Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Christianity, Islam, and Ground Zero

Continued from previous blog entry…

Thus, there are now three significant groups of stakeholders reacting to the decision to build an Islamic Center & Mosque near Ground Zero: the Islamic community, the Christian community, and the Secular/Humanistic community (which declares no faith as an equal and viable option to any faith, preferring freedom from all faith).

Now here’s the irony.  Christians who argue against the Islamic Center being built near Ground Zero are in danger of committing the very thing they feared that the Secular Humanists were doing against them.  Remember the fears Christians have about the influence of Secular Humanism upon our society, that Christians would wake up one day and find that they are “unable to freely preach, teach, and promote the tenants and beliefs of the Christian faith without being censored or accused of being hate-mongers and bigots, and criminally prosecuted for delivering ‘hate speech’”?  Replace the word “Islam” for “Christian” and the outcome is the same, only now it is Christians who are wanting to censor faith—i.e., the Muslim faith.  This is a dangerous direction to take.  For if we Christians think we could and should successfully censor the Muslim faith, down the road what’s to keep another group from censoring the Christian faith?  That old saying, “What goes around comes around,” can turn around and bite us.

On the other hand, Secular Humanists supporting the building of the Islamic Center in the name of America’s Freedom of Religion are being inconsistent and somewhat hypocritical; for Secular Humanists have always stood strongly against any and all displays of Christian symbolism and content—anything that carries the Christian meaning, message, and movement—in the public arena, especially when it touches upon public grounds and/or social policies and programs.  But here they are, okay with the Muslim community’s decision to build an Islamic Center near Ground Zero—the intent of which is to carry forth the Islamic meaning, message, and movement—a decision for its location greatly influenced by its proximity to Ground Zero.  Given the nature of Ground Zero’s public, civic, symbolic, and even sacred status in the American psyche, they know that they stand to gain much visibility and influence under its shadow.  Indeed, it is a smart public-relations move on their part, in the long run.

But what can be said about the Muslim community (that is not politically incorrect)?  From one vantage point, there seems to be a great irony that so many Muslims emigrated to America from homelands where there is little or no religious freedom at all, where the very idea of conversion and proselytizing is not only socially unacceptable but actually illegal and, in some of the stricter countries, a crime punishable by death (Saudi Arabia being one of them).  In this light, many Christians are left with a real uncomfortable feeling about the fact that many Muslims come to this country demanding the free exercise of their faith, while in Islamic countries like Yemen, e.g., the government not only does not allow the building of new non-Muslim places of worship but forbids any proselytizing by non-Muslims (while Muslims could proselytize all they want).   Or, e.g., in Egypt all non-Muslim religious practices that conflict with Islamic law are prohibited because Islam is the official state religion.  In Algeria the law prohibits the public assembly for purposes of practicing a faith other than Islam, and anyone convicted of urging a Muslim to change his faith can receive 2 to 5 years imprisonment plus stiff fines.  While in Syria sharing the Christian faith carries a penalty of up to life in prison.  We could go on mentioning countries like Jordan, Sudan, Pakistan, etc.  This history, and its very present reality in many Muslim countries today, is what fuels the fire for many Christians here in American that have great angst at the thought of an Islamic Center being built near Ground Zero.

But this IS America, land of the free.  We are free to speak out, free to hold public assembly, and free to worship as we please, and where we please.  Everyone, even those with whom we disagree and have opposing views regarding the person and nature of God, has the same freedoms.  Because of this, it is essential that we all play on a level playing field, so-to-speak.  Furthermore, it is essential that all stakeholders play fairly, that is, e.g., that we are all open and transparent, even handed, mutually respectful, and promote the fair exchange of give and take, building neighborly communities of faith on a common ground of shared independence and interdependence.  We are to respect our mutual freedoms, remembering that sometimes just because we have the right to do something does not mean that it is the right thing to do.

Furthermore, Muslims in this country must not be allowed to demand special privileges, leading to more rights and freedoms than Jews or Christians have, regarding the application and expression of their faith, just because they have stricter laws, rules, rites, or ritualistic forms and practices.  This is something that many Christians worry about concerning Islamic religious norms and practices.  Indeed, we have religious freedom in this country, but this does not mean that all religious practices are defacto acceptable and legal (the historic outlawing of Mormon polygamy would be one example or the banning of the use of hallucinogenic drugs in some Native American ceremonies would be another).  In short, even freedom of religion has boundaries and limitations in this country.  Nevertheless, as much as we may not like to admit this, Christians cannot claim to have more rights and privileges than their American Muslim or Judaic or even Hindu faith counterparts.  That’s the way America works.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ground Zero and..., It's a Religious Thing

Some believe that people of faith are naïve simpletons and not real thinkers.  Bill Maher chuckles, you could almost hear him thinking, “The poor devils, how foolish they are to believe in God and Creation in today’s day and age.”  See his “documentary” movie, Religulous (2008).

This is a false dichotomy: People of Faith are simple-minded, naïve, non-rational “Believers”; while Atheists/Agnostics, i.e., anyone questioning faith, are smart, intelligent, well informed “Doubters.”  The fact is, there are and have been many highly educated, critically-minded, and intelligent people of faith throughout the centuries.  Faith and belief, or the lack thereof, is not a matter of education and intelligence, or the lack thereof.

But Bill Maher makes a statement in his documentary that I believe is more to the point.  He says that he seriously believes that religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity.  Now that's his real point!

In actuality, both camps believe the other to be “detrimental to the progress of humanity.”  The one side says, “This nation is going to hell in a hand basket and it’s because of irreligious liberals who have taken prayer out of our schools, are allowing the abortion of our children, are encouraging gay marriage,” and so on.  And the other side says, “This nation is being hijacked by religious fanatics and we’re in danger of losing our freedoms to the control of ignorant, closed minded, intolerant bigots cramming religion down our throats.”  So, which is it?

Notice that a common denominator is the fear undergirding these sentiments, including frustration, anger, and resentment.  Neither side seems able to tolerate the other.  Each side greatly fears the other side’s growing power and ability to influence this nation’s direction, especially when it comes to winning electoral seats in the House and/or Senate.  Both camps fear the loss of their own particular idea of personal rights and freedoms because of “the other side.”  And it would seem that each camp defines its principles of morality and justice differently.

Breaking it down a bit further, on the one side, conservative Christians seem to fear the following (I’m not necessarily saying that these fears are justified I’m just saying that this is what I think I see, hear, and observe from the right):

  Many Christians seem to have a growing fear that they will somehow begin to lose the freedom to share and express their faith openly and safely.  The worry is that preachers may someday wake up to find that they are unable to freely preach, teach, and promote the tenants and beliefs of the Christian faith without being censored or accused of being hate-mongers and bigots, and criminally prosecuted for delivering “hate speech.”  Some would say that this is already the case.

  Many Christians fear the loss of Christianity’s influence in our culture and society in general.  The one time Nominal Christian cultural context no longer prevails.  Christians can no longer assume that the average person on the street has a general knowledge of Biblical content, its worldview, moral themes, and its stories of God encounters and its redemptive message.  They see Christian values, principles, and ethics losing ground, no longer appreciated, let alone respected.

  Christians also seem to have a growing fear that this nation will go so far down the road in unbelief that they will eventually become marginalized and perhaps even persecuted because of their faith, finding it more difficult to simply live, practice, and expound their faith in God, Christ, and His cross.

  And so, many Christians fear for this nation’s safety and security in light of God’s justice.  The worry is that God will bring judgment upon this nation because of its ungodly ways.

However, on the other side, Secular Humanistic Liberal Progressives (a catch-all phrase) seem to fear the following:

  They seem to fear an unfair and unjust, and therefore oppressive, imposition of religious (Christian) rule and norms upon all, dictating lifestyle, values, and behavior upon believers and nonbelievers alike.  The ongoing debate over gay marriage, abortion, and stem cell research are primary examples justifying this fear.

  They seem to fear that Christians have an unfair advantage and will exercise their power and influence to control people of other faiths, beliefs, and convictions, including people with no faith at all.

  And they fear the influence of Christianity within our schools, government offices, and other public institutions with respect to content, substance, and teaching that sways the practical outcomes of this nation’s policies and direction, which in their minds leads to Ignorant and outdated policies and practices based on religious faith rather than on scientific knowledge and rational input and know-how.

But now, let’s complicate matters even more.  Enter in the debate over the decision to build an Islamic Cultural Center & Mosque near Ground Zero in New York City.  Now we have a different set of anxiety and fears, even more intense.  And what’s at the heart of it?  Religion and religious faith is at the core, but from which side?  Has anyone noticed that this particular debate over Ground Zero and the Islamic Cultural Center is NOT between Secular Unbelieving Liberal Agnostics on the one side and Conservative Christian People of Faith on the other?  It seems to me that what’s really undergirding this debate and fueling its passion is the historical tension that has existed for centuries between two powerful world-dominating Faiths, Christianity and Islam….

To be continued.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Are you on Vacation, Really?

I’m on vacation.  That is, I was.  It was a quick getaway, just a few days, short and sweet.  But was it really a vacation?  No, I’m not complaining.  I’m reflecting.  There was a time when one left the office, factory, or field, and one was totally free from work, with no strings attached, no expectation of “staying in touch.”  But in today’s world of streaming data, smart phones, wi-fi, email, Facebook, Twitter, and Broad Band Internet connections, who’s really free?  These aren’t strings lightly attached, they can be bonded chains.

I had no choice.  I had to take my laptop computer along with me.  As an adjunct professor at a local private university I am required to take a certain class on “Designing and Teaching a full Online Course.”  Vacation or not, I had to “show up” for attendance, online of course, and do the assignments, respond to assigned questions, do the reading, etc.  Not to mention the fact that I had other obligations and duties to work on while away, which I was able to do because of my trusty laptop.  For example, take this blog; my goal is to write a new piece no less than once a week.  Anyone notice that I skipped a few days and went beyond a full week since my last entry?  Funny, I had actually planned on doing some writing for the blog while on vacation — hence, is it really a vacation or just a change of environment?  In the end, however, I decided to be a little late and extend the blog’s weekly deadline.

Modern technology has made communication simpler and more immediate, so much data and info is now at our finger tips, just waiting to be searched and found.  But what is it doing to our rhythm of life?  How is it affecting our ability to have real and meaningful “downtime” or recovery time or even just personal and family time without being intruded upon?  It’s not just a lifestyle question.  It’s a real question of values, meaning, and relationships as to time and who owns and controls our time.  How shall we find our own real time, personal “living” time, in the midst of such powerful technology?  Do we serve time, or should time serve us?  For some, it can even be a social-justice issue.  How much right does a company, boss, owner/operator have, to demand of your time simply because you are high-speed and wirelessly connected?  It’s interesting how, in a world of fast and varied connectivity, more and more individuals seem to feel the lack of actual “connection,” and have a greater need for real meaningful, appreciative and productive personal relationships within a viable community.

Nevertheless, that being said, my college age son and I did indeed have quality time together.  We talked, reflected, ate together, took in a couple of movies and did some sightseeing in the state of Maine.  We ended the short get-away trip pretty much feeling that we had a satisfactory time together.  And that was true in spite of the fact that we both had our laptops with us and worked on them, whenever we had the opportunity to do so, even though we were on vacation.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Patriot, Beware!

Patriotism is good.  It has power.  But its power can be dangerous.  Yes!  People will die or kill for it.  That’s dangerous.   (Not much different from the power of religious fervor, wouldn’t you say?)  Anything that powerful should be tempered.  Thus, patriotism, as with Faith, ought to be handled with care, for it could be the cause of great harm as well as the source of much good.

It is ironic that the previous president most demonstrative of his patriotic zeal for our country is also the one that most persistently reached beyond any previous president in the application and exercise of his executive powers, running contrary to our constitution’s explicit demarking of “checks and balances.”  He is the one that sweepingly enacted the “Patriot Act.”  Many would say that this act actually reduced the traditional safeguards and protections of American rights and freedoms that our constitution and its legal traditions have historically protected—all in the name of PATRIOTISM!

But this was done for our own good, our safety and security, our protection, wasn’t it?  Yes it was.  But what act or movement or cause is not done in the name of the peoples’ good, safety, security and prosperity?  And that’s my point: just because something is done in the name of patriotism doesn’t automatically mean that it is in fact a patriotic thing to do.  It is not a question of patriotic sincerity, the heart may be in the right place, but the deed itself may be highly questionable as to patriotic consequences.

Blind, unreasoned, idealized, passionate patriotism, is dangerous.  Is this surprising?  Would you not say the same if it were a matter of blind, unreasoned, idealized, and passionate religious fervor?  Any patriotic act imposed by patriotic zealots must be tempered with considered wisdom and cool insight.  Otherwise, its spirited call to sacrifice one’s all “for the cause” will only intoxicate our passions, leading to a kind of political stupor as we semiconsciously stumble into seditious declarations and legislative acts resulting in the real loss of freedoms and a diminished national integrity, only to have the nation “wake up” the next morning, clueless, wondering “How did we come to this!”

Patriotism is not about shouting, “You’re either with us or against us!”  Nor is it about demanding absolute conformity to the will and desire of self-declared patriots.  As is true with religion, so it is with patriotism: Patriotic Zeal comes in a variety of sizes, colors, and forms.  One size does not fit all.  But all have alike the same desire: the peace, prosperity, and promotion of this country, our homeland.  Thus, real patriotism is betrayed when “Passionate Patriots” accuse and denounce, shall we say, “Less Passionate Citizens” of treachery, simply for pausing long and hard enough to wonder, question, and ask, “Might our patriotic passions be leading us the wrong way; are we in danger of precipitous action, heading head-over-heels down a cliff; are there not better ways to secure our national interests than to simply boast, bully, and bluster our way through the challenge before us?”

Anyone or anything that demands our unquestioning obedience and absolute conformity to its dictates is itself questionable.  Great ideals move us, impassioning our listless lives.  We choose to believe.  We want a cause, a purpose greater than ourselves.  We need to believe that the ultimate sacrifice is worthy, that there is honor in dying for one’s country, for example, a good cause, a meaningful death.  Patriotism does this for us.  And so, patriotism is powerful and therefore dangerous. It can be misused, abused, manipulated, and “managed” inappropriately.  Patriot, beware!  Be wise.  Be cautious of those who wield patriotism as a club so as to have you conform and do their bidding to what they define as right and good for this country, as if to disagree with them is an act of treason.