The story of the Israelites as found in the Old Testament has many interesting applications in our current world. One that I haven't heard being used much is actually a set of books that describes what happens when the Israelites coming out of exile from the conquering Babylonians are encouraged by the king of the Babylonians to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and its houses of worship and community gathering.
These books of Ezra and Nehemiah chronicle the struggles and joyous moments for a community that was struggling to establish itself in a land that was hotly contested for who had rights to the religious space in the area. In these accounts, the reader can see the struggle of the Israelites in their rebuilding the Temple, as God had ordained them to do-they had to overcome prejudice, bribes to officials to stop their building, people questioning the validity of their building permits, accusations of corrupt financiers and threats from people fearful of what purpose their Temple was really being used. But, the people had faith that God was calling them to build a town that been devastated by violence and needed a voice of peace to begin the process of restoration and healing.
I find it almost shocking how applicable this text is in our world as we look at religious tolerance and questions of what religious freedom is granted in America. There has been much public debate in the last few weeks about the alleged "Ground Zero Mosque." I hope that you are well-versed in the issue and that whatever you believe; those thoughts are grounded in a desire to build wholeness and reconciliation. And, to me, that's the ironic thing about when you apply these texts to our situation today. The fighting happening in the rebuilding of Jerusalem at this time was not among two different nations of people, but two groups within the Jewish community-and, in the case of Park51 (the name of this proposed community center) isn't the fighting happening among two groups within the same family? Both Islam and Christianity belong to the family of the Abraham faith that claims God is one and that God seeks peace and wholeness for all of creation. While we have different sacred texts (although the Qur'an has large chunks of the biblical narrative-including stories of Jesus), worship slightly differently and have different traditions the foundation of our faith is rooted in the same forefather and the same covenant. We are two different religions with significant differences, but there is much to be said about supporting our Muslim brothers and sisters.
There's a wonderful issue of Newsweek (August 16) that looks at the issue from a variety of sides, but the article that garnered the majority of my attention was the article by Fareed Zakaria, who reminds his readers that the promotion of moderate Islam (favorable relations with non-Muslims, modernization and rights of women and minorities among other things) is exactly what America has been looking for. Our country is one that promotes diversity and freedom for individuals and the expression of religion. What better expression of peaceful, reformist Islam is there than a mosque that seeks to continue its members' presence in a troubled community, offering community building in a neighborhood that is still grappling with pain? Does this talk of grace and transformation not sound like the God who asks us to meet the needs of the least of these? Should we Christians, who are in the majority of powerbrokers in the world of economics and politics, turn a blind eye to God's transformative work going on in that community? What precedent do we have for supporting such a building as Park51? Aside from Ezra and Nehemiah-we have the cross.
As Christians, each time we look at, draw, wear or otherwise reference the cross, we affirm God's ability to change moments of terror into peace and reconciliation. We find our meaning through the witness of Jesus and we cannot escape the fact that God worked through his crucifixion and resurrection to distort a torture device into the means of grace. In fact, God desired that this otherwise cruel and gruesome form of corporal punishment be subverted by being a world-wide symbol of peace, love and forgiveness. Now, in our time and place, there are a brave group of people who are attempting to take an otherwise abandoned and lonely building next to an open crater of pain and suffering in order that they can build stronger communities by loving future generations, teaching the desires of God to the current generation and offering hope to all those who are affected by their community so that they may know God is one. Thinking about their willingness to be instruments of grace, I can not only support their desire to build Park51, but I thank God that they are doing so and pray that we can be transformed by such love in a time like ours that needs to learn a few lessons about forgiveness, faith and reconciliation. Peace be upon them and upon you.