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September 9, 2010

An Open Letter to Dove World Outreach, Before they Burn the Korans

We know this is not just the decision of a church. It is the decision of the president and the entire United States.  –Abdul Shakoor, a protester in Kabul.

Dear Pastor Terry Jones:

I saw your interview on Nightline, and it gave me a slim hope that you might possibly be dissuaded from carrying out your plan to burn Korans on September 11. Please allow me to try.

I will not appeal to you on behalf of our troops in Afghanistan, as you have already acknowledged the danger into which your planned actions may put them;

I will not tax you with First Amendment hypocrisy, as you have already stated that, if Muslims were to burn Bibles here, you would respect their right to free speech;

I will not bother to point out that much of the Muslim world, which has no First Amendment, does not understand that you could possibly do such a thing without the collusion of the President and the blessing of the American people, as you have already condemned those who object to your plans as “cowards” anyway;

I will not suggest that there are some things you don’t know about Islam, as I suspect you would not care to learn them.

You say that you want to send a “clear message” to the Islamic world.  So do I. Religious law has no place in a secular republic. Anybody who wants foot-washing stations in public universities can jolly well pay for them themselves, and people who think their religion forbids exercising in the same room with people of the opposite sex can exercise at home. As Bill Maher said, America is the melting pot—melt a little. I do not object to that message.

You said, in response to Terry Moran’s question about whether Jesus would approve your plan to burn Korans, that while Jesus was “nice,” he was also capable of “radical things.” There is a fundamental error in this statement, and it is on this ground that I will base my appeal.

I take it that by contrasting “nice” with “radical,” you mean to define the former as innocuous, inoffensive, and blandly kind. Pastor Jones, on these terms, the Jesus of the Gospels was never “nice.” The Jesus I find in Scripture was always challenging people, always pushing them to go deeper—to move beyond outward observance to true conversion of the heart, and to make themselves radically vulnerable.

Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5: 39-45a)

Every “nice” action of Jesus was radical at the same time. Why did Jesus heal the man born blind? To expose the spiritual blindness of the religious authorities. If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but because you claim you can see, your guilt remains. (John 9:41)

Why did He heal the man with the withered hand, on the Sabbath, in the part of the synagogue from which a crippled person would be barred as “unclean”? To expose the callousness of the wealthy and pious, who “went away and met with the supporters of Herod to plot how to kill Jesus,” (Mark 3:6) not because He violated the Sabbath, but because He violated their position of privilege.

Why did He drive the moneychangers from the Temple? Not because they were doing legitimate business, but because they were defrauding the poor by falsifying their weights and measures and lying about exchange rates. It is written,” he said to them, ‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’ (Luke 19:46)

Most radically of all, why did Jesus first reveal His Divine identity to a Samaritan woman? As you know, the Samaritans, whose religion combined elements of Judaism with Canaanite practices, were the lowest of the low in Jewish eyes. Which is, of course, why Jesus used the “Good Samaritan” as a model of neighborliness and self-sacrificing love for strangers.  The pious priest and religious lawyer walked past, while the apostate foreigner stopped to help. What a radical nose-rubbing in a story about how to be “nice”!

Like Samaritanism, Islam contains elements of both the Hebrew Bible and extra-biblical Middle Eastern beliefs. And there is no doubt in my mind that if Jesus were telling stories today, He would be rubbing our noses in “The Parable of the Good Muslim.”

You have said that Islam is “of the Devil”—but what did Jesus say to the Samaritan woman about her faith? Only that Samaritans, in their devotion to the same God as the Jews, worshipped what they “do not know.” Would He say anything worse to Muslims, who revere Him as “The Seal of the Saints”?

Yes, of course you have the Constitutional right to do what you plan to do. But while the First Amendment proscribes any privileging of religion, the legal framework of this country is meant, as Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, to “comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

Everyone is welcome here—and if we take the Bible seriously, we will make everyone feel welcomed.

You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

So this is my appeal to you: before you decide to do anything “radical” by way of sending a “clear message,” think about the precise nature of your “radical” act, and what exactly the “message” will be.  Because while burning Korans may be considered “radical,” it can in no way be considered “nice,”—and Jesus was always both.

But if you want your message to be neither clearly American nor clearly Christian, then I suppose you should go ahead.

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