May 10, 2015

Rector’s Reflection

By now the media may have moved on to a different outrage, but as I write this, we are still embroiled in the news out of Garland, TX, where two men (at least one reporter persisted, for reasons known only to her, in calling them gentlemen) were killed by police officers after the two of them opened fire on a security guard. The two were known to have ties to Islam, and one had, years earlier, been identified by FBI as a possible terrorist candidate. Coincidently (?), at the time of the shooting, Garland was the site of the “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” sponsored by Pamela Geller.

Geller first gained attention in 2009 when she led a movement against a mosque in Manhattan. She currently is president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, as well as Stop Islamization of America. Her confrontation with a Muslim man in Garland went viral, he saying she should be tried under Sharia law and executed, and she claiming that this is America and she can sponsor any program she wants to sponsor.

Of course this tragic event has raised issues about national security (ISIS claiming that these men were their boots on the ground), information sharing or lack thereof between federal and local authorities, and, of course, freedom of speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Several people have asked me what I think about this conundrum: is freedom of speech absolute? My answer: I don’t think this is a freedom of speech issue. Geller has the Constitution on her side. As a matter of fact, I have read some interviews with Geller and I agree with a lot of what she has to say, and I’ll defend her right to say it. But the exhibit in Garland… no.

It is on occasions such as this that my heart and mind go immediately to 1Corinthians 10:23: “‘All things are lawful,’” but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” Paul is making the argument that, just because salvation comes through Jesus Christ and not through the Law, a follower of Jesus Christ does not have carte blanché (ëåõêÞ êáñôá in Greek?) to do or say anything that comes to his mind. People learn what Christians are about by observing what Christians do.

Earlier in this letter Paul says, “‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” (8:8-13)

His point – Christian actions and behaviors must build up, not destroy. If you couple that with the direction to “speak the truth in love” in the letter to the Ephesians – I know, Paul probably didn’t write that one, but I hardly think he’d object to the sentiment – you have a standard for behavior that would not support Ms. Geller’s enterprise.

As I said earlier, I defend her right, but her choice, to do it. Please do not misunderstand… this is not an appeal for political correctness. I believe the very essence of political correctness as we have come to know it threatens the 1st Amendment in a most disturbing way. However, Ms. Geller’s event was provocative so as to be dangerous. It did nothing to build up and it could well have caused more than two people to lose their lives. Moreover, it was mean, disrespectful, and selfish.

In 1987, American artist and photographer Andres Serrano made a photograph that depicted a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine. The piece was a winner of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition, which was sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

I had the same thought then as I do now. I defend his right to, but not his choice, to do it. It seems to me that Mr. Serrano, then, and Ms. Geller, now, have squandered several of the finite, irretrievable hours they have on earth on projects that help no one, hurt some, and, bottom line, are cheap shots.