At the time of this writing, Thursday the ninth of September, the minister in Florida who had planned to burn Korans two days from now has called off the event, or “stunt,” as President Obama rightly referred to it. That’s good news. Tremendous damage has already been done, and it’s discouraging that this story ever gained traction so that it had to be addressed by the nation.
It did have to be addressed, though. When I first heard about it, my first inclination was to ignore it completely. I can’t see into the heart of the man. Maybe his theology and worldview really do lead him to believe that Islam is fundamentally evil and that his hateful rhetoric is somehow faithful. That’s a long way from my theology, life experience and worldview, but OK, I’m not God, I don’t know what he’s really thinking. My hunch, though, is that this is not an effort at righteousness, but is all about publicity. My first inclination was to deny him that.
At the same time, though, I think that this kind of hateful action does call for a response, especially from those of us who share the faith that this misguided man claims to represent. We need to be loud and clear that our understanding of our own faith leaves us shocked and outraged by his interpretation of it. The question, then, is what kind of response do we offer?
There have been a range of responses, including widespread condemnation and mockery. The bank that holds the loan for this fifty-member congregation called in the note on their combination church/thrift store. The web site host for Burn a Koran Day.com shut down the site, citing their “hate speech” clause. The Gainesville fire department notified the pastor that he did not have a permit for an outdoor fire, and that necessary actions would be taken to stop it. Public figures ranging from Sarah Palin to General Petraeus to Angelina Jolie to President Obama have condemned the plan and asked the pastor to cancel. “International Read the Koran Day” became a Facebook hit.
The responses that have brought me the most joy, though, have been the interfaith gatherings and statements that have been organized. Condemning this small man and his small congregation is demolition work. Sometimes dangerous structures need to be torn down, and I’m not necessarily criticizing that. Demolition is most useful, though, when it makes space to build something new and constructive. I heartily celebrate the building of relationships and the expressions of respect and support that have come out of this.
For my part, I made a few small efforts of my own. I attended a couple of Iftar dinners (the sunset meal that breaks their daily fast) with new Muslim friends in the past week, making another small investment in the ongoing and incremental work of building friendships across lines that can sometimes divide us. I met with a small group of Muslim and Christian friends yesterday to start work on a public event to live out and demonstrate our mutual respect and compassion as committed people of the three Abrahamic faiths that teach us to treat each other as we wish to be treated, and to wish for each other what we wish for ourselves.
In the summer of 1996, the headlines carried news of other fires. A string of churches were burned down across the south in primarily race-related arson. As usual, a bevy of pundits and politicians weighed in, but my favorite response was that of the people who got busy with the work of rebuilding them. Work crews comprised of volunteers of various races and creeds put those churches back up throughout the next year. That effort inspired me so deeply that I wrote a song about it. The chorus of that song, Hope, says
I’ve got a lot of hope for the future
I’ve got a lot of faith things can work out fine
I’ve got a lot of dreams for a better world
I’ve got a lot of work to do if I’m going to make them mine
Building isn’t nearly as dramatic as the demolition work, but it’s the most worthwhile work we can do in the long run. Let’s get to work.
Program Associate for Peace