Wednesday, September 08, 2010

To Burn or not to Burn? The Koran, Christian-Muslim Relations, and the Gospel.

Pastor Terry Jones is, quite literally, "on the war path." Jones, head of Dove World Outreach Church in Florida, is determined to commemorate the ninth anniversary of September 11 in a very atypical way. Less than 72 hours from the time this article is posted, Pastor Jones will lead a ceremony in which the Koran is burned in protest of radical Islam. His announcement of these plans have already set fire to the media, the blogosphere, talk radio, and political pundits who immediately began taking sides in the whole "should he--shouldn't he" debate. More recently, General David Patreus issued a strong warning that Pastor Jones' intentions could incite further violence against American soliders in Afghanistan.

All of these are important factors to consider. But for those who claim to follow Jesus Christ, the issues at stake are much deeper than one who simply watches CNN or FOX News might imagine.

On the surface, it would appear that this is simply an issue of basic rights. Those in favor of Jones' plans to continue with a public burning of the Koran frequently appeal to the fact that he has a right to do so, and no one is arguing against that fact. To be sure, I'm very thankful to live in a place where one can burn a book, a bra, a flag, or any other thing they want without fear of government repression or persecution. Though I oppose all of these actions, their legal protection is essential to the preservation of a democratic society in which the free exchange of ideas remains unrestricted by "big brother."

At the same time, as a follower of Jesus my primary citizenship is not of this world. As such, there may be actions and attitudes I am free to express in America that I am bound to repress for the sake of the Gospel. To date, a handful of supporters have argued in favor of Terry Jones on the basis of his constitutional right to do as he pleases. What no one seems to be asking is whether this is appropriate behavior for a follower of Jesus commissioned to reach all people--including Muslims--with the Gospel. His desire is to protect our culture from the dangerous influence of radical Islam. This is a desire that I share. The difference between us is that Terry Jones seems content to jettison the Gospel mandate in order to preserve our way of life. I am not. The early apostles who started churches in the power of the Holy Spirit did not enjoy the freedoms we Americans enjoy, and still they were faithful to their call. Ultimately, our appeal as Christians is not to the Bill of Rights, but to our resurrected Lord.

Essentially, there are three primary reasons that Pastor Jones' pending actions should be condemned loudly and clearly by all who claim to know Jesus:

1. Wrong Offense. Paul tells us clearly in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that the message of the cross is a "stumbling block." Simply put, the Gospel is an offense, which means that if followers of Jesus are faithful to their calling, people will be stung with the truth that their sin has separated them from their God, and that the only way back to Him is through the bloody sacrifice of His Son. This is the offense of the cross that Jesus said would be the cause of His people being hated for the sake of His name.
The problem comes when followers of Jesus use something other than Christ crucified as a tool of offense against others, and then claim that they are simply being "hated," when in fact, they are just being a jerk. Such is the case with a pastor who makes a public spectacle out of setting fire to a Muslim holy book. Our call is to communicate the Gospel of Jesus, not our dismay at radical Islam. Furthermore, if we offend our Muslim friends through foolish political posturing, we lose any chance of bringing them to the offense that can rescue their souls.

2. Wrong Enemy. Contrary to what Terry Jones believes, Muslims are not our enemy. To take it even further, even radical Muslims are not our enemy. Instead, they are the victims of our enemy; the great adversary and accuser of souls. I'm convinced that Satan would love nothing more than for this burning of the Koran to proceed, primarily because it will serve to draw harder lines of demarcation between Muslims, and the Christians who are called to reach out to them. By focusing more on the "survival of America" than the Gospel, Pastor Jones has unwittingly positioned himself as a tool of our real enemy.

3. Wrong Focus. As I listened to Terry Jones on radio and TV today, I was struck by the number of times he justified the pending actions of his church with the following statement: "when will we stop backing down?" Accompanying this statement were insinuations that radical muslims must hear a "warning" and that "they must be shown a certain amount of force." Admittedly, Pastor Jones may be correct in his assessment of the more radical elements of Islam, but even if he is, he confuses the assignment God has given His church with the mandate God places on the state to wield the sword against evil-doers. In short, Terry Jones' statements betray the reality of a church that is out of focus and off mission. In essence, his actions, intentional or not, will result in answering radical Islam with a radical form of Zealotistic Christianity that is, in reality, no Christianity at all.

In my home library there is a shelf that contains the works of most of the worlds religions. Among those works is a very ornate copy of the Koran given to me 15 years ago by an Imam. Next to that is a copy of the Book of Mormon. Next to that is a copy of the Jehovah's Witnesses' "New World Translation" of the Bible. Next to that is a copy of the Bahgavad Gita and next to that the Muktika Upanishad. As I observe the media controversy surrounding Pastor Terry Jones, I am reminded that there is coming a day, at the end of the age, when in fact all claims to truth not grounded exclusively in Jesus Christ will be burned by our God, who is Himself a consuming fire.

I'm also convinced that among that kindling will be the "wood, hay and stubble" that masquaraded as Christianity, but had as its primary goal the preservation of a western culture rather than the advance of God's Kingdom. With knowledge of that day of judgment comes a responsibility to wisdom, prudence, truth, and love. This issue isn't about Terry Jones. It isn't about the military, the conservatives, the liberals, or even September 11. For Christians, this issue is about who our Lord is, and whether we love Him enough to obey His clear commands.