What to make of the proposed Qu'ran burning?
First, we the issue is complex. The whole western world is now embroiled in a clash of world views. The clash of world views is complex in that it involves many variables. It is not merely a Christian - Islam clash. It is a clash within Islam between moderates and extremists. It includes secular humanist socially liberal westerners who advocate tolerance and freedom of religion vs other westerners including some Christians who advocate action to suppress what are seen as threatening forms of religion. It includes different understandings of the use of force and involvement in the state with some wanting preventative action against the perceived threat of Islam. It involves questions of identity and value in the west including the freedom of religion, cultural identity, the status of women and so on. It relates to whether a person who comes to live in the west should assimilate and adapt to the western way or is free to retain their religion in all its dimensions even where it clashes with the dominant culture. Similarly, should the western nations demand such an assimilation, and if so, to what? It is an identity issue. As a result, there is no simple response. These complexities and more mean we face unbelievably challenging times. We need to think very well about these issues at the level of a theology of culture, of state, of freedom, of religious tolerance, or war and so on. We need to understand Islam and the problem. We need to think deeply about a theology that will give us a basis to act in the current rising crisis.
Secondly, we have to get used to these things. We are in a crisis. Events such as Sept 11, the July 7 bombings in London, are symptoms of a much deeper problem. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be followed by more in Iran and Yemen. In Europe Islamic populations are now well established in many cities and places and due to birth rates and immigration, is growing quickly. This is leading to a clash of civilisations day by day in the cities of Europe. Responses such as burning of the Qu'ran, the banning of the Burqa in France and other nations, objections to mosques, the rise of the extreme right across Europe, are inevitable. As I travelled Europe recently I felt this in the air in media and from relatives and people we met. Things are going to get messier and messier. A polarisation is occurring. There is deepening fear of Islam, Islamophobia, emerging. There is confusion concerning Islam on the streets, some seeing it as a friendly if rather insular religion with some radical factions; others seeing the whole thing as a threat because of its writings and the violence of recent years believing that mosques are in effect terrorist units. There is the fear that Islam seeks to take the world and will use force to do it. As such, we need to prepare for this. The threat of communism has waned, this is the clash that will define the next years of planet earth.
Thirdly, the stakes are high. At the heart of all this is Palestine, oil and nuclear weapons. There is great distaste in the Arab and Muslim world at the nation of Israel. There is a desire to conquer it and drive the Jews out and establish a Palestinian state. On the western side, oil is needed to retain its affluent lifestyle. Because of this, neither side can or will back down. I ponder (only ponder) whether this sets the scene for the ultimate conflict that will precede the return of Christ which may (depending how we understand the end times), culminate in war around Jerusalem (cf. Zech 12-14). The great fear on the part of the US and other nations is that Islamic nations gain nuclear weapons. Iran is a huge threat here and the Iraq war was motivated by the false belief that they were gathering WMD's. Afghanistan is critical as Pakistan does have the nuclear weapon and the throught of the Taleban gaining power in Afghanistan could lead to them gaining power in Pakistan and getting access to the weapons. The greatest threat is an Arab nation or Muslim extremist group gaining a nuclear weapon and attacking a western nation or Israel. This would set the world on a much more extreme and dangerous track! Can western nations continue to stop them gaining such weapons? So, the stakes are high. As such, the world will not back down and this thing is here to stay.
With all this in mind, what is our response as believers? Well, we all have to find our way in this situation. We have to do some great thinking. We need to think about war and when and if it is just, we need to consider the role of the State and Christian involvement in it, we need to think about Islam and what Jesus would urge us to do were he here now (how would he relate to it), we need to consider Christian responses to the Roman Empire in the time of Paul and others and extrapolate to ours, we need to think at a personal, regional and national level.
For me, above all, I believe that we must live by faith, hope and love. Faith and hope lead us to not live out of fear but out of confidence in God who is involved in world events, shaping them, holding back evil, working for good. As Rom 8:28 says, all things will work for good for his people. So, we live by faith and not fear. Faith means we articulate our desires to God in prayer, knowing he hears. We need to be people of prayer for the world and this issue and we will see God work in it and through it. We know too that at the return of Christ events will get messier and messier. This should not faze us, we live by faith and not by sight. Hope means that all will work out in the end. We retain a positive relationship with 'our enemies'. We know things will work out.
Lastly, love. Agape should shape us. We are to love our enemies. We are to carry the pack of invading enemies. We are to demonstrate love to each other, to victims, to all people. I don't think it is loving to burn Qu'rans, even if we find its message false and even a threat to us. The pastor has it wrong for sure (did you see the gun on his desk?)! On other issues the outworking of love is more complex. The building of the mosque near ground zero leads to a discussion of whether love for the victims and the people of the USA would see it stopped and/or moved; or whether love for the 'enemies' and for moderate Islam would allow it to be built. I tend to the latter if the motives of the people involved is the fostering of peace. The burqa is also complex. Love for women in general could lead us to ban it as it is oppressive. Love to the Muslim might lead us to respect their culture and allow them to express it. I am still thinking this one through. Love should also lead us to get to understand Islam. It is not monolithic and not all Muslims are terrorists. We should seek to understand them, show them respect and hospitality, incarnate among them as did Jesus, reach out to them, to show them the love of Jesus. As this thing works out with more terrorist events, internal conflict in nations, perhaps even further international conflict, and dare I say it, all out war, we must live by the ethic of Jesus and love our enemies.