Thursday, September 09, 2010

On blessing enemies and burning books

I recently mentioned the plans of a small church in Florida to commemorate the attacks of 11th September 2001 by burning a Qur'an, in order to send a warning to radical Islam: "If you attack us, if you attack us, we will attack you." This is the heart of the rationale offered by Pastor Terry Jones, who plans to carry out this act on Saturday's anniversary.

In my previous post I mentioned the words of Christ in Luke 6 about loving enemies as one obvious response to this proposal. Loving enemies means the only retaliation we can condone is repaying cursing with blessing, hatred with love, and violence with vulnerable peacemaking. God retaliated against the death of his son by raising him to new life, and by commissioning messengers with the gospel of forgiveness and peace in his name. Burning a book is indeed a powerful form of communication, but the message that is intended by this action is a perversion of the gospel of Christ.

Indeed, there is a deeper and even more worrying assumption behind this action, which is brought to light by asking after the identity of the "we" in Pastor Jones' quote above. Who is it who will bring repay attack for attack? The obvious candidate is the US military acting on behalf of the US government. As well as ignoring the teaching of our Lord, this pastor seems to have confused the church of Jesus Christ with his nation and its military.

Sam Norton has suggested that the popular reaction to this story has been misguided, on the basis that the offensiveness of burning a Qu'ran, or the potential harm it might bring to US soldiers are not properly Christian reasons. It is not the place of the church to ensure the safety of soldiers occupying a foreign country, nor is the giving of offence itself a problem. On these points, he is correct. He goes on to suggest that the burning could be seen as an act of protest or resistance against idolatry. I am not opposed to symbolic actions that expose the hollowness and violence of idolatry. But I don't think this action does that. Not only does Jones' explanation fail to conform to anything like the Christian gospel, but the very act of burning a book - not least the sacred text of a minority community in his society - does not speak of fearlessness, hope or joy. It is a punitive action that attempts to silence speech and intimidate a group already the focus of hostility and suspicion.

As one of Sam's commentators (revsimmy) points out, "In the only New Testament example of book-burning (Acts 19:19) at Ephesus these were books being burned by people who were renouncing their former beliefs and practices (not the case in Pastor Jones' case). Later on in Ephesus, when the silversmiths stir up a riot against Paul, the town clerk is able to claim, with apparent credibility, that Paul and his companions have never spoken against their temple or blasphemed their goddess." This too is an important point. Whatever we make of the book-burning in Acts chapter 19, it was undertaken voluntarily by those who had formerly practiced idolatry as a symbolic, costly and effective break with their old lives. The action planned by Terry Jones for this Saturday, by contrast, is more akin to the destruction of Buddhist statues by the Taliban. The overthrow of idolatry is not through the weapons of this world (whether explosives or cigarette lighters, outrage or censorship), but through preaching, purity and prayer.

The first idolatry that needs to be addressed in this story is not the attitude of Muslims to the Qu'ran, but of Christians to militarism and nationalism. The good news is that liberation from such empty idols is possible in Christ.

UPDATE: It seems that Pastor Jones may have decided to cancel the burning. Or put it on hold. Or something. He seems like quite a confused man.

A typically good reflection on the whole matter from Andrew Cameron in the Social Issues Briefing. He asks "what would St Paul do?" and his answer is that prior to the Damascus Road, Saul of Tarsus would have joined in and led the burning. After meeting Christ, not so much.

12 comments:

Sam Norton said...

Byron, I hear you (though I don't think the statues are an exact parallel), but I want to know how the turning over of tables in the Temple precincts escapes censure on this understanding.

Daniel Imburgia said...

@Sam: Those tables were in "His Father's house," Jesus didn't go around tipping over tables in pagan temples. obliged

byron smith said...

I discussed this in my (lost) comment on your blog. :-(

In short, Jesus' action in the temple was directed towards God's people by a prophet; it was critique from within (unlike Jones). And, if N. T. Wright's arguments are to be taken seriously, Jesus was enacting a parable of judgement upon the Temple for colluding in idolatrous nationalism and militarism (the very idolatries Jones seems to be himself caught up in). The divine judgement that was signified in this action was also the somewhat obvious geopolitical implication of zealots continuing to live by the sword.

As I said on your blog, I am not opposed to creative actions that signify the coming reign of God, even where these may disrupt the status quo and get under people's skin. But I think that book burning in general communicates the wrong message, and the gloss given by Jones on the meaning of this book burning is even worse.

Can you explain why the statues are not a direct parallel? If violence against a book is justified, why not against other idols? Indeed, to push this further, can you explain whether the logic of your position would justify the deliberate destruction of the Ka'aba? (Assuming it could be done without threat to human life). Or, indeed, what about destructive violence against other contemporary symbols of idolatry, whether a Tescos store or the Pentagon and twin towers? (Again assuming no threat to life in the process).

Sam Norton said...

Well - we are now living on a single earth (one household)...

The statues are not a direct parallel because they are unique; paperback copies of a massively distributed text are not.

Actually, destruction of the Qaba _might_ be legitimate, if a whole host of massively improbable factors were also present. Destroying the twin towers - as an act against idolatry - is defensible on that point (if completely indefensible on more important grounds).

Sam Norton said...

I should add - it was that toppling of idolatry symbolism that was the principal purpose and achievement of Al Qaeda on 9/11.

Poorhouse Dad said...

The parallels mentioned have other faults. The Korans belong to Jones. The Buddha statues and the shrine at Mecca belong to others.

That brings me to a fault in Jones' misapplication of Acts 19. The disciples at Ephesus burned their own property as an act of repentance, as rejection of their old, powerless, corrupt, evil religions. I would like, therefore, to sarcastically congratulate Jones for repenting of Islam.

To be fair: Jones said on Hannity, yesterday, that he might cancel the book-burning if the Islamists agreed not to build the Ground Zero mosque.

If he has any wisdom remaining at all, he will delay the burning until the muslims break ground on the Ground Zero mosque, and will posit the question, "Do muslims care more about their holy book, or about insulting Americans?"

byron smith said...

An alternative form of protest.

byron smith said...

Poorhouse Dad - Thanks for commenting. However, I'm not sure whether you are recommending the logic in Jones' comments about the "Ground Zero Mosque" (which is not at ground zero and is not a mosque). This statement makes him appear even more confused given that the proposed centre is not being built by Islamists.

Sam - Well - we are now living on a single earth (one household)...
Can you unpack this a little? I'm afraid I don't follow.

And I don't think the statues are a perfect parallel, though I'm not sure I see where in the logic of your post they would be excluded from violent destruction. I'm just trying to understand your point.

byron smith said...

Sam has a new post listing and considering various arguments. My summary is that liberalism's reasons for rejecting this action are faulty, but pointing this out doesn't make it ok as there are much better properly Christian reasons for rejecting it.

Sam Norton said...

Byron - I think your summary is just about right: the liberal arguments are bad ones, but there are good theological grounds for rejecting it.

byron smith said...

CNN: US military burned Bibles in Afghanistan. (H/T Sam from FB)

byron smith said...

Giving flowers, not ashes. (H/t Sam again from here)