The Mosque, Ground Zero, and Wisdom

A mosque near Ground Zero?

As you know, the Brook Network ( is all about “sharing ideas, pursuing wisdom.” Serious Christ-followers, and especially leaders, need to be committed in this tumultuous time in which we live to “the wisdom from above.” (I read a quote this morning from leadership guru Jim Collins: “There is no New Normal. We are now dealing with a world that is going to be ferocious.

The volatilities, the turbulence, the uncertainties of the world will probably define the second half of my life.”)

Wisdom grounds us. It ties us into the mind and the will of God (as much as is possible for us mere mortals). Wisdom turns our eyes to the good of all, instead of what is good just for me.

A brief comment from the President of the United States on Saturday caught my attention (and the attention of millions of others) when he augmented comments he had made the previous day about the legal right of a Muslim group to build a community center and mosque in close proximity to Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center tragedy. On Friday he asserted the importance of the legal right, on the basis of freedom of religion, and on Saturday he took a bit of a detour, saying that he was “not commenting on the wisdom” of the project. There’s that word: wisdom. So the point is: we must absolutely defend the legal right of exercise of religion–but the “wisdom” of building a mosque near Ground Zero may be another question.

Here is my question, and it is more personal than political or even religious: is it a good idea for any of us to divide and compartmentalize the notions of “rights” and “wisdom”? What does it do to our souls if we turn one way and assert our rights, and turn the other and cast doubts on the wisdom of our actions.

Of course, we do have to differentiate between legal issues and moral and ethical issues. But we confuse the conscience and nullify our dignity as human beings if we hold “rights” and “wisdom” at arm’s length from each other. That splits the soul. That places conscience and moral sensitivity on an isolated island.

We have seen this same problem in how we have dealt with the issue of abortion. There was a time when most of the discussion about abortion in its different forms dealt with it as an ethical, moral, medical, and spiritual issue. There were substantive debates about human nature, and what constitutes human life (and the implications for termination). Then it all got political. It became an issue of rights. The Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, made it legal, of course, and then the battle started. But what I never understood is why we let the debate about abortion in the last twenty years devolve into an issue that is focussed mostly on the legal. A fight in the courts. Giving litmus tests to politicians. Pretending that Roe v. Wade will fall like a house of cards if only the right people get into office.

And all the while the legal fight ensued, countless opportunities to discuss the wisdom of the run-of-the-mill, convenience-based, abortion-on-demand were lost. Isn’t it interesting that in some parts of the country abortion rates have dropped significantly–oftentimes because powerful ethical, moral, medical, and personal issues have been put front and center on the table. Like the TV ads that so poignantly assert: life is a good choice (i.e. a wise choice).

So here is my question: would it not be better for us to distinguish, but not separate, matters of “rights” and “wisdom”?

This mosque at Ground Zero issue makes me think of the words of the Apostle Paul: “’Everything is permissible’–but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’–but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23). He was quoting people whose highest principle was freedom of conscience (“everything is permissible,” meaning what is allowable). But, he says, one must still evaluate whether an action is “beneficial” or “constructive.”

For serious Christians and Christian leaders the challenge is this: to distinguish but not separate what may be legal from is wise. And it takes a whole lot of wisdom to do so.

What do you think?

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15 thoughts on “The Mosque, Ground Zero, and Wisdom”

  1. I came to the same conclusion when I was part of a discussion this past week. My argument was this: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. When does common sense and common courtesy take hold?

  2. Distinction vs. separation. Hmmmmmm. Perhaps that is one of those tensions we need to live in the midst of. If wisdom leads us to not only answer the question of what is true, what is good, and what is right, but also leads us to act on those answers, then indeed it may sometimes take us down a different path than simply “what is legal”. The civil disobedience of Ghandi in India and the leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s are cases in point. Sometimes what is “wise” (true, good and right) has little to do with what is legal.

  3. Thank you for referencing Paul’s comments re “permissible” and the questions of beneficial and constuctive that we should always ask. Though I knew no one involved in the 9-11 horror, Iunhappily witnessed it as it happened and to this day it causes tears anger and nausea at the remembering.I pray — without ceasing– that the wisdom of Paul’s words expressing his understanding of Christ’s teachings will have a widespread impact on the thinking of who are involved in this unfortunate situation. Thank you again.

  4. You ask about the relationship of rights and wisdom, but I think we need to back up a little bit. We have forgotten that with rights comes responsibility. If we have a right to do something then when we do it , we have to be responsible for the results of our actions. Because of that we will try to make “wise” choices because of the consequences of making a bad choice. In our culture today, many people want rights without consequences and if they can get that (which they often think they do) then the wisdom or lack thereof doesn’t appear to matter. They may have the right to build the mosque, and the officials may have the right to let them, but until they understand that they will be accountable for the consequences that result from their actions, they will never feel the need to question the “wisdom” of their actions

  5. Dianne Duszynski

    There must be no Mosque built anywhere near the 9/11 sacred grounds….Not even close….Muslims were involved with those murders….So too were they involved in the 12 killed and 31 wounded at Fort Hood…The Christmas bomb attempt was tried by a muslim, as was the Times Square attempt, not to mention the Lockerbie murder or the 300 Marines who were killed in Lebanon by muslims….THAT’S ENOUGH TOLERANCE…..IT’S TIME FOR AMERICA TO FIGHT BACK NOW, AND SAY NO…..

  6. Rev. Bertram Lewis

    My Brother, it appears that we again float into that underlying issue of separation of church and state. Your thought seems to want to attack anything the President might say or do. I feel it appropriate to undergird that under the constitution the Mosque as any house of worship has a right to build a place of worship, yet where that is done becomes a matter of wisdom. Wisdom as to whether it is offensive etc. The nation once supposedly to exspouse the Christian principles, because of the steps not ot let that stand but open to everyone has brought us to this point. Now the tough decisions must be made and it is not part of the religious process but one of political and personal. Let us in the church preach amd teach the Gospel of Christ and from there trust God to give His people the wisdom to make the right decisions about life.

  7. The arcticle seems to me to smack of political correctness. And ambiguity. Maybe this goes in the face of acknowledging that Barack Obama may have spoken well. But the arcticle shows an unwillingness to acknowledge that.

    I think the president is probably correct. Although I disagree with the mosque there. I wouldn’t deny them their right to build it. God doesn’t force any of us to serve and follow him. We have a choice. God provided that in his perfect plan of salvation. So too do our muslim brothers have that choice. And we as a free people constitutionally made it a legal right that everyone has a choice. Some have chosen not to acknowledge God. Or to corrupt his word. Or to believe a lie.

    That’s sad. Our job is to reach them. Not force them. God can and does lift the veil. Not us. IT was God’s will that all men had the opportunity to hear the Gospel. And to choose to reject it. God’s will was codified into the law of the land when we support the constitutional protection of freedom of religion.
    Those rights support and protect us. And them. There’s wise means of witnessing to unbelievers. And there’s unwise means that would more likely do more harm than good.
    So the media portrays the circumstances well. To build a mosque there is insensitive to those who died. I’m not moslem. I’m a christian. I oppose Islam as a lie. An unfair sham that a great number of the earths people believe and support. I understand somewhat why they do so. I’m sensitive to the burdens faced where the Islamic faith were to be abandon. I oppose propagating a false religion. And building mosques. But for me to tell them they can’t, amounts to my usurping God’s will that all men be given free will to choose. That free will choice must be preserved and guraded by Christians. In so doing, we honor God’s will.

    So I agree with President Obama. They have a legal right. But in exercising that here. They show a lack of Wisdom. And insensitivity to the Christian basis on which this country was founded.

  8. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of this article. I’m glad I’m on this mailing list. I think, however, that this controversy is out of control and creating for us all a false ethical problem. It is just wrong on Christian Ethical grounds to pander to those who so fear the unknown that they would want to block the building of a Mosque that is already there at the site. And ignoring the fact that there is a strip (excuse me, “Gentlemen’s”) club even closer to Ground Zero than the Mosque. What of caring for the stranger in our midst? What of Jesus and the Samaritan woman? The Syro-phonecian? The gentile Centurion. My Jesus is all about doing public things that embraces those who believe differently so that they might come to believe in him. It is both just and wise to allow the building of this Mosque near ground zero. Thanks for listening.

  9. Is the fundamental reason this mosque is being built as simple as “Freedom of Religion?” The ACLU has ripped apart Christianity and the “rights” to pray etc. but is now in favor of this mosque as having rights to freedom of religion. This mosque is called the Cordova Project – there is a mosque in Spain called the Cordova that overtook a Christian church and then claimed it had overcome the Christian God. It is the 3rd largest mosquein the world. No one is disclosing who is paying for this mosque that is located on the most expensive real estate in America — why the secret? Mosques are being built all over the USA – why did they choose this location that is so important to thousands who lost loved ones in a horrific attack on America. The headline news in China is this mosque and that we Americans are letting it be built on a site of an attack on American soil. There are so many questions that aren’t answered and emotions are raw.

  10. The issue may be the one stated of trying to be wise when we worry about legalities of an issue such as this one. The more securlar person will no doubt swing in favor of the purely legal side of the question (the ‘right’ to build a mosque) while the more religious person will ponder the wisdom of the issue of building a mosque near the site that Americans have nearly made ‘sacred’. Being a person that has spent most of my life trying to find wisdom when seeking answers to questions and issues that plague my children and family you can probably guess which side I stand on in this regard. But, into the mix, I ponder the motivation behind the request to build this particular church at this particular location. The superficial response has been ” we only want to show that we aren’t lilke the guys who pulled this terroist act upon this country”. Interestingly enough, behind that rhetoric lies a whole multitude of questions that remain unanswered. What other ways can you show your disapproval of how fellow members of your faith (although they are considered extreemists) have acted and behaved? There are a lots of different more acceptable ways of making the majority of Americans (both secular and religious) feel less threatened, more secure, and consequentley more accepting of those that are culturally different, religiously different, poltically different from the greater majority than building a mosgue I wonder if we are asking the right question. And, by the way, how do we feel about the current strip joint that is located at this ‘sacred site’.

  11. Eric Steingraeber

    While this issue has ties to many fronts; religious, political, moral, and legal just to name a few, the wisdom to discern what is best comes from meeting ALL of those fronts into a plan of action. The “right” to build should be determined by the residents who live there. Just as we have local building codes and ordinances that help shape our communities, so does New York. They should determine the “right” to build or not. The twin towers site is only “sacred” in the sense of the tragic loss of life on American soil by a political/ religious extremist group. Whatever else that may be located on or near the site isn’t a relative point. Nobody that works at the Gentlemen’s Club attacked and killed Americans. If our country is for freedom, be it political, religious, or legal, then the onus of making choices settles on the individuals making those choices. Like I tell my children – every decision has consequences – some good, some not so good. They need to first think about what the possible consequences of a decision are. In the end, I agree with Mr. Latta : “They have a legal right. But in exercising that here, they show a lack of wisdom.” And we, by denying the right to build the Mosque, have reduced the entire issue down to a legal question only, and nothing more. How sad for us. How sad for us that we as Christians want to condemn the murderers without chance of redemption in our Lord, Jesus Christ. It isn’t easy, but if we are to live as “Grace/truth people” then we need to act accordingly, especially if it is the hard thing to do. Only then can the love our our Lord shine through the hatred and bigotry that we live through every day.

  12. Hey Mel,

    Thought provoking as usual. I’m in the middle of the JD Hunter book “to Change the World” in which he forces us to wrestle with whether culture is really a product of values. (Hint to those who haven’t read it, Hunter argues pretty convincingly that having the right values alone does not change culture.) It seems to me that Wisdom without consequence is just academic. Consequence only comes when Wisdom results in action. I think of rights a simply the collection of legal constraints on our actions. If we operate within the constraints we say that what we have done is legal, otherwise it is illegal. It may be wise to act legally. It may be legal to prescribe wise action.

    Where rich and free culture thrives, there is great overlap between Wisdom and Rights, but the distinction is important. They are neighbors, but not roommates.

    Where my own thinking is changing these days is that values do not shape culture as much as we think they do. I am becoming convinced that culture is much more influenced by institutions than is commonly acknowledged. In many ways, the overlap between rights and wisdom is a first order approximation of the definition of culture. The measure of how profoundly institutions, like the Church, influence the extent and nature of the overlap, may define our ability to realize cultural boundaries that we desire.

    So rights and wisdom are distinct. We should be thinking about how to impact the institutions that shape culture so that there is alignment between rights and wisdom — or at least no meaningful conflict between the two. That could be the topic of several other essays!



  13. Paul – I had not thought about the convergence between Hunter’s ideas and this issue. The idea of trying to influence institutions to align their views of rights and wisdom is an intriguing one. Most institutions have some kind of values commitment, an expression of what they think is good or wise–i.e. their philosophy, sophia. But their concept of what is wise and good sits on a shelf or philosophy is turned into mere pragmatics. I wonder what would happen if they tried to merge their formal standards (rights) with their philosophy (wisdom).

  14. Mel,

    I’m two months late to this conversation but had this passed along to me by a friend. My guess is that, by being so late, no one who has posted comments already will see this, but I thought I’d pass this along anyways. Below is a link to the blog of John Stackhouse – Professor of Theology here at Regent where I am studying. I know your original intent was not to begin a list of comments regarding the wisdom of the Ground Zero Mosque, but that seems to be what you have gotten from a few of your “commenters.” I pass along the link below more for them than for you, but I think it’s worth your time as well.

    Taking a stance opposite most of the previous comments, I agree fully with John Stackhouse that not only do they (obviously) have the legal right to build there (which almost everyone agrees on), but furthermore it is wise and necessary for them to as well. Christians all over America are making the mistake of implicating all Muslims everywhere in the attacks of 9/11. This, fundamentally, is why American Christians are opposed to the project. If Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan (the leaders of this project), simply submit to “wisdom” and agree that they should not build this mosque, they essentially agree with American Christians that they are complicit in the attacks. But they are not. I (and Stackhouse makes this point well), should not be judged for the Crusades. I’m not implicated whenever a “Christian” blows up an abortion facility. And neither should moderate Muslims be implicated in the attacks of 9/11 and therefore stopped from building in that location. To forego this project would be to admit compliance in something they do not stand for and do not promote.

    Furthermore, for Christians to refer to Ground Zero as a “sacred” site is simply Civic Religion – something in which more and more American Christians are finding their identity. I’m grateful for a Canadian Christian and Theologian (Stackhouse) who can help us see this more clearly.

    Thanks for bringing this topic up for discussion.

  15. “Wisdom comes from experience, experience comes from a lack of wisdom.”

    Would it be acceptable for Japan’s religious cultures to build a memorial to the emperor Hirohito on the ruins of Pearl Harbor?

    Would it be acceptable for Neo Nazi’s to build “sanctuaries” dedicated to Adolf Hitler in Israel?

    Would it be acceptable for supporters of Timothy McVeigh to erect a commemorative statue of the man next to the site of the federal building he bombed in Oklahoma City?

    Would it be acceptable for the English Parliament to build a statue of King George on the front lawn of our White House?

    Would it be acceptable for the League Of Communists to place commemorative plaques of Mao or Stalin or Marx or Pol Pot in our police stations and or public schools?

    Would it be acceptable for Muslims to petition our government and win a day of recognition and honor for Muhammad?

    Didn’t Jesus go totally verbally and physically ballistic in the Temple? He was outraged by the perversion of rightness, outraged by the perversion of justice and outraged by the outright elitist oppression taking place which all moved in and took over His temple and all that it represented. Jesus’ actions were not the actions of a pacifist or a wild man totally out of control (He could have flattened the place and everyone in it if He really wanted to).

    My read of that incident is that it was a learning lesson for generations to come to learn from. The lesson might be in as simply said, “An once of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” or, “Whoever forgets history is bound to repeat it.” or, “Know your enemy.” or, “Evil triumphs because good men do nothing.”. Jesus was not ignorant of world politics or Humanism (Atheism) or the motives of human beings.

    It’s becoming more obvious that our Federal Government has become willingly derelict in it’s duty to protect it’s citizens by trying to defy the natural law of accountability (except when it comes to taxes on the citizens where as we bare that burden almost alone). Not satisfied with being found accountable when they are found accountable they the government elite are seemingly immune to any serious reprobation’s for their actions. Here again we the citizens bare the burden of those repercussions and also have to see their perverted examples of irresponsibility become the norm for the rest of society to follow because of Humanism/Atheism.

    As Christians we’re supposed know the works of evil to be on guard against evil and be able to see where to prevent it before it grabs hold of society because we are even required to prevent it from grabbing hold of our own individual lives too. We can live a holy life for our self benefit as if we’re to be isolated in society but that’s not the whole story of salvation. We can’t single handedly save the entire worlds population from evil by our individual self but we can at least learn and get even a little involved.

    Win or lose your vote counts, don’t think it doesn’t. Contacting government representatives and businesses via phone, email, letters, fax and or comments left on their web sites all has a huge impact on legislation which was pretty apparent in the 2010 election if there were any doubts about bothering to make your voice heard.

    Should Christians be involved in politics? Absolutely up to our necks in it. For instance, it’s pointless to be anti abortion and not have or leave a healthy society for those kids to grow up in if all their going to wind up doing is physically or mentally self destructing anyway or that they wind up being physically or mentally destroyed somewhere along the line by other means and evils. Mother Theresa was asked by some talking head from main stream media why she thought America hasn’t yet had a woman president, her answer was that American probably aborted her. I wish I could think that fast!

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