Peace in Downtown Manhattan

In an article for the Huffington Post, Sister Joan Chittister argues for "another way" to respond to the controversy surrounding the construction of an inclusive and Islamic community center near the World Trade Center site (The 'Ground Zero Mosque' Conundrum: Lessons From the Convent at Auschwitz). She argues by analogy, saying that "Unfortunately, the world has been here before..." and recalling the controversy over a convent and cross at Auschwitz.

I think a lot of Sr. Joan Chittister, and have gained from her writing and speaking. But when viewing this situation through the lens of the convent at Auschwitz, she sees more similarities than I do.

First, some technical differences.

1. The convent was established within camp grounds ("in a building which was utilized during World War II to store the poison gas used in the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematoria," "Auschwitz Convent"); the proposed center is located a short distance (two blocks) from the site widely designated as the locus of the WTC atrocity.

2. The camp is designated a memorial site and recognized as such by most of the world; the WTC is being rebuilt as a commercial center which includes a memorial.

3. The convent actually erected a large religious symbol (a cross) visible to Auschwitz visitors; the Park 51 project will not be visible from the WTC site (until one goes well above ground level, not part of the explicit memorial and museum).

4. The area surrounding Auchwitz is largely rural; the area surrounding the WTC site has been urban for more than 200 years, and includes strip clubs, bars, and other enterprises which might well be seen to profane "holy ground."

Now I think there are more significant differences.

The events of Auschwitz (by itself, notwithstanding the other death camps) unfolded over years and resulted in the killing and suffering of more than a million people (Franciszek Piper, "Die Zahl der Opfer von Auschwitz. Neue Erkentnisse durch neue Archivfunde"), at the hands of hundreds of thousands (mobilized by the Nazi state and its allies). The 9/11 attacks were a one-day event by a relatively small number of people that killed about 3,000.

Auschwitz had, over the decades since the end of the Shoah and the war which surrounded it, become the central symbol for the clearest, defining example of what the world was coming to know and condemn as genocide. The WTC is for me an unambiguous example of murder. Yet it has been used by some as a justification for nine years of wars which have resulted in more than 100,000 civilian deaths. It is not as clear or universal a symbol for the evil of terrorist violence.

The case for Christian and church complicity in the slaughter of Jews at Auschwitz is centuries deep and widespread. The very institution and some of the very same people which built convent and cross were directly involved in the atrocity, as bystanders certainly and in some cases as collaborators. They included unrepentant offenders. (The Carmelite convent and order remained subject to the Roman Catholic church, and while things have changed since 1984, I don't think most would regard the church as coming as far as it needs to in owning up to its part in the genocide.)

I don't know what I should about the Polish tradition of religious liberty. But I do know that the Polish convent project was conceived during and approved by an authoritarian regime in a mono-religious culture. And it is clear to me that the efforts to prevent the Park 51 project from building rather than to persuade them to modify their plans are profoundly counter to the most deeply held constituting principles of U.S. society and government.

Sr. Chittister goes on to say:
> From where I stand, there has to be another way
> to deal with this that is sensitive to both sides,
> accepting of both positions, healing of both
> wounds and a monument to real peace.

I hope and believe there is a better way. But I don't think we get there by catering to the worst prejudices among us.

The problem with her formulation of "accepting of both positions," is that one position is rooted in sickness, bigotry, and prejudice. I am a 9/11 responder who has lived with the fallout of this attack for almost 9 years. I know many 9/11 families and responders. I am saddened to say that the opposition to the center depends (unlike the Auschwitz example cited by Sr. Chittister) on blaming people who had nothing to do with the offense. The few glimmers of other reasons usually wind their way back to "we don't want them here because we don't trust them - they're the same as the ones who hurt us."

A monument to real peace must find a way to transform that. But that is what the community center is trying to do. (It is also simply not true to say that the Center did not reach out to 9/11 families and other concerned groups prior to the current controversy. I know people privy to some of those conversations.)

As a matter of law and government policy, George Washington got it right exactly 220 years ago: "...happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens..." ("Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport," August, 1790).

While Joan Chittister is calling for something beyond the role of the state, it is unfortunate that she does not say much about steps that real people might take to get there. The social-theological problem is that everyone is calling on someone else to make a sacrifice. And that is a 9/11-size problem.

The state has fulfilled its legitimate role by ensuring that the project meets legal requirements, and by providing for civic order as people demonstrate pro and con. But at this point we have stepped into it. This is a time for leadership - and statesmanship - beyond what is required by law.

Perhaps a good role of public leaders - including religious leaders - is now to provide tangible support for "breathing space" whereby some of those offended (I am not speaking of the grandiose and politically opportunistic), the downtown NYC community, and the Park 51 community may sit together. Arguments are not the best way to begin a relationship - but they are a starting point nonetheless for those who truly seek to be good neighbors.


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