The chief American soldier in Afghanistan has pleaded with them to stop; church leaders from around the world have appealed for them to re-think; protests are building around the Islamic world, and countless Christians are absolutely appalled; yet a tiny church in Florida remains the centre of an international media frenzy because of its plans to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11.
Here are six reasons why this group should immediately call off their planned bonfire:
1. Their proposed action is deeply unChristian.
Nowhere in the Bible do we find people involved in Christian mission insulting the culture to which they are bearing witness for Christ. Rather, we find in the ministry of people like The Apostle Paul, a deep engagement with the people to whom he was sharing the message of Jesus. Acts pictures Paul hiring lecture halls, debating publicly, and drawing on local customs as entry points for his message into people's understanding. The manner in which Christians are to conduct themselves towards those outside the faith (according to the Bible) is "with gentleness and respect." (1) Furthermore, the New Testament is full of injunctions to live at peace with those with whom we share the world, "as far as it depends on you - live at peace with all men" it says. (2), likewise Jesus proclaimed, "Blessed are the peacemakers." (3) To take deliberate actions to hurt others, insult their culture and to stir enmity between peoples, is to take an unChristian stance.
2. Burning the Koran brings the gospel of Christ into disrepute
The New Testament indicates that Christian believers should conduct themselves in such a way as way as to make the gospel of Jesus accessible and attractive to others. The way in which a church, and its pastor act in the public sphere should be to inspire those who see the broadcast to want to investigate Christianity themselves. Now there is nothing wrong with speaking boldly, speaking with faith and conviction, and even saying things which are unpopular in order to demonstrate integrity; but insulting others in Christ's name in order to gain self-publicity brings the gospel into disrepute. I know several Christian people who live in Muslim-majority countries, or who live in towns in the UK in which most of their neighbours are from a Muslim background. They have many fascinating discussions about religious matters with their friends and neighbours, and they answer the many questions about Christianity which they get asked; from people who have almost no information about it. They do so politely, respectfully, gently and they listen to their friends perspectives too! The very last thing they would do would be to insult the things their friends hold to be true - how ever much they disagree, or discuss or debate. This church in Florida, I suggest has no knowledge or experience of genuine interactions or friendships with ordinary muslims. The actions of these ill-informed Floridan's simply sets the church back decades in Muslim-majority counties.
3. Burning the Koran endangers lives
General Patraeous has asked this church to halt their plans as he knows that it will be used as a pretext to stir up hatred and violence amongst radicalising Islamists across Afghanistan. His claim is that this is an act of provocation which will cost the lives of many of his soldiers. However, US troops in other countries are only part of the issue as they are a heavily armed occupying force. Of far greater concern is the effect that these actions will have on Christians who live in muslim-majority countries many of whom already face persecutions. Where states curtail the civil liberties of Christians or seek to impose Sharia law on non-Muslims, or where Islamist mobs seek to destroy Christians, foolish people engaging in 9/11 publicity stunts of this nature will threaten their safety. While such regimes or mobs are undoubtedly responsible for their own actions, the reality is that in a world containing so many extremists, exacerbating volatile situations can have dire consequences. This means that this Florida church is also extremely selfish. I doubt that in Florida they will suffer much for these actions - however, it maybe that Christians in North Africa, Indonesia, or Pakistan will pay a heavy price.
4. Koran burning plays into the cynical media's hands
In the UK today the Christian church faces a very hostile media which seems to take a peculiar interest in stories about the antics of fallen-Vicars or unrepresentative extreme groups. In the furore surrounding the BBC's decision to air Jerry Springer the Opera, the calm and reasoned voices of the Church of England media office and the Evangelical Alliance, or even the BBC Governor Baroness Amos were almost completely unheard. Instead, the ranting self-publicist Steven Green of "Christian Voice" was allowed to use the event to launch his tiny organisation to a UK-wide audience. This church in Florida, has apparently only fifty members. They are not part of any major organisation or denomination and represent no-one but themselves. Their planned actions have been rejected by almost everyone. So why have they been able to gain the attention they so obviously crave? I suggest that it is in the interests of two groups to fuel this nonsense (a) the secular media (b) Islamist radicalisers.
The secular media has a consistently hostile editorial line towards Christianity and as such wants to seize on the fringe and pretend that it is in some way representative of the whole. They also want to be free to condemn Islamic extremism without seeming to be biased, and point out that they have savaged Christians too (fair enough!). This is why a church of 50 people in Florida planning an act of insult and foolishness gain their attention, while my church in the UK of over 200 people fundraising for Pakistan's flood victims through "Save the Children" - will never be even a footnote in the regional news; never mind a national lead story! American Evangelical journalist Cal Thomas told a researcher about the way the media works: "they'd have all these professors from Princetown or wherever on Good Morning America, representing the secular perspectives, then they'd have this West Virgina hick with a missing couple of front teeth representing the Evangelical perspective... and they'd all laugh it up because all these religious nuts are... religious nuts." Likewise Christian PR man Mark de Moss complains that influential shows like Larry King Live in the USA will not carry moderate, weighty or considered Christian commentators because they want to "prop-up a stereotype" of Christians who are "red-faced, angry and wanting to pronounce judgement on the world".(4)
Islamist radicalisers obviously feed on stories like this, as it enables them to paint the whole of the West and the Christian church as seeking to destroy them. For all their public venting of anger, the only people who stand to gain from this church's actions are the radical Islamists. They have driven the propagation of the story around the world.
5. Burning books is not the act of assured people of faith; but of cultural philistines!
Book burning itself has a very dodgy history. By joining in such actions, this minority church alies itself with Stalin, The Nazis, The Taliban, Mao Zedong, and totalitarians the world over. Books are not meant to be burnt, but read, debated, discussed, wrestled with and engaged with. I have a copy of the Koran and have read much of it. I neither wish to set-fire to it, nor to embrace it as a flawless tome descended from heaven, which I do not believe it to be. But it is a volume worthy of our attention, as one of the most influential books of our age. It is a book which should be considered if one wishes to understand today's world - and to engage meaningfully with those people who seek to live by it. Destroying copies of important historical texts are the actions, not of people who are at ease with themselves in their own faith; but of the paranoid, the desperate, the agitated, and those who feel threatened by opponents. This church in Florida should engage not destroy!
6. Burning the Koran in response to 9/11 is a foolish political mistake.
It is a noteworthy fact - and one that this church in Florida do not seem to have appreciated - that on 9/11, Al Queda did not fly their plane into a church building. Washington, London, New York, all have enormous landmark Cathedrals which would have made impressive symbols if they had been targeted. Or perhaps Al Quaeda could have taken-over a plane and flown it into St Peter's square during a massive Papal mass or into a football stadium during a Billy Graham rally. But they didn't. The target in 9/11 was not the Christian infrastructure, but the heart of American capitalism and government. Part of Al Quaeda's rationale is that American Capitalism is colonial and expansionist, and one of their key demands is the withdrawal of western troops from what they deem to be 'Muslim lands'. Primarily 9/11 was a war between Islamic radicals and secular, Western consumer-capitalism. When a church burns Koran's in response to this, it abolishes the distinction between the church and consumer-capitalism, seeing the church and the American economy and Foreign-policy as two arms of the same entity. This is a political, and theological error of almost unimaginable proportions. Western Consumer Capitalism and its colonial aspirations are not to be 'baptized' by the church in this way - but critiqued by the church using the yardstick of the Bible's standards. The church should be raising up a prophetic voice against both the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism and its enormous threat to basic civil liberties around the globe; as well as to the insatiable greed of consumer capitalism and the violence and corruption of much western foreign policy. The church has no place to be the cheerleader for either side in this escalating crisis - but in faithfulness to Christ should strive to be the servant and witness to both. This church in its headline mongering stunt, has allowed the 'religicisation' of this tension from the Christian side - something which the likes of Al Queada are anxious to propagate. No wonder President Obama has called this a 'recruitment bonanza' for the terrorists.
A Christian response to this situation should be based on the teaching of Christ. Rather than, blessed are the trouble-makers, the self-publicists and the agitators; in The sermon on the mount, Jesus puts it like this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemiesi and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
1. 1 Peter 3:15
2. Romans 12:18
3. Matthew 5:9
4. D. Michael Lindsay. "Faith in the Halls of Power" p 150