I read a disturbing article in Sunday’s New York Times (“Across Nation, Mosque Projects Meet Opposition” 8/8/10, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/us/08mosque.html?th&emc=th). Protests against building or expanding Mosques are occurring in many places, far beyond Ground Zero in NYC. For many, evidently, the issue really is not about sensitivity to building a Mosque near the location of the horrific violence in 2001, but a larger reaction against Islam. The accurate and reasonable demand that we defend ourselves against violent Islamic fundamentalists is becoming a more generalized fear directed, inaccurately, toward an entire religious movement. The leading photograph is of a woman holding a sign that reads “Mosques are Monuments to Terrorism.” This is not very different from the mixture of fear and anger that led to the internment of Japanese citizens at the beginning of WWII.
There is a movement, at least among some people and some politicians (I hope a very limited minority), to deny Muslims the religious freedom which is one of the defining characteristics of our nation. To do so would be to diminish ourselves and our nation. To do so would be to let ourselves be governed by reactivity and fear, no matter what language is used to justify it. When this happens, we paradoxically become more like the thing we are afraid of. We fear a movement that denies basic human freedoms and represses its citizens, so we respond by repressing our own people.
There is a story I heard so long ago that I forget where I heard it (and so, unfortunately cannot give proper credit to its source) that speaks to the choices that are in front of us. I have used this story in many sermons, so if you have heard me preach you have probably heard this story. But it is worth repeating.
There was an old man who would sit every morning under a certain tree by a river outside of his village to pray. One morning following heavy rains, the river was swollen and rushing by the tree. While praying the old man noticed a scorpion fighting for its life in the water. As the river came near the tree, the scorpion became caught in the tree roots that extended into the river. The man watched the scorpion struggle for its life, clinging to the tree roots.
Instinctively the man reached down to pull the scorpion out of the water. As he did, the scorpion stung his hand. He pulled his hand back and then reached again to the scorpion, and again the scorpion stung his hand. The struggle continued. The old man was determined to pull the scorpion out of the river. The scorpion instinctively struck at his hand.
A young man riding his horse near the river saw what was happening, and stopped to watch this mini drama. Finally he said to the old man: “You stupid old man, don’t you know that that vicious insect only wants to harm you and will not stop stinging your hand? Why do you keep trying to save it? Just let it drown.”
The old man looked up to him and said: “It is the scorpion’s nature to do harm. Because its nature is to do harm, why should I let it change my nature which is to save?”
Why should we allow the violence, the evil, the fearfulness, the intolerance of fundamentalist extremists make us fearful and intolerant? If we do, then they win.
The apostle Paul spoke to the challenge well many years ago when he wrote: “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:21) It was a challenge in the 1st century. It is a challenge in the 21st century.
Fortunately, the Times article did report that where some have acted to deny basic rights to our Muslim neighbors, many others have stood up to defend them.
What is at risk is not only the civil rights of our neighbors, but our character as a people.