Q & R: On the Manhattan Mosque (two queries)

1. A reader writes:

I am puzzled by your recent post “Why I Support the Mosque in Manhattan.” It seems strangely at odds with your attitudes expressed in “A Generous Orthodoxy”:

“I once saw a small, old synagogue in the shadow of a big, new church. A huge cross towered above the church entrance, which abutted the synagogue entrance. It pained me that the good Jewish people of that synagogue had to enter it under the sign of that huge cross every Sabbath, a symbol that has carried horrible associations for Jewish people. ‘Jesus wouldn’t have done that,’ I thought” (fn. 31, p. 78).

In your view, is the relevant difference that the mosque will be located further away from ground zero than the church to the synagogue in your example? But its not feet and inches that carry moral weight here, it’s the distressing impact on those who feel the offense. (New Yorkers have clearly expressed their feeling on the issue.) Or in your view, is it the respective religions that make the difference? It’s difficult to see, however, why the Christians of your example ought to be sensitive to the feelings of their neighbors (even when exercising a Constitutional right) but Muslims ought not do the same.
There are other distinctions you might draw, I suppose, to block the charge of inconsistency, but none seem very promising. Thus, I echo the closing thoughts of your post on the mosque: knowing that you respect reason and consistency, I think if you give it a second and prayerful thought, you couldn’t help but change your mind.

R: Thanks for your comment (and implied question). If I understand you correctly, you’re saying something like this:

In AGO, you argued for sensitivity to the feelings of others – in that case, Jews whose synagogue was next to a church. But this time, you aren’t being sensitive to the feelings of the 9-11 families in particular and New Yorkers in general. Isn’t that inconsistent?

I’ve thought about this a good bit, and I can see why you might think there’s inconsistency here. But here are some of the differences between the two situations as I see it.
1. In the current situation, we aren’t faced with a choice between sensitivity and insensitivity. We’re forced to choose between some degree of insensitivity to one group or another. If we “help” the Muslim community who wants to build a community center, we “hurt” some New Yorkers. If we “help” the New Yorkers who don’t like the idea of the mosque there, we “hurt” the Muslims who want to build the mosque.
2. Jewish people are a small minority in the US, and Christians are a large majority. Similarly, Muslims are a small minority in comparison to the non-Muslim citizens of New York. So making the non-Muslim citizens of New York analogous to the Jews in my AGO story doesn’t work.
3. My assumption is that those with the most power have a special responsibility to be concerned about the well-being of those with less power. That’s why I believe that the Christians in the first situation, and the non-Muslim citizens of New York in the second have an obligation to be concerned about the rights of the minority. Perhaps you disagree with this leaning of mine, but it’s central to my reasoning. (This flows, in my mind, from the Christian idea of servanthood: power is for service, not privilege.)
4. This does require insensitivity to some citizens of New York who oppose the building of the mosque. But I believe their opposition should not be supported, especially …
A. … if it is based on the belief that Muslims attacked New York on 9-11. It wasn’t Muslims in general: it was an extremist group called Al Queda. To hold all Muslims responsible would be like blaming all Christians for the actions of the KKK since the KKK used crosses and quoted the Bible to defend their white supremacist philosophy. This demonizing of all Muslims is deeply distressing – I’m not saying you’re doing so, but I’m hearing it a lot in the media.
B. … if it is part of a larger social phenomenon of xenophobia in general and Islamophobia in particular.* Sadly, I think we see many signs of these cousins of racism raising their heads in our culture these days, often camouflaged under legitimate concerns.
The analogy I would draw in this case would be to civil rights legislation when I was a boy. The majority of American citizens opposed desegregation, just as a majority supports stopping the mosque from being built. But because of the Constitution – and, for many people, because of their Christian faith – it seemed right to defend the rights of the minority even though it offended and even angered some of the majority.
Perhaps you will not find these differences “promising,” but I hope they at least clarify where I’m coming from.
* I might add that speaking personally, I’m concerned about the word “holy” being used to describe Ground Zero by many opponents of the mosque. (Not you, but it keeps coming up – “this is holy ground,” etc.) This sacralizing of victims of violence and sites of violence can too easily play into an ugly cycle of “holy violence” and holy war. I might also add that I think we should be supportive of religious groups like this one that seeks to demonstrate moderation and peacemaking rather than extremism and division, especially in times like these. But these factors aren’t necessary for my argument, so I only include them by the way.
2. Another reader writes …

Just for full-disclosure purposes we do not see eye-to-eye on many things and you have no obligation to oblige my request, but I wonder if you would possibly address a few more things with your recent Mosque in Manhattan post.
Basically this is the concern. If I read your post in a historical vacuum…especially regarding recent history…I would agree, possibly even whole-heartedly, with the conclusions you make in your post. In fact, even if I was fully aware of recent history but unaware of all the details of the event your referring to I could still support said conclusions…I mean…hey…what’s wrong with building a mosque in Manhattan? But I noticed one seemingly downplayed detail in your post…the mosque is to be built at ground-zero…the site of the worst extremist-Islamic terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Do you not think that there might be a more appropriate place to build an Islamic mosque? I find the dichotomy fascinating because the Christian church of America has been continually berated as to changing how the world perceives it…and not to do things that might stir up unnecessary controversy. For example…where was the concern when a memorial cross was stolen from the desert out west?
But…maybe you have a point. Do you think we could possibly build a big Christian Cathedral in Mecca (not really advocating that idea btw)? Or perhaps even on the Temple mount? Are not Christians (and other non-Islamic religions) oppressed throughout the middle-east?
I believe it might be this perspective…which is not in any way unbiblical, nor hateful or anti-Islam…that just possibly might drive Sarah Palin and others who shake their heads in disbelief at the lack of sensitivity to those who lost loved ones on 9/11.
Ok, that last sentence is more my perspective, I’m assuming you thought through these issues so I would love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for your questions.
If I understand your first question correctly, you’re saying, “You usually ask Christians to be careful about causing offense. But now you don’t seem to have a problem with Muslims causing offense. Aren’t you being inconsistent?”
First, if I were Muslim and wanted to build a mosque in Manhattan, I would want to communicate my plans as clearly as possible to minimize offense. (As I understand it, the Muslim group building the mosque has tried to do so over a long period of time in the local neighborhood – where, by the way, the imam has lived for many years. But some of their opponents recently managed to reframe the issue for the national media, creating the current national and global firestorm of controversy.) So even though I think needless offense should be avoided when possible, as I explained above, there are times when causing offense is unavoidable and even necessary – as, I would say, was the case in the civil rights movement, for example.
Second, as I explained in the previous response, I put the extra burden on the majority, not the minority. The Constitution is designed to protect the minority from what Francis Schaeffer used to call the potential “tyranny of the 51%.” Beyond that, if the majority is supposed to be Christian, I would expect Christians above all else to aspire to be generous and considerate to their vulnerable neighbors – but sadly, this often doesn’t seem to be the case.
Third, the response of many Americans is playing exactly into my concern: imagine how you would feel if a group of Christians wanted to build a church in Tehran, Baghdad, or Riyadh, and Muslims took to the streets to protest. It wouldn’t improve your affinity for them, would it? Similarly, imagine how it seems to Muslims around the world for Christians in particular but Americans in general to protest (and some of the signs I saw online were pretty ugly) against this mosque and even against Muslims in general.
You’re right: the Middle East – including Israel, by the way – isn’t a great place for religious freedom. So instead of mirroring religious intolerance, I would hope we could set an example of it, doing unto others not as they do to us, but as we wish they would do to us.
On that matter, I thought your choice of words was fascinating – about building “a big Christian Cathedral” on the temple mount or in Mecca. Two responses. First, Christianity is the world’s biggest religion, with the biggest share of the world’s wealth and weapons at its disposal. And the US is the world’s most heavily-armed and militarily-active nation, the last superpower standing. For Christians from the US to build a big cathedral in those places could only be taken as an act of colonization and intimidation – it wouldn’t simply be an expression of religious freedom. We can’t forget the responsibility that goes along with having a lot of power … sorry to sound like a broken record on this, but this is a big deal to me.
But in Manhattan, the Muslim community isn’t trying to build a symbol of colonization or intimidation. They’re trying to build a place of reconciliation and peace. (I have a good friend who is involved, so I’m not just relying on second-hand reports.) They’re trying to embody and model a different face and heart of Islam than that of the extremists.
So now imagine that Christians tried to build a beautiful center of reconciliation and peace in Jerusalem or Mecca, and then imagine that being protested. What message would this send to us Christians? What message are we sending by protesting this mosque?
Finally, on your linking of Ground Zero to two of holiest sites of their respective religions (Mecca and the Temple Mount) … what do you think about that? I’m not saying there shouldn’t be real respect paid to Ground Zero in light of what happened there, but isn’t it interesting that we seem to be making Ground Zero into a sacred place – with religious significance? What religion is it sacred to? Why – not just for what reason in the past, but for what purpose in the future? What might the downsides of that sacralization be? What might it tell us about our religious instincts? Both both of these questions have gotten me thinking about this … much to ponder.