Conversation, Not Conversion

Theologian Tom F Driver writes in an essay entitled The Case for Pluralism, “Idolatry is the insistence that there is only one way, one norm, one truth. It is the refusal to be corrected or informed by the ‘other.'” These are the words of a man who is working to bring major religions of the word together.

If there is doubt in the mind of people that we need to understand one another better, the events of the past ten days or so should be a sobering wake up call. Om March 20th Terry Jones, pastor of a fringe group of Christian extremists in Florida decided that he needed the world’s attention. This is not his first attempt to get noticed. In September of 2010, ‘pastor’ Jones was planning on hosting an event that he called “Burn a Koran Day” for September 11th to mark the anniversary of terrorist attacks on America 9 years earlier.  At that time he was wildly successful in getting noticed. The media gave oxygen to the fire of hatred he had ignited. He was interviewed in prime time by every major TV network and every major news outlet. His small congregational grounds became a camp for media trucks and satellite dishes.  He gave interviews at his desk talking in which he denounced Islam as a ‘religion of violence’ with his handgun sitting on his desk. He got noticed, over and over again from people in his community to the West Wing and the Pentagon. Eventually, after a lot of pressure from the highest office in the land, he stepped back from his reckless plan to burn a Qur’ans. At that point it all turned to bizarre as Jones insisted that he had negotiated a deal to have a proposed mosque moved from its intended site near Ground Zero in New York. At that point the media decided that they were a part of the problem and most outlets dropped him for more interesting sound bites from Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen. Many thought that Jones was now a part of the past. I have been writing about his actions in the past tense – until last week.

In an act that can only be described as stupid at best and dangerous, hateful and ignorant at its worst, Jones placed the Qur’an on trial. Many of us heard nothing about this mock trial at his ‘church’ because the media intentionally decided to not feed any oxygen to these reckless actions. They were no longer prepared to feed this man’s need for attention asserting that he had is fifteen minutes of fame already. Nonetheless, the trial took place in front of his small band of congregants. Not surprisingly, judge Jones found the Qur’an guilty of a host of crimes and sentenced it to death by burning. He and his flock then soaked the holy book in lighter fluid and set it ablaze. They also recorded a video of the whole affair and posted it to their webpage.

By the end of this week the video had surfaced in Afghanistan, Iraq and indeed around the world. Again not surprisingly, Muslims were outraged by what they saw on their computers. Despite calls by many Muslim Leaders for peaceful protest, violence erupted in Afghanistan. Angry mobs have killed over twenty people in total. Narrow-minded and fundamentalist Muslims have reacted in like manner to a narrow-minded and fundamentalist Christian. What has transpired in Iraq and Afghanistan is shocking. It is a tragic reminder that we have so much to do. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book The Dignity of Difference posits: “are religions ready for the greatest challenge they have ever faced, namely a world in which even local conflict can have global repercussions?”  A lunatic pastor in Florida commits a violent and hurtful/hateful act, the resultant response is a loss of life thousands of miles away trough more hate and more hurtful action.

The idolatry that Tom Driver writes about is at work here. Pastor Jones is idolatrous in his insistence of one way, one norm, and one truth. He refuses to be challenged to the point of burning a sacred text that challenges his idolatry. Those who went from Friday prayers to the United Nations centre and committed unspeakable acts of violence in response because they feel that they have the one way, the one norm, the one truth are equally idolatrous.

Most Christians are exacerbated by the actions of pastor Jones. I hasten to add that even among American Evangelicals there is a call to people like Jones to move to love and not hate. Galen Carey is the director of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. He spoke out this week saying that, “Showing blatant disrespect for Muslims by burning their scriptures directly contradicts the example and spirit of Jesus, who taught us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.”  Carey is quite right in pointing out the primacy of the first and great commandment. Theologian Paul Knitter writes in his book Jesus and the Other Names that “loving one’s neighbour takes a prior place to proclaiming true doctrine or to formally worshipping God. No matter how important, even essential, orthodoxy and liturgy are, they cannot be made more important than loving our neighbour.”

I believe that in the modern context in which we live being a Christian and responding to our baptismal covenant we must we doing more to come together with people of other faiths. In baptism in the Anglican Church we promise to seek and serve Christ in ALL persons. We promise to love our neighbour as ourselves (it is hard to do that when we have condemned them). We promise to strive for peace and unity among ALL people and we promise to respect the dignity of EVERY human being. I contend in thesis work with which I am currently engaged, that being faithful to that baptismal covenant means engaging in conversation and not conversion. I propose that we need to be proactive in seeking to put past hurts behind us embrace a future where we offer dignity to those who are different than we are confident that dignity will increase the chances of peace and remove an excuse for violence. I call upon Pastor Jones to re-examine the call of Jesus to live the primacy of the first and great commandment.

All of this highlights the fact that we need more opportunity to come together and more interfaith conversations, more dialogue, and more intentionality about our practice of faith to move the chains forward on how we coexist in this world. Our past efforts and lack thereof are simply not adequate and have often been idolatrous.

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