Why I Support the Mosque in Manhattan

[This post was a guest blog at The Faith Divide yesterday.]
I don’t really like proof-texting – pulling a verse out of context to try to prove a point. I’m not even a big fan of the fact that the Bible is divided up into chapters and verses. It wasn’t always that way – our modern schema of chapters and verses is a relatively late addition to the Bible, having evolved since the 13th Century. Chapter-and-versification allows people to kidnap a quote out of its context in a longer narrative and apply it in potentially irresponsible and harmful ways, as if the Bible were a legal constitution and its verses were articles, sections, subsections, and amendments in a legal code.
But I’m about to engage in chapter-and-versing, consciously and intentionally – and with regard to context, because in this case, the ancient text applies powerfully to our own situation in America today. Consider Exodus 23:9:

“Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.”

The command was originally for ancient Jewish people. After a famine, they became refugees in Egypt and eventually were enslaved for generations by Pharoah’s regime. But according to the Bible, God isn’t on the side of the oppressors; God sides with the oppressed, and so God liberated them from slavery. God then led them through the wilderness and ultimately provided them a place to live. The oppressed became the blessed. (continued after the jump)

But being blessed by God gave them no excuse to oppress others, so they were commanded to never forget – never forget what it’s like to be oppressed, so you never become complicit in the oppression of others. The command is repeated often, and even strengthened, as in Leviticus 19:33-34:

When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.

You find a similar strengthening of the command in Deuteronomy (10:19):

[The LORD] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.

Lately I’ve been thinking about Exodus 23:9 and its companion verses in relation to the current controversy about a group of Muslim citizens – full American citizens in a democracy, not even aliens! – seeking to build a mosque in Manhattan. Among others, Sarah Palin has called for peace-loving Muslims to “refudiate” the mosque, calling it a provocation and saying that it stabs the hearts of people in the heartland. But I wonder if people in the heartland have forgotten that they are only a few generations away from ancestors who were also immigrants, who came to the United States in many cases to experience freedom of religion.
Shouldn’t it stab the hearts of caring Americans like you and me to imagine forbidding Muslims to experience the same freedom of religion in their new homeland that our own ancestors sought here in the past? Shouldn’t we remember how it feels to be seen as aliens, and shouldn’t we love our Muslim neighbors as ourselves, wanting the same religious freedom for them that we cherish?
That’s why I think it’s valid to bring Exodus 23:9 and its companion verses into the equation at times like these. We Christians – and Jews too – should enthusiastically support Muslims in their desire to build a center devoted to peaceful religion near the site of an atrocity committed in the name of violent religion. We are not called to mistreatment, prejudice, oppression, or even to mere tolerance – we are called to something far higher: to empathy, to generosity, to hospitality, and to love, fueled by empathy and memory. To violate those values should truly stab the heart of all Christians everywhere.
Knowing that Sarah Palin respects the Scriptures, I think if she gives it a second and prayerful thought, she couldn’t help but change her mind.