All things considered

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Just because you can do something doesn't necessarily mean you should.

In the movie "Schindler's List," businessman Oskar Schindler tries to persuade -- unsuccessfully -- a Nazi officer that real power sometimes means not doing something. Real power, he attempts to say, often means restraining yourself. St. Paul had a similar idea in telling the church at Rome about what foods to eat. All food, the apostle said, is clean, but there will always be those who will never be persuaded.

If you go ahead and eat certain food knowing its consumption will cause distress to someone else, you aren't acting in love. Better to avoid that food -- even though you know it's perfectly fine -- just so someone else doesn't stumble. Paul is preaching on the power of holding back.

Paul's summation in Romans 14 offers a template to consider the current fracas over a proposed new mosque in New York City. Simply wading into this topic, I feel the billy clubs being raised all around me. Everyone has a strong opinion. Just the same, come with me awhile longer. The planned Muslim house of worship is to be located two blocks from ground zero, scene of the destroyed twin towers of the World Trade Center. What an amazing structure the World Trade Center was.

In the early 80s, as the assistant coach of a high school debate team, I got to tour Tower One. Two decades later, it would all be gone, destroyed by al-Qaida in an act of terrorism on American soil. The intentional act of flying commandeered commercial jets into the World Trade Center aroused feelings among the public that had lain dormant since Pearl Harbor.

Some of these feelings are being reawakened. The intensity has waned in the intervening nine years certainly, yet in the last few weeks sizable pockets of outrage have formed. Building a mosque so close to the scene of carnage caused by Muslim extremists seems incomprehensible to many.

Various pundits have weighed in on the controversy pro and con. On the one hand, this is America. The land is privately owned and the proposed use meets local zoning requirements. That organizers have the right to build the carefully named "Park 51" is unquestioned.

On the other hand, just because you can do something doesn't necessarily mean you should. If the aim of building such a structure is the fostering of peace, as organizers claim, is it reasonable to conclude that Park 51 will bring about such a condition? Or, as seems more likely to this columnist, will the venue bring about just the opposite?

It does not take a seer to imagine acts of vandalism, even arson, if the project moves forward at this locale. Despite all the high-minded and eloquently rational arguments made in support, to many this project seems to kick sand in the faces of victims' families.

More than 1,000 families never have found any remains to bury. The whole section of lower Manhattan is, to many families, a cemetery of unmarked graves. Building anything on this site, be it a mosque, a school, a Baskin-Robbins, seems a desecration of the first order.

We invite St. Paul at this juncture. Paul wrote of rights and of sensitivity to the other. If he were holding a weight scale, there appears little doubt that sensitivity would hold the higher mass. To wit: "Let us make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification." (Romans 14:19)

The organizers of Park 51 have rights. They have zoning approval. They own the land. It is theirs. And this is America. In the face of unquestioned rights, Paul might invoke sensitivity. Just because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean we should. There is a power in holding back, in showing restraint.

Another place would be better, all things considered.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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