Given the global attention received last fall by the Florida pastor who announced that he would burn the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11, then his recanting, I was frankly surprised to learn that he had found a way to break his promise and burn one anyway.
Pastor Terry Jones and his congregation at Dove World Outreach Center had managed to stay below the national media radar; most people probably forgot about them in places other than their community of Gainesville, Florida. But they have certainly been caught in the radar now, having done something even more daring and despicable than the demeaning act of burning a copy of the Quran.
The pastor held court with the Quran as the defendant. On March 20, 2011, he set himself up as the judge, invited a Muslim who had converted to Christianity to serve as prosecuting attorney and the president of the Islamic Center of Texas to act as defense attorney. “Expert” witnesses included other Muslims who had converted to Christianity.
What were the charges? In his video on the Stand Up America website, Pastor Jones said, “We are accusing the Quran of murder, rape, deception, being responsible for terrorist activities all around the world. We are accusing the Quran of these violent acts.”
Anticipating a “guilty” verdict, the question announced in advance on the lawn of the church’s property was whether the Quran should be burned, drowned, shredded, or shot. Apparently, an outcome like “respected” or “protected,” to say nothing of “honored” or “esteemed” was not a possibility. The outcome was determined in advance, as it is in all kangaroo courts. Following the jury’s rendering of the expected verdict, the Quran was soaked in kerosene and ignited, like charcoal in a barbeque pit.
In spite of all the absurdity and chicanery of this “mock trial” and the sophomoric behavior of its master-mind, there is nothing in this whole affair that is amusing. To the contrary, it is not only a shameful display of religious bigotry and ignorance, but also a burlesque-like mockery of our system of jurisprudence. All things considered, it is frighteningly childish act.
Violence, whether real or symbolic, has no legitimate place in the conduct of the Christian and the community of faith in the world. This is true whether the one on whom violence is inflicted is another human being whose religion is different than Christianity or a different form of Christianity, or a tangible symbol or artifact that carries the weight of divine presence and moral authority for a religious tradition other than one’s own.
Socioeconomic and cultural dominance do not confer the right to demean others by infringing on their religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Just because one believes oneself and one’s group to be in the right or the one true way, there is neither social, civil, nor religious sanction to injure or harass another.
What is alarming about this act is the extent to which Jones and his flock have gone to accomplish now what they set out to do last fall, in spite of Jones’s promise then to stand down and not burn the Quran. When he was called out on this by the Washington Post, all he had to say was “If you want to be technical, I guess we broke our word.”
But surrounding oneself with the accoutrement of justice and feigning to sit in judgment on the sacred literature of twenty-three percent of the world’s population, about whom one really—and evidently—know next to nothing, is a most disturbing demonstration of antipathy in search of a venue in order to attract attention and stoke further the fires of mind-numbing evil.
It is as though the Bible, the sacred literature of the Christian faith, does not contain a single word about living peaceably with others, or loving others as oneself, or extending hospitality to strangers, or discerning what is good, acceptable, and perfect in the will of God. On what grounds, moral or otherwise, can one defend the defamation of another? Certainly not on any grounds mined from Christian Scripture.
All the reasons given last fall for not burning a copy of the Quran still apply: inflaming the Muslim world, aiding and abetting Al-Qaeda’s recruitment, putting U.S. military personnel forces at greater risk, etc. Tragically, violence has now occurred in the Muslim world in retaliation for this despicable act by Jones’ and his followers. Afghans expressed their anger by attacking the UN headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif and killed twelve people. In Kandahar, nine persons were killed in violence and over ninety injured.
Jones refuses to take any blame for this. When asked in an interview with the BBC whether he was responsible for the violence in Afghanistan, he stated quite clearly, “We do not feel responsible, no.” This attempt to disclaim responsibility, however, cannot go unchallenged. True enough, Jones’ comments and conduct are no less the “cause” of the violence in Afghanistan than Sarah Palin’s comments and conduct are the “cause” of Jared Loughner’s gun violence in Tucson last January. The logic of “cause and effect” are irrelevant here. But only the naïve and thoughtless could believe that Jones’ unconscionable conduct did not agitate the perpetrators and contribute to the instigation of deadly violence. Indeed, only other extremists and xenophobes—religious or non-religious—can pretend there is no connection between Jones and the violence in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar.
It appears now that Jones’ mockery of Islam could be directly extended to the Prophet Mohammed himself. As reported in the Sunday Telegraph, Jones has said, “It is definitely a consideration to stage a trial on the life of Mohammed in the future.” If we consider Jones’ failure to keep a promise, his attempts to distance himself and his followers from the violence in Afghanistan and his stated objections to violence of any kind—ineffectual as those objections apparently are—the only conclusion that can be drawn from the suggestion of this new focus of contempt for Islam is this: Jones simply does not care!
Convinced of the rightness of his own cause, he does not care who may be injured or what may befall the lives of others, just so long as he may shield himself by the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech provided by the U.S. Constitution. He cares neither for truth nor faith nor the well-being of all others, in any recognizable aspect. Rather, with a pretentious façade of a pseudo-Christianity and a frightening semblance of nationalism, Jones seems determined—hellbent?—to display his insolent and distorted worldview and extend his notoriety beyond his allotted fifteen minutes.
At some point, however, his inflammatory rhetoric and conduct must be called to account. Either Americans of all demographic stripes will bring suitable public pressure to bear on Jones and his circle, in the spirit of public action undertaken by community organizers and activists, or legal action will be undertaken against him, in the spirit of Brandenburg v. Ohio in which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 defined the limits of constitutionally protected speech. The Court opined that any speech that “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action” is not protected.
The catalyst to invoke such legal action might very well be some act(s) of violence yet-to-be committed on U.S. soil, rather than in a Muslim country far away. Now is the time for Christians and adherents of other religious traditions as well as the non-religious with moral conscience and concern to intercede before yet another life is taken or harm endured by a human being in connection with the social, moral, and theological pathology so superbly exemplified by Jones and his group. Now is the time, not after violence here and more violence abroad, but now, here.