©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Up until this point in this series of posts we have mainly discussed ideas. These ideas about wisdom as a vital agency of cooperation and peace (shalom) amid human diversity have been raising urgent questions about why we tend to limit the reach of wisdom to some people but not to others. For wisdom, according to Scripture, delights in “all humanity.”

Twin TowersWell, it’s one thing to agree mentally to an idea, but it can be quite another thing to put it into practice. So I thought it might be good to take a few posts and just share some personal stories that reveal internal challenges that may try to prevent following wisdom’s peaceable paths. As you read this first story, ask yourself: Which of the two guest speakers was obeying and which one was breaking the wisdom norms of peaceableness and mutuality? The answer may surprise you.

Let me take you inside a small, brick church in the American south. It’s a Sunday morning and I’m sitting quietly in a pew in the middle of the small congregation. I’ve been invited there to hear a guest preacher, just being introduced by the church’s pastor. And before I go on, you need to know that it is August 2010, the summer when that firestorm of controversy is raging across the country over the proposal to build “a mosque at ground zero,” in lower Manhattan.

The guest preacher begins his sermon with a moving personal story to introduce his topic, which had nothing whatsoever to do with Muslims or the mosque controversy. This could be a good message, I thought. Just minutes later, however, and without any sort of segue, he suddenly starts ranting about “the mosque at ground zero.” Then this bombshell: “I say, let them build it. Then when they’re done, let’s blow it up! That’s what they did to us on 9/11.”

I can’t believe my ears. And I don’t know what shocked me more, his statement or the “Amens!” that arouse around me when he said it. Livid, I come close to shouting out a rebuke. But then just as suddenly he stops ranting and returns to his sermon topic. I didn’t know what to do. Should I walk out? As I was pondering that, I had my mind made up for me. Suddenly he’s back ranting about the mosque and repeating his bombshell remark, which again drew some “Amens!” My heart pounding, I rise, step into the aisle, and walk quickly out, many people eying me.

I couldn’t just sit there and by doing nothing tacitly agree to what amounted to sponsoring a policy of violence. My knees were so wobbly I had a time walking to my car. I sat there in the heat for a long time, unable to drive.

After I cooled off, I wondered whether the guest preacher would change his mind if, for instance,  he got to know Dr. Muqtedar Khan, an academic at the University of Delaware and a self-described liberal Muslim, whose editorial “Mr. Bin Laden: Go To Hell!” ran in dozens of newspapers around the world after 9/11. I also wondered what he would think about imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a peace-loving sufi Muslim who is well-respected for his decades of interfaith work in New York City and in the U.S. State Department, which occasionally sends him to the Middle East on public diplomacy jaunts.

Now let me take you to another religious meeting, a memorial service for Daniel Pearl at B’nai Jeshurun, a prominent Manhattan synagogue. Daniel is the Wall Street Journal writer who was kidnaped and beheaded in Pakistan by his al Qaeda-connected captors in February 2002, and it’s now a year later. Rays of sunlight are slipping through the arched, blue-toned stained-glassed windows of the sanctuary. Judea Pearl, Daniel’s father, is sitting attentively in the front row of the packed sanctuary, his eyes on the speaker, imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has been invited to the memorial service by Judea.

During his eulogy for Daniel, the imam turns to Judea and asks his forgiveness for what has been done to Daniel in the name of Islam. Rauf then adds: “If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind, and soul Shma ? Yisreal, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Aha – Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One – not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl.” And to the Christians present, Rauf says: “If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind, and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one.”

This is the person that the guest preacher at the Sunday church service wanted to blow up. For imam Rauf, until 2011, was the lead visionary for the development of the multi-faceted, interfaith project in lower Manhattan that was manufactured into the ground zero mosque controversy. (For an in-depth account of the controversy and Rauf’s interfaith vision for the project, see Truth About the Mosque at Ground Zero. He hoped to model it somewhat after the multi-use, Jewish-run, 92nd Street Y.)

Attitudes toward others can oppose or encourage wise actions. Most Christian leaders, of course, would hate what the guest preacher said and agree with Jesus’s comment that “Wisdom is proved right by her actions” (Matthew 11:19). Some attitudes, of course, are on the surface, easily expressed. Others lay buried, and it may be a bit of a shock to discover that they are there. I want to share a story about that in the next post.