Raising questions of faith: Local minister, imam reflect on acts of terror

Mohamed Melhem

Wade Spees

The Rev. Jonathan Van Deventer was an associate minister at First Presbyterian Church in Aiken when the hijacked airliners plunged into the Twin Towers, Pentagon and an open field near Shanksville, Pa., on that bright Tuesday morning.

He got to the television just in time to see the second plane slam into the South Tower. One thing immediately became certain, he thought: "This is going to shape a generation."

Van Deventer preached to the children during the service that first Sunday after 9/11. He showed them pictures of the White House, Parthenon and a handful of other Classical buildings.

"I told them that when these were built, they were built to last forever, but the only thing that lasts forever is God." All of humankind's conceits, structures, institutions and ideas are temporary. Only the truth and promise of God are forever.

The thought did not diminish the shock or pain, Van Deventer said.

"We're all hurt and stunned right now," he told the children. "But we will look back on this one day to discover we have changed and moved on."

Imam Mohamed Melhem of the Central Mosque of Charleston said he rejects all forms of extremism and insists that anyone who commits acts of terror in the name of Islam betrays the values of the faith they claim to represent.

For Van Deventer, now minister at Johns Island Presbyterian Church, 9/11 prompted an acidic question.

"The difference between liberal Christians and fundamentalist Islamists is that fundamentalist Islamists know exactly what they believe," he said. Is this good or bad? "I don't know." Then he asked a question that affects all people of faith: "Am I willing to die for what I believe?

"I don't seek out opportunities that might result in my death, but if I'm asked what I believe, I'm going to stand up and say what I believe."

Melhem said he rejects all forms of extremism and insists that the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks "do not represent Islam or Muslims.

"Anyone who commits acts of terror, murder and cruelty in the name of Islam is not only destroying innocent lives but also betraying the values of the faith they claim to represent," Melhem said.

The death of Osama bin Laden was welcomed, he said. "We hope this will close a big chapter of extremism, and make it also a lot easier for Muslims to present the real, peaceful and beautiful religion of Islam. We refuse to allow our faith to be held hostage by any criminal actions outside the beautiful teaching of both the Quran and Muhammad -- peace be upon him -- our beloved prophet."

For Van Deventer, the religious implications of 9/11 led to a scrutiny of self, faith and loyalty.

"What constitutes good citizenship in the U.S. does not always constitute good citizenship in the Kingdom of God," he said.

And so Van Deventer reflects on ideas prompted, at least in part, by 9/11, including this thought with its profound cultural and theological implications: Is it best to keep asking questions or to have them answered?

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.