Burning words will be burning the Word

Rev. Terry Jones, after “praying about it,” is resolved to burn the Qur’an on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks.  A licit endeavor, to be sure, but one that is fraught with ignorance, malice, and imprudence.

Explicitly, Rev. Jones argues that he is targeting “radical Islamists,” taking a stand by burning their holy book as a signal that “enough is enough.”   Some have wondered if, implicitly, Rev. Jones is more interested in public attention and show-boating.  However accurate that suspicion may be, the explicit reasons do not seem to connect with the planned public action.  Specifically, I find it troubling to associate a whole book, the Qur’an, the source of many versions of Islam and Muslim life, with radical Islamists.  The linkage seems to operate on a reductive logic.  It assumes that somehow the Qur’an, by itself, sanctions or justifies the actions of terrorist groups with Muslim affiliations  (by extension, burning the Qur’an then implicates all who read and live out of that book; thereby associating all Muslims with terrorists and violent extremists).  Rather than question whether the Qur’an could ever warrant such actions (at least without other reasons and assumptions at play), Rev. Jones seems to assume that justifying an action from a book makes the book responsible–and thus a fitting sign for a protest.

Even if we were to agree with Rev. Jones that a fitting symbol needed to be found, choosing the Qur’an would be a bad choice. The Qur’an could also be appealed to in justifying actions that counter and subvert terrorism.  The Qur’an could be used as a symbol of hope and life, not death and destruction; and, therefore, it would be counter-productive to burn such an important artifact.  Burning it would reduce it to something it does not have to be.

Bracketing that; the important thing to keep in mind is that books don’t talk and act, people do.  Rev. Jones is disclosing some of his own thinking about the bible through his planned, public burning of the Qur’an.  By making the book “responsible” for terrorist activity, Rev. Jones shows his own ignorance of how we, as humans, relate to written texts.  We interpret and construe texts to certain ends, which always requires ethical and theological perspectives.  The Qur’an, like the bible, is deeply ambiguous–it can be used for good or ill depending on the logics and commitments we bring to it and lift out of it.  Texts can fund our logics and commitments (they aren’t static, after all), but they don’t absolutely determine them.  The Qur’an just isn’t a fitting symbol for terrorism or violent extremism–however Islamic (and Qur’an referencing) those ideologies turn out to be.

In the end, it seems to me, Rev. Jones is using a destructive activity (burning–a violence saturated act) to convey a message of separation and rejection.  I agree with Rev. Jones that we should not tolerate or support the kinds of horrific actions displayed on September 11th, 2001.  But, if we read our bibles, we discover that God does not tolerate or support the kinds of violence a book burning manifests and instigates.  God does not meet violence with violence.  Most clearly (and centrally for Christians), when violence came to God’s Son–the Logos (John 1), the Word made flesh–in the form of a cross, God would not tolerate nor support it.  Instead, God overturned it, raising the Word, Jesus Christ, to new life so that we might all taste and hope in the abundance of God.  Theologically speaking, and as a Christian, Rev. Jones’s book burning misses the truth of the Cross–he is “burning,” again, the very Word of God by torching words celebrated by the Muslim faith (in all its diversity).

Instead of bringing violence to the Qur’an, what would it mean to bring resurrection Life to it?  Maybe it would mean supporting efforts by moderate and well-intended Muslims to reframe their faith by reaching out to hurting communities and people.  For example, maybe it would mean supporting a Mosque near the site of ground zero, where Muslims can mourn the destruction and death of 9/11 and reclaim the site as a place of healing and goodness in the name of Allah.  Maybe, just maybe, resurrection life is seeing God at work in a Muslim house of prayer unjustly tarnished by the cruel acts of extremists.

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4 thoughts on “Burning words will be burning the Word

  1. Beautifully said, Michael. I was thankful to see that a decision was made not to go forward with the ceremony. But Jones’s mere suggestion of burning the Qur’an warrants a much-needed discussion among Christians as to how we should view and respond to extreme acts against other religions and, ultimately, other human beings. Wish more people really stopped to consider the way the Bible suggests we should act as Christians…

    • So was I, Jeff. I agree that we should all take a long, hard look at the ways we interpret sacred texts into ethical and political action. I believe we should return to the strategy St. Augustine wrote about many years ago: interpret through caritas (or, Love). Sure, we’ll need to think long and hard about what “love” means, but I think it prevents us from ever suggesting that burning a sacred text in “protest” is a good idea.

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