In a recent Wall Street Journal article, terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann said that anti-Muslim rhetoric in America is bad news for anti-terrorism efforts: “We are handing al Qaeda a propaganda coup, an absolute propaganda coup.”
By many accounts, the man who could blunt the power of that coup is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the religious leader behind the planned Islamic Center near Ground Zero. The imam has been surprisingly mum on the issue while he travels in the Middle East. What message of faith could he offer to Muslims and non-Muslims alike that could turn this moment of division into a time of healing?
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.
The African-American preaching tradition speaks of a determination and of a faith that is stronger than any physical or physic chains. It is a faith powerful enough to translate the questions posed in Jeremiah 8:22 “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? To an affirmation: “There is a balm in Gilead!”
That balm is faith in the incarnate presence of God who is radical love. For Christians that incarnation is Jesus and most importantly, it ought to be the incarnation of radical in each of us. The healing message that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf could offer to both Muslims and non-Muslims is: our faith will make us whole. Our faith in God’s love, faith in each other, and faith in the public conversation will restore healthy relationships between all of God’s children.
Faith is difficult. It asks us to see beyond sight, to forsake our temporal certainties, to lower our shields, to strip away our suspicion of the Other, to set aside our instincts toward self preservation and believe in the power of our own capacity to ground our knowledge of what is true in something that we cannot see, hear, taste, touch, smell or even intuit. Faith is both substance and evidence. It is the stuff of hope and proof of what we do not see. Yet.
Faith is especially difficult within the context of a controversy as emotionally charged as that surrounding the establishment of the Park 51 Community Center two blocks away from ground zero in New York City. And, the longer it roils, the more rigid the lines of demarcation. Each side becomes more obdurate. The good news is that the public conversation is not only a way to speak various aspects of the truth of a controversy, but it is also a way to reach a larger truth that is justice.
Philosophical pragmatism is an American school of philosophy that sees the importance of the democratic conversation. No one individual, group or ideology can know or articulate truth claims with the depth and width and height of understanding that can compel society or the world to an uncritical affirmation of a particular proposition. Moreover, the problem often comes down to a hermeneutics. It is a matter of meaning, of what aspect of a question is most important and ought to be the primary consideration. This is the most difficult agreement to reach.
For example: In the Park 51 controversy the First Amendment rights of the Cordoba Initiative to establish a community center near Ground Zero is incontrovertible. At the same time, the grief and pain of the 9/11 families who oppose the project is real and deserves respect. Moreover, the shock of 9/11 that made many Americans feel vulnerable is also real and ought to be respected. Suspicion of Islam and the Muslim other is not unprecedented in the United States or in other countries. The public conversation is necessary to give light and air to all of these thoughts and feelings. Some think the most salient consideration is the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Others think the emotions of some of the 9/11 families and some Americans is most important.
The moment we enter into conversation, no matter the strength of our confidence in the rectitude of our own position, we open ourselves to conversion to another position. Conversation helps us to see our own boundaries, to acknowledge our limits. Public discourse allows us to test our ideas. Others will point out whether or not we are using appropriate and relevant facts. Others will assess the logic or our arguments. Others will determine whether or not our analogies are analogous. The public conversation allows us to refine our knowledge about various religions and to deconstruct, disrupt and disentangle, as best we can, religion from economics, politics and the will-to-power. Poetic, prophetic comics and fools intentionally make us laugh at the grotesqueries of grotesque contradictions. They ridicule the ridiculous.
The public conversation also allows introspection. We ask ourselves: what experiences of our life leads us to this or that conclusion and to what extent does this personal experience block access to other ways of comprehending the matter?
All of this takes time. However, it is a necessary part of the democratic process, because this process is not only social, cultural and political, but it is ethical. John Dewey, a thinker in the American pragmatist tradition, writes in an essay “The Ethics of Democracy” that a society is a kind of organism. Citizens become “organically related” in “unity of purpose and interest.” There is a process by which a majority opinion forms. Majorities form because a number of minority opinions coalesce. Dewey writes:
“The minority are represented in the policy which they force the majority to accept in order to be a majority; the majority have the right to ‘rule’ because their majority is not the mere sign of a surplus in numbers, but is the manifestation of the purposes of the social organism.”
For Dewey, the purposes of the social organism ought to be justice. It is an equity that allows ALL of the citizens of a society to develop the full potentiality of their personality. It is an infinite opportunity to “become a person.” I say: personhood includes the freedom to choose and to practice one’s religious beliefs. It is the freedom to provide a space of welcome and hospitality for one’s religious and geographic communities. It is the freedom to build bridges of understanding and to participate in the public conversation. So, the ethics of democracy is to make decisions as a society that are just, that allows for equal personal growth that strengths the individual and by extension the society as a whole. The ethical means and ends of a society pertain to every aspect of society -economic, political, cultural, social, etc. What we perceive as ethically reasonable and right often comes from our history and also from our faith.
This also means faith not only in God, in God’s radical love, in our fellow human beings, and in the public conversation, but it also means faith in the founding documents that articulate the guiding vision of the society. While I think it is a moral and spiritual mistake to make the nation and its national documents objects of our ultimate regard, it is nevertheless important to believe that they provide a structure upon which we may continually build a more perfect society. Martin Luther King Jr. was one American who lived and worked with such a faith.
August 28, 2010 marks the 47th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream Speech.” In it he is critical of the bad check that America has written to so many of its citizens. He is clear-eyed about police brutality, economic disparity and racial segregation. But, his sharp sight of the IS did not blind him to a faith vision. It did not blind him to the OUGHT of America’s promise. It did not blind him to the possibility of the American dream becoming a reality for ALL of its people.
Public demonstration is a method of public conversation. People make public statements that, on very rare occasions, ring through time. King’s speech was such a statement because it spoke the spiritual and ethical ought. He spoke of “meeting physical force with soul force.” Quoting Old Testament prophets, he spoke of justice: “and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He spoke of the responsibility that each individual has to let freedom ring “from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city.” He spoke of sisterhood and brotherhood between various races and religions as the main ingredient to create freedom for us all.
The healing message that Imam Rauf can take to the world also comes from Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Believe it.