by Bruce Epperly
It is amazing to me that the pastor of a fifty member congregation would make national news for threatening to burn the Qur’an. In fact, it is surreal that a little known, unlettered, Pentecostal pastor would receive such attention from the press in the USA and abroad and warrant a phone call from the Secretary of Defense. This is surely an example of how small things can make a great difference. But, perhaps, it isn’t such a small thing – in light of anti-Islam feelings in the USA and the recent outrage among some about building a mosque in lower Manhattan a few blocks away of Ground Zero. Today, there are tremendous anti-Islamic feelings in the USA: I believe the growing number of people who believe President Obama is a Muslim is indicative of a deep spiritual malaise in the American spirit. Despite their claim to be Christians, many Americans are driven by ideology and hatred rather than the quest for truth or the teachings of Jesus.
Theologically speaking, Pastor Terry Jones’ threat to burn copies of the Qur’an goes against the heart of Christian faith. The faith of Jesus welcomes rather than excludes. The author of John’s gospel proclaims that God’s light – the true light embodied in Jesus Christ – enlightens all creation and all human beings. (John 1:1-5, 9) The Apostle Paul proclaims that all persons live and move and have their being in God’s presence. (Acts 17:28) As Christians, there is no inconsistency between affirming the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives, and the truths of Christianity, and also recognizing God’s presence in other faith traditions.
Now as a progressive Christian, I recognize the truths and limitations of all religious traditions and scriptures. All scriptures reveal the divine, but if taken literally may also conceal the divine. But, all scriptures deserve respect: as Paul Tillich noted, they are symbolic of a truth deeper than words and paper; they share in divine revelation, even if they aren’t themselves divine. So, scriptures deserve respect not only as representative of people’s faith, but also because God moves through the spiritual experiences that gave birth to scriptures. Accordingly, burning another faith’s holy book goes against the spirit of the Savior.
A couple other thoughts worth considering: while I cannot speak directly about Dove World Center, I know that for many Christians “the bad news is the good news.” By that I mean, many Christians believe that they can “force God’s hand” by precipitating the battle of Armageddon, a war in the Middle East, that will lead to the Second Coming. I believe that Christians need to challenge this vision for a variety of reasons: 1) God seeks abundant life, not destruction of human life; 2) Humans cannot force God’s hand – to believe that you can be an instrument of divine destruction is the worst kind of pride, if not idolatry. God has the final word and though God works relationally, rather than unilaterally, divine activity is not determined by human actions. I believe God’s final word is love not hate; creation not destruction; 3) God seeks the preservation of the earth, not its destruction of our beautiful planet.
Finally, Terry Jones’ blatant acts of hatred – his belief that Islam is of the devil – challenges Christians to examine their attitudes toward Islam. Politicians and religious leaders have used code words to incite hatred of immigrants and Muslims. Christian politicians and religious leaders are challenged by Jones’ words and threats to examine their own motivations and faith. While Christians can challenge the behavior of Muslims as well as other Christians, the faith of Jesus inspires love, not hatred, and hospitality, not exclusion. Today, God calls us to reach out to people who differ from us in terms of faith, nationality, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, in the spirit of Christ – to embrace this diversity as a reflection of a loving, creative, artistic, and loving God.
Today, Christians are called – in the spirit of Christian Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama – to affirm the faith of Muslims and to support their right to worship, build mosques, and live peacefully as American citizens.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a progressive spiritual response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Kate Epperly, selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. His most recent book is From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church, written with Daryl Hollinger.