On Tolerance: Our Greatest Community Value? Looking at the Mosque Controversy

September 5, 2010 - 6:11 pm 298 Comments

“Here ( in the USA) there are believers and unbelievers, conservatives and radicals, men and women of all nationalities and all races. We are a great and diverse company. And if we hold together at all, it is not because we seek any identity of opinion or attitude, but rather because we have learned to accept the principle of freedom, to practice the virtue of tolerance and good will, and to understand that religion means that we shall have love one for another.”
The Rev. John Haynes Holmes

Ramadan is ending this week. Rosh Hashanah is beginning. The regular routines of American styled Christendom are returning as children go back to school, and our mainline congregations gather the conventional attitudes as they steam towards the holiday season…
Yet, as we near the nineth anniversary of 9/11, the newspapers fill columns reporting the distress of those who feel slighted, upset and somehow violated by the idea that a new Islamic Center- which will include a mosque or worship space- will be built two and a half blocks for Ground Zero. The radio talk shows seem to stir up ferment and dissatisfaction, and they appear to be doing a great or convincing job of fueling fears, raising anxiety, and making the idea of having a mosque nearby some sort of violation of their sacred space!
What it appears to me is this: It is the wholesale posturing and conflation of erroneous ideas that can happen when narrow, uninformed or naive religious beliefs become manipulated by self serving politicians, media outlets, ans all those who feel that it is their purpose in life to create discord as to increase their self importance! It is the “shining example” of what is worst in human nature- when reason is trumped by fear; when religious differences are used as a cultural wedge of division; when the ignorance is given credence- so much so that they might well succeed at being able to shift public opinion away from religious tolerance, away from the actual Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom– All misguided efforts to quell and to satisfy the seeming outrage built on half truths and the merciless acceptance that cultural and religious differences warrant such denial of the rights of citizenship.

What is missing in this media fueled conflagration? The spiritual and ethical values of consideration, courtesy, and compassion; what is lacking is the willingness to learn from one another – honoring religious and cultural differences as an expression of personal choice or as a sincere sign of respect for their adopted religious teachings. As for the claim that the 20 Saudis were carried out the plane attacks as being legitimate  representative of all Islam- the third largest religion in the world- and that Islam is devoted to terror and conquest…. Well that is as absurd as declaring that all Catholic churches should be closed because all priests abuse children! We can never afford to slay the facts in order to emphasize political points- any and all such skewing of reason can only lead to tragic erroneous conclusions whose only value is in the larger support of lies, hate crimes, and other inhumane actions!

The remedy, as I see it, for all this comes down to a few cogent factors that require our introspective, our rational appraisal, and our application of religious and ethical truths. Politics aside, at least for a moment, tolerance for beliefs and practices than differ or that are not our own becomes the greatest preventative against the destructive, dehumanizing effects of religious hatreds.

Tolerance is also our best protection against subtle yet insidious notions of personal self-righteousness, arrogant ignorance, or what the underlying frustration behind all this fuss may really be pointing to- the unwillingness to clearly express our indignation and the feelings of powerlessness about the whole situation we find at Ground Zero.

Xenophobia, or the fear of the stranger, is one of the principal psychological factors we encounter here. While it is reasonably safe to say, Judaism is for the most part assimilated into our country and culture- and that Jews have immeasurably enriched our culture and given NYC and the world a multifaceted mosaic of gifts, talents and treasures.
However, Islam does not enjoy or does not have such a level of acceptance. In our popular and insular culture- that is, an American culture that is, for the most part, religious illiterate- even when that extends to what Christian ethics and ideals truly teach- which includes a radical hospitality, a welcoming of the stranger, and to refrain from judgments least you be judged… In short, that we are to become our sister’s and brother’s keepers…
This cultural discomfort with Islam has deep awkward roots- and the distrust that Islam has for Western values goes back into antiquity. Other than Biblical source material, we can agree that the height of the consternation, violence, and lasting mistrust comes from the great exercise in Christian Triumphalism known as The Crusades. ( Christian Triumphalism is the name generally given to the belief that somehow Christianity is morally and theologically superior to all other religions- and therefore it is our arrogant and righteous duty to try to convert all the unbelievers! You know, in order to save their souls! Even if it were not for such rubbish, it would still remain a scaring travesty- an exercise in pernicious hypocrisy that seems to know no bounds…)
The virulent prejudice displayed against Jews in its path and mainly directed at the defeat and slaughter of Moslems and Islam, failed miserably to achieve anything more than a mere modicum of time when “our” Holy Land was safely in our possession. However, The Crusades as the twisted ignoble effort failed at redeeming the seeming corruption of this universally regarded Western sacred space Tragically, it still has psychological, sociological, cultural, and financial repercussions that unsettled us, and yes, threaten the relative uneasy peace we have in the world today. (Remember all three of the historical Western religions- Judaism, Christianity and Islam have sacred places and holy shrines in that part of the world…) So, in one sense, we Christians- loosely defined- have inherited the sins of our forefathers- and this ancestral prejudice has been rehearsed for centuries- So to think that it will all blow over, or be easily resolved is a foolish, ungrounded hope.

In my mind, it will take nothing short of a nationwide sustained ten year “teach in” on religious literacy, interfaith compassion and respect, that could begin to resolve all the rehearsed slights and indignities we see fostered by this mosque incident. However, it is all too common in human nature and in our national priorities and financial misdirection, that it is so much easier to see the demon lurking in social differences outside, that to face the terrors we hold within us.

For nine years now, this secular but sacred space called ground Zero remains a large whole in the ground- and our citizenry appears to be paralyzed from making any progress towards re-consecrating the space by rebuilding, by creating a lasting memorial garden, by cleaning up the corrupt and mean spirited collisions that keep us, as a nation of survivors, still staring into a dark and heartless pit- an enormous abyss of despair!
Those who clamor that building a mosque so close to the Zero site is the height of indecency and disrespect for the dead have little honest perspective and much misplaced indignation. If this space were so sacred, I would have to ask out loud this question: What about the bars, strip clubs and other closer places and sleazy establishments that ring the site? Has there been any conscious or concerted effort to “clean up” the place- out of respect for the dead and the suffering? If anything, we should build a series of interfaith chapels that surround the site on all sides- that is, if our desire for consecration was genuine, sincere, and not politically motivated.

A lack of empathy is a clear and telling sign of spiritual immaturity. I say this because in my life study, my spiritual guidance work with people, and my personal experience, I have found that one of the constant qualities or working definitions of being a growing person is that he/she is filled with questions- filled and challenged by the awe, wonder, and the all-inclusive mysteries that are found in living as a part of modern life. Each person in their own way, thirsts for answers, and we can readily agree that no one religious system or philosophy holds all the answers or credibility to be immune to hypocrisy and inconsistency among its leaders and followers. No religion holds enough insight/knowledge/consistency/water to be able to attest to all truth, all reality. We can rightly and willingly acknowledge that each person contains the results of their own life experiences; their own perceptions, prejudices, and problems. We all acquire our beliefs and values from our formative education, our parental and family examples, our adult relationships, chosen teachers, etc., and from the best school of all- life itself. Whether we make sense of life through logic or mysticism, tradition or emotion, each event and experience, each book or every person we meet acts as a potential teacher for each of us.

This is the universal gracious connection we have to one another – it is what personal acceptance of human preferences and difference and what the practice of religious tolerance requires of us. We can prayerfully and metaphysically declare that the names for God, Life, Source, etc., need not divide us- that God is one, humanity is one, that there is only one earth, one sun, one reality that we ultimately share.

Subject line: Religious Freedom Sarah Palin-style

Hi there,

I just signed the ACLU’s “I Stand for Religious Freedom” petition. I am standing with thousands of people all across America in defense of religious liberty. I am also affirming my support for leaders like Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City who boldly oppose religious discrimination rooted in cultural stereotyping and resist those who seek to trade away our most precious values for political advantage.

Our laws protect the right to build a mosque, church, synagogue or any other house of worship. And preventing Muslims or any other group from practicing their faith is unconstitutional and un-American.

Sign the petition and stand with me in opposing religious discrimination.



(Your Name)

Some additional quotes, insights and reflections on tolerance:

How do we create a harmonious society out of so many kinds of people?
The key is tolerance – the one value that is indispensable in creating community.
Rep. Barbara Jordan

If our religion is a true religion… It must both tolerate and reverence variety.
The efficient biologist or engineer who would deny all value to religious
meditation and the religious life; the missionary who begins by suppressing all
native activities that he in any way disapproves; the scholastic theologian who
denied independent value of the natural sciences or humanist philosophy; …
All are limited in their outlook, and because limited, they are wrong. …
Our tolerance must not be merely passive, a tired intellectual gesture;
it must be active, springing from the belief and the knowledge that truth is too
large to be revealed in but one form, or one creed, or in any one way of life.
We must accept the hard saying that out of diversity alone comes advance, and that any one human mind is too small to grasp more than a little truth, to live
more than a little reality.
Aldus Huxley, from his book, Religion Without Revelation

“…. while we are asserting our own liberty and Christian rights, let us be consistent and uniform; and not attempt to encroach upon the rights of others. They have the same right to judge for themselves and to choose their own religion, with ourselves. And nothing is more incongruous than for an advocate of liberty, to tyrannize over his neighbors. We have all liberty to think and act for ourselves in things of a religious concern; and we ought to be content with that, without desiring a liberty to oppress and grieve others… Let us, as much as in us lies, live peaceably with all men; but suffer none to lord it over our consciences….
Jonathan Mayhew, Influential 1700’s Preacher from Boston

Everyone has a RESPONSIBILITY to not only tolerate another person’s point of view, but also to accept it eagerly as a challenge to your own understanding..
— Arlo Guthrie

The best thing to give to your enemy is forgiveness; to an opponent, tolerance; to a friend, your heart; to your child, a good example; to a father, deference; to your mother, conduct that will make her proud of you; to yourself, respect; to all men, charity.
— Benjamin Franklin

The problem to be faced is: how to combine loyalty to one’s own tradition with reverence for different traditions.
— Abraham Joshua Heschel

The Christians are right: it is pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.
— C. S. Lewis

In all affairs, love, religion, politics, or business, it’s a healthy idea, now and then, to hang a question mark on things you have long taken for granted.
— Bertrand Russell

We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.
Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.
— Abraham Lincoln

Everything that the modern mind cannot define it regards as insane. If people can be educated to see the lowly side of their own natures, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and to love their fellow men better. A little less hypocrisy and a little more awareness..
— Carl Jung

Arrogance is an impediment to wisdom.
— Bias of Priene

Don’t be so tolerant that you tolerate intolerance.
— Bill Maher

Respect for the rights of others means peace.
— Benito Juarez

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