I shouldn’t need to say that Pastor Terry Jones does not speak for Christians.
It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that burning the Qur’an is a highly offensive thing to do. And to do so on the anniversary of 9/11 as the organised activity of the church would perhaps be one of the stupidest things imaginable.
Unfortunately it does need saying because Pastor Jones, though he appears to have called off his ‘protest’, has been using his pulpit as the minister of a small church in Florida to spread his own particular brand of hatred towards Muslims, with possibly lethal results. The Dove World Outreach Centre has a congregation of just 50 but over the past few days its plan to burn 200 copies of the Qur’an put it at the centre of a growing media frenzy. The White House denounced the plan, as too did the US attorney general. The commander of US forces in Afghanistan warned that it could lead to reprisals against troops fighting the Taliban. The Vatican led the condemnation from religious groups of every hue, urging him not to go through with the burning. It seemed that the coordinated and sustained pressure had the desired affect, but even this 11th hour climb down has been cast into confusion as it appeared dependent on an agreement to relocate the planned Islamic Centre near Ground Zero, which in turn was clouded in denials and disagreement.
“International Burn the Qur’an Day”, as Pastor Jones had labelled his event, is not the product of following Christ but of xenophobia. It may be a church that carries out the burning of the Qur’an, but this is not how the wider church should respond. Perhaps he is looking for publicity – he has certainly got that – perhaps he wants notoriety and he has got that too. Maybe he wants Christians to be persecuted for their faith, because that is likely to happen as well.
As very few Muslims celebrated the events of nine years ago very few Christians would support the actions of this crackpot in Florida. One problem, however, is that the Qur’an burning would be illegal. It would breach some local fire codes after Jones was refused permission from the authorities for an outside fire. In 1989, 48 US state laws banning flag burning were ruled unconstitutional under the first amendment’s protection of free speech and it is likely that any ban on burning holy books would be similarly struck down.
The very concept of free speech insists that things we disagree with can be spoken, it means that words that we find vile are tolerated, and that tolerance is not replaced with uniformity. Free speech is not free speech if we only permit words and actions that we agree with, or those that do not offend.
But such liberty comes laden with responsibility. Pastor Jones may be technically correct when he asserts that burning books does not kill people, but to see the world so crudely is as naive as it is arrogant. If he chooses to burn the Qur’an it will have repercussions, for soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, for Christians living in Islamic countries and for the church that he purports to represent. Free speech means that we are free to say things that others would prefer we did not say, but it does not mean we should always do so.
So while Pastor Jones may not personally kill anyone if he does decide to go ahead with his pyre on Saturday, he will hammer a nail in the coffin of free speech. If we do not self-regulate our actions and stop ourselves from doing things that will cause harm, if we insist on going out of our way to cause offence, then we make a mockery of the freedom to speak. We must tolerate what we disagree with at the same time as seeking to spare others the offence of being vilified by our words and actions.
So unfortunately it does need saying: Pastor Jones is not speaking for Christians. There is nothing in the life of Christ, in the Christian Gospel, that justifies, excuses or allows the brand of hatred that he is displaying. The Christian faith is centred on one who bore the sufferings of many, who named the peacemakers and persecuted as blessed and who commanded his disciples to put down their swords as they rose to defend him.