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”

Unprofessional Christian

For the past few weeks, I’ve been doing something that I haven’t done since I was in college. I’ve been going to church on Sunday without being paid for being there. I don’t have to go if I don’t want to. But I actually do want to be there. I even want to serve and I don’t want or expect any money for doing it.

I’ve gone amateur.

I’m not saying that the paycheck was the only reason I went to church when I was on staff, but when going to church is also going your job, it’s impossible not to occasionally have mixed motives. For example, when the average church member misses a church service, they are missed and prayed for. When one of the ministers on staff misses a Sunday, the same things happen, but they also use a vacation day or a sick day. They must refer to the employee handbook to see exactly how many absences are allowed without it affecting their pay. For a minister, missing a day at church is not only missing out on worship and fellowship, but it’s also a business decision that could affect their career.

I’m honestly not sure how I feel about that.

I realize that every paid job involves hours, absences, time sheets, and all that other administrative stuff, but this is church. Church should be different, right? But it gets even more complicated that. Not only is a minister’s church involvement affected by the job, but the minister’s own spiritual health can get mixed up in the pursuit of a paycheck.

According to a Barna poll, 70% of pastors admit that the only time they study the Word is when they’re preparing for a lesson. Even more, when a church member is struggling with sin, they can go to their Sunday School class or small group and pour out their hearts to get support and encouragement. However, when you’re on staff in a congregationally governed church, those small group members are not only your friends and companions, they’re also you’re employers. Most people only have one or maybe even two bosses to keep happy, but a minister has hundreds and they hold the power to hire and fire you. A minister who confesses their struggles to the church at large could be putting their job on the line (depending on how invincible a congregation wants their ministers to appear.)

So because they need to keep that job, many ministers hold it all inside, putting on a strong outward appearance to keep anyone from seeing their weakness. Then, because they have no one to turn to, the sin in their life is free to fester. Maybe that’s why 50% of pastors polled say they are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry, but they stay because they don’t have any other way to make a living. Sometimes, they keep their job by forfeiting their soul.

I hate talking about church using terms like “paycheck,” “employer,” and “professional.” The church is not a business, but it’s easy to forget that when church is your job. It’s easy to become a professional Christian. I’m definitely not opposed to paying ministers; they work extremely hard and deserve to be compensated. I admire the godly men who are able to serve on a church staff without letting the job (or the fear of losing it) take over their spiritual lives. I just personally am happy being an amateur for now.

If you’re interested in reading more about those statistics and the pressure that ministers face in their jobs, I strongly encourage you to read Mark Driscoll’s Death by Ministry series, compiled here in a handy PDF file.

The Great Adventure?

“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.” – Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit

Saddle up your horses!

Life can surprise you sometimes. You can look at those surprises as nasty dark things designed to destroy you or you can look ahead and embrace the adventure that awaits. A brand new adventure coming soon…

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?

A Few Thoughts on Postmodernism

One of the buzzwords in evangelical circles today is “postmodernism.” Should the church be postmodern? How do we deal with postmodernity. The problem we run into when we start talking about terms like “postmodern” is that there’s no general consensus about what the term really means. So when people ask, “Should the church be postmodern?” I think our first response should be to ask “In what way?”

Should the church embrace relativism? No, absolutely not. But not all postmoderns do this either. Often this can mean simply bringing the message to people where they’re at and speaking to their experience. For example, first presenting God as “Father” to someone who longs to have a relationship with their own father. Does this approach deny absolutes? No, but it doesn’t ignore the fact that experience does affect our perception.

There’s no denying that there is a danger in taking this too far. We absolutely have to make sure our doctrine is sound. At the same time though, the church can’t just cover its ears or dig in its heels over methods if those methods aren’t reaching people. Post moderns favor discussion over being taught. The popularity of the blogosphere and message boards speaks to the desire for that approach. (Assuming, of course, that those who are discussing are doing so respectfully with a longing to learn.) Post moderns make a big deal out of community and creative approaches to worship. I think these are also good things.

The church needs to make sure not to tie itself to any philosophical system whether it’s post modernity or modernity. Modernity has plenty of problems too, including the idea that everything can be categorized, codified, and understood in its entirety. This is a pretty arrogant concept. For all its faults, post modernity does admit that there are a lot of things that we don’t know and that is okay.

Anyway, that’s my two cents on the issue. (This is kind of long though. Maybe it was five cents worth.) We shouldn’t be gung ho postmodern, but at the same time, we need to stop being so gung ho about modern approaches. Let’s be clear on the essentials of doctrine, but let go of methods that aren’t speaking to those who need to hear.