Muslim leaders are often asked to condemn the actions of Islam's radical fringe. Should Christians condemn the inflammatory actions of Pastor Terry Jones?
Gainesville, Florida follows many a byline of news stories I track detailing yet another record breaking run of my alma mater, the University of Florida’s Fighting Gator basketball and football teams. Just two weeks ago, those Gators were making a strong run in March Madness, losing a heartbreaker in the Elite Eight to the same Butler team that played in that basketball tournament’s final. The loony pastor overseeing a couple of dozen mostly filial congregants out at the northwest edge of this town–at the ideological and geographic opposite of my university’s campus, I hasten to add–seemed to have mercifully faded from memory during the heady march towards the Final Four. Until, that is, a group of equally unhinged, but much more violent extremists pledging allegiance to the same Abrahamic deity, through different prophets, attacked a United Nations compound and gunned down its occupants.
Terry Jones is a marginalized man, repudiated by his nation’s president and roundly condemned by most Christians, including the the National Association of Evangelicals, well before Jones’s pathological attention seeking Qur’ran desecration happened. There was no constituency of note applauding the book’s burning, and many Christian, Muslim and government officials went to such an extent to pacify Jones, that it bordered on enabling. It seemed that any fool could garner their fifteen minutes of global fame–infamy, if you prefer–by announcing a backyard bonfire.
Indeed, as Hindu Americans see images of Hindu divinity plastered on the soles of shoes and toilet seats, Saturday Night Live skits lampooning deities we worship and the Mother Goddess hawking burgers for Burger King, one couldn’t fault a Hindu for being a bit covetous for the attention and hand-wringing any Muslim affront generates. “Laugh it off,” “have a sense of humor,” Hindus are chided, and a very different code of conduct applies.
President Obama certainly is not called to assuage Hindu hurt, and Hindus do tend to take it in stride or work through the decidedly less animated path of the online petition or letter to the company CEO. Hindus do not love their sacred space and symbols any less than others, but theirs, and the forbearance of most religious leaders when blasphemy occurs, should be the norm–not the reactions we saw with Satanic Verses or Danish cartoons.
Clearly, the Afghan attack on the United Nations exposed the easy demagoguery possible in a context where civil society is floundering and polity is polarized. The wrongheaded pyrotechnic stunt in Gainesville was ignored throughout an indisposed Arab world and other predominantly Muslim lands, but ignited hysteria in Afghanistan because President Karzai chose to light the match to burn his own land. He knew the expected result, but Karzai’s ruse distracts attention from manifold failures as a leader.
Pastor Terry Jones is guilty of hatred, intolerance and bigotry and, sadly, does exemplify the end result when pluralism withers. If a society begins to accept the narrative that only one path leads to the Truth, that there is only one “real” prophet, one “real” holy book and one “true” religion, a space in which a Terry Jones thrives is created. And only an ethos of pluralism–one Truth which can be experienced through many legitimate paths — can put out fires that scorch not just books, but humanity itself.