Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is the Vicinity of Ground Zero
"Hallowed Ground"?

In a remarkable display of overstepping one's boundaries, the imam behind the so-called Ground Zero mosque in New York City stated that the site surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York should not be considered 'sacred ground.' As the Associated Press reported his remarks:
"It's absolutely disingenuous, as many have said, that that block is hallowed ground," Rauf said, noting the nearby exotic dance and betting businesses. "So let's clarify that misperception."
Certainly there are differences of opinion about what makes something hallowed ground. Certainly there has been no appearance of divine beings that declared Ground Zero to be hallowed ground, to the best of my knowledge. However, consecration by the Divine is only one way in which an area can be consecrated.

One of the most famous and most revered figures in all of American history is President Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, as he was dedicating a mass cemetery at a Pennsylvania battleground of the Civil War, President Lincoln made one of the shortest but most profound speeches in American history, something now known as the Gettysburg Address. In this brief speech, President Lincoln acknowledged that he and those in attendance had gathered to dedicate the final resting place of the combatants--and then he said this:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate…we cannot consecrate…we cannot hallow…this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.
The blood of those who die in a struggle also consecrates an area, in President Lincoln's view, and there is much to be said in this regard regarding Ground Zero.
Hundreds of those who died at Ground Zero were law enforcement officers, fire fighters, emergency medical personnel, and other brave workers who struggled to save those who were injured or trapped in the burning Towers. Perhaps the greatest example of bravery I have heard of in my lifetime comes from the testimony of several of those who escaped down the emergency stairs at the Twin Towers, from those people who noted that, while great masses of people were struggling to get down and out of the Towers, the police, fire, and emergency workers were struggling to get in and up into them: these brave officers struggled to go into the very heart of darkness and peril, for the sake of others. Their noble and selfless ultimate sacrifice hallows Ground Zero.
Most of those who died at Ground Zero were not rescuers; they were innocent victims, going about their work, who happened to be in the worst possible place at the worst possible time. In essence, these innocent victims of mass murder were a blood sacrifice to Moloch, God of Terrorism. But America did not accept the purpose of that evil sacrifice. America took the blood of the innocent and reconsecrated it, pledging that never again would we be caught so far off our guard. The blood of the innocent hallows Ground Zero.

Yes, there are betting parlors and exotic dancers in the neighborhood. These are aspects, for better or worse, of American life in that part of town; they were there before 9/11, and it should be no surprise that they are there today. But none of that detracts in the slightest from the fact that Ground Zero was, is, and always shall be hallowed ground. The only point in question is how long America shall remember that, and how it shall choose to recognize and commemorate that.
Hallowing the site of the sacrifices of the heroes and the innocent victims of 9/11 is most certainly On the Mark.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A 9/11 Meditation:
The Real Reasons for Religious Toleration

In an earlier post, I indicated that I would be reading the Koran between September 11, 2010, and September 11, 2011. (In another post, I invited people to join with me in the movement, “Christians Reading the Koran”; come visit us on Facebook.) I actually have a somewhat wider intent—I will not only be reading about the Koran, but about its context, and about Islam generally—so I began today with reading Stephen Prothero’s book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—And Why Their Differences Matter; Dr. Prothero has a chapter on Islam that I will read to help provide context for my reading of the Koran itself.

I like reading Dr. Prothero’s work, in part because he has a clear understanding of some truths that are accurate and important, although they fly in the face of political correctness: There are real differences among religions, these differences have important consequences, and it would be good for people to understand these differences. Reading Dr. Prothero’s book today had me thinking about the real roots of religious toleration, and why it is important.

False Basis: ‘All religions say the same thing’

There are those who take the position that we should be tolerant of different religions because ‘all religions really say the same thing, at heart.’ This is a feel-good message that seems assuring in our difficult times. However, it is not true.

People of different religions believe radically different things about the nature of God, the nature of humanity, and the relationship between God and humanity. This is about as fundamental a set of differences in belief as anyone could hope to find. Different religions do have some areas of overlap, notably in the areas of basic ethics, although even in ethics different religions have basic differences. Overall, different religions say very different things about life and the universe, and these differences have very important consequences for many domains of human life. What constitutes a good education, a proper occupation, a good marriage partner, proper recreation, even a good day—all these can be radically different across different religions. So, the myth that ‘all religions say the same thing’ cannot be the basis of religious toleration.

False Basis: ‘We cannot prove one religion superior to another’

There are those who take the position that we should be tolerant of different religions because ‘we cannot really prove the superiority of one religion over another.’ It may be extremely uncomfortable to confront this issue, but this position is another myth.

People of different religions often think that they actually can prove the superiority of one religion over another. For some, the evidence is found in tradition; for others, in personal spiritual experience; for yet others, in the facts of science and history. I am not here taking a position on the adequacy of any of these positions (which is a question for another time and place). All I’m saying is that the notion that ‘we cannot make statements on the validity of one religion over another’ is itself rejected by many religious traditions. This myth as well, then, cannot serve as the basis of religious toleration.

To my mind, there are two basic arguments that really work as the basis of religious toleration. One is based on the sciences of human behavior (psychology, anthropology, and sociology); the other, interestingly enough, is based on religion.

A Solid Basis: Human Survival

Human beings have always lived in a multicultural world. Six centuries ago, in 1410, some of my ancestors were Polish Christians, living on farmland not far from today’s Warsaw; they may not have seen anyone but a Polish Christian their whole lives. Other ancestors were Russian Jews, living in shtetls where they may have only rarely saw anyone from another background. Still others were indigenous Native Americans living in the jungles of what is today Puerto Rico; they were a lifetime away from being “discovered” by Europeans.

But some of my ancestors were Spanish Christians, living under Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula. (Indeed, for all I know, yet others of my ancestors can be found among those very Muslims.) And, in other places in the world, there were millions of Muslims in the Middle East; Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucianists in Eastern Asia; Hindus by the million in South Asia; practitioners of indigenous religions throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas.

In this multicultural landscape of six centuries ago,where there was religious toleration, then there was peace; when there was not religious toleration, there was hideous war and death. (This message is brought home dramatically in Philip Jenkins’s book, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died.)

Now fast forward six hundred years to 2010. It’s still a multicultural world, but now it is multicultural on a micro level, not just a macro one. Multiple cultures are evident almost everywhere you look in the United States. This is especially obvious in New York City, where I now live; about half the people who prepare my lunch sandwiches are African Muslims from one country or another, and the other half are from Central America, East Asia, and Oceania. But multiculturalism is not just a New York City or even an urban phenomenon. In a world where one can find a substantial Ethiopian community in Fargo, North Dakota, I’m on solid ground in saying that we have arrived at the Age of the Multicultural World. In this world, even moreso than six centuries ago, religious toleration leads to peace, and lack of religious toleration leads to strife and conflict. It’s just that now, that applies across the Earth, and conflict can be played out with suitcase nukes and basement lab-built pandemic organisms.

It comes down to simple human survival, the ultimate practical consideration. Religious toleration leads to survival; intolerance leads to war. To my mind, there is no more powerful rationale for religious toleration.

Except perhaps for one other.

A Solid Basis: Divine Approval

Although I am the first one to agree that there are major differences among the religions of the world, I find it interesting that the world’s various religions are agreed in placing a strong emphasis on the value of peace.

It would take a very long entry to demonstrate this across world religions, and this is already an epic-long post. But think about it: one of the points of the meditative disciplines taught by Hinduism and Buddhism is to find inner peace; one of the drawing points of the obedience to God preached by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is to find peace; the point of the the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is to end suffering and find peace; even the various manifestos of secular humanism are written in support of peace, both political and personal. Yeah, these various movements have only imperfectly practiced their search for peace. In this, all have sinned, and I do mean all. However, there is no denying that peace is a big deal for the religious and spiritual traditions of the world.

The inescapable conclusion is that, if there is any divine source or power expressed through any of these movements, that Source values peace. Implicitly, then, that Source values religious toleration, as that is a fundamental cornerstone of a peaceful world.


Religious toleration is a prerequisite for human survival. One of the relatively few things that all religious and spiritual traditions agree on is the value of peace, inner and outer. In search for that peace, religious toleration is crucial.

Promoting religious toleration for the sake of our common human survival, and to express our individual traditions’s best values: that is certainly On The Mark. (And, in my opinion, it is one of the best ways to honor those innocents who died in the terrorist attacks on America on that dark Tuesday, September 11, 2001.)

[The photo above is described by its author as follows: “A young patriot salutes heroes at the 2009 National Memorial Day Concert on the West Lawn of the United States Capitol.” The author is the U.S. Army. As a work of an agency of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. It was obtained from Wikipedia.]

(Copyright 2010 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

“Burn a Koran Day” Pastor’s Effort is Self-Defeating

Just about everyone with any place in American public life has condemned the plans of the pastor in Florida who wishes to hold “International Burn a Koran Day” on Saturday, September 11. This includes the Obama White House, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder, U.S. Army and NATO commander in Afghanistan General David Petraeus, Angelina Jolie, Pope Benedict XVI, Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham), Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin. It’s hard for me to imagine these people agreeing to have lunch together, let alone agreeing on anything of consequence. Yet they all agree on this.

Apparently, this effort has all come to nothing. As reported in this story on the website of The New York Times, the pastor in Florida, Terry Jones, says that his plans have not changed.

I have read a lot of arguments leveled against this pastor’s plans, on the grounds of American values and Christian values; I’ve taken that approach myself. Several writers have made appeals to cancel the event for the sake of the safety of American military personnel, Christians living in the Muslim world, and so forth. However, I have not read anything written from this pastor’s own point of view, which is unfortunate. As it happens, even from the perspective of this pastor’s own agenda, the planned “Burn a Koran Day” is not only guaranteed to be ineffective, but it is almost guaranteed to be counter-productive. (This is why I placed the logical sign for “contradiction” above. Please notice how it is the perfect abstraction of a truck hitting a brick wall.)

This is the Wrong Activity to Target Islamic Extremists

On CBS’s The Early Show, Rev. Jones stated that said that the Koran burning was a “warning” that was “geared toward radical Islam.” However, burning the Koran is precisely the wrong way to reach this group.

The fact of the matter is that radical Islamists, the folks who see America as the “Great Satan,” who hate America and American values, who want to impose Islamic law on the population of the world against its will—are only a minority among Muslims. The Koran, however, is revered by all Muslims. The burning of the Koran will be perceived as an attack on the entire Muslim community: the radicals, sure, but also the many millions of moderate and liberal Muslims.

By burning the Koran, Rev. Jones will alienate a large number of the world’s billion-plus Muslims. Ten seconds of video showing the Koran burning, broadcast on al-Jezeera, and large numbers of Muslims around the world will make the mistake of thinking that this is an act of attack on Islam as a whole, and that it is supported by Americans generally, and by Christians worldwide. These people will trip over themselves to enlarge the ranks of the radical Islamists, increasing the size of the radicals immensely.

Burning the Koran is not a statement against or a “warning” to radical Islamists. Rather, this act would greatly increase the number of radical Islamists, and encourage them to cause trouble for Christians everywhere.

Burning the Koran Will “Warn” No One

Another point involves the idea of burning the Koran as some kind of act of “warning.” On The Early Show, Rev. Jones said that “This particular act is actually an act of warning radical Islam.” As he explained, “We want them to know if they’re in America, they need to obey our law and constitution and not slowly push their agenda upon is.”

However, burning the Koran does not further this agenda at all. What is Pastor Jones saying by this act? Is he saying ‘We’ll burn you if you pursue an Islamist agenda here’? Of course, if this is the message, the pastor is encouraging an illegal activity: murder, which is a capital offense in Florida even for acts motivated by religion or patriotism.

There is nothing in the burning of the Koran that communicates the message that Rev. Jones wants to share. If he wants to put radical Islamists on notice that they must obey American law and the American Constitution, then he would be better off sponsoring a conference—“The American Constitution: Accept It or Leave” would be a catchy title—accepting contributions to hold it, and inviting speakers from around the U.S. on this important issue. He’d get a big week or more in the media, some financial contributions, a ton of material to propagate either on the Internet or through the sale of conference proceedings, and he could make a real impact, both on many American citizens, and on the global Islamic community in particular.

Burning the Koran Does Not Further the Christian Cause

The larger agenda that any sincere Christian pastor would have is to further the cause of Christianity. However, burning the Koran does not further this agenda in any way.

Burning the Koran will not lead one single Muslim to Christ. If anything, it would frighten away people who might otherwise be curious about Christianity.

Burning the Koran will not keep one single person from converting to Islam, either. Americans are aware that law enforcement will not tolerate actual interference with the conversion of a legal adult.

If anything, a book burning would raise the profile of the Koran within American society. Consider what happens in the case of an analogous situation: book bannings. The history of book bannings in the United States demonstrates that the publicity accompanying such an act results in a much greater public awareness, and often heightened sales nationwide, for this very book. Some readers of this blog may remember that, in an earlier day, book publicists looked forward to the day when the book they were promoting was “banned in Boston”; this often meant that the book would soon be flying off the shelves in New York, Chicago, and L.A.

As it is, Pastor Jones has done more to put the Koran in the news in the United States than anything else occuring at least over the last three years. None of this furthers the cause of Christianity.


The planned public burning of the Koran will not further Rev. Jones’s agenda in any way. Instead, it will accomplish exactly the opposite of what he wishes. Now would be a good time for this activity to be changed into something more productive.

Thinking things through to their likely consequences is truly On The Mark.

(Copyright 2010 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

“Christians Reading the Koran”: Movement and Facebook Group

In an earlier post I wrote about “Burn a Koran Day,” announced for September 11, 2010, in Florida (upcoming as I write this). I mentioned in that post that I would make it a point to read the Muslim holy book, the Koran, between September 11, 2010, and September 11, 2011. I has occurred to me that other Christians might wish to join me in this endeavor. Consequently, I hereby announce the “Christians Reading the Koran” movement.

This movement is for Christians who are interested in reading about the Koran, or reading the Koran itself. I do not mean to slight any Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Confucian, Taoist, Shinto, Agnostic, Atheist, or other people who might be interested in this project; however, since “Burn a Koran Day” is the project of a Christian minister, I thought it appropriate to start a Christian movement as a positive response.

This being the 21st century, this movement also comes with an affiliated Facebook group. The Facebook group, “Christians Reading the Koran,” may be found at this location. (Log into Facebook before hitting this link.) I would encourage you to join this group; it is a way to demonstrate the numerical strength of this movement. As I write this, news reports indicate that hundreds of Afghanis have protested “Burn a Koran Day,” and U.S. Army General Petraeus has said that the planned book burning could endanger U.S. troops in the region. (My personal feeling is that there is the potential here for an extraordinarily large problem.) It would be great to be able to demonstrate to the Muslim world that there are a large number of Christians who are trying to promote peace, respect for the Koran, and better understanding between Christians and Muslims.

Now for a few questions and answers.

Is this movement part of some plot to proselytize for Islam?

No. I am a committed Christian, specifically a Latter-day Saint.

Is this movement part of some plot to proselytize for Christianity?

No. This effort is meant to promote peace, and better understanding between two large religious groups.

Let’s be clear about something. I have nothing against missionary work. I have been a missionary myself, in Eastern Asia, and my son will soon be leaving for a two-year term of service as a missionary in Eastern Europe. I enjoy sharing my faith. However, I strongly believe that missionary work should be clearly labelled as such. The “Christians Reading the Koran” movement is not missionary work.

How could this movement promote peace and mutual understanding?

In the short term, I think it would be good to demonstrate to the Islamic world that there are Christians who show respect for the Muslims’s holy book by studying it, even as others are burning it.

In the long term, it would be great for Christians to learn more about Islam. One can hardly show respect for people whom one does not understand; to understand Islam, one should understand something about its scripture.

How might people involve themselves in learning about the Koran and reading the book itself?

There are books in both the Dummies and the Idiots series’s about Islam and the Koran, and these would be a good place for the absolute beginner to start. (Disclosure: I have published a book in the Dummies series, and in 2011 I will be publishing several books with Tarcher/Penguin, whose parent company publishes the Idiots series.)

Some people may find that they wish to start with a chapter or so on Islam, to give them the proper context for the Koran (or Qur'an). There are good chapters on Islam in the following books:
  • Stephen Prothero, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).
  • Huston Smith, The World's Religions (New York: HarperCollins, 50th anniversary edition, 2009).

I plan to read Michael Sells’s book, Approaching the Qur’án: The Early Revelations (Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 1999). Sells, formerly a professor of religion at Haverford College (my alma mater), now at the University of Chicago Divinity School, gives context for the emergence and meaning of the Koran, and translates some of the early sections of the Koran, with commentary.

When it comes to reading the Koran itself, the reader in English has several choices, ranging from a volume (the Dawood translation) in the Penguin Classics series to a 2004 translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, published by Oxford University Press.

Shouldn't Christians be focusing their study on the Bible?

Last time I looked, there was nothing in the Bible to discourage other, non-biblical learning. This is why Christians do things like go to college, graduate school, professional school, art school, and so forth. We live in an intensely multicultural, pluralistic world. To be prepared to live in that world, and to further the cause of peace in that world, we all need to learn more about each other's faiths. (This point is elaborated on in an excellent book by the religious studies scholar Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy.)

"But I've already got so much else to do!"

Remember the Eleventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not whine."

Hey, I'm not your time cop. Only you can decide whether you can fit this in. For most people, with some rearranging of priorities, study time can be found--but I recognize that this doesn't apply to everyone. (Yes, I was once a 50-to-60-hour-a-week intern working in a hospital myself.)


The “Christians Reading the Koran” movement is a good idea. The activity promotes peace and mutual understanding—two things that are most definitely On The Mark.

[The photo of the first few verses of the Koran is in the public domain, and was obtained from Wikipedia.]

(Copyright 2010 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)