Posted by: jefriesen | September 20, 2010

What Can I Burn

Recent events proved again the adage that “when all is said and done, more will be said than done.” This past week, a pastor in Gainesville, Florida raised the public visibility of his small congregation to global proportions (literally) when he proposed to burn hundreds of copies of the Quran (the Islamic holy book) to commemorate the ninth anniversary of 9/11. Jones’ plan to burn approximately 200 of the estimated 2 billion copies of the Quran was such a threat to world peace that leaders from around the world asked him not to do it. Indeed, the list of people who took it upon themselves to publicly condemn the Rev. Terry Jones looks like a Who’s Who in world politics today. In the U.S., Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and even respected political leader and deep thinker Angelina Jolie weighed in on the issue. Our president, who recently defended the building of a mosque near the site of Ground Zero, citing first amendment rights, took Jones to task. “The idea that we would burn the sacred texts of somebody else’s religion is contrary to what this country stands for,” the president said, apparently forgetting that destroying property in a symbolic protest is as American as the tea party (the original one, in Boston, 1773).

On the one hand, what Jones proposed to do (but didn’t) is protected under our constitution. From a publicity standpoint, I began daydreaming about things I could burn to bring world renown to Hebron Bible Church. Perhaps I could raise the visibility of our church by taking on that other great religion in Nebraska, Husker football.

But on a more serious note, Pastor Jones’ actions do raise a question: what is the proper response to those whose beliefs are different than our own? There are a few different approaches.

One approach is to try to pretend that there are no essential differences between major religions. “We are one nation, under God,” president Obama said, but “. . . we may call that God different names.” This is a popular approach, but one that is logically and intellectually dishonest. Specific truth claims do tend to divide us and to ignore that is to ignore reality.

In fact, all truth claims are exclusive. Atheists believe that everyone who believes in a god are wrong (in excess of 99 percent of all people who have ever lived). One group of theists believe that this god is personal, which sets them apart from Buddhists, Hindus and George Lucas, who believe that god is impersonal, like the Force. Jews, Muslims and Christians believe that God is one, separating themselves from polytheists, animists and ancient pagans who believe in many gods. Christians believe that God is tri-personal, three-in-one, which sets them apart from everyone else. Even the statement that “all religions are the same” is an exclusive statement with which most people would not agree. The differences between various world religions are not trivial, and everyone can’t be right. Either Jesus was who He claimed to be or He was not. Either He rose from the dead or He did not. We can’t both be right.

A second response to those who are different is governed by anger. We see plenty of this response in our world. Just in recent weeks, several groups have responded vocally against a proposed mosque that would be within a couple of blocks of the site of the 9/11 attacks. A mosque that is being built in Murfreesboro, TN has been the object of vandalism and the Muslims who attend have been subject to threats and verbal abuse. Many of those vandalizing probably think they are striking a blow for Christianity. This past week, Muslims in Afghanistan responded to Terry Jones’ plan to burn the Qurans by burning the American flag and shouting “Death to the Christians,” which is certainly an helpful gesture from those practicing what we are told is a ‘religion of peace.’

For the Christian, there is a third approach: tolerance, love and respect. Now, let me be clear. By ‘tolerance,’ I don’t mean that we fall back on the first approach by saying ‘every religion is true.’ A better, and more biblical, definition of tolerance is to acknowledge the differences and at the same time show respect for those created in God’s image. We can, and should, try to persuade others that Christianity is true (this is called evangelism). But we shouldn’t get angry, for at the heart of the gospel is a Man dying on the cross for His enemies and we are called to follow His example.

Yes, the differences between religions are real and substantial; and it does matter whether you are right or wrong. But our approach to those who practice other religions should be governed by the love of Jesus. Our interactions shouldn’t leave either one of us looking for something to burn.

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