“It’s regrettable that a pastor in Gainesville, Fla., with a church of no more than 50 people can make this outrageous and disgraceful plan and get the world’s attention,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “But that’s the world we live in right now.”
She’s right. Politics, religion and the media make for a potent brew nowadays, and whoever fails to come to grips with their complexity does so at his peril. So it is that an act Terry Jones didn’t even carry out led to deaths around the world.
As the Register went to press, the fury unleashed by news reports of the Quran desecrations carried out on Sept. 11 in imitation of Jones’ canceled plan to burn copies of the Muslim holy book on the grounds of his nondenominational Dove World Outreach Center had already caused at least 22 deaths, hundreds of injuries, the destruction of the oldest school in Kashmir, and attacks on still more Christian schools and a hospital. Massive protests had been organized in India, Iran and Afghanistan.
As usual, most of those who lost their lives were ordinary Muslims caught up in demonstrations that turned violent and were fired upon by security forces.
As usual, the voices of moderate Muslim imams who called for moderation were entirely drowned out.
As usual, the issue was exploited for political ends — by the Iranian regime, and by secessionists in the Indian province of Kashmir, who found it convenient to renew their summer-long violence in the name of protests against American “infidels.”
So did Terry Jones really think it would turn out any different this time? As Jones told CNN on Sept. 7, “We want to send a very clear message to the radical element of Islam: … That we are not interested in their sharia law; we do not tolerate their threats, their fear, their radicalness.”
He was sending a very different message: that Christians live in fear and that Christians hate their enemies.
That distortion of Christian teaching was grave enough to merit a once-in-a-blue-moon public intervention by the Vatican in a matter of American Protestantism:
“The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue received with great concern the news of the proposed ‘Koran Burning Day’ on the occasion of the Anniversary of the September 11th tragic terrorist attacks in 2001 which resulted in the loss of many innocent lives and considerable material damage.
“These deplorable acts of violence, in fact, cannot be counteracted by an outrageous and grave gesture against a book considered sacred by a religious community. Each religion, with its respective sacred books, places of worship and symbols, has the right to respect and protection. We are speaking about the respect to be accorded the dignity of the person who is an adherent of that religion and his/her free choice in religious matters. … Each religious leader and believer is also called to renew the firm condemnation of all forms of violence, in particular those committed in the name of religion.”
We can get an idea of the right attitude to take from Acts 19: 18-19, in which the people of Ephesus respond to St. Paul’s teaching: “Many of those who had become believers came forward and openly acknowledged their former practices. Moreover, a large number of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them in public. They calculated their value and found it to be fifty thousand silver pieces.”
St. Paul didn’t take the lead in burning books of sorcery. Those who did so were the books’ owners. For them, it was an act of repudiation. So let’s let former Muslims abandon their own Qurans as they embrace the truth of Christianity. We’ll never help them find the fullness of truth in Christ if we insist on burning their Qurans for them.
When Jones held a press conference on Sept. 16 to dismiss calls for him to apologize, he said instead, “We have no conviction from God to repent. We will not repent for standing up for the Gospel. … The church in America and worldwide have lost their guts to stand up for what is right. They have lost their guts to stand up for Christianity.”
The Gospel and the Christianity we choose to stand up for is this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. … You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 6: 38-39, 43-45).
Neither Jones nor Islamic militants are the true extremists. They’re taking the easy path of blind hatred. We’re the true extremists if we live the radical kind of love that Christ invites us to, a love more radical than anyone could dream up. It’s the kind of love that changes hearts and souls and can convert the world to the truth of Christ.
We’re not called to do so because it’s easy. We’re called to do it because it’s the right thing to do. And it will go totally unnoticed in the news, as mass acts of common sense and virtue usually do.
Can we forgive those who fostered and exploited the riots in the Middle East? Can we forgive Terry Jones and those who followed his example?
We have to be able to. We can’t just complain about the world’s double standards. We can’t ask questions like “Why not respond to their flag burning with a Quran burning?”
We have to be able to because we are Christians, and we deeply desire to be worthy of that name. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.