Friday, September 10, 2010

A bit more on koran-burning

I want to round up some of the main arguments that have been employed on this question. It would be fair to say I feel ambivalent about it, but I'm still chewing it through (which is, of course, what a blog is for....)

Argument #1: it will endanger the troops (aid and succour the enemy)
On one level this is facile, in that, in a war, we assume that the enemy is trying to kill our soldiers already. It is not facile in that burning the koran will reinforce the ideology and remotivate their troops. So the good point here is not about fear but about pragmatism - you don't give the enemy a propaganda victory.

Argument #2: it will endanger other Christians around the world

This may be true, but if so, it actually says worse things about Islamic culture, ie that a symbolic protest such as this might lead to loss of life, because the values and cultural norms are so uncivilised in such countries. So to not burn the Koran for this reason alone is simply to succumb to intimidation.

Argument #3: it's rude and disrespectful
It undoubtedly is rude and disrespectful - it wouldn't be worth doing if it wasn't - but I'm not sure that 'rude and disrespectful' automatically make something wrong, it depends upon everything else.

Argument #4: it's symbolic violence
Yes it is; it is not a peaceable act, it is not something that will generate good will and foster further understanding. However, again, I'm not sure that there isn't (in principle) a place for symbolically violent behaviour. Whether such behaviour is defensible or not depends entirely on the wider context - is it simply bullying or spiritual abuse? Or is there a wider toppling of idolatries going on (leading to less abuse)?

Argument #5: We are told to love our enemies and this isn't loving (Jesus wouldn't do it)
If we take the feelings of the targeted audience as the end point of the process then "causing pain = not loving" follows. Jesus, however, often had a further end in view relating to the long term liberation of the people he engaged with. What this action does is totalise the argument. It's an action which follows once reasonable discourse has come to an end (or not been started). The real question is one that Byron asked, about whether a creative and attractive alternative is being shown. The action is defensible to the extent that creative possibilities are held out (which is something that doesn't seem to be the case here).

Argument #6: it's ugly and stupid and childish ('Ugh!')
This is an expression of our cultural norms, and whilst I tend to the view that the argument from disgust shouldn't be rejected on principle, I don't see what it adds here. In principle (I'm abstracting again) it could be the cultural norms which are the idols needing to be toppled, just as much as any Islamist nonsense.

Argument #7: how would you like it?
What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The difference is that the power of the act would be different, given that Christians don't see the New Testament (fundamentalists excepted) in the way that the Islamists see the Koran. Of course, what we do see as the Word of God was treated in just such a way - he was crucified - and therein lies some of the most important differences...

Argument #8: it's retaliation
As a motive, I would agree that this is wrong. I'd simply point out that burning books is not on a par with burning down buildings by flying planes into them.

That's my thinking so far; I haven't finished yet.

11 comments:

  1. 1, 2, 3 - Agreed.

    4 - Metaphors matter. Are idolatries "toppled" or "repented of"? That is, what is the place of force vs. persuasion in someone turning from idols to the living and true God? Are metaphors of force ("doing battle with unbelief") misleading when they are not placed into relational contexts? Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, and our weapons are not the weapons of this world. Otherwise, agreed.

    5 - It is not that the action will cause psychological pain, but that the intended message of the action was to threaten violent retaliation for any further violent attacks: "if you attack us, we will attack you." So the real issue is not whether causing someone distress is or is not loving (in some cases, it can be part of a loving response where such distress is a godly sorrow that leads to repentance), but what the message communicated by such an action is (both what it is intended to be and what is likely to be heard). I think it fails on both counts here, and merely participates in the pagan cycle of hatred begetting hatred.

    6 - Agreed.

    7 - Perhaps a better parallel would be the deliberate desecration of the eucharistic elements. And your parallel with Christ himself is also instructive.

    8 - It was not to be retaliation for the attacks on September 11 (that took the form of two wars in which hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed, maimed or had their livelihood removed). It was a threat of future retaliation for any future attacks.

    As I said before, on this matter, liberalism gives the right answer for the wrong reasons. I think there are much stronger properly Christian reasons for opposing this particular action.

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  2. 1, 2, 3 - Agreed.

    4 - Metaphors matter. Are idolatries "toppled" or "repented of"? That is, what is the place of force vs. persuasion in someone turning from idols to the living and true God? Are metaphors of force ("doing battle with unbelief") misleading when they are not placed into relational contexts? Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, and our weapons are not the weapons of this world. Otherwise, agreed.

    5 - It is not that the action will cause psychological pain, but that the intended message of the action was to threaten violent retaliation for any further violent attacks: "if you attack us, we will attack you." So the real issue is not whether causing someone distress is or is not loving (in some cases, it can be part of a loving response where such distress is a godly sorrow that leads to repentance), but what the message communicated by such an action is (both what it is intended to be and what is likely to be heard). I think it fails on both counts here, and merely participates in the pagan cycle of hatred begetting hatred.

    6 - Agreed.

    7 - Perhaps a better parallel would be the deliberate desecration of the eucharistic elements. And your parallel with Christ himself is also instructive.

    8 - It was not to be retaliation for the attacks on September 11 (that took the form of two wars in which hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed, maimed or had their livelihood removed). It was a threat of future retaliation for any future attacks.

    As I said before, on this matter, liberalism gives the right answer for the wrong reasons. I think there are much stronger properly Christian reasons for opposing this particular action.

    You might be interested to read this piece by one of my teachers, which includes some interesting reflections on "WWSPD?". ;-)

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  3. PS I've been having problems with some comments on your blog being eaten (including this one the first time I tried). I've also sent you an email about this in case this is eaten again.

    (It seems to be better if I first click "preview" rather than going straight to "post comment").

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  4. Argument #3 It is actually more than simply rude and disrespectful. It is (and is presumably intended to be) sacrilegious.

    Argument #7 You are right to say that Christians do not view the NT (or the Bible for that matter) in the same way as Muslims view the Qur'an. The nearest analogue (which applies equally to the Torah in Judaism) is the person of Jesus as God's fullest and final self-revelation. In this way, for Catholics, PZ Meyer's stunt with the consecrated wafer is a pretty good analogy.

    Argument 8 "Burning books is not on a par with burning down buildings by flying planes into them."
    Agreed, but let's try to get some cultural perspective on this and not simply treat Western liberal values as the norm by which everything else should be judged. What would be on a par with book burning, given what the Qur'an is and symbolizes to Muslims? It's a difficult one for the more Protestant end of Christianity to appreciate, I think, given that it tends to equate treating any physical object or space as sacred with idolatry. What, short of mass murder, would we in the 21st century regard as equally sacrilegious? I am struggling to find an answer.

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  5. My comment also got eaten but here is what Myers has to say.

    "What, short of mass murder, would we in the 21st century regard as equally sacrilegious? I am struggling to find an answer. "
    You can't divorce Islam from nationalism. I'm pretty sure a protestant unionist parade burning an Irish flag while marching through a catholic nationalist area would spark similar reactions in northern Ireland.

    Good ol' identity politics.

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  6. Let's try this for Byron:

    1, 2, 3 - Agreed.

    4 - Metaphors matter. Are idolatries "toppled" or "repented of"? That is, what is the place of force vs. persuasion in someone turning from idols to the living and true God? Are metaphors of force ("doing battle with unbelief") misleading when they are not placed into relational contexts? Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, and our weapons are not the weapons of this world. Otherwise, agreed.

    5 - It is not that the action will cause psychological pain, but that the intended message of the action was to threaten violent retaliation for any further violent attacks: "if you attack us, we will attack you." So the real issue is not whether causing someone distress is or is not loving (in some cases, it can be part of a loving response where such distress is a godly sorrow that leads to repentance), but what the message communicated by such an action is (both what it is intended to be and what is likely to be heard). I think it fails on both counts here, and merely participates in the pagan cycle of hatred begetting hatred.

    6 - Agreed.

    7 - Perhaps a better parallel would be the deliberate desecration of the eucharistic elements. And your parallel with Christ himself is also instructive.

    8 - It was not to be retaliation for the attacks on September 11 (that took the form of two wars in which hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed, maimed or had their livelihood removed). It was a threat of future retaliation for any future attacks.

    As I said before, on this matter, liberalism gives the right answer for the wrong reasons. I think there are much stronger properly Christian reasons for opposing this particular action.

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  7. Lots of good points being made in all this (and on the other post) for which I thank you all. At the moment my thinking is boiling down to 'this action is motivated by fear and hatred' - and that _cannot_ be Christian.

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  8. @theObserver

    Thanks for the response. I can find examples of what might be equivalents for some other groups/nationalities. But I'm not sure that the Islamic reaction is as nationalistic as you suppose, except in the sense that all Muslims regard themselves as part of the ummah. the Islamic "nation" or "brotherhood". I am still wondering what we as Western Christians, living in modern Western liberal democracies, might regard as sacrilegious to the same extent.

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  9. "What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander."

    I think that's one of the key points where I disagree.
    We are not dealing with people who have the same sensibilities we do and to be all smug and superior about it doesn't help.

    If today's newspaper reports are to be believed, at least 4 children and a score of adults have already lost their lives in realitative (is that a word?) action.

    Because we know that uneducated and passionate people will retaliate like this, we are responsible if we condone whatever action caused the retaliation.

    We are not defending something of major importance here, but we are defending the right of an incredibly stupid and hateful person to spread hate and thereby indirectly cause death.

    We may wish it wasn't like that, we may feel superior to all actors in this game, we may believe that our lofty principles are more important.

    I don't think we should.

    And I think that he can only get away in the US. In Britain, he would have been stopped by law for inciting racial hatred, and I think that would have been entirely appropriate.

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  10. Erika, with respect I think that you're the one being 'smug and superior', ie when you condescend to say "We are not dealing with people who have the same sensibilities we do" and describe them as "uneducated and passionate". You're implicitly assuming a western superiority there. I think that there are standards of goodness independent of our own tastes. When Daniel Pearl gets beheaded, that is not the fault of the United States for 'offending' the people doing the beheading...

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  11. Sam,
    We are objectively not dealing with people who have the same sensibilities. That doesn't mean that ours are better, just different.

    That those who have now used the Q'ran burning threat to cause huge amounts of violence in their own countries are "passionate" is again just a statement of fact.

    You may be right, they may not be uneducated. Although I must admit that such exaggerated responses to the threat of one lone idiot to burn a copy of a book does not strike me as hugely intelligent.
    To riot in your own country and retaliate against people who are not linked to the man or even his country isn't very bright either.

    To ignore all the Western protests against this idiot's threats and insist that he represents everyone's thoughts is, at the very least, an unwillingness to engage with the reality of who your perceived enemies.

    And it is not a "Westerners are cleverer" statement either. The book burner himself is not hugely intelligent if he is willing to ignite such a powder keg just because.

    Nor is scapegoating Islam just as just as they scapegoat the West very bright.

    And he's just as passionate in his hatred and his inability to see the truth about people and other faiths, and their humanity.

    Daniel Pearl was appalling. And of course it was the responsibility of those who beheaded him.

    But when we discuss the rights and wrongs of it all we cannot wash our hands of being responsible too, when we know with 100% certainty what the consequences of our provocations will be.

    We are our brothers' keepers.

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