Had I had been a colonist in America early in the early 17th century, I think that I would have made way to Rhode Island just as quickly as I could. A spiritual community in Rhode Island today has posted this account of their state’s origins on their webpage online –
Roger Williams came to the New World in 1631 with much the same hopes as the first Pilgrim Separatists. His heart’s desire was to see a pure church raised up, with no ties to the Church of England and its corruption, compromise, and oppression. Ironically that desire is what led to his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the end of 1635. His outspoken zeal for “soul liberty” proved too radical for the Puritan leaders of the colony, who had brought with them the same spirit of religious intolerance from which they had fled. Slipping away just before his arrest, Roger Williams fled into the wilderness and found refuge among the Indians. In later writings, Williams recalls how he was “denied the common air to breathe… and almost without mercy and human compassion, exposed to winter miseries in a howling wilderness [for fourteen weeks] not knowing what bread or bed did mean.” During this time, whatever shelter he found was in the dingy, smoky lodges of the Indians. Their hospitality to him in his time of need was something he sought to repay with kindness all the rest of his life. In early 1636, Williams purchased land from the Indians and with a few friends founded a settlement they called Providence Plantations, which soon became a refuge for those “distressed of conscience.” Williams eventually obtained a royal charter for the colony, which later became the State of Rhode Island, based on this mandate:
No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be anywise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion … but that all persons may … enjoy their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious concernments. (https://twelvetribes.com/articles/roger-williams-religious-freedom)
The relevance of this history for us today can be measured by what’s been happening up in Farmersville in recent weeks, just 35 miles to our north. Our friends at the Islamic Association of Collin County – they have hosted some of our Faiths in Conversation gatherings through the years, and their spiritual leader, Imam Khalil Abdur-Rashid, has been one of the most articulate and generously-spirited participants in the series – have been involved in the legal process of purchasing some new land for a cemetery for their community of faith. There is nothing sinister, secretive or subversive about this effort.
Just like our Orthodox Jewish friends, our Muslim friends have certain burial requirements, and so they have been seeking some land of their own where those religious requirements and the spiritual needs of their community of faith can be met. They found what the needed in Farmersville, and began the process of securing the land and meeting the legal requirements to establish their cemetery. But when a segment of the Farmersville community learned about these plans, they rose up in opposition. Now, nobody is, or should be questioning their right to object. This is, after all, what it means to be an American. Dissent is an important part of our rich and noble national heritage. What is objectionable is the fear-mongering and false witness (that is one of the Ten Commandments after all) that has been stirred-up by some, but certainly not all of the Christian leaders in Farmersville.
Islamophobia is a very real problem in the United States today, and not without cause. The events of 9/11 and the decade long war on terror have generated some very deep feelings of anger, fear and mistrust in many of us. The rise of ISIS and the very real treat that they pose to regional and global stability these days cannot be brushed away with a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya” with everybody standing in a circle holding hands. There is a problem, a serious problem with radical Islamic terrorism in the world today. But that problem only gets compounded when every Muslim in America gets suspected of being a collaborator with the actions of a few.
The agenda of the radical Islamic fringe is no more representative of Imam Khalil and his community of faith in Plano than the actions 40 years ago in Guyana of Jim Jones (a Disciples of Christ minister) and the People’s Temple ( a Disciples of Christ congregation) were representative of who we are and what we believe here at Northway. Today we are deeply ashamed of the way that we treated our citizens of Japanese descent during WW 2. It was a terrible mistake, an injustice of gigantic proportion, to tar a whole population of people with the same brush then, and it is just as enormous a mistake and grave an injustice to do it again now with our Muslim neighbors and friends. Instead of suspecting the worst and stoking the fires of fear, this is a teachable moment when mutual understanding must be sought so that mutual respect might be gained.
This is what our long commitment as a congregation to Faiths in Conversation has been about. Whether it is the fears about the establishment of Sharia law by our friend Imam Zia over at the Irving Mosque stirring up that community, or the controversy over the purchase of some land for a Muslim Cemetery up in Farmersville by Imam Khalil and his Plano Mosque, we have learned that the right approach is neither to ignore the fears, nor to scold the fearful, but rather to address the fears by entering into a constructive conversation with each other. And the motives for doing this, at least from “our” end, it seems to me, are three-fold. I think that I can make a compelling case for constructive engagement with the Islamic Association of Collin County and their pursuit of land for a cemetery in Farmersville by three of the most defining dimensions of my identity – by the fact that I am Texan, by the fact that I am an American, and by the fact that I am a Christian
- Because I am a Texan…
Whenever I see one of our Texas highway signs with the motto – “Drive Friendly” – on it, I think of the driving etiquette I used to routinely experience on the back roads of the Panhandle. When you pass by a driver in the other lane coming at you on one of those long stretches of open highway between Muleshoe and Floydada, or Hereford and Dimmitt, you raise a finger in greeting. Now I’ve driven in LA and New York City as well, and I have had fingers raised at me there too. But the Texas finger is the finger of greeting, it’s the finger of “howdy” there friend, it’s the finger of “I see you” and “You’re not alone out here in these wide open spaces.” This is one of the reasons why I love Texas the way I do and never plan on leaving. Sure. it can get way too hot in the summer and way too cold in the winter in Texas. The bugs can be a real nuisance, from the cockroaches in Houston, to the cicadas in Lubbock, to the mosquitos with West Nile Virus right here in Dallas. Most of the state is too flat and too dry for my tastes. But ah, the people! As a general rule, the people of Texas are some of the nicest and most helpful people you’ll find anywhere in the world. Oh, they can be loud and proud without a doubt, but they are an extremely good-hearted and open-handed lot as well. We are used to giving people a chance, and the benefit of a doubt around here. And so, to treat a whole group of people like some of the folks up in Farmersville are treating the good people of the Islamic Association of Collin County is simply “un-Texan.” It’s completely out of step with that “Drive Friendly” mentality that we are so proud of around here.
- Because I am an American…
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
That’s the beginning of the first Amendment to the Constitution, the very first words of what we know and cherish as the Bill of Rights. This “free exercise of religion” is guaranteed to us – to all of us. And when this right gets threatened in one religious tradition, it threatens all of us in every religious tradition. As the German Pastor Martin Niemöller learned the hard way in a Concentration Camp during WW 2 –
When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn’t a Jew.
When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.
In an article by Sharon Grigsby that was published in the Dallas Morning News this week, the parameters of the “free exercise of religion” and its roots in the noble experiment that was Rode Island in 1636 were explored.
Marv Knox, editor of The Baptist Standard, penned this editorial on the issue. Check out this excerpt addressing those who oppose the Muslim cemetery plan:
Some old-time Baptists must be rolling in their graves … They would remember Baptists have been champions of religious liberty and the rights of minorities for 400 years—dating to the days when Baptists were a tiny minority wherever they went. They would know the first Baptist in America, Roger Williams, founded Rhode Island as a haven of religious freedom, not only for fellow Baptists, but for “Turks,” as he called them. That’s right, Muslims.
Knox takes on the “so what” question I referenced earlier:
The correct answer to any lamenting about Muslims building a mosque is simple: So what? Baptists historically have believed all people have a right to worship according to the dictates of their consciences. Baptists who remain true to their principles will continue to defend Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and others who want to build houses of worship.
The freedom of religion that allows me to believe and behave according to the dictates of my own conscience and conviction is the same freedom of religion that allows my friend Imam Khalil to believe and behave according to the dictates if his own conscience and conviction. Threaten his freedom to do this and you are threatening my freedom to do this, and you’ll get a fight – not just from him… but from me too.
- Because I am a Christian…
The opposition to the establishment of a Muslim Cemetery in Farmersville that is rooted in willful misunderstanding and blatant false witness is both un-American and un-Texan, and we who are Americans and Texans ought to be ashamed of it. We’re so much better as a people than this. But it is as a Christian, as someone who is trusting Jesus Christ as my Savior and who is trying to serve Jesus Christ as my Lord, that I am most moved to stand with my friend Imam Khalil and his community of faith at the Islamic Association of Collin County in this controversy about the establishment of a cemetery in Farmersville.
You see, I don’t say that “Jesus is Lord,” and then go off and do as I please. No, when I say that “Jesus is Lord,” my commitment is to learn what it is that pleases Him, and then to do that very thing, and Mark 12:31 is as clear as any word spoken in Scripture about what it is that pleases Him – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus Christ commands me to love my neighbor. He commands us as Christians to love one another within the Christian family too, but not at the expense of failing to actively love our neighbors outside the Christian family. As Francis Schaeffer used to say, when Christian love gets exclusive it becomes ugly. It is only when we are actively loving our neighbors around us that Christian love can have its full effect. As John put it in his first letter, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (3:18). Christian love in action is called “mercy,” and the church has traditionally spoken of the works of mercy in two distinct ways.
First, there are the “Spiritual” Works of Mercy – our spiritual ministry to spiritual needs with our spiritual resources –
• To instruct the ignorant;
• To counsel the doubtful;
• To admonish sinners;
• To bear wrongs patiently;
• To forgive offences willingly;
• To comfort the afflicted;
• To pray for the living and the dead.
And then there are the “Corporal” Works of Mercy – our practical ministry to physical needs with our material resources –
• To feed the hungry;
• To give drink to the thirsty;
• To clothe the naked;
• To harbor the harborless;
• To visit the sick;
• To ransom the captive;
• To bury the dead.
And it was this last work of mercy – the commitment to burying the dead with real dignity and care – that uniquely branded the earliest Christians as compassionate in the eyes of the ancient world.
In his magisterial volume, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, the German Church Historian Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) specifically named the way that the early church took “care of poor people requiring burial, and of the dead in general” as being one of the big reasons why they were so effective in advancing the cause of the Gospel.
We begin here with the words of Julian, in his letter to Arsacius (Soz., v. 15): “This godlessness (i.e., Christianity) is mainly furthered by its philanthropy towards strangers and its careful attention to the bestowal of the dead.” Tertullian declares that the burial of poor brethren was performed at the expense of the common fund, and Aristides (Apol. xv.) corroborates this, although with him it takes the form of private charity. “Whenever,” says Aristides, “one of their poor passes from the world, one of them looks after him and sees to his burial, according to his means.” We know the great importance attached to an honorable burial in those days, and the pain felt at the prospect of having to forego this privilege. …[And so] the deacons [of the church] were specially charged with the task of seeing that everyone was properly interred (Const. Ap. iii. 7), and… they did not restrict themselves to the limits of the brotherhood. “We cannot bear,” says Lactantius (Instit. 6.12), “that the image and workmanship of God should be exposed as a prey to wild beasts and birds, but we restore it to the earth from which it was taken, and do this office of relatives even to the body of a person whom we do not know, since in their room humanity must step in.” (http://www.ccel.org/ccel)
As powerful as this ministry of burying the dead by the early church was in the ancient world, so it is just as scandalous today that Christians would be at the forefront of an effort to try to restrict the burial of dead. This failure of neighbor love is a stain on the church and a source of grief to God. It is a contradiction of the Gospel, and we who are Christians need to say so clearly and repeatedly. DBS+