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Thoughts on Burning Stuff

After a week of listening to and reading too many responses to Terry Jones’s burning of the Koran and the murderous rampages in Afghanistan that used it as an excuse, I have a few thoughts of my own on the subject, and they don’t happen to mesh with too much else that I’ve read or heard.

I’ll start by getting this out of the way. Although I continue to believe that Terry Jones is a certified nutcase (for any number of reasons), I simply do not find myself outraged, sickened, disgusted or even dismayed by his burning of a copy of the Koran. I’m frankly tired of everyone prefacing their comments on the event by declaring that they are. But, of course, it’s their right to be, and to say so. It’s just that you have to wonder exactly why.

Jews, I think, would generally be offended by the burning of a Torah. Christians, likewise, can and do take offense at the defilement of their scriptures. When something you hold dear, something you deem sacred and worthy of great respect is treated with disdain, it’s only natural to react with revulsion, even anger, maybe even rage. The differences in the ways Jews and Christians act out their offense in today’s world versus the ways Muslims do has been addressed at length and that’s not where I’m going here. Instead, I think it’s relevant to take a look at the intent that, as a general rule, accompanies such acts of blasphemous vandalism, and how that intent impacts our reactions.

In popular culture, it seems de rigueur these days to demonstrate a flagrant disregard for traditional norms, and because we live in a society in which Christianity is one of the paramount recognized symbols of tradition, Christianity and its icons are habitual targets.  And so we have a plethora of disrespectful if not outright blasphemous references, caricatures and depictions of holy figures and symbols in art, literature, theater, television and film.  These are, for the most part, intended as demonstrations of the author’s “liberation” from binding norms, of independence and “open-mindedness.”  They are sometimes attacks on institutions and rituals and even on authority figures.  But they’re rarely either calls for or simple substitutes for outright violence against the people who make up the Christian community.

Not so the burning of bibles, or of churches, or the arrests and persecutions of Christians qua Christians in Muslim countries, which manifest a very different kind of hostility toward both the religion and its practitioners.  Such acts should generate not only outrage, but serious concern, on the part of Christians and non-Christians alike.

The burning of Torahs or of synagogues, on the other hand, even in the West is much less frequently a form of cultural expression.  More often than not, it’s part of an episode of vandalism that may or may not be (but usually is) directed against the Jewish religion or the Jewish people as a whole.  When it is, it also should be a matter of serious concern to the community at large.

Note that Terry Jones didn’t burn (or threaten to burn, or advocate the burning of) a mosque. Jones didn’t advocate or condone violence against Muslims. What Jones did was to hold a (not entirely un-serious) mock trial in which, I must say, he at least attempted to elucidate just what it was about the Koran that violated the norms of civilized discourse and behavior, according to his and his church’s understanding of those norms. As a consequence, he directed the destruction of a copy of a book. A book that’s supremely holy to vast numbers of people, yes, an act that was understandably highly offensive to most of those people, yes, but a book. Not a building, not a human being.

This is an important distinction, especially when, in the name of that book, actual buildings and actual people are being destroyed all over the world with nary a peep from the same observers who cannot even bring themselves to denounce the murders of innocents in Afghanistan without denouncing Pastor Terry Jones in the next breath.

Personally, I find Jones’s little production to bear more similarity to some of the deliberately provocative street theater in which Western religions are often mocked and ridiculed (with utter impunity) than to the vicious religious attacks on persons and property for which most of the world only occasionally seems to summon up sufficient revulsion to be noticed.  I think we need to get our priorities straight.

Shabbat Shalom.

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