Land can be deemed “sacred ground” for many reasons, but I’m struck that much too often this concept has less to do with the experience of divinity than it does the exercise of human power.
The latest debate over the Cordoba Islamic community center is only the latest example of this phenomenon – on this point I believe blogger Paul Woodward hit the nail squarely on the head with this recent insight:
Another way of saying “sacred” is to say “off-limits.”
Something can be sanctified by placing a barrier around it constructed from rigid taboos. The most extreme among those taboos dictates not only silence but also exclusion.
In such a way, for many Americans, 9/11 has been sanctified. The sacred idea occupies a sacred space and only those willing to display sufficient awe and reverence can be allowed to enter.
Woodward is absolutely right that sacred space and exclusion can invariably go hand in hand. When we read in the Torah, for instance about the Israelites’ construction of the Tabernacle (and later in the Bible, the Temple itself), we learn that certain sacred areas correspond to the specific social hierarchies within the Israelite community. Rank and file Israelites are allowed into the outer courtyard, but the inner precincts are off limits to all but the priests. And only the High Priest himself is allowed into the innermost Holy of Holies – and only on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.
Ironically enough, Jewish tradition teaches that it was precisely hierarchy and division that led to the loss of our most central of sacred spaces. According to the Rabbis, the destruction of the Second Temple was due not to the greater military might of the Romans, but because of the divisive, internecine hatreds (“sinat chinam”) harbored by the Jewish people between themselves. I often think about this teaching when I read about the power politics raging over the Western Wall or ongoing attempts to claim the areas in and around the Old City of Jerusalem in the name of the Jewish people alone.
When it comes to the area that is considered to be the holiest of places for Jews, I can’t help but think it has more often been a place of sacrilege, not sanctity. It has ever been thus: the more we press our own claims upon the places we deem sacred, the more we manage only to defile them in the end.
And so, as I have read about the horrid political wrangling over Cordoba House, it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that this little patch of land in Lower Manhattan will only truly become hallowed ground if we resist the temptation to yield exclusive political claims over it.
If there is any Biblical image we might look to for guidance, I would argue it is less the hierarchical, exclusivist priestly model than the universal, inclusive prophetic vision famously expressed in Isaiah 56:7: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
To this end, I commend to you this recent statement from Faith in Public Life, to which I am honored to be a co-signer. I can think of no better definition of “sacred space” than this:
The profound tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 revealed the horror that can unfold when a small minority of violent extremists manipulates religious language for political gain and falsely claims to represent one of the world’s great religions. We have witnessed this sinful corruption of religion across faith traditions throughout history and must condemn it without equivocation whenever or wherever it occurs. However, we fail to honor those murdered on that awful day – including Muslim Americans killed in the Twin Towers and Pentagon – by betraying our nation’s historic commitment to religious liberty, fueling ugly stereotypes about Islam and demeaning the vast majority of Muslims committed to peace. The proposed mosque would be part of Cordoba House, a center open to all Americans that will provide Islamic, interfaith and secular programs. The project aims to support “integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion through arts and culture,” according to the Cordoba Initiative, which promotes improved “Muslim-West relations.” These are exactly the kind of efforts that foster dialogue, break down barriers and begin to build a world where religiously inspired violent extremism is less likely.