As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I think the minds and hearts of all Americans return to those first moments of hearing of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The aftermath of those attacks, the stories of the diverted aircraft, the heroic rescue efforts, the cleanup efforts and the immensity of that loss have affected us as a nation and have been imprinted upon our psyche like nothing else in our generation. There have been many changes in our experience of the modern world as a result of that attack, and in some ways it has helped us to understand ourselves better and more deeply as a nation. We have been bonded by a common experience that has shifted the paradigm of our lives. This is not simply an external experience that we have observed, but something we have felt deeply. 9/11 has shaken us to the core and has marked the soul of the modern world. It is important for us to recognize the immensity of this experience, but also to place it in its proper context, as Christians, as Americans, as human beings.
These last weeks, I've been deeply disturbed by the kind of protests and rhetoric that has surrounded the proposed construction of a center for Islamic studies in Manhattan, the potential for violence to be unleashed against Muslim Americans, the presumption of evil intent and hidden agendae. There is an incredible amount of emotion surrounding the issues on all sides -- as must be expected, but the best parts of our character are being overshadowed by a lack of respect and fearfulness that denies the sacredness of that experience and the hallowed ground of the World Trade Center site.
The crux of the argument around the construction of the Islamic Center in New York is that it is somehow disrespectful, or somehow inappropriate for a site for Muslim study and worship to be located near the hallowed ground of the former World Trade Centers. There are those who would use this controversy to advance their own political gain -- yet their arguments are a violation of all that is good and decent and holy about a site hallowed by the blood of those who were victims on 9/11.
It is supreme arrogance of supposedly Christian individuals to somehow declare that ground zero is only hallowed by the blood of Christians -- and not by the blood of non-Christians, of Jews and Muslims, and by the blood of those who proclaimed no specific faith or spirituality. The nature of the violence of 9/11 and its impact upon this nation will still be felt for decades to come. To somehow pretend that there were only Christians killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center is to make a mockery of the sacrifices of those who have died in service of our nation and the ideals of our constitution -- not least of which is the freedom to worship -- not only for Christians, but for non-Christians alike. In a certain sense, to truly learn what Islam teaches in relation to the sanctity of life, just as what Christianity and Judaism truly teach regarding sanctity of life -- I'm not certain that there would be any place MORE suitable than near ground zero.
I write this as a Catholic Christian, as a leader of prayer within our community, as one who has visited ground zero, and as one who has grieved the loss of a nephew killed in January of 2002 in Pakistan. I am well aware of many facets of the argument, yet the only sense that I can make of these events and the controversy is in the larger context of the Christian mystery. It is also fueled by the challenges that are always present among us: how do we understand the sanctity of life -- whose blood is of value, and how do we as Americans best honor those who were killed and continue to place themselves in the service of our nation and the freedoms we enjoy?
Jesus offers a vision of true humility to his disciples, and teaches us what it means to understand ourselves as bearers of the gospel to the larger world. It is a work that must move out from the depth of our souls, where we are most deeply touched, but it must move out in love. Every conflict, every controversy and every encounter must be fueled by love and a profound respect for the other, in the hopes that we might continue to grow and work together for the Kingdom of God.
The ironic thing for me is a study that came out this last week examining the sentiments of the nation around the issue -- the farther one travels from New York City, the stronger the sense of "inappropriateness," the stronger the sense of outrage is revealed -- or put another way, those who live closest to ground zero, those who endured the hardships of 9/11 and survived the struggles and community grief that marked the aftermath of 9/11, who prayed with and for not only Christian victims, but also Muslim victims and Jewish victims and firefighter victims and police victims, have less difficulty with an Islamic center being built two blocks away than individuals in the Midwest.
One cannot pretend that these are easy issues. We have to confront the grief, the fear and the pride that exist in each of us as individuals, to think that our blood and our lives are more important than those of our brothers and sisters. We must be united in that profound sense of respect for life -- Christ's teaching on the sanctity of life is not isolated to the sanctity of Christian life, it is not isolated to the sanctity of the lives of those who are lovable and innocent. A little closer to home, an execution is scheduled here in Walla Walla in two weeks -- even more complex, is the difficulty we have in believing that the sanctity of life is not limited to those who have respected that sanctity in the lives of others -- but none of us is capable of creating life out of nothing, and we have been given the responsibility of caring for our brothers and sisters in our world, and to live out that mystery of life in love.
There are 2.5 million Muslims in the United States -- at least that is the reported statistic in the latest issue of Time magazine -- there may be among them those who may have a skewed vision of Islam, just as there may be people among us who may have a skewed vision of Catholicism or Christianity or Judaism or any other religion. The point is, those who place their lives in service of our nation do so for the principle of defending that freedom for worship and the other freedoms we enjoy. It is a desecration of that sacrifice to limit that freedom to others, or to limit it to a geographical context. Worship and study does not happen only in centers for study or churches or mosques or temples -- it happens in the hearts of those who sincerely seek the face of God.
This brings us back to the poignant reminder in the words of Scripture, in the letter to the Hebrews, that there is a blood that has been shed that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel, more eloquently than those who died on 9/11, more eloquently than those who have died in our nations' efforts abroad -- and that is the blood of Christ. It is no mere rhetoric for Christians to proclaim that Christ's blood has been poured out for us and for all -- that sins may be forgiven and the promise of the Kingdom might come to pass for all generations.
The Rev. Tim Hays is pastor of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.