Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, plans to publicly burn a copy of the Koran on September 11. The timing coordinates with the ninth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and the present controversy over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero.
His church is small, about 50 members, but named the Dove World Outreach Center. He believes this is the right thing to do, posting ten reasons on his website, and having written a book called "Islam Is of the Devil."
He admitted to the New York Times in an August 26 article that he has no knowledge of the Koran: “I have no experience with it whatsoever. I only know what the Bible says.” As well, in my direct contacts with his church, I have learned that he claims God told him “to do this burning.”
Really? How well does he know the Bible? Is it biblical to be deliberately ignorant concerning a matter about which you write a book? Is he claiming to be a prophet, and if so, what will the results show?
This man, and his shrinking congregation, have assigned themselves the power to roil the Muslim world.
Imagine the Internet being flooded with pictures of a burning Koran, viewed incessantly and widely. Every time it is viewed, especially by tinderbox elements within the Muslim ummah, the potential for dangerous conflict will only grow. It could easily catalyze and bring harm to persons and property. Threats within the Muslim world are already growing. Is this the nature and purpose of the Gospel, to whom Pastor Jones claims allegiance?
First, the church should speak with one voice against such provocative folly. And second, President Obama should be quick to oppose it as well – in concern that international reactions could also threaten American interests, and, as a professing Christian who speaks of his respect for Muslim peoples, he should be especially intentional about being a peacemaker in such a context.
In my attempts at dissuasion, I have been in touch with the church staff twice. As an evangelical minister, I have sought to talk directly with Pastor Jones but to no avail. I have invited him to debate me, and the answer, repeatedly, has been no.
I have never before made such a public challenge, as I have in recent posts on my blog. I have been involved in some 200 debates and forums across the years, on a range of subjects, on university campuses, in churches and elsewhere. But this one matters especially.
Interfaith appeals and larger social pressure have their place. We see growing opposition, including the fact that the church has been refused a burn permit by the city, their insurance policy has been canceled, and the bank has pulled their mortgage note.
But Pastor Jones is still pressing forth with his agenda, claiming in an August 25 e-mail to his supporters, three times in bold: “BUT WE WILL STILL BURN KORANS.”
Pastor Jones claims to believe in the Bible, so this is where I challenge him. I do so having written a statement of affirmation, on my website, inviting biblically faithful Christians to join in: Yes to the Bible, No to the Burning of the Koran.
In it, we affirm the full and equal dignity of all Muslim peoples in the sight of the one true Creator. We do so in affirming the complete truth of the Bible, while at the same time not affirming the nature of the Koran. In the public sphere in the United States, unalienable rights, as rooted in their historical source, are to be honored equally for peoples, Muslims likewise. This is due not to religious identity, but on the grounds of a deeper shared humanity.
Thus, to put it in political language, our partisan affirmation of the Bible leads us to affirm the full human dignity of those who believe in a text we do not believe in. This is to love God and neighbor, to fulfill the “Golden Rule” of treating others as you wish to be treated.
The ethics of the Bible are by definition proactive, reflecting the declared goodness of the order of creation, and its redemption in Jesus. The word “Gospel” means “good news,” it starts in Genesis and is fulfilled in Jesus. This is Theology 101 for Christians.
Therefore, we who are biblically faithful Christians always seek to be proactive in our actions toward all people. The Gospel empowers us to give to those who would take from us, love those who would hate us, and bless those who would curse us. And as Jesus said, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
The poet, Heinrich Heine, a German Jew who converted to Christianity, wrote in 1820: “Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too.” Of course, those words were prophetic of what was to come, a century later, in Nazi Germany.
So, here are seven questions for Pastor Jones:
1. How can his proposed action be other than one of reactive fear, not one of proactive confidence? It is foreign to the Gospel.
2. Is not the burning of the Koran seen by Muslim peoples as bad news, and thus a hindrance to Muslims grasping the Good News in the lives of Christians?
3. Is not the burning of the Koran an act of accusation and condemnation? The name of Satan in the Hebrew (ha’satan) means “the accuser” or “the slanderer.”
4. Does not the burning of the Koran thus burn Muslims in their very souls?
5. Does not the burning of the Koran by professing Christians thus slander the name of Jesus Christ?
6. What happens if people are killed, injured or persecuted as a result, if properties are burned or damaged, due to an inflamed Muslim world as images of a burning Koran flood the Internet? Who will be ultimately responsible?
7. Jesus, in the face of his enemies during Passover Week, embraced their toughest questions in public assembly. Is not the burning of the Koran the opposite of such confidence in communication?
For Christians who embrace the proactive confidence of the Gospel, we seek out the toughest questions from Muslims in public assembly, among equals in the sight of the one true Creator, where the Bible and the Koran can be looked at side by side.
Does Pastor Jones have enough confidence in his position to be publicly accountable to such questions? Or is he a prisoner of his own reactionary fears? My offer to debate – in a sober and gracious manner – remains on the table.
Rev. John Rankin is president of the Theological Education Institute and Mars Hill Society in West Simsbury, Connecticut. For more from Rev. Rankin visit his websites at: www.johnrankin.org and www.teinet.net.
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