Obama re-centered himself in the conservative political cross-hairs recently when he seemed to make statements supporting the building of a mosque near Ground Zero (not at Ground Zero, as the media consistently implies). At the same time, New York (among other regions) also faces a debate over how public schools ought to handle religious holidays, especially Muslim holidays in increasingly Muslim communities.
I have no desire to get caught up in any of these debates. I certainly have some (often shaky and inconsistent) opinions, but they are opinions. Instead, I would like to offer some biblical advice for properly responding to these prickly issues.
1) DEMOCRACY IS AN IMPERFECT, HUMAN INSTITUTION
If nothing else, I hope these controversies highlight the weaknesses of democracy, an institution that has been deified all too often. Not that democracy is necessarily evil, and not that it is no better than a dictatorship or anarchy, but that it is still human, still has weaknesses, and is still not a virtue high enough to rightfully garner the devotion that we (Western) humans often give it.
Since democracy demands religious freedom (at least our American brand of democracy), we end up in some tight spots. The school holiday debate is a clear indication of this. True religious freedom would necessitate the equal recognition of every holiday of every religion. In a perfectly religiously free world every Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian holiday would correspond to a day without school (a kid’s greatest dream). But, as many have realized in the current debate, to have complete religious freedom in this area would be impractical. There would be so many holidays that the ability of the teachers to teach would be greatly hindered.
Thus, the mainstay of democracy, that is, equality and equal treatment, turns out to be rather ridiculous in practice. Democracy does pose its problems. It is not a God-given government (though some of its principles certainly derive from godly ideals).
In other words, let us be devoted to God, and not to democracy.
2) WE HAVE NO RIGHTS
Many on the conservative side of these debates run to a false presupposition to make their arguments and gather support. They appeal to the violation of the rights of the American Christian. As the Ground Zero mosque controversy rages, some conservative groups have also been quick to bring up another nearly forgotten Ground Zero issue: the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church.
This little church was the only “house of worship” destroyed in the collapse of the Twin Towers. For the last nine years, now, negotiations have stalled and recommenced a number of times as church leaders and Port Authority officials have failed to work out an agreeable plan for rebuilding the church.
So, the “conservative Christian” commenters cry, “Foul,” claiming that in the Ground Zero arena Christians are being discriminated against while Muslims are getting special treatment. This, of course, is not the only arena where such claims are made. It has become a standard rallying point in many conservative camps.
But, a central principle of biblically sound Christianity is that we Christians have no rights. We gave them up long ago when our sins earned physical and spiritual death. We then announced our intention to give up all supposed rights when we committed to make Christ our Lord, to become slaves of the King of Kings.
When we begin to assert our “rights” to worship, pray, build church buildings, picket abortion clinics, etc., we deny the truth of the matter. And when we pursue our “rights” by getting lawyers and suing those who oppose us we oppose Jesus and Paul who both said it is better to be wronged than to fight for our “rights.”
Just try to imagine the Christians in first century Rome being concerned with some of the “rights” that concern us as they are being imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their faith. Despite their best intentions, our nation’s founding fathers were wrong to assert that we all have inalienable rights, and we Christians ought to be the first to point it out in our own lives.
3) WE DON’T KNOW OUR ENEMY
Finally, one of the most prevalent misunderstandings in all of these religious freedom debates (and many other political debates) is thinking that other people are the Enemy. Many Christians perpetuate an “us versus them” mentality and practice in which “them” is rotationally characterized as Muslims, liberals, Obama, liberal media, atheists, evolutionists, and whatever nation our nation happens to be fighting at the time.
Of course, Paul identified our Enemy a little differently. He said that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood” but against spiritual forces of darkness. We are not supposed to be battling against other humans, but for them. All human “enemies” are actually blind, deluded souls needing compassion, guidance and healing. That includes Muslims.
To treat another human as an enemy is like getting angry at Kermit the Frog for slander. He is not the one running the show (yes, humans have free will, but delusion is still puppetry). I imagine Satan laughs his evil laugh every time he turns a Christian’s heart against a fellow man. After all, Jesus’ command to love our enemies means that we are not allowed to have any enemies (at least from our perspective…see also Romans 12:18), but we Christians make enemies all too easily (not that Christ Himself didn’t have violent opposition–but His came in response to His love. Those who hated Him hated His grace).
So, what do we do in an age of growing religious diversity and controversy? Paul’s wisdom is timely:
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:9-21, ESV