Posted by: Titus Presler | September 11, 2010

Cordoba House could promote mission dialogue in religious rifts

“Give them an inch, they’ll take a yard,” Maria Misetzis, 30, of Brooklyn is reported to have said about Muslims in response to the Sept. 2 New York Times poll of New Yorkers about their attitudes toward Cordoba House, the Muslim-initiated interreligious center planned for Lower Manhattan, two blocks from ground zero.

“They want to build a mosque wherever they can,” Mizetzis went on to say.  “And once they start praying there, it is considered hallowed ground and can’t be taken away.  Ever.  That’s why we’re having this tug of war between New Yorkers and the Islamic people.”

“They want to take over,” said another resident about Muslims in a National Public Radio report this past week.

Religious tolerance and concern about interreligious relations are two major themes in the public discourse both about Cordoba House and the now canceled burning of 200 copies of the Qu’ran that had been planned by Pastor Terry Jones and the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida.

Fear and anxiety, much of it related to the current economic downturn, have been identified by many observers as factors in these two particular controversies and in the generally more negative attitudes that many USAmericans have toward Islam today than they did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  Ignorance about Islam is another commonly identified factor, although it is widely acknowledged that USAmericans are much more knowledgeable about Islam today than they were nine years ago.

All these concerns are active and important.  Mission is an equally active factor – perceptions about mission, commitment to mission, fear of mission.

When Misetzis says about Muslims, “Give them an inch, they’ll take a yard,” she is expressing a perception about Muslims’ commitment to the promotion and propagation of their faith and a fear that accommodating that commitment will lead to other religious groups losing ground, both figuratively and literally.

When the NPR interviewee says, “They want to take over,” he is articulating a perception that Muslims are fundamentally hegemonic in their hopes for their religion and, simultaneously, expressing a fear of that that hegemonic drive will succeed if it is not opposed.

It is equally significant that Pastor Terry Jones’ church in Gainesville is named the Dove World Outreach Center.  “Outreach” is the most common synonym for “mission” among Christians, and pairing “world” with “outreach” makes it clear that world mission is high on the agenda of that particular congregation.  So the congregation that Jones pastors is one of the many Christian churches that includes missional commitment in its very name.  There are many “Missionary Baptist” churches, for instance, and the Christian Missionary Alliance is an entire denomination that includes mission in its name.

A pan-religious understanding of mission that I have formulated and advocated is: “Religious mission consists of the spiritual vision and the practical means through which communities project their religious faith and work and invite the participation and adherence of others” (see Horizons of Mission, 2001).  Islam and Christianity used to be identified as the peculiarly “missionary religions,” and Buddhism was often included as a third.  Today, however, virtually all religions are missional according to this understanding of religious mission, for most religious people have at least some interest in their religion being widely understood and growing in adherents.

The issue, therefore, is not whether mission is acceptable or tolerable, for virtually all religious people have at least some missional interest and commitment.  The issue, instead, is how mission is pursued.

In this light, how should Cordoba House be understood?  In terms of missional intensity on behalf of Islam, it rates a zero or 1 on a scale of zero to 10, for its purpose, according to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in his major public statement, is mainly to foster conversation, understanding and cooperation among Muslims, Christians, Jews and other groups, each of which will have its own prayer space in Cordoba House.  It is planned to be an interfaith center, not (contrary to the views of the two interviewees cited earlier) an “Islamic center” or simply a “mosque” in terms of either its purpose or its administrative oversight.

In the light of the pan-religious understanding of mission, how should Dove World Outreach Center be understood?  It would appear to rate an 8, 9 or 10 on the scale of missional intensity, given the purpose implicit in its name.  There is nothing wrong with that, for missional outreach is at the heart of the Christian movement.  The particular method promoted by Jones and Dove – the International Burn a Koran Day – however, is atrocious and outrageous, as has rightly been noted by religious leaders virtually everywhere.

Given that consensus, it is actually more important now to promote conversation about the missional dimension inherent in the problems arising in interreligious relations.

In his major public statement, Imam Rauf wrote:

Our broader mission — to strengthen relations between the Western and Muslim worlds and to help counter radical ideology — lies not in skirting the margins of issues that have polarized relations within the Muslim world and between non-Muslims and Muslims. It lies in confronting them as a joint multifaith, multinational effort.

Perhaps the chief issue that has “polarized relations with the Muslim world and between non-Muslims and Muslims” is the issue of “mission” itself.  Rauf’s use of the word “mission” in this particular statement is mostly as a synonym for “purpose” and therefore has little missional significance.  It is “mission” in the sense of projecting one’s faith and work and inviting the participation and adherence of others – the understanding I laid out above – that is both perfectly legitimate in all religions and that has caused much misunderstanding and conflict.  Mission is the live third rail in relations between religions.  Unfortunately, its very sensitivity means that not only is it far down the list of agenda for interreligious conversation, but it usually is nowhere near the agenda.

Discussion about mission needs to happen among people of diverse religions.  We could discuss perceptions of one another’s mission, share our own visions of mission, explore our fears about mission.  Cordoba House could make a major contribution in stimulating conversation across the religions about mission.

(A shorter version of my terminological discussion appeared at 12:00 p.m. in the comment section of the Times’ initial story on the 9/11/10 observances at ground zero: Link)

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