Why I Care About the Islamic Center in NYC

Lately I’ve been posting a lot of links to articles about the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero on my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I’ve decided to take a little break from doing that, not because my convictions have changed, but because I’m afraid that if I post too many people will quit reading the articles. In case you haven’t seen the links, let me state my position clearly (in a bold font): I am strongly in favor of allowing Muslims in the United States to build Islamic centers, mosques, and any other meeting spaces they want to have. Why? Why as a Christian would I support building structures that will be used for Muslim worship services? Why do I even care about this issue enough to keep posting links and arguing in the comments section?

1. I have always been very sensitive to oppression in any form.

It’s always been easy for me to identify with the the little guy who’s being bullied by the ones with the power. As a teenager, I read Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King Jr. and even though I was a white guy living in a predominately white small town in the South, I began to care about civil rights. I recently read about the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of the Europeans and was horrified by the blood I see on my own hands. I hear about Christians in China and Indonesia having to hide for fear of being killed and I hurt along with them as members of the same body.

And now I see Muslims in the United States – not terrorists, not supporters of terror, but peaceful Muslims who simply want to live their lives and practice their religion – being told by potbellied rednecks on TV that “our laws don’t apply to you.” I see victims of the terrorists in New York (many Muslims died that day too and all were profoundly wounded by the attacks) being told that they sponsored the very terrorists that stole their family members away. I see politicians and pundits attempting to deny Muslims one of the fundamental rights that our country was founded on – the right to practice your religion without government interference. I don’t care if you agree with the Muslims or not, but to deny them basic civil rights goes against everything our country stands for. It’s oppression of a minority group in what is supposed to be the most freedom loving country on earth and it’s wrong.

2. I can’t stand it when I see people use lies and fear to manipulate people’s emotions.

Muslims have become the new boogeyman in America, the people it’s socially acceptable to hate, and politicians and commentators have been quick to use this collective hatred to rally their supporters. They do this by lying and stirring up fear. The very name “Ground Zero Mosque” is an example of this tactic. There’s no mosque and it’s not being built at Ground Zero. Heck, when I first heard about the project I was against it and I think any rational person would be against building a mosque (or any worship center) in the hole left behind when the WTC fell. (Incidentally, there is a plan is to build something in that hole – a mall. Go capitalism!) So why do the opponents of this building call it the Ground Zero Mosque? Because it stirs up an immediate visceral emotional response and stirs up people’s fears of an imminent Muslim invasion.

Fear is a powerful emotion and people know how to use it to get the desired results. The guy who tells his girlfriend that he’s going to leave if she doesn’t have sex with him is using fear. Church-sponsored “judgment houses” at Halloween attempt to scare  people into a relationship with Jesus. Tea Party leaders say our nation is being taken away from us by socialists, communists, Muslims, etc. and if we don’t do something about it the hammer and sickle will be flown at the White House, the Constitution will be replaced by Sharia law, and we’ll all be forced to have computer chips implanted inside of us to buy or sell goods. Combine fear with lies and you can pretty much convince people of anything. People who oppose building mosques across the country regularly accuse the builders of supporting terrorists (even if they’ve publicly denounced terrorism and worked to fight against it). Supporters of these projects are called un-American, deluded, naive, insensitive, and a host of other names.

As a Tennessean, I’m particularly embarrassed by false statements that have been made by politicians in the primary elections. Ron Ramsey declared Islam “a cult,” while Lou Ann Zelenik said that a proposed Islamic center in Murfreesboro (the town I live in) would be a “terrorist training center.” I wasn’t aware that terrorist training centers had swimming pools and basketball courts. I guess even radicals need a little breaks from planning world domination. Thankfully both these politicians were voted down, but their statements still rile up their constituents and fuel the flames of fear against Muslims. If you have to resort to lies and manipulation to support your position, your position must be pretty shaky in the first place.

3. Most importantly, if we deny Muslims the right to practice their religion peacefully, we  act unlovingly  and drive people away from the Gospel.

As Christian, my first response to any person should be one of love. That includes people I disagree with. To act differently is to directly disobey what Jesus called the greatest commandment: love God and love people. To quote Dr. David Gushee,  Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University:

For those mainly conservative Christians who are responding to this and other mosque projects with open expressions of anti-Muslim hatred, and open rejections of the principles of religious liberty from which Christians themselves daily benefit, shame on you! As a fellow Christian, I say that you bring dishonor to the name of Jesus Christ, you directly disobey his command that we love our neighbors, and you drive the watching world even further away from any interest in the Gospel message!

As a Christian I benefit every day from the freedoms outlined in the Constitution. How can I deny others those same rights, even if I disagree with them? I truly believe that if we hope to win over the hearts of the Muslim people we must show love and understanding, and that means stopping the needless protests, the name-calling, and the generalizing that I see so much of. I hear pundits talking about remembering the feelings of the victims’ families, but we must also remember that on 9/11 many Muslims in that neighborhood also lost loved ones. Rather than acknowledging their pain and seeing that this center is part of their emotional healing, we instead lump them in with the very people who caused so much pain in the first place. We will only win people by showing love, not fighting.

If you’re interested, here are the links I’ve been posting about the issue:
The leader of proposed Muslim center near Ground Zero defends his plan
Controversy at Ground Zero
There Is Already a Mosque Less Than a Mile From Ground Zero
Why Building the Mosque is Good for America!
Islam has long history downtown
The Shameful Mosque Controversy
Olbermann: There Is No ‘Ground Zero Mosque’
“The Mosque at Ground Zero”

Your Two Cents: America’s Beginnings

This will be my last straight up political post for a while because like I said, I’m not a political person and I get tired of talking about it pretty quickly. But this question came up a couple months back when I sat down with some teenagers for coffee and discussion and I wasn’t sure how to answer. I alluded to it very briefly at the end of my last post, but I think it needs to be explored a little more. Here’s the question:

Were the American colonists morally justified in rebelling against England and fighting for independence?

Where in the Bible does it say that the people are free to overthrow governments they don’t like? John Locke said that the people should overthrow bad governments, but the Bible tells us to submit to the leaders as long as that submission doesn’t conflict with our duty to Christ. I’m not sure that having taxes we don’t like falls into that category. So what do you think? Can this be justified or were the colonists wrong to rebel?

What’s So Great About Capitalism?

“And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Acts 2:44-45

I’m not a politician. I’m not even a political person. Truth be told, laughing at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert is about the extent of my political involvement on a normal day. So as I bring this question up, I approach it as one seeking answers, not one arguing for a position. If you want to pick a fight about economic policy, you’re not going to get it from me. Feel free to fight amongst yourselves in the comments.

So here’s the question: I constantly hear church goers complain about the president and one of the major complaints I hear is that he is a “socialist.” They spit that last word out like it tastes bad. To hear them talk, with Obama in charge we’re just a few steps away from being Russia under Stalin. I overheard a conversation a few weeks back where both sides reminisced about the good old days where everyone knew who the bad guys were (communists and socialists.) The fact of the matter is that Obama’s no socialist and he’s not about to turn our country into a socialist nation, but even if he was, would that really make him a “bad guy”? Can we really frame this argument in moral terms so that socialism equals evil and capitalism equals good? And even more interesting for me, why is capitalism thought to be the automatic moral preference for Christians? Is a belief in capitalism inherently the more “Christian” or moral position?

Socialism seems to only be a dirty word in America. On the other side of the pond, many politicians proudly wear the title of “socialist” and run for office under socialist parties. They make no secret of their disdain for the free market. I know there are socialists in America, but as far as I know, most of them have to avoid that label is they want to get elected.

Jesus commands the church to care for the poor and says that the things we do to help the least among us are done unto him as well (Matthew 25:34-45). Jesus’ half brother James even says that taking care of widows and orphans is the mark of true religion (James 1:27). The early church shared everything they had, selling their possessions and distributing the money to those who had needs (Acts 2:44-45). Caring for the poor, helping those unable to help themselves, the redistribution of wealth… that sounds a lot like the things that socialists talk about. I realize that many Christians will respond that these verses deal with the actions and responsibilities of believers and churches, not governments. However, couldn’t a Christian be in favor of any work that supports the poor, both within the church and the government?

When people talk about not wanting to take their “hard earned money” and give it away to others, I hear argument like the one I found on this blog: “Capitalism rewards hard work, creativity, service, and (not so good) cunning.” The line of thinking seems to be that capitalism is great because it rewards hard work and creativity. It’s great because it encourages people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and make a living. Does capitalism hurt anybody? Only “the foolish, the lazy, the poor, the sick, and the ungifted.” In other words, if you don’t have money, it’s because you’re lazy or stupid and you did it to yourself. You made your bed, now sleep in it and don’t expect any help from anyone else. This is the Christian view? Not to mention the fact that in the desire to gain capital, people and businesses frequently use and exploit the “least of these” in order to get the most labor for the least money.

Socialism may have some major problems with the way it works out in real life implementation, but is capitalism really any better or more moral? Both fall under some shady gray area in some respects. I guess my problem isn’t with either view as much as it is with the idea that there is only one official “Christian” view on economic policy that all Jesus followers must hold. I have the feeling that even in the church this argument has more to do with party affiliations (and everyone knows real Christians are Republicans) than with biblical reasoning.

The fact of the matter is that the Bible doesn’t endorse any particular economic policy, political party, or even a system of government (How many leaders in the Bible became leaders by gaining a majority of the electoral votes?) Shouldn’t two Christians with different political views feel free to express those views without being seen as heretical or even “evil?” Isn’t it possible for churches to refrain from demonizing any minority views? People who hold these views often are afraid to speak up for fear of how the congregation will react.

Isn’t the church supposed to be more about freedom than fear?

Blogging, Self-Censoring, and Youth Ministry

Holy cow! Is Jody really posting a new blog? Yes, yes I am.

Inspired by my amazing wife’s new blog, I think I’m going to give this thing another shot. You see, I used to post fairly regularly but somewhere along the way something changed. My early blog posts were passionate manifestos about life and the church. I confessed to sins and struggles while challenging traditions and taboos for what a youth minister could write about publicly (a few examples here, here, here, here, and oh my goodness here.) What changed? Did I mellow out a little as I got older? Did I realize I was going nuts over stuff that didn’t really matter? Did I just get less cocky? Some, but that’s not the main reason my blog cooled down and eventually died.

I started going to a church where church members know how to use the internet.

At my last church, where the average member could tell you personal stories about WWI, I could post my thoughts and feelings in relative anonymity. Heck, I taught the pastor how to use email. No matter what I posted (“Sex is good!” “Obama might not be the devil!” “The church does stupid stuff sometimes!”), I didn’t have to worry about any repercussions. But once people in my church could actually read what I was writing, I got timid.

You see, as a youth minister, I’ve never really felt what you might call “job security.” From what I’ve seen and heard, youth ministers are apparently very fireable. I would hate for a blog post to be the reason I’m flipping burgers to feed my family. However…

I don’t think faking it is the right way to be a minister. I don’t think the way to do church is for me to simply be silent when I feel like I’m in the minority. I don’t feel like I can live up to my calling without be authentic.

So I’m going to start posting again, this time with freedom. I know people will read it and will probably disagree with me at times, but I pray that where we have differences, grace will abound. I preach about being the person that God designed you to be and not letting other people’s opinions be the main governing factor in your life… I think it’s time I lived up to that as well.

Classic Column Sunday: Hide Your Cheeseburgers! Here Come The Fat Police!

I thought that for a little change of pace on Sunday nights, I would start posting some of my old columns. I wrote a weekly column for the Expositor (Sparta’s local paper) called “Adolescent Attitudes” when I was a senior in high school and during my early years of college. I had a ton of fun with it, and I still have a lot of affection for these old pieces. I’m not sure that anyone can really call any of these “classics,” but since it’s my blog I can do whatever I want. If you read these columns the first time, you can relive the experience. If you’re a first time reader, well, I was an odd young man.

I’m not sure about all the legal stuff with copyright, so I’ll just clarify that I was the original author and these columns were originally published in the Sparta Expositor.

Here’s a little news item from the world of really, really stupid people. In an article in the Addictive Behaviors journal, Yale professor Kelly Brownell has recommended that a special tax be placed on fatty foods and that advertisements for these foods should be restricted. The advertising restrictions would include close examination of advertisements for non-food products to see if they promote unhealthy role models. Additionally, if Brownell’s proposal was to become policy, activities that promote good health would receive government subsidies, and those who participated in these behaviors would receive tax breaks.

This is the most terrifying thing I have ever heard.

First off, I would like to note that for the first time ever in this column, I’m actually doing a little bit of research before writing. Normally, I just write whatever the Column Fairy gives to me as I sleep (She’s been a bit lazy lately), but this time I actually looked up some articles on the internet and verified that I knew what I was talking about. I’m pretty proud of myself. But that’s enough patting myself on the back, on with the stupidity.

The reason why this worries me is because I don’t know if I like the idea of the government taking care of me and keeping me from getting fat. I firmly believe that the founding fathers, when writing the Constitution, had the intention of building a country where people can grow as many chins as they like without fear. This “we’re from the government and we’re here to help” type of policy seems to me to be like a the guy who comes up to you when you’re working out and tries to get you to work out more. I’m perfectly happy going about my life with a certain level of physical activity and a high quantity of junk food. I don’t need the government to tell me I should work out more; I already know that. However, if I choose to reduce my fat intake, I’d like it to be for the reasons everyone else does it – to impress other people and look pretty.

In modern society, people really don’t need to be extremely physically fit. What do most people do on a day-to-day basis that requires them to be in good shape? In ancient times you had to be fit to outrun the animals that were lurking around trying to eat them. That’s motivation! The only thing we need exercise for is so that we can do the exercises. We exercise with weights so that we can lift the weights. After lifting the weights, what do we earn? The right to lift more weights!

Proponents of this “fat tax” compare fatty foods to cigarettes because they say that both are harmful and are marketed knowing the harm they will cause. They call this food tax a “sin tax.” Let me now confess that as a college student, I am apparently the chief of sinners. I don’t know of a single food I eat that is not harmful to me in some way. I have become intimately acquainted with McDonald’s this past year, and everyone knows that eating at Mickey D’s is shining example of healthy living. I can’t help it though! At fifty cents a burger, it’s impossible for a poor boy to overlook. I drink coffee by the bucket, and I’m sure that if they can attack fat, soon caffeine will be somewhere among their targets… and that, my friends, is when they will have gone too far.

Picture this scene if you will. It’s the year 2130. Shiny, happy beautiful people with great bodies are walking down the street smiling perfectly white smiles. They are festively dressed in perfectly fitting clothes (It’s much easier to design clothes for the thin.) in honor of a national holiday. It’s Anorexia Day! Those who have been able to reject not only fatty foods, but all foods, are regarded as heroes. Plus, they get incredible government benefits for taking up this cause. In the midst of this, two men – obviously up to no-good – are talking on the street corner. One hands the other a large sum of money in exchange for a indiscreet brown paper bag. The receiver of this parcel, we’ll call him Winston, glances around nervously and then runs to the shelter of his home. As he unwraps his prize, the smell of beef and cheese float into his nostrils. A cheeseburger! The most beautiful cheeseburger in the world! As his teeth close on this miracle, a knock sounds from the door. The door is flung open – the Fat Police! Winston is knocked to ground as he tries to run and the beautiful meat patty falls to onto the ground, ruined. The five-second rule is not enough.

Fight for freedom. Go get a burger, some fries, fried chicken, ice cream, a candy bar, a plate of nachos, a burrito, a pizza, a medium-rare steak, a plate of enchiladas, a roast beef sandwich, or even just plate of fried eggs and country ham. Make the founding fathers proud.

Blurring the Lines

Is anyone else bothered by the fact that several Christian bookstores prominently display and sell this picture?

My problem with this has nothing to do with Bush’s politics or personal convictions. I’m sure he’s a nice man. The problem I have is that this particular painting is that it is blatant propaganda for the GOP. Both parties have propaganda, but the Democrats’ propaganda doesn’t carry Christian bookstores’ seal of approval. This painting is being sold in a store whose sole concern should be the kingdom of God. These bookstores also carry books written by Republican politicians George Bush Sr. and Newt Gingrich. You can also buy biographies of Dubya, his dad, and Condoleezza Rice. Since when did being Christian automatically mean being Republican?

I’m not trying to argue against or in favor of the Republicans at the moment. What I’m bothered by is the way that Christianity has become synonymous with a political party. It’s no accident either. In order to gain votes from Christians, the Religious Right has sought to Christianize political parties and policies which they support (i.e. the Republicans) and to demonize political entities which they oppose (i.e., anybody else).When people are told that they are voting “Christian” by voting for Republican Party candidates, it is being insinuated that they are voting anti-Christian by voting for any other candidate.

There are a lot of good Christian politicians who love Jesus and seek to follow his guidance when making political decisions… and they’re Democrats. You shouldn’t be shocked. Former President Jimmy Carter immediately comes to mind. He was outspokenly Christian, even teaching Sunday School in a Southern Baptist Church while President. Believe it or not, many Democrats are not the left-wing liberals that the Republicans have painted them to be. I personally know Tennessee State House Representative Charles Curtiss and can vouch for him when it comes to standing up for his Christian convictions. Many Democrats vote against the party’s official position on values issues while voting with them on more fundamental issues like the economy. (When I say “fundamental” I’m not implying that the economy is more important than values. However, in reality, the basic differences between the parties are their economic views, not values.)

Not all Republicans care about Christian values. Some do, some don’t. The Republican positions are not necessarily Christian positions. Some are, some aren’t. When you’re looking for a candidate who stands for your values, look at the specific person, not just the party. If Christians can’t recognize the difference, then the rest of the world won’t either, leaving the door open for statements made by Pat Robertson and other Republican politicians to be taken as the “Christian” view. Christian bookstores, when it comes to politics, don’t put on blinders and just stock items that make you part of the GOP propaganda machine. The Republicans often make statements that God is on their side, but, as I’ve said before, Jesus was not a politician… and he certainly wasn’t a Republican. And neither am I.