UPDATE – Go here to see Michael Horton’s update regarding this post.
To mark the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, The Rev. Terry Jones is planning an “International Burn the Qur’an Day” at his 50-member Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida. Yesterday Gen. David H. Petraeus warned that if a Florida church goes through with its plan to burn copies of the Qur’an this weekend, it could “endanger troops” and set back the U. S. war effort in Afghanistan. Beyond Afghanistan, it could spark protests and violence around the world (David Nakamura, Washington Post on-line, Sept 7, 2010). On Monday, 500 protesters at a Kabul mosque burned an effigy of Mr. Jones.
There is a long history of burning books when you don’t want to actually deal with the ideas that they promote. When the medieval church sponsored public bonfires of the Reformers’ writings, raw power seemed more convenient than reasoned argument. It’s an act of desperation. In other times and places, a call for Qur’an-burning would be dismissed as a crank’s irresponsible exercise of free speech, but in the present context, Jones has received more attention than perhaps even he could have imagined. To their credit, evangelical organizations—like the World Evangelical Fellowship and the National Association of Evangelicals—have been as vocal in opposing this incendiary event as liberal religious groups.
Especially given the timing of the event, NAE President Leith Anderson says that Terry Jones and his handful of supporters are engaging in “revenge” rather than the loving witness that Scripture teaches (citing 1 Thes 5:15). According to Mr Jones, however, “We only did it because we felt there needed to be an outcry against Islam, because Islam is presenting itself as a religion of peace” (The Christian Post on-line, July 30, 2010). Evidently, Mr. Jones believes that the best way of making the point that Islam is not a religion of peace is with a public burning of its primary text. I have not read his book released apparently for the occasion: Islam is of the Devil. Nor do I intend to do so (life is short). However, summaries point out that the author somehow sees American tolerance of Islam as the root of the nation’s social and moral evils. Another irony: on the Dove Center website, the seventh of Mr. Jones’ reasons for such book-burning is that “Islam is not compatible with democracy and human rights.”
In spite of the widespread Christian condemnation of the proposed action, this is not an isolated case. John Hagee leads a San Antonio, Texas, megachurch with a telecast that reaches 99 million homes around the world each week. His central message in books, sermons, and broadcasts is Christian Zionism—which includes a call for a pre-emptive strike of Iran by Israel. Although such voices are on the fringes of what used to be a more mainstream movement within evangelicalism, the basic paradigm (namely, radical dispensationalism) is held by millions of Christians in the U.S.. Besides the fact that Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth was the best-seller of the 1970s and the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins led the best-seller list for the 1990s, this popular end-times theology has played an influential role in foreign policy from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.
I do not doubt that many Christians who hold to these radical scenarios would denounce the incendiary proposals of Terry Jones and others. However, at a moment like this it is worth reminding ourselves what we believe and why we believe it. After all, as Christians our first question is not whether Qur’an-burning will set back war efforts in Afghanistan, but whether it is consistent with Christian neighbor-love and will set back efforts to reach Muslim neighbors with the Good News.
On one end are those who react by invoking religious pluralism. At least when it comes to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, we are talking about the “Abrahamic faith traditions,” after all. We are all children of Abraham and should stop killing each other. As simple as this sounds, it is a position that no Christian can hold. The prophets—all the way to John the Baptist—announced that the true children of Abraham are all who trust in the coming Messiah. Jesus Christ made himself the focal point for the inheritance of everlasting life, replacing the Temple by forgiving sins directly in his person, proclaiming himself Lord of the Sabbath, welcoming the outcasts, and offering himself in death and resurrection for the life of all who embrace him. Paul, who had persecuted the church, was now the Apostle to the Gentiles and argued—just as Jesus had—that all who are united to Christ by faith are children of Abraham. The distinction between Jew and Gentile is abolished in the “new creation” that is Christ with his body. Faith, not law; justification in Christ, not physical descent or obedience to Torah, is the only way to become a child of Abraham—more than that, a child of God. By the way, this means that nominal Christians are no more children of Abraham than anyone else. There is only one way into the family: faith in Jesus Christ.
This means, of course, that all rival prophets, priests, and kings are pretenders. Judaism and Islam—as well as heretical forms of Christianity—reject the central claims of the gospel. Israel may be an ally of the U.S. whom we are obligated by moral and political ties to support as citizens. However, Israel is not holy land and no longer has any eschatological significance in the history of redemption. Where the Temple Mount once stood in redemptive history, Jesus now stands, calling, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”
As citizens of democratic nations, Christians may be concerned about the implications of Qur’an-burning for international peace and justice. However, as citizens of the kingdom of Christ, they have even more reason to denounce such actions. Recall James and John—the “sons of thunder”—asking Jesus if they could call fire down from heaven on a Samaritan village that rejected their message. We read that Jesus rebuked them.
This is not the era of driving out the nations from God’s holy land, for the church is the only holy land and Christ is its living Temple. This is the era of enduring persecution, not for provoking or participating in it. In the Book of Revelation we read that it was not the martyr’s protests or book-burnings, but “the word of their testimony” and their witness to the Lamb that conquered the Beast.
Along with other religious distortions and denials of the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Islam belongs to that vast complex that makes up the Beast of the last days. Yet there are also “Christian” ways of looking away from Christ and attaching ourselves to the powers and principalities that array themselves against the Lord and his Messiah. Muslims need to encounter the power of faith in Christ that bears the fruit of hope and love. They need to hear the gospel and its central claims with gentleness and respect. Believers in Christ too are those who have been delivered from the power of sin and death and are not yet perfect in their understanding or actions. Christians are called to love Muslim neighbors simply because they are created in the image of God. Yet they are also called to proclaim the gospel and to explain and defend it, albeit with gentleness and respect.
As responsible citizens, we cannot help but be concerned about the political ramifications of Islam—especially since Islam is a geo-political as well as religious movement. Yet as citizens of Christ’s kingdom, we must resist the temptation to confuse U. S. interests with the goals of the City of God. Furthermore, we should recall the myriad ways in which Christianity confused these two kingdoms in its history—not only in medieval Christendom, but in the “God-and-Country” confusion that we see all around us today on the left and the right.
Muslims are our neighbors and regardless of what their religion encourages, our scriptures call us to imitate our Father who sends sunshine and rain on the just and the unjust alike. It is an era of common grace, a space in history for calling all people everywhere to repentance and faith in Christ. Our children play regularly with Muslim neighbors and sometimes the topic of religion comes up in conversation. It is interesting to overhear the interaction. On occasion, the oldest boy will ask me questions about Jesus and why we believe that he rose from the dead. I cannot imagine that the burning of the Qur’an this coming Saturday will help move that discussion along.