By Robert Hunt
The unfolding events in Florida illustrate all too well the processes which seem to govern public religious debate in the United States – a debate centered neither on substantive issues nor large popular movements, but ability of fringe groups to grab media attention through careful manipulation of that same media.
In this case the church which planned to burn the Qur’ans is tiny, and its pastor a marginal figure in the Christian community of Gainesville, Florida. But his announcement went viral not only because Muslim news outlets chose to make hay of it outside the U.S., but because the cable news networks picked it up and the Council of American Islamic Relations also chose to repeatedly publicize its opposition to the event and organize Muslim responses to it. Ultimately, as we have seen, the U.S. government intervened at the highest levels.
With regard to publicizing a marginal religious figure (although not with regard to actual violence) this event has been the mirror image of atrocities committed by Muslim groups seeking publicity outside the U.S. An action (or even threat of action) that is itself insignificant and carried out by an insignificant group gains the attention of media outlets that themselves stand to benefit commercially or in their political ambitions by reporting it. Other media outlets pick up the story, and indeed are forced to if they are to compete for listeners and readers. Groups appalled by or opposed to the event, sometimes because they also crave publicity and sometimes because they feel a responsibility respond in turn – and in turn become part of the story. Eventually what was desired by the group initiating the action is achieved. They are recognized by some significant political entity and have a chance to benefit from the publicity, either in the form of funds raised, members recruited, or just ego gratification. Whether the person or group is a dangerous power like North Korea, a clueless but murderous group of jihadists, a bigoted Christian hate-group wishing to spread its venom , or an aspiring pastor trying to gain members the tactics are the same. And the media response is almost pavlovian. The mere scent of a market for their product either emerging or diminishing sets them in motion.
When I was kid we used to go out camping near an old natural gas well pipeline that had been left uncovered. Gas would pool in the pipe, and if you tossed in a match it would send up a huge fireball. Those who stood too close could easily get singed, or even hurt badly. However, as we quickly found out, the well was abandoned because the gas wasn’t good for anything else. The supply was not continuous and couldn’t even sustain a small fire for cooking. It was simultaneously dangerous and useless.
So it is with the event in Florida, the atrocities by religious militants, and the threats by publicity seekers. They have no value for God’s Reign, and thus ultimately no value. Religious people need to remember that infinitely more good is done daily by churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques as they minister to their own people and community than is done by those who respond to groups that grab media attention through their atrocious exploits. When the dust clears on the Qur’an burning controversy neither the threat, nor the response, will have had as much effect on God’s people as those who have quietly preached and lived love without ever turning on their televisions. And those who have risen to the bait (count me in) will have wasted their time for all eternity.
Dr. Robert Hunt is Director of Global Theological Education at Perkins School of Theology Southern Methodist University.