On Sunday, I pedaled my bike to the Lake Harriet Band Shell to lead the morning worship service. My only fear concerned what a sarcastic swallow could deposit on the top of my head while I preached. Everyone gathered took it for granted that our time would be safe and free from any danger. Our assumptions for what constitutes safe and free worship, however, are not the same assumptions our Muslim brothers and sisters experience.
The day before I and others worshiped freely outdoors, an act of terror took place when an improvised explosive device was thrown through a window. The device exploded as members of the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington gathered to pray. This was not just an attack on one center of worship, but an attack on the foundations of America.
It is all too easy to forget that the Puritans who helped found this nation were once religious refugees seeking religious freedom. Once on these shores, however, they sought to impose their form of worship and beliefs and practice on all inhabitants. In that world, nearly 375 years ago, a man of principle, Roger Williams, was banished and stripped of his rights as a citizen by the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of his religious beliefs. He fled for his safety by fording the Seekonk River into the haven provided for him by the Narragansetts.
The natives granted him a title to land, which he interpreted as a blessing of “God’s merciful Providence.” This was the beginning of the colony of Rhode Island. Thus also began the uniquely American tradition of liberty of conscience or religious liberty: the right every American has to pursue truth, to be a person of conscience, without threat of persecution or promise of aid by the government.
In 1638 in Providence, Williams and a few others established the First Baptist Church in America. Williams and early Baptists in America argued for the formation and practice of liberty of conscience, not just for those with whom they agreed but for all. Their argument eventually won the day in America. Now each of us has the right to pursue truth without persecution or aid of the government.
The American tradition, unlike the European tradition, is not one of tolerance but of mutual respect. Liberty of conscience is a two-way street. I grant you liberty of conscience, and you grant me liberty of conscience. I may disagree with you, you may disagree with me — that is OK, but we promise not to damage, threaten or take away the free pursuit of truth from each other. If I take it away from you, then I have abused both my own pursuit of truth and yours. The act of terror not only destroyed a part of the Islamic Center in Bloomington but also destroyed a part of our collective conscience.
When members of one religious group are terrorized because of their faith practices, they experience what Williams called “soul rape.” The trauma experienced by the Dar Al Farooq Islamic community and others is unacceptable.
In the Rhode Island charter, approved by King Charles II in 1663, we find the audacious phrase “to hold forth a lively experiment.” If we allow the act of terror upon our Muslim brothers and sisters to go unchallenged, then the lively experiment in religious liberty is over. If we accept the act of terror as part of life in our nation, then the lively experiment is null and void.
The government cannot protect every house of worship during times of prayer, celebration, grieving and potlucks. It is our responsibility as citizens of this land to preserve and defend the American way of religious liberty. The gift that Williams and the early Baptists entrusted us with has to be renewed with each generation.
Let us all stand firm in our practice of soul liberty. Let us all stand firm in support of our Muslim brothers and sisters, our fellow American citizens. Let the terror targeted on our local mosques cease, and let our grand tradition of the liberty of conscience prevail.
The Rev. G. Travis Norvell is the pastor at Judson Memorial Baptist Church. On Twitter: @pedalingpastor.