it to make it out to be. Questions of whether this building should be allowed to be built are not the same as whether or not it should be built there, or where it should be built. With all my heart, I know that as an American I will stand up for religious freedom and freedom of assembly for people of all faiths, and so in my mind there is no question. The people of good will who desire to build Cordoba House should be able to build it. But I also understand the deep-seated pain and grief that many Americans feel about 9/11, emotions that unfortunately turn into anger toward Muslims. And that anger is particularly acute on this issue because of the close proximity of the proposed construction site to Ground Zero. And yet, we are called to be peacemakers.
Paul Tillich said that religions are beliefs that deal with "ultimate concerns." And while the pain of 9/11 is very real for so many, it should never become a religion in the sense Tillich describes. And at some level, we as a nation must move beyond our pain to healing and reconciliation. And I think that reconciliation and healing must come from being willing to open our hearts and our minds to our Muslim neighbors. It is my prayer that Christians all over this country would make a concerted effort to get to know the Muslims in their communities, or to learn about Islam's tenets and beliefs. Now, don't think for a minute that I am asking anyone to give up his or her faith or what that faith teaches. But maybe I am asking us all to remember and respond to Christ's call to be peacemakers, bridge-builders, shalom-bringers in communities that are not experiencing God's vision of shalom. Above all else, as Christians we are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And while loving our neighbors doesn't necessarily mean that we have to agree with them, it does mean that we need to seek to understand them, and acknowledge their pain. Unfortunately, on this issue, there is more than enough pain to go around.
Rev. Jennifer Kottler is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Sojourners. A long-time advocate for justice, Jennifer has served in advocacy ministry for more than eight years through her work at Protestants for the Common Good (Chicago, IL), the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, and the Chicago Jobs Council.