Burn baby burn!
Who would have thought that a tiny church of some fifty adherents, tucked away in the west of the United States could create such a storm? And yet the ironically named Terry Jones (who shares his name with the much more intelligent and astute former Monty Python member, who helped create a similar international incident with their supposedly irreverent ‘Life of Brian’) has done just that: make it widely known that you are going to burn the most holy book of the Islamic faith and all of a sudden you are plastered over every newspaper and television screen in the land; Popes condemn you and the President of the United States, no less, disguises a thinly veiled plea to ‘just don’t do it’ amidst rhetoric about boosting Al Qaeda recruits and putting American troops as risk. It’s all been done before, of course, and the prevailing image which comes to most western minds is the medieval immolation of supposedly heretical literature: if you don’t agree with something then burn it.
As always, it seems that there are far more subtle and complex issues at stake. On the one hand, Terry Jones considers the Koran a highly inflammatory and aggressive book designed to inflame the reader to violence; on the other hand, burning it seems to me to be an act akin to the very accusations Jones makes about this sacred scripture. On the one hand, any civilised society believes that it is a basic tenet of just that civilisation that we should be able to express our opinions freely and, as long as there is no physical hurt to others, to do so in a symbolic and demonstrative way. On the other hand, no civilised society (and especially one built for religious and racial tolerance) can tolerate actions which are deliberately aimed at insulting the deeply held beliefs of others and to an extent which could be a catalyst for violence and social upheaval. And again, on the one hand, it is possible that Jones is only giving outlet to the feelings of some, albeit a minority, American people as they grieve for the dead of 9/11 and come to terms with the massive insult this was to their sense of national sovereignty and geographical inviolability. On the other hand, the vast majority of American people are disgusted by the minister’s actions and know that it can only fuel the fires of hatred and social division: and they hate them more because they are being perpetrated in the name of the Prince of Peace and Christianity.
Listening to a local Radio ‘phone in the other day, caller after caller rang in to excoriate the skin of the Christian Faith, condemning us as war-mongers and repeating the oft-heard and erroneous mantra that ‘there would be no wars without religion’. I can only rehearse the words of Rabbi Sachs in his recent televised face to face conversation with four committed and profound atheists. ‘How can you believe in God after Auschwitz?’ he was asked by one respectful but cynical inquirer. ‘I believe in God more profoundly because of Auschwitz’ he replied ‘because that is what happens when humanity is left to their own devices’.
The most subtle point is that Terry Jones and his actions are what happens when frail humanity lives out its prejudices, hatreds, misunderstandings, evil intent, self seeking and its just, well, just plain stupidity from within a faith system: the whole body becomes tainted by it and lives under its shadow and it taunts the ill within other traditions to react. This is as true of the evils that have been recently brought to light in some major churches as it is of a small, two-bit, outfit in the States. That is why the Church ‘must be constantly reforming’ and constantly vigilant for the propensity towards ill within its own ranks. To quote Simon and Garfunkel: ‘darkness like a cancer grows’. But perhaps the most chastening fact of all is that it takes just a few kooks in a tiny church to cause a potential world-wide conflagration. Remember that when you hear it said that the BNP is too small to come to any real power.