Monday, August 16, 2010

A Cloud of Witnesses

By Eric Von Salzen

A day or two after 9/11, an interfaith meeting was held at my church (St. Alban’s, Washington, DC). It was part of a series of meetings among Christians, Jews, and Muslims that had been going on for quite awhile, but they changed whatever the planned agenda had been for this meeting and focused on the terrorist attacks.

I went and listened to clergy, lay leaders, and regular folks from all three Abrahamic faiths express their shock, their sorrow, and their anger at these vicious attacks on our country. No Christian and no Jew blamed the attacks on Islam, and no Muslim offered any defense of the killers.

I think about the Muslims I heard speak at that meeting when I hear and read about the controversy over the “Ground Zero Mosque”, the proposed Islamic center that the Cordoba Initiative wants to build a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center site. If the Muslims who spoke at St. Alban’s nine years ago want to worship God in that location, how could I object? They were not complicit in the attacks; they are as much enemies of the terrorists as I am.

If the Catholic Church were to propose building a facility two blocks from the site of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, would anyone object on the ground that Timothy McVeigh was raised a Catholic?

But some people do object, including some of the families of people killed at the World Trade Center. We owe it to the memory of those who died to think about the objections seriously. We owe it to ourselves, too, because all Americans were (and are) targets of the terrorists. Platitudes about America’s commitment to religious tolerance – true as they are – are insufficient to answer the objections.

The problem, as I see it, is that the 9/11 killers and those who sent them didn’t just “happen to be” Muslims. Their Muslim faith was the central motive for what they did. They acted out of a deep conviction that Islam sanctioned these actions; more than that, they believed that Islam demanded this action.

The Muslims I heard speak at St. Alban’s that evening rejected that claim. They denied that Islam permits, much less requires, such murderous actions. They condemned as false and un-Islamic the religious claims of the terrorists. I believed them.

The problem that many people have, who oppose the “Ground Zero Mosque”, is that they didn’t hear the Muslims that I heard at St. Alban’s. Most Americans, I believe, don’t know many, or any, Muslims very well. We hear and read that al-Qaida and other Islamic terrorist groups claim to be the “true” Islam, and we don’t have Muslim friends and neighbors and co-workers to tell us, No, that’s not true.

We have the news media, of course, and that’s what most of us rely on to learn about things in the world beyond our own individual experience. Perhaps I read the wrong newspapers, watch the wrong TV shows, read the wrong websites, but I have the sense that the voices of the Muslims I heard at St. Alban’s aren’t being heard very much. I have the sense that most Americans don’t hear, on a regular basis, prominent Muslims and spokespersons for Muslim organizations condemning Islamic religious extremism. The news has been full of Islamic extremism, whether it’s terrorism in the US or the UK or Bali, whether it’s violence or threats of violence against cartoonists who dare to depict the Prophet or movie-makers who criticize Muslim treatment of women, or whether it’s a fatwa against a novelist who criticizes Islam.

What the news has not been full of, so far as I can tell, is Muslim voices condemning Islamic extremism.

So when people hear that Muslims want to build a facility near the “sacred ground” where the World Trade Center once stood, they ask themselves: Are they on our side or on the other side? And they are not confident that the answer is, They’re on our side.

The Cordoba Initiative says that it seeks to improve “Muslim-West relations”. That is a noble goal and something we desperately need. I think they need to ask themselves whether building in this particular location serves that purpose.

(By the way, the photo at the top of this post is not the "Ground Zero Mosque", but what was once the Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain. It is now a Roman Catholic Church. We live in a complicated world.)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Revenge of the Vampires

By Eric Von Salzen

I’m not a big vampire fan (well, in my youth I did envy Bela Lugosi for his suave neck munching), so I’ve never read any of Anne Rice’s innumerable vampire novels. I had heard of her of course, and so I was interested several years ago to hear that she had returned to the Christian religion, specifically to the Roman Catholic Church in which she grew up. She did a radio discussion about this with N. T. Wright in 2006, which is worth listening to. She was in the process of writing a series of novels about the life of Jesus under the overall title Christ The Lord, and she has now published two volumes, subtitled Out of Egypt and The Road to Cana. I recommend both of them.

Now Ms. Rice has announced (on her Facebook page!) that she has left Christianity. She explains:

For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to "belong" to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

If that’s not clear enough, she lists several characteristics of Christianity to which she objects, It’s anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-artificial birth control, anti-Democrat, anti-secular humanism, anti-science, and anti-life.

If I took her argument seriously, I guess I’d have to leave Christianity, too, because I also oppose anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-artificial birth control, anti-science, and anti-life positions (and some of my best friends are Democrats and secular humanists). But I’m not leaving.

In part I infer that what Ms. Rice really objects to are positions of the Roman Catholic Church, and she has confused “Christianity” with Roman Catholicism. This is not surprising. When I was growing up (Ms. Rice and I are of an age) a lot of my Roman Catholic friends thought that the only valid form of Christianity was Roman Catholicism (and a lot of my Protestant friends thought the Roman Catholics were mackerel snappers). If she’d said that she’s leaving the Catholic Church for the reasons she cites I wouldn’t question her decision.

But by saying that she’s leaving “Christianity”, and by identifying all these negative characteristics with Christianity, she’s made a fundamental mistake. Although there certainly are Christians who hold the views to which she objects, not all Christians do so. And more important: These positions are not an essential part of Christian belief or Christian theology. Yes, yes, I know that Paul said some beastly things about gays and women, but that doesn’t mean that you have to believe that all gays are idolaters, or that women must be silent in church, in order to be a Christian. Christianity is about faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of Humanity. If Anne Rice remains “committed to Christ as always” (as she says), she’s a Christian whether she likes the name or not.

The other thing that’s wrong with Ms. Rice’s announcement is that it reflects the notion that you shouldn’t be part of an institution that has objectionable people in it. Groucho Marx said he wouldn’t join a club that would accept him as a member, and Ms. Rice won’t belong to a church that has any sinners in it. She’s going to be mighty lonely. She would do well to read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians to help her understand that our church is made up of flawed people, who are nevertheless called to a common faith.

The attitude that Ms. Rice displays is by no means unique to her or to the Roman Catholic Church. It is an attitude that lies behind much of the friction and fragmentation in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, the idea that we won’t sit in the same pews, or kneel at the same rail, with “THEM” (whoever “THEM” are). Ms. Rice describes Christians as “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous”. The description fits not only Christians but all human beings. Yet we are called to break bread together.

When the Holy Spirit touches the heart of Anne Rice and brings her back to the Christian community, she should be welcomed.