There is nothing ‘Christian’ about Terry Jones’s views, particularly with regard to Islam and his recent burning of a Qu’ran. This is a statement that really goes without saying. As I mentioned in passing to another friar yesterday, didn’t this guy learn his lesson last September when he threatened to burn the Sacred Text of Islam on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks? Terry Jones, a self-described Christian, who leads the smallest of congregations in Florida, has more in common with Osama Bin Laden than he does with the most of the 2 billion Christians on the planet.
What? That’s right, I said Osama Bin Laden.
What I mean by this comparison is that Jones, in his personal interpretation of what is acceptable or expected as a Christian, distorts the religion for ill purposes much like Bin Laden has with Islam. In the end, what Jones and Bin Laden claim as their faith bears little resemblance to authentic Christianity or Islam.
Yet, despite his idiosyncratically hateful religious views, people like Jones make all Christians look bad. And appearance is not the only issue, but the religious tradition’s global credibility and the safety of its adherents around the world are threatened.
The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote an op-ed piece today titled, “Religion Does Its Worst.” Cohen makes some good points in his reflection on the Jones situation and the absurdity of his violent rhetoric, his abhorrently disrespectful actions and the senselessness of any form of “religious violence” — both on Jones’s end and in the retaliation of certain Muslims in response.
Yet, I object to the use of the term “religion” in the title of the column, and I actually think that Cohen might agree with me in this critique. What is it that is religious about the violence — verbal or physical — demonstrated in places like Florida and Afghanistan? I would suggest that such dissidents elect to leave their respective religious communities when their actions, particularly in such violent and destructive ways, contradict the said principles of morality and faith of a tradition.
Cohen ends his column with this comment:
I see why lots of people turn to religion — fear of death, ordering principle in a mysterious universe, refuge from pain, even revelation. But surely it’s meaningless without mercy and forgiveness, and surely its very antithesis must be hatred and murder. At least that’s how it appears to a nonbeliever.
Indeed the “religion” of those who act out of hatred and violence toward other is rendered ‘meaningless,’ on this point Cohen is correct. Mercy and forgiveness, particularly in the Christian tradition, should always be at the center of a life of faith.
How would Jesus handle other religions? Would Jesus in fact support or denounce Jones’s actions in Christ’s name?
Luckily, we have some Scriptural resources to elucidate our quest for an answer to these questions. While neither Christianity nor Islam existed as such during Jesus’s lifetime, Jesus — a good Jew — lived in a world of at least some religious pluralism (minimal when compared to our much more globalized world today).
The Gospels communicate Jesus’s engagement with Samaritans and Romans (pagans). On the matter of Samaritans, Jesus turns the expectations of those who would have reasonably expected him to be intolerant upside down. Jesus enters into relationship with a Samaritan woman at the well and uses a Samaritan as an example of how one faithfully serves one’s neighbor. When it comes to Rome, Jesus speaks of tolerance both in his words regarding taxes with idolatrous coinage and heals the daughter of the Roman soldier.
If Jesus of Nazareth were walking the earth today as he did nearly two millennia ago, I bet Jones (and perhaps all of us) would be surprised by the way he’d interact with people of other religious traditions. One thing is for sure, he wouldn’t be threatening — let alone acting on the threat — to destroy another person’s sacred text. There’s nothing religious about that!