Were it not so terribly world-shaking, with such awful potential to elicit unfounded rage among people who cannot know better and therefore to cause untold violence against the lives of innocents, of which there has been far too much, the actions of the mustachioed and uneducated minister in a small Pentecostal church in Florida seem laughable.
They remind me, magnified perhaps 1000-fold of my little run-in some years ago with Willy Ramsey, the minister of the Church of Christ in Somerset—a congregation much smaller than our own—who was able to get the law passed in Kentucky so ministers and church officers could carry guns on church property. (Anybody toting today?) The Today Show flew Willy to New York and gave him more attention than the matter deserved. Mona Charen asked, rightly but with words dripping judgment, in this morning’s Herald-Leader editorial section: “Why in the world were sane people called upon to respond to this flyspeck anyway?” What Charen and a lot of media people do not realize, unless they have been reading the Gainesville, Florida newspaper for some time, is that this man and his little flock have been inflaming tensions there for well over a year, and this latest threat was just more of their prejudice unleashed that made it into the viral world of the internet, and so had the capacity to wreak havoc in many places. But I object to anyone who calls him a name, be it “flyspeck”, “idiot”, or labels him “stupid” or “crazy.” I have done it my self and know that I should not have. It is the man’s actions and intended deeds that were wrong. He himself is a beloved child of God. It is not for us to judge, but to act on our own values.
The experience of people in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s can be especially insightful in the present situation. Bill Coffin once wrote: “prejudice to bigots [is] as alcohol to alcoholics—not a problem, but a solution.” (P. 148) What he means is that people will believe what they want to believe, what their prejudices tell them, in spite of the facts, and they will gladly let their prejudices direct their actions.
So we have paid attention to Terry Jones and the ironically named Dove World Outreach Center this week, because Terry Jones acted on a prejudice that we have seen cropping up in any number of places over the past year, whether it be a mosque and community center, meant to bring the arts and a place for all people, as well as a mosque 2 blocks from where the World Trade Center Twin Towers stood, or a mosque in Murphreesboro, Tennessee, or a mosque in Mayfield, Kentucky, or the conviction by nearly 20% of our citizenry that our president is Muslim, as if that would be some horrible blot on his character if it were at all true. Terry Jones’ threat to burn Qur’ans this weekend on the anniversary of the 9/11 attack was the heinous result of misinformation, a lack of knowledge.
Our little action here at New Union will not make the national media. The statements and efforts by people as diverse as Sarah Palin and Michael Kinnamon, the executive secretary of the National Council of Churches, from the Pope to the local churches in Gainesville who today are reading from the Qur’an in their churches, have garnered perhaps a few inches of ink, and minimal soundbites in comparison to those who hate.
But what should give us great hope, my friends, is that nonetheless, across Kentucky—from a service yesterday in Louisville honoring sacred texts to our little effort here in this small country church, and all across America people are saying “no” to the Terry Jones’ of this world. And they are mostly saying it gently and kindly. I was deeply saddened to read that Mr. Jones reported that he has received over 100 death threats since his announced intention to burn the Qur’an. Such threats are as cowardly and destructive of peace and human understanding as the original hate-filled threat of the Dove World Outreach Center.
I’m not sure when he said it, but Dr. King’s words are very relevant in our current situation: “Through violence, you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, or establish the truth. Through violence, you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Over the centuries, my friends, we have seen religion be a force for evil and a force for good. We know its capacity to divide, but division—and the consequential diversity—does not have to equal opposition or conflict. We have seen religion’s capacity to fuel rage and a desire to eliminate those who believe differently.
But, and this is the important part, we have also witnessed the countless heroes in every time who said that the deepest truths in their religion meant that they could not stand by and allow the debasement of another’s religion, nor permit acts of hate to be unleashed upon others. As Tony Blair says in a brief article in today’s Parade magazine: “Faith matters, because it inspires people to act and raise their sights beyond themselves.” Religion at its best allows us to stand against unrighteousness without becoming self-righteous. So let not this service of worship today appear to others as some self-righteous act.
The three religions that trace their ancestry to Father Abraham all share a common belief in one God, a God of all people, known in different ways, but whose truth has been that love of God and love of neighbor—even those whose lives are extremely different from our own, so different that they might be called enemies by some—those twin loves are inseparable, they constitute the noblest and purest form of human meaning. Our three Abrahamic traditions also teach us that if we get too specific about the nature of God and God’s claim on our lives, we run the risk of creating an idol in our own image, whom we believe we can manipulate through prayer or other acts for our own selfish ends.
There are those who think that restoring “honor to America” is the equivalent of restoring Christianity as the civic religion, in our schools, town squares, and government. I think we need to worry more about honoring what is best in our faith, for that is what will guide us to be the kind of people who will bring honor to these United States, and that we teach our children that this is the land where people may worship in freedom as they are led to believe.
Love will and does overcome hate, every time. So too, in this present hour, we shall overcome hate, and bigotry, and narrow mindedness that will not listen and learn—with love and love alone.