Thursday, September 09, 2010

In defence of burning the Koran

This one might be a bit controversial... (even Sarah Palin thinks that it's wrong!)

There is much fuss about the proposal by Pastor Terry Jones to burn some copies of the Koran on September 11th. He is, understandably, coming in for a very great deal of criticism. Book burning is, historically, just one step away from people burning. It has also been used to intimidate and suppress opposition to the ruling hierarchy, and is pretty much as anti-Enlightenment as it is possible to get. How then might it possibly be a defensible act? Here is my line of thought (and, if it needs to be said, Of Course I Could Be Wrong):

I think that it is a sin to be offended; does that also mean that it is wrong to give offence? After all, that is what is at stake here. There is no sense that the intellectual content of the Koran is at risk of being obliterated for all time due to this action. It's simply that it is extremely rude and "insensitive". Other things being equal, it would clearly not be right to cause such offence - but are other things equal? I think not.

Sometimes it isn't just defensible, it is actively right to give offence. After all, giving offence is simply refusing to share in the cultural nostrums of the time - it is to go against them, to break taboos. Sometimes this is mandatory.

Consider Jesus overturning the tables in the temple and grabbing a whip to drive out the traders and their cattle. This was undoubtedly a deeply offensive act - but it was also profoundly righteous, it was an act of prophetic drama concerned with demonstrating a religious truth. In effect, it was the toppling of an idol (the contemporary temple worship) in order to proclaim the higher truth (right worship of the living God).

In doing this, Jesus was drawing deeply on the main Scriptural tradition of prophecy. As Walter Brueggemann has so eloquently described, the first and foremost task of the prophet is to teach the people that things don't need to be the way that they are. In other words, the foundational work of the prophet is to liberate the consciousness of the oppressed - for the liberation of their bodies (the Exodus) inevitably follows. To do this requires toppling the idols of Egypt - challenging them and showing that they have no power.

I think that this is the right context in which to understand the burning of the Koran by Pastor Jones. Put at its most basic (and from a confessedly Christian point of view) it is not the case that the Koran is the Word of God - that description is only rightly applied, in the end, to Jesus. The reverence offered to the Koran by faithful Muslims is therefore (however benign in the vast majority of cases) a form of idolatry. Where such things are less benign are where this idolatry is used to buttress all sorts of other evils - such as the khawarij doctrines of thinkers like Qutb.

To burn the Koran in this context is therefore a symbolic act of tremendous power. It is to engage with the war against the militant Muslims at the level of ideas and propaganda, which is (I would argue) the most important level if this war is to be won. It might be argued that this is, in fact, a self-defeating act of propaganda - that it will alienate the moderate Muslim, and simply increase the dangers faced by our soldiers on the battlefront. I don't find such arguments convincing. This is not Abu Ghraib - which truly was an abomination - nor do I believe that it will make much difference to enemy soldiers who are already doing all that they can to kill Westerners wherever they may be found. Exposing the 'gods' of the enemy to ridicule is surely part of what it means to resist dhimmitude, after all, didn't we do the same to the Nazis in World War 2?
('Hitler... has only got one ball, the other... is in the Albert Hall')
In other words, burning a Koran seems to be an act which might share in both prophetic righteousness and be pragmatically right in the context of resistance to the khawarij.

It could, however, just be an example of intolerance and bigotry. How might it be discriminated from that? How might it be shown that it is not just a form of bullying?

This is, I believe, to articulate something which has not been properly expressed by any of our leaders so far, which is about how we are to conduct this war. If it is true that this war is fundamentally a spiritual one, conducted at the level of ideas (principalities and powers) then we cannot succeed unless we are true to our own highest beliefs and ideals. Which means that whilst the burning of a Koran might be symbolically acceptable to show that it is not the Word of God, we can only give substance to this by demonstrating adherence to the true Word of God and what he taught. In other words it is absolutely imperative that we safeguard the well-being of that which bears the true image of God, ie the human being. We cannot allow a protest against idolatry to develop into a pogrom against people. If the Holocaust and all that led up to it represents the darkest heart of Western Christianity (which I believe) then we must do everything to ensure that it is never repeated. This means a rigorous regard for the human rights (civil rights) of Muslims in terms of their personal safety, but also a staunch regard for their personal property - including their Korans. A symbolic burning of a Koran might be righteous - to mutilate the Koran that belongs to a person, which has been used in their worship, to which they have become sentimentally attached - this is something else. It would be as if Jesus didn't simply drive the traders out of the temple but that he gave each of them a bloody nose as well.

That's why I think it might be defensible to burn a Koran on the anniversary of September 11th - it is a repudiation and ridiculing of the deathly ideology that slaughtered 3000 people. Yet it will only be truly righteous if it is also accompanied by a commitment to respecting the human and civil rights of Muslims. In the end we can only win by pursuing our best, not by indulging our worst.


  1. The version I learned was:

    Hitler has only got one ball
    Goering has two, but they are small
    Himmler has something sim'lar
    And Goe-balls has no balls at all!

  2. Rev Sam: the only man I know with a WWSPD? mug!

    (more considered response later) ;)

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. If a Christian's symbolic burning of the Koran to show it is not the word of God is acceptable, would you in turn allow for a Muslim to symbolically burn the New Testament to show that in her/his view that it is not the word of God? If not would that be a double standard? This sounds very like the ancient burning of 'heretical' texts. I feel that this activity is not conducive to peace or freedom and could lead the extremists to kill people.
    I say this as an Anglican Christian.

  5. Sam, have you taken seriously the stated intent of the pastor in question? "If you attack us, if you attack us, we will attack you". This is no Christian stand against idolatry; it is pagan threat of retaliation and ought to be called out for the idolatry of militarism and nationalism that it represents.

    Even if this quote is not representative of the pastor in question, nowhere in the NT are Christians instructed to fight idolatry with violence, even symbolic violence.* Our weapons are not swords and flames, but prayer, preaching and purity. We have nothing to fear from idols or those who follow them. They can but destroy the body.

    *The cleansing/enacted destruction of the temple was directed towards violent nationalism amongst God's own people. It does therefore seem to be quite relevant to this discussion, but not perhaps in the way you have suggested.

  6. Now you really have lost me.

    So, because, from a Christian point of view, it is a sin to TAKE offence, it is OK to GIVE offence? Is this not placing a stumbling-block to ALL Muslims, a confirmation of the view that the "Christian" West hates Islam and Muslims? When Jesus drove the money-changers from the Temple he was making a point from within the institution, not from outside it.

    In the only New Testament example of book-burning (Acts 19:19) at Ephesus these were books being burned by people who were renouncing their former beliefs and practices (not the case in Pastor Jones' case). Later on in Ephesus, when the silversmiths stir up a riot against Paul, the town clerk is able to claim, with apparent credibility, that Paul and his companions have never spoken against their temple or blasphemed their goddess.

    I can't support you on this one.

  7. All well and good, Sam (interesting to reflect on the sinfullness of being offended)

    However, you neglect to mention that these eejits (I wish my church with 50 people could get as much publicity) are planning to burn the Koran as an act of defiance, almost a vengeful thing.

    Clearly Pastor Jones was profoundly offended by the September 11th attacks. By your reckoning that reaction in itself is sinful, which is an interesting angle, given that the Western world media as a whole regards as a sinner anyone who is NOT offended by 9/11.

    However, "in your anger do not sin". It was not the very existence of the moneychangers that Christ struck prophetically against, but their location in the Temple (we note "render unto Caesar ...etc" elsewhere).

    To deliberately do something you know will offend Muslims is provocative enough (cartoons etc), but to declaredly do so as a response to terrorism is to descend to the level of the terrorist, and is not in the spirit of "turn the other cheek".
    The thing is, we know 9/11 was an attack on Western Capitalism, not western Christianity, but Pastor Jones doesn't seem to be able to tell the difference.
    I understand from the Barnabus Fund that there have been threats to civilan Christians in the Far East in retaliation to this publicity stunt.

    Which is what it is really; if no on e covered the story, a little church couldn't possibly hope to achieve its aim.

    Still, for an early riser, you write well!


    @the Baron
    That's verse 2. The first verse, after the lines Sam quoted goes "his mother the dirty bugger, cut it off when he was small"
    @Justin SP = St Paul? Oh wait, Sarah Palin :-)

  8. I do wish Terry Jones had stayed with Monty Python SDR

  9. Just blogged a brief item along the same lines Sam, before seeing yours ... which I came to as a result of thinking of your earlier "taking offence being the real sin".

  10. Whole thing reminds me of PZ Myers defiling a roman catholic communion wafer.

  11. Thinking about this further, Sam, is there anything in the logic you outline that would limit such acts of symbolic violence to a book? Why not (if you can guarantee no human casualities) blow up the Ka'aba in Mecca? Or, if we're going to be consistent, why not blow up other symbols of idolatry, such as the statues of Buddha in Afghanistan? Or, again, if we can guarantee no lives being lost, perhaps we could blow up some symbols of idols closer to home, like, say, the Pentagon and the twin towers. Or even an oil rig or two. Or a Tesco store. :-)

    I'm not actually opposed to the suggestion of taking dramatic actions that reveal the hollowness and violence of idolatries, but surely it is better if such actions express not simply opposition but a creative and attractive alternative? I guess I'm saying that I'm all for symbolic actions that speak of God's victory in Christ, but burning someone else's book doesn't seem to be a very good expression of that.

    Yet I guess the heart of my critique is not the offence (as you rightly point out), and is certainly not the consideration of the safety of US troops. It is not even the problematic message communicated by a book burning. The real problem is that this pastor shows a striking lack of distinction between western capitalism and western Christianity, or between the USA and his church. Who is this "we" who will attack the "you" in his quote? Is it not the US military? And so hasn't he just identified the church with the US military? As I said, there is idolatry to be condemned by the church in this episode, even if it causes offence, but I suspect the first step has to be to remove the log from our own eye and reject the idolatry of militarism and nationalism.

  12. on reflection, it is to show offense that is sinful, not to take offense. Ethical disapproval and love do co-exist.
    There is no sin in reacting negatively inside our own minds (to people burning the Koran, to people objecting to cartoons or blowing themselves up in marketplaces etc); the sin (unChristlikeness) comes in the judgemental or aggressive reaction, which is (to my mind) what Jones and co are doing

  13. Byron, all - I haven't looked in any detail at what Pastor Jones has said, I'm just reacting to the headline and the chorus of disapproval. I suppose I should have even more heavily emphasised the OCICBW at the beginning...

    Observer - that's a very interesting point.

  14. Fair enough. I agree that the reasons for disapproval given in many quarters hold little water for Christians. That said, however, I think we have even stronger reasons for disapproval in this case.

    I wrote a longer reply a few hours ago but it doesn't seem to have gone up properly, which is a shame. I've tried to rephrase it in a further post on my blog.

  15. I think the strongest argument against the book burning is that it will make moderate Muslims in the US afraid. That doesn't seem like a good thing to be doing.

  16. Another strong argument against book burning is that it is one of the most childish things you can do. Who would want to out themselves as an unintelligent moron?

  17. I think the strongest argument against the book burning is that it will make moderate Muslims in the US afraid.

    For me, the strongest argument is that, moneychangers notwithstanding, I just can't see Jesus doing it or approving of it.

  18. I dont believe there is any symbolism. Rev Jones just wanted to have his minute in media. And he obviously succeeded, maybe more than he expected...

  19. I started to have a serious opinion on this, then I read up on the man who was doing it.

    This really comes down to a "shame on the media" for giving this guy attention in the first place.

    I mean if Sam Norton starts burning books, that's some symbolism to consider, but this d-bag, come on, really.?.

  20. Revsimmy - I can't see Jesus doing it either...

  21. ...having said that, by the same criteria I can't see him turning over the tables in the temple (or being exceptionally rude to the Pharisees on a regular basis, or calling Peter a Satan etc etc) - so what does this say about the image of Jesus that I hold?

  22. When I was in India we went to a Muslim village. In this village there was a small group of Christians of called themselves 'followers of Isa'. They never ever used the term 'Christian' because to their Muslim neighbours it meant Western decadence. So we were very aware of our words and actions whilst we were there as to be a blessing and not a curse to to our brothers and sisters in Christ in this village.
    Often in the West we can be so arrogant in our theology and belief systems that we do not realise the adverse affect we are having to the worldwide majority church. Burning the Koran would seriously hinder the Gospel in many parts of the world and also put many lives in danger. This is why Jesus would not do it. Because Jesus was Jewish he was able to turn over the tables in the Temple. And it was His life He put on the line by doing it, not others.

  23. Sam

    Context is important here I think. In the cases you cite, Jesus is making necessary criticisms from the inside.

    (1) Jesus makes regular pilgrimages to the Temple and, in spite of its corruption, appears to perticipate in its ritual, at least to some extent. His symbolic action is calling attention to its corruption and reminding the powers-that-be of the institution's true nature and calling.

    (2) Many scholars have noted that the Pharisees stand closest to Jesus in their outlook and zeal for God. The debates Jesus has with them are again internal debates, and there are Pharisees with whom Jesus' message finds a resonance (Nicodemus, Jospeh of Arimathea and others who become disciples in the early chapters of Acts. Jesus' harsh words are for those who feel they have everything worked out, and can tell who receives salvation.

    (3) Jesus' words to Peter are spoken in a very specific context and are spoken to someone with whom Jesus already has, and continues to have afterwards, a very strong personal relationship.

    Yes, these incidents are difficult iF we cling to a Sunday School "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" view of Jesus. He is far more robust than that. But Jesus does NOT institute anti-Roman or anti-pagan campaigns, burning of pagan literature or overturning pagan altars, even though these would probably have brought him widespread publicity and favour among the Jewish population.

    The early Christians were certainly perceived as subversive by both the Jewish and Roman authorities, but not because they indulged in book-burning or other violent or offensive acts. It was more what they refused to do or to participate in that brought them to the attention of those in power at the time.

    So no problems for me with WWJD in this instance.

  24. RevSimmy - the implication of 1 is that it would be much more powerful if a Muslim did it (and accepted the capital punishment that would follow). I agree with that. I don't agree that cultures cannot be criticised by an outsider.
    On 2 that is exactly the point!! Jesus is most harsh against those who think they have the spirituality sorted out, and who thereby feel justified in imposing huge burdens upon people - so I think the khawarij would qualify.
    On 3, I agree.

    As for the wider point, let me ask a slightly tangential question: do you think Jesus would think Elijah got it wrong when he slaughtered the Baalite priests?

  25. ...and on top of all that, Jesus and Paul are both very clear as to what we SHOULD do, (even) if we perceive Islam and Muslims as our enemies - we pray for them (and that is "for", not "against"), and we love them.

  26. Sam - our posts crossed, so my last comment was independent of your response.

    So, to respond to yours:
    I will agree that cultures may be citicised by an outsider, but if so, then it needs to be done with care, with respect and with love. Firstly, there is a danger that the criticism stems from ignorance, of not properly understanding or appreciating what the culture is attempting to achieve, and what it might be like to live within its world-view in its own terms. The Golden Rule applies here, I think, and criticism that is informed and arises from love and humanity is more effective at bringing about consideration and change than symbolic gestures that play to our own crowd.

    Of course 2 is the point, but I feel that perhaps the parable of the motes and beams applies here. The Christian church has plenty of legalism and burden-placing of its own to sort out.

    Finally, (tangentially) you asked

    do you think Jesus would think Elijah got it wrong when he slaughtered the Baalite priests?

    It depends what you consider to be the relationship between the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus as a paradigm for Christian behaviour and ethics. For example, there is incident where James and John want Jesus to call down fire on an unwelcoming Samaritan village. Scholars suggest that James and John have Elijah in mind as the precedent for this. Jesus refuses to have anything to do with this suggestion. The implication, as I see it, is that, just as Jesus fulfills Moses (the Torah) and substantially re-interprets it, so he does with the prophets (of whom Elijah was considered the paradigm). So whilst Jesus may not have considered Elijah "get it wrong", Elijah's action does not serve as a model for Jesus' own behaviour or that of his followers.

    I hope this all makes sense.

  27. Revsimmy - yes it does, perfect sense (it's actually the interpretation I tend to follow, after James Alison).


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