Aug. 12, 2010

The Spirit of the Lord and the New York Mosque


Today’s Daily Lectionary texts offer some unsettling insight into a conflict over the    construction of an Islamic Center in New York City, not far from ground zero.

First the lectionary texts, and let’s start with the Samson narrative that has been gathering steam for the past few days.  Samson’s miraculous birth, announced by an angel of the Lord to a formerly barren couple has come true, he has grow up as a Nazarite, dedicated from birth to the Lord.  Now he is a grown man who has hormones of his own, sees a pretty Philistine girl who “pleases him” and wants to marry her.  At a big festival he offers a riddle to solve for a prize which no one can guess until Delilah (whose name will not be know until Judges 16) nags him into revealing it to the Philistines.  Having been out-maneuvered, Samson is rather displeased.

But he is not just personally angry over a very personal family matter, as understandable as that might be (mitigating as a circumstance in a subsequent “crime of passion” perhaps).  No, there is more going on here.   The text, that is the Bible, our sacred, inspired text tells us an insight from the 3rd person omniscient narrator about God’s role in what happens next.  Samson is strong all by himself; but he is heroically strong when, on occasion, the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him, enabling him to do super-human feats.   So what does the Spirit of the Lord enable this man whose ego has just been bruised to do in response?

He identifies the means by which the Philistines learned the answer to his riddle:

“If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle.”  (Judges 14:18)

Then comes the Spirit of the Lord’s empowered response:

19Then the spirit of the LORD rushed on him, and he went down to Ashkelon. He killed thirty men of the town, took their spoil, and gave the festal garments to those who had explained the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father’s house. (Judges 14:19)

I intend no disdain nor mockery, but rather I am calling for critical engagement.  This is what our Bible says about God.   Most of us, however, feel completely free to repudiate the ethics and theology behind this story.  We can write it off as “just the Old Testament” that now has been superseded by the New Testament, but, the trouble we will run into with consistency in making that move notwithstanding, we still call this text sacred scripture.

Somehow we Christians have found ways to both embrace this text as scripture and to jettison its own testimony to the work of God in the world.   Is it even theoretically possible that modern Muslims might be able to conceive of a similar approach to some of their sacred text?  We would probably want to encourage moderate Muslims with this view as a viable alternative to radical Islam, would we not?

In fact there are such moderate Muslims and their work is effective where it is allowed to flourish.

The NY Times reported that mosques can actually be strong voice of deterrence of fundamentalist, extremist Islam.

A two-year study by a group of academics on American Muslims and terrorism concluded that contemporary mosques are actually a deterrent to the spread of militant Islam and terrorism. The study was conducted by professors with Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the University of North Carolina. It disclosed that many mosque leaders had put significant effort into countering extremism by building youth programs, sponsoring antiviolence forums and scrutinizing teachers and texts.

So why not encourage the Islamic Center in New York, (which, BTW, is not even visible from the ground zero site, being a few blocks removed – despite the hysteria with which people speak).

This brings us to our gospel text today from John 4.  Jesus has just broken the ethnic and gender barriers of his day by engaging the Samaritan woman at the well in dialogue.  The other disciples who have been out on a lunch-mission return, and we pick up the story there:

31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.

Haven’t we had enough of the unsustainable diet of exclusion long enough?  We have not been nourished by the huge servings of xenophobia, nationalism, or domination that we have heaped up for all these years.  Everyone is starving for a change of diet.  Here it is; this is the new way out of our predicament.  Here is the food that will satisfy us: to do the will of the father who is the Creator of every man and woman on the planet, regardless of how they now self-identify.  But so far,  few have ordered this dish from the menu.

Recommended reading: Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, by Miroslav Volf.


One thought on “Aug. 12, 2010

  1. Steven,

    Wonderful post – I have been having these thoughts myself and wondering what country I’m living in….the wurlitzer of fear propoganda has been playing pretty loudly lately.

    I actually believe that the proposed Center will be a voice of moderation and a sign that our supposed core American value of religious tolerance survives even the most extreme situations. I was so pleased to see Fareed Zakaria return the award he received from the Antidefamation League a few years ago in protest over their opposition to the building of the center. This same group opposed the building of a cloister near Auschwitz. No one has a corner on victimhood or pain or outrage! But we all can take steps to reach out our hand first. If only the wurlizer would shut up for awhile…….

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