This Saturday, we commemorate the ninth anniversary of 9/11. It is with pain and sadness that we remember the day the towers fell, the Pentagon was attacked, and another plane full of passengers crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after brave citizens stopped the terrorists from hitting their target. For nine years the anguish of lost loved ones and the feeling of vulnerability we all felt as terrible acts of violence were perpetrated on our soil have stuck with us all.
At this time, it is also appropriate to ask, What have we learned? How have we grown as a country? How have we healed, or how have we, in our hurt, turned around and hurt others? These are not either/or questions. We have, in fact, done both: healed and wounded, learned and regressed, grown and shrunk back from the challenges before us. The challenges before us today lie in our ability to move forward in healing and building the cause of peace while remembering the lessons and lives lost in the past.
But rather than showing that we have grown in understanding, this anniversary has been marred by two events that show how the extremes can still control the discourse, both in America and around the world.
First, there has been near-universal condemnation of the Quran burning planned for this Saturday by Terry Jones and his Florida church. Opposition has come from Muslims, Christians, Jews; Republicans and Democrats; civilians, politicians (including the president), and generals.
What Jones doesn't seem to understand is that the message he is really sending is a sacrilegious slap in the face of Jesus Christ. If Jones and his followers go through with their plans to burn the Quran, they might as well burn some Bibles too, because they are already destroying the teachings of Jesus. Jesus called his followers to be peacemakers, and to love not only their neighbors, but also their enemies; instead Jones and his church have decided to become agents of conflict and division. Jones needs someone to tell him that Americans should not judge all Muslims by the actions of a small group of terrorists -- and I hope somebody tells Muslims around the world not to judge Christians, or all of America, by the actions of a radical fringe like the members of Dove World Outreach Center.
But just as the proclaimed faith of the terrorists bears no resemblance to the faith of most Muslims, the actions of Jones and his followers bear no resemblance to the faith of most Christians. Jones knows that his actions are legally protected, but if he follows through he should know that he makes a mockery of the teachings of Jesus and even puts our country and U.S. troops in danger.
If you are a pastor, especially an evangelical or charismatic pastor who might have a way to connect with Terry Jones, please contact him and tell him you are praying that he won't do this. If you are a Christian (and especially those who are members of a church in the Gainesville, Florida, area), please look into some of the other events that are being planned that day. Use this as an opportunity to be a prayerful presence for peace, love, and reconciliation -- for Jesus' sake. And send a message to the world about what our faith is truly about.
Second, an issue that many people are much more mixed about: Will building an Islamic community center within two blocks of Ground Zero help bring healing? Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who had the vision for the center, is a good friend I have known for many years. I've had the pleasure of working beside him in building bridges between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. His heart and commitment to the work of reconciliation between people of different faiths and backgrounds has always shone through in everything that Feisal and his wife, Daisy Khan, do. They are genuine peacemakers, and I know this controversy about their dream of a community center pains them deeply. I do not doubt for a second that every action they have taken toward building this Islamic community center has been with peace and reconciliation in mind.
When the story first broke in The New York Times this past December, it was met with little interest. The fact that a moderate Muslim leader, who had lived and worked in the community of lower Manhattan for 25 years, was planning to build a community center was not considered controversial. Unfortunately, there were those who saw this as a political opportunity to create conflict and division and stir up ideological passions by distorting Imam Feisal's mission and purpose. He told the nation last night that if he had ever imagined that his plans would cause this much hurt and distress, he never would have proposed building the center at that location.
I do not believe the center of the debate is merely the community center's proximity to Ground Zero. Across the country, the building (and even existence) of mosques is being protested, others mosques are being vandalized, alarming attacks on individual Muslims are occurring, and now, an obscure and marginal group in Florida is planning to burn the Quran in the name of their extreme brand of Christianity -- getting the pastor's face on the front page of USA Today.
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 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 about whether or not the country will embrace a Muslim who seeks peace and wants to help rebuild lower Manhattan or reject him because of his religious beliefs.
This is a test of our character; and we dare not fail it.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com.