The Cross, the mosque and Ground Zero

By Anne Robertson
10 Sep 2010

"When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left." (Luke 23.33)

It takes a long time to turn terror to hope.

On 11 September 2001, Islamic extremists responded to US and Western policies in the Middle East with unspeakable violence. They did so in the name of God. Thousands died, including Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists. Those who died were targeted because they were Americans, not because they held a particular faith. People of all faiths and of no faith died that day.

But just as Christians have had a rough time getting over the damage to our image that the Crusades caused in the Middle East (not to mention actions since then), so the Muslim community is having a rough time trying to explain that not all Muslims - not even most Muslims - are terrorists who want to blow up Americans. Enter the idea for an Islamic Cultural Center a couple of blocks from Ground Zero.

Let's start with a few points. First off, some Muslims are terrorists, as are some Christians - like Timothy McVeigh, for example. Just as the fact that some doctors are charlatans should not taint all of medicine, the fact that all religions have extreme, and often violent, fringes should not taint the principles that the majority seek to live by.

Secondly, in my country this decision is protected by the First Amendment. The Center can be built anywhere the City of New York allows and to forbid it would be to lose one of our bedrock freedoms. Don't go seeking "second amendment remedies" to first amendment issues. Nobody said you had to like it. They can build there. Learn to live with it.

Thirdly, I appreciate and laud the purpose of the Center, as I have heard it described. Many Muslims died in the 9/11 attacks. As a result of those attacks, an entire faith has been painted with an unforgiving brush that makes it more and more difficult to be a Muslim-American. That a moderate Muslim group would want to show their better side close to the site of the extreme side of their faith is completely understandable to me.

How perfect it would be to take young Muslims on a short walk to be reminded of the devastation and harm that can come from misinterpreting faith. How helpful for people who come to Ground Zero thinking, "All Muslims are terrorists," to run into a group of sane, kind, regular-old-American Muslims espousing peace just a couple of blocks away.

At the same time, however, I can appreciate the moderate voices who suggest that the Center may not be an idea whose time has come but rather an idea that is ahead of its time. In short, maybe it is just too soon. Which is why I selected a crucifixion text for this article.

Today the Cross represents Christian faith, but it was not always so. For the first century after the death of Jesus, nobody wanted to look at an instrument of torture and execution to be reminded of their faith. The most common symbol for Christians at the outset was not the Cross, but the fish.

Of course lots of the stories of Jesus revolve around fishing, as it was the profession of at least two of his closest disciples. But the Greek word for fish, Ichthys, also was turned into an acrostic for 'Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.' During the years of Christian persecution it was the fish, not the Cross, that someone would draw in the sand to convey their faith to another.

Somewhere across the first hundred years, however, the Cross began to be used regularly as a Christian symbol. At some point the notion that something violent and horrifying could be used to remind people of love instead of hate, that suffering could be transformed into redemption, took hold. It was a long time before Christians were ready to welcome the Cross as a symbol of their faith, but eventually the notion of transforming suffering into salvation became not only important, but central to the identity of Christians.

That is not to say that the Cross then was not later used in horrific ways so that today it is problematic as a symbol, even for some Christians. But it is to say that there are lessons when you look at those who would like to take a reminder of terror and transform it into an agent of peace. It might take more than just a decade for this noble idea's time to come.

Should the Muslim faith be a reminder of terror? Absolutely not. Neither should Catholicism be identified with paedophilia and neither should Anne Rice believe she can't be part of the Church because, "I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life."

I know plenty of both Christians and churches that are none of those things - me, for starters.

Every religion has their bad apples; entire orchards can become diseased. So we cut down the bad trees, dump the bad apples, and put the cart back on the street. "Hey," we shout, "That's not what an apple is supposed to taste like! Apples are good for you...try this orchard over here!" We just have to recognise that it might be a while before someone is willing to bite into one again.

So I think my own take on the issue is, that had anyone asked my advice in building the Center, I would have said, "I think we need more distance from the events of 9/11." But I can't speak to the immediate needs of the Muslim community in New York and what it will mean to them to build it now and to build it there.

I will not begrudge them that, either legally or morally. And I will pray that at least by 11 September 2111, if not sooner, the Islamic Center near Ground Zero will host Presidents, dignitaries, and people of all faiths and no faith who are seeking to transform terror into hope.

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© Anne Robertson is a United Methodist Church clergywoman, serving as Executive Director of MassBible (the Massachusetts Bible Society), one of the oldest Bible Societies in the US. Her website is at: http://www.annerobertson.org/ This article is reproduced from that site, with kind permission. The MassBible website is at: http://www.massbible.org/ You can also follow them on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/massbible

Also on Ekklesia: ‘US Bible society will give away two copies of Qur'an for every one burnt’ - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13064

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