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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Need a Kiss?

Could it be that the best response to a bigot is a Kiss.  What?

Three days in New York this past weekend offered the opportunity to enjoy beautiful early Fall weather walking through Central Park, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and watching the whirl of people navigate the city’s exciting pace.  I did not take in Fall Fashion Days, but I was there for the annual observance of 9/11.  Never having visited the World Trade Center site, I walked downtown late on Friday afternoon to see the enormous construction zone emerging from the devastation.  Skyscrapers are taking shape alongside a gleaming transportation center; two large memorial pools that will commemorate those who died are now visible in the footprints of the twin towers.

After viewing the moving tribute to fallen rescue workers at a fire station adjacent to the construction area, I walked two long blocks up Church Street to Park Place, a pretty non-descript street now famous as the location of a planned Islamic Cultural Center.  The view down Church Street does open up on the construction site, but once on Park Place you could be almost anywhere in Manhattan, the tall buildings blocking any view north or south.  On Friday a small group of demonstrators supporting the Center, a number of police, and several news vans served as a reminder that Park Place seems to have become the current“ground zero” for bigots, racists, and xenophobes.

Commemorative observances went off without incident on September 11 as family members and construction workers read the names of those who died, occasionally adding sufficient commentary to reveal their positions on the planned Center.  Demonstrators were kept at a distance up the street.  But it was impossible to watch the news in New York or read the papers without being reminded that this somber annual event was different this year.  Part of the reason, of course, was the pathetic little drama playing itself out in Gainesville, Florida where a pastor (who helps support his small, financially strapped church by selling used furniture on e-Bay) had managed to capture the attention of the Muslim world and the American political scene with his uninformed anti-Islamic rhetoric and his provocative plans to burn the Koran.

The plans to build an Islamic cultural center two blocks away and out of view of Ground Zero, and the determination of a two-bit demagogue in Florida, probably wouldn’t have garnered much public attention were it not for a number of self-serving politicians and pundits eager to turn bigotry and xenophobia to their advantage.  That seems to be the quality of leadership being offered these days by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rick Lazio and a number of others.  Even President Obama waffled on the Cultural Center issue, reluctant at least initially to stare down those who were prepared to use it as one more weapon against this – Foreign born? Perhaps a Muslim?  Maybe not a Christian? – President.  Yes, there is fear abroad in the land.  But sensitivity to fear is no cause for pulling punches on prejudice, regardless of what the Anti-Defamation League may say.

All in all, it has been a pretty depressing spectacle.  Perhaps to escape my mood, I took a walk on the evening of 9/11 through Times Square.  I’ll admit it.  I love the kitsch.  The neon sizzles for blocks, the stores beckon, and the energy of the tourists is palpable.  I couldn’t resist a tour through the Hershey Store with its amazing array of chocolates where children were packed in the back corner near a make believe candy making machine.  A store employee was helping them turn the gears on a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory like mechanism causing a torrent of Hershey Kisses to spew out of the machine.  As I watched this happy scene, a Muslim mother in a head scarf approached with her two little children.  As they spun the wheel faster and faster the Hershey Kisses poured out to the delight of their mother and of everyone else watching, eliciting the kind of multi-cultural applause that only New York can provide.  Depressed thoughts of the dangers of religious and political zealots quickly receded.  Isn’t this what America is really all about?  Children and adults, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Jews, New Yorkers and tourists, all at play together, laughing together?  If there is any hope to come from 9/11 it probably won’t come from the politicians and the pundits with their private agendas.  It will come from ordinary folk like us out on the streets we share, doing the things we all do day by day.  Yes, sometimes the best response to a bigot is a Kiss.

John H. Thomas

John Thomas will be leading Advent Lectionary Workshops at three locations in Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan in September and October. Learn more about the workshops and register today!

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