Thursday, August 26, 2010

Islamic Center in NYC

The controversy over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero in NYC has taken on a life of its own. In last Sunday’s Poughkeepsie Journal a number of columnists addressed the issue. I saw flaws in a number of points they were making, and none of them, as I recall, looked to our Judeo-Christian tradition to support their thoughts on the topic.

One columnist suggested that we lead by example. That is, we should demonstrate tolerance to the Muslims, and this should influence them to become more tolerant people. Generally leading by example is a good idea. Kill them with kindness. This is biblical, as we read in Romans 12:19-21 (NRSV):

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Having quoted that passage, let me add that a lot of Scriptural commands are written to apply to individuals, not to governments. Following some Scriptural commands would be irresponsible by governments, even though desirable for individuals. That’s because governments have a different role to play, including protecting its citizens.

In this case, there are two aspects that must be taken into consideration:

First, we have the sensitivities of those who lost loved ones on 9/11 or who were otherwise traumatized by the events of that day. While there has been an Islamic presence in that neighborhood, a brand new building promoting Islam is offensive to some and inappropriate.

Second, the leading by example suggestion by the columnist is naïve. We are dealing with a religion and culture that promotes intolerance in its holy scriptures. Giving in is a sign of weakness to them. Chamberlain gave in to Hitler and that was perceived as weakness, for example. His appeasement did not result in “peace in our time” but in World War II. As the song says, “You have to know when to hold and know when to fold.”

I can’t say what the motivation of the group planning this Islamic center is. Whatever the intent, we must also look at the effect this building will have (and is already having). Given that the terrorists attacked the US in the name of Islam two blocks from where this Islamic center would be built, I’d say build it somewhere else out of respect for those who lost loved ones, co-workers, and friends. The fact that the planners have dug in their heels and seem unwilling to build somewhere else tells you something about their intent, I believe.

To get some basis of comparison, it would be like building a chapel where a fanatical Christian killed an abortion doctor. In a real-life example, nuns were forced out of their convent near Auschwitz some years ago because a Christian presence wasn’t wanted near a place where so many Jews were killed. Although Hitler and his gang did have Christian backgrounds, they weren’t devout Christians, didn’t kill in the name of Christ, and persecuted and killed some Christians as well (think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

If nuns can be driven out of their convent because of Jewish sensitivities, don’t you think Muslims should be pressured not to build an Islamic center so close to where 3,000 people were killed in the name of Islam?

Earth and Space

While my wife and I were in New York City, we visited the Rose Earth and Space Museum section of the Museum of Natural History. One display went from the largest objects in the universe and the greatest distances to the atomic and subatomic level. It is hard to grasp what is so large and what is so small. When you look at Quasars and the amount of energy they put out, it is mind-boggling. It really makes you think of creation and the Creator.

The incredible diversity of the universe can only be explained by a Divine Creator. Even looking at life on earth, we see tremendous diversity, specialization, and engineering wonders. Surely this all didn’t evolve but is the work of an Intelligent Designer. Let’s give God the credit and the glory.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The United Nations

My wife and I spent four days in New York City for a mini-vacation. We saw some Broadway shows and did some sightseeing. We stopped in at the United Nations and looked at some exhibits they have in the main lobby.

I was thinking about how the UN was established back after the horrors of World War II. Its vision was idealistic and utopian in many ways, and the hope was that the UN would succeed where the League of Nations had failed. Sadly, the UN has not succeeded to the extent that had been expected. China and Russia have veto power, and many countries don’t want the UN to take bold action where it is needed. In addition, the UN has degenerated into a political organization with a bloated bureaucracy and an out of control budget.

While I applaud the original vision of the UN and much of the good work it does around the world, no UN-type of organization will ever fully succeed. I see three reasons for that:

First, it is impossible to get consensus from approximately 200 diverse nations. Many countries in the world are despotic and don’t want the UN to take action against despots.

Second, humankind has a sin nature and will not always work towards the common good. Psalm 51:5 says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (NIV)

Third, such organization are, by nature, secular. As we read in Psalm 127:1: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.” (NRSV)

Nevertheless, we should continue to pray for peace, seek peace, and support all national and international efforts to help our fellow human beings to live in peace, safety, and comfort.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Visit Beacon NY

In the last couple of posts I’ve talked about a controversy in Beacon, NY, where I live. Notwithstanding some offensive pieces of art I discussed, I do recommend you visit Beacon. Beacon is one of the few cities that has successfully reinvented itself and is doing well. It was an industrial power in the 1800s and first half of the 20th century. It was second only to Danbury, Connecticut, in hat production. Many of the bricks used to construct buildings in NYC came from this area, including Dennings Point in Beacon.

As industries closed, Beacon faced a deteriorating economy and racial problems as well. Beacon was well on its way to where many cities find themselves today: no industry, few commercial enterprises, shrinking tax base, high crime, and white flight to the suburbs. But in the 1990s the city began to reinvent itself as a tourist attraction. Century old buildings along Main Street have been refurbished, and now there are shops, boutiques, art galleries, antique stores, and restaurants along the street. We now have the DIA art museum as well. People take the train up from NYC and spend the day walking up and down Main Street or visiting The DIA Museum. The Hudson Valley in general and Beacon in particular are great places to live and visit. So stop by and pay us a visit. If you are here on a Sunday, I can recommend a great church to attend Sunday worship.

The Ground Zero Islamic Center

Recently President Obama gave his support to the establishment of a mosque and Islamic cultural center close to Ground Zero in NYC. He made an emphatic statement about not wanting to hinder the free practice of religion. That is fine, but it’s not necessarily about the free practice of religion. Let me throw out several points with respect to this issue:

First, nobody is hindering free practice of religion. What’s at issue is WHERE you freely practice that religion. Town zoning boards do this all the time. Many cities and towns have thrown impossible stumbling blocks to prevent the building of new churches. Let’s eliminate such egregious practices against churches before we allow an Islamic center in such a sensitive area.

Second, we must remember that the World Trade Center was destroyed in the name of Islam. The perpetrators were misguided and part of a lunatic fringe of Islam, yet nevertheless the act was done in that name by its proponents. With nearly 3,000 people killed at the WTC site, I believe good taste and sensitivity to those whose loved ones, friends, and co-workers died there (I’m among those who lost co-workers) should be the rule. I suspect, although I can’t say for sure, that this center is being established where it can be as an affront to Americans. In a city as large as NYC, couldn’t they find another location?

Third, I believe the Muslims do have a right to establish a mosque and cultural center wherever they want, but good sense and sensitivity should prevail, not this in-your-face disrespect to those who lost loved ones and to Americans in general. We should remember that Islamic terrorists are still working hard to do us harm, including some who are American citizens.

Last, if Obama is so serious about the free practice of religion in this country, why doesn’t he speak out against those who want to pull down crosses and do other things to eliminate God and religion from this country. I’m speaking of the ACLU, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, to name a few. If he wants the Muslims to have their rights, how about Christians? I know most of these issues are decided in the courts, but the president speaking out against such persecution would be nice.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Beacon NY Artists (continued once again)

In my last two posts I commented on offensive artwork on public display in Beacon. To his credit, the artist removed the most objectionable pieces, voluntarily as I understand it. That was very good of him and many who were offended by his artwork appreciate it.

Some of you reading these past couple of posts plus my letter to the editor in The Beacon Free Press might think that I was wrong to object to these pieces of art. Let me make two points.

First, the Supreme Court came up with the concept of “community standards” when it comes to defining obscenity. This recognizes the fact that the definition of obscenity may be different in Peoria compared to Manhattan or Los Angles. This principle can also be more generally applied to public art, so that what might be acceptable in SoHo is offensive in Beacon. After hearing our complaints, I believe the artist realized he had breached Beacon’s “community standard” and understood why those pieces had to be removed. I applaud him for that and look forward to seeing other, less offensive, pieces of his art in the future.

Second, people have the right to object to offensive material in their midst. Militant atheists are “offended” by the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and so bring lawsuits. Some are “offended” by crosses in plain view or on public land and bring lawsuits using a misinterpretation of the “separation clause” of the First Amendment. So why shouldn’t others besides atheists have the right to protest? A handful of militant atheists can try to eradicate God from this country but the majority can’t protest things that are sacrilegious, bigoted, or otherwise offensive?

Obviously beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and while I thought the artwork was clever at some level, I didn’t like the use of sacred symbols in that context because I felt it mocked Jesus Christ and Christianity, even though that may not have been the intent.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Beacon NY Artists (continued)

Last evening I attended a meeting at which the public was allowed to make comments on the artwork I described in an earlier post. It was interesting to hear the different viewpoints, especially from the artist who produced the works that many people found offensive and inappropriate. My hope is that the artist will voluntarily remove the offending artwork now that he has heard the community’s objections.

The artist claimed he wasn’t trying to offend anybody but was making some statements about crass commercialization and how advertising manipulates us and our children. While I believe him, I found the piece with the crucified Christ figure filled with what could only be called anti-Christian images. So what does that tell us?

Giving the artist the benefit of the doubt, I see two possibilities regarding why he would produce what he did for a public space.

First, he is incredibly naïve and really doesn’t understand the impact such images would have on people. Many children pass by his artwork on the “roundhouse” (which is at eye level), and most children are going to miss the metaphors. He may have been so focused on the message he wanted to convey he lost sight of other messages he was unconsciously sending. I still stand by my earlier statement that this public artwork is not a place for activism and advocacy, especially when it’s abusing images that are sacred to many.

The second possibility is that we have become so used to seeing Christians and their beliefs put down by the media that the artist simply thought that’s what people do. It’s part of our culture. He was shocked that someone would actually be offended by misusing Christian images and figures of Jesus Christ. Should we be surprised?

After all, we have comedians (such as Bill Mahr) putting down Christians at every opportunity. We have the entertainment industry taking swipes at Christianity and portraying Christians in an unfavorable light in movies and TV shows. While the media rightfully doesn’t put down African-Americans, Jewish people, and LGBT people because that’s considered terribly offensive, why are Christians the target of their ridicule? While Christians and the Church certainly aren’t perfect, what have we done to deserve this mistreatment?

In conclusion, I hope these offending pieces of art will be taken down before school starts so the hundreds of kids who pass by them on buses or while walking to school aren’t exposed to these images. I also hope that more people will protest the anti-Christian and anti-religion messages and offensive images when they appear. If enough people speak up, maybe our society will improve and there will be true tolerance in this country.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Beacon, NY Artists

The formerly industrial city of Beacon, New York, as reinvented itself as a tourist destination with a revitalized Main Street consisting of art galleries, antique shops, restaurants, etc. There are two empty factory buildings at the intersection of Main Street and East Main Street that the city apparently wanted to dress up for the tourists and the locals. Artists were invited to paint on media that were the size of the windows in these buildings.

These paintings were placed in the windows of the larger building that faces Main Street, and they are generally attractive and tastefully done. However, the artist or artists who did several of the paintings on the “round house” that faces East Main Street had other ideas. His or her artwork is offensive and in poor taste. Now before you cry “First Amendment” and “Freedom of Expression” let me briefly describe the paintings in question and then point out a few things.

The most offensive (at least to me) was a painting of the crucified Christ surrounded by what could only be called anti-Christian material. One of the more offensive items on the painting was a dollar bill with the picture of Jesus and overlaid the words “In God we must trust, it’s the law.”

Another painting was a take-off on a White Castle ad that said “Crack. What you crave.” Another was a take-off on a Miller beer ad that said “Military Might, Less Chilling, More Killing.” Lastly, there was a painting of an overweight Ronald McDonald strolling out of what is presumably a McDonald’s restaurant.

Let me make three points regarding this art:

First, these pieces are on public display, not in a gallery. If they were in a gallery, you would have a choice as to whether you wanted to go in and see this stuff. Since they aren’t in a gallery but in public space, care should be taken not to be offensive.

Second, public artwork like these pieces shouldn’t be instruments of advocacy or bigotry. There’s a time and a place for advocacy, and it isn’t on these buildings. Such public displays of art should be decorative and entertaining, not in your face bigotry.

Third, these pieces of art on the roundhouse that I just described are clearly the work of a bigot who cares little about offending Christians. Because Christians aren’t politically correct and are easy targets since we don’t issue fatwas, comedians, the entertainment industry, and apparently some artists don’t care if they offend us. I believe the city should remove such hateful trash because it is offensive to a sizable segment of the population and isn’t in keeping with the spirit of unity that has been fostered in Beacon. Before you yell “Censorship” let me say this: truly tolerant and mature people self-censor in order to try to maintain a polite and tolerant society. Those with little or no tolerance don’t care whom they offend – they’ll trample others for the sake of their so-called “artistic self-expression.”

I focused on the anti-Christian piece, but the others are also offensive. The anti-military poster was inappropriate. The military is doing its duty in carrying out our government’s policies, misguided as you might believe they are. Don’t go after the military – go after the politicians who set policy. I understand the message of the plump Ronald McDonald, but the artist was trashing the symbol of a very good charity. The crack piece was just plain stupid.

I ask that artists and others not narrowly define “tolerance” to only include those who are politically correct, but to be tolerant in the original meaning of the word. Only then will society truly have moved to a higher level instead of continuing to degenerate into a ruder, cruder, and more bigoted state.