Hallowed Ground

By Don Rollins

There’s a little congregation on the Minnesota prairie that, upon learning that their century-old bone yard was planted atop a Native American burial ground, brought in a local medicine man to re-consecrate the land. (The church could not bring itself to dig up its own tribal elders, so they did the next best thing.) This was not done lightly. It was an act of contrition, confession and respect. It was the hallowing of an otherwise ordinary acre of black dirt.

When you think about it, America is the land of hallowed ground, much of it dedicated to and with great solemnity. Witness the hell that broke loose over two of the nation’s most solemnified plots of terra firma, Ground Zero and the National Mall.

You know the scoop. First comes the firestorm, mostly from the right, over the construction of a mosque more or less two blocks from the site of the former Trade Center. (I don’t know how far away one needs to be in order to practice Islam in that part of New York, but evidently two blocks won’t cut it. I guess it’s a praise-the-Lord-and-pass-the-xenophobia thing.)

And then, last week, a goodly number on our side goes nuclear over that tent meeting (sans tent) our wacky TV pal Glenn Beck put together on the Mall ... 47 years to the day after the “Dream” speech echoed there. (How tasteful. But I think we overreacted on that one, and got punked by a Tea Party ringmaster for our trouble.)

So, what we have here are two hallowed places, two controversies and two instances of another, less partisan American tendency: symbol worship.

Regarding Ground Zero, it’s hard to overstate its symbolic portent in general, but to conservatives in particular. As though the deaths, injuries and emotional carnage were not grievous enough, our national psyche was violated to realize that it really could happen here, after all. Could and did.

As to the Mall (Lincoln Memorial, to be exact) it is forever entwined with the progressive’s reading of King’s dream. A searing, engaging vision was laid before the nation — a vision of great gain, but at a great cost: the entire social/economic/political order as it relates to race and class. For that and subsequent generations on the left, the Dream speech became a beloved and enduring symbol for hope and change.

So, who owns Ground Zero? Who owns the Lincoln Memorial? Everybody. And nobody.

We’re nowhere near ready to have a measured conversation in answer to these questions. At this point, all we can say for sure is that, were hallowed ground treated as a place of memory, not a place to be itself worshiped, no one would have to tend the watch fires against infidels, real or imagined. No religious zone planning. No fear of defilement. No public discourse that generates more heat than light.

But that’s not where we are.

Ground Zero will not be at all sullied by the presence of a nearby mosque, nor did Beck commit high blasphemy by holding a rally in Lincoln’s shadow. At some point, hopefully soon, it will dawn on us that this is not about our hallowed ground. This is about who owns our hallowed ground.

Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2010


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