Sacred Space and Hospitality

Duke Chapel was in the news this past week, and I decided to share my thoughts on the whole situation. What do you think?

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Last week, the Duke University administration approved using the Duke Chapel bell tower to broadcast the Muslim adhan, or call-to-prayer, before the weekly jummah prayer service. Two days later, the administration reversed its decision in light of heavy criticism and “serious and credible concerns about safety and security”. Instead, the adhan was sung outside the chapel before those who wished to participate in the jummah headed to the chapel basement.

News outlets picked up the story and sensationalized it. High-profile speakers like Franklin Graham encouraged donors to pull their support from Duke University as a sort of sanction against the administration. It is implied that threats were made against the campus and students.

The question is this: is it okay for a Muslim call-to-prayer to be broadcast from a Christian chapel bell tower? The complaint seems to be that, because it is a Christian chapel, it is inappropriate. It is a Christian building meant for Christian use.

But, consider this. Muslims have prayed in the chapel basement for years. And while Franklin Graham may be referring to this when he says that the chapel has probably already been “desecrated”, it doesn’t change the fact that other religions have been using the chapel building for worship long before now. Where was the outcry then? Why is the call-to-prayer in the tower more offensive than Muslims worshiping in the chapel building?

Some claim it is offensive to have such a public display of Islam while Muslim extremists throughout the world are committing violence against Christians. To this I say, hogwash. If the call-to-prayer is an offensive reminder of the actions of extremists, then so too is the beautiful Duke Chapel carillon, and every Christian bell tower that “forces” passersby to listen to Christian hymns, a reminder of the centuries of violence by Christians that continues to the present day. Then there’s the irony of those who threatened violence and harm to the school and students if the bell tower was used in this way. Christianity has a long, bloody history and present of violence and terrorism that, no, is not behind us.

Some claim that allowing the adhan to be broadcast from the bell tower is another example of Christianity being pushed out of the public eye and replaced. A quick look at the Duke Chapel worship schedule and religious life pages would say otherwise. Christian worship is held every day at Duke, and the vast majority of official religious groups on campus are Christian (the chapel schedule for Friday doesn’t even include the weekly Muslim jummah). Our country is overwhelmingly supportive of Christianity to the exclusion of other religions. We occupy more space in society than is healthy for a country that claims religious freedom as one of its core tenets.

In my mind, the question is not about sacred space and desecration. Is God’s blessing and holiness so weak that broadcasting the adhan a few minutes each week from a building already used for Muslim worship would be enough to drive God’s spirit from the ground? Hopefully not! If so, every sinner (i.e., every last human being) that walks through the doors of the chapel and does not immediately receive forgiveness has long since driven God out with their unholiness and the question is a moot point. I have more faith in the power and strength of God’s presence than that.

Instead, the question is about hospitality. Christianity and the sacredness of God are firmly entrenched at Duke Chapel. Though the university is not a university of the United Methodist Church, it still claims strong ties to that church. If Christianity is under attack at Duke, it is from secular society, not Islam. Christians at Duke University have little to fear from their Muslim brothers and sisters.

But even in the United States, where Christianity is not under attack, we remember that the history of our faith includes long periods of persecution. We remember that, in other places around the world, Christians do live under the threat of violence from their neighbors–even from their Muslim neighbors. And we remember that, in those times, non-Christians, including Muslims, protected and sheltered us because it was the right thing to do.

Allowing the adhan to be broadcast from the Duke Chapel bell tower is not on the same heroic level as Christians protecting Muslims in Egypt or Muslims guarding churches in Kenya. But it would still be a gesture of hospitality and welcome from one group of God-fearers to another. The chapel, and almost every congregation and church I know of, is used for more than Christian worship because Christians all over the world recognize that welcoming the stranger is part of our calling as disciples of Christ.

Perhaps one day, we will finally see past the extremes of all faiths and remember that we human beings are not so different after all.

Featured Image: “In an all blue world, the beginning” by Corey Butler is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Author: Pastor Ken

Ken Ranos serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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