In 2002 the pastor of a Christian church in New Mexico denounced Harry Potter as “the devil” and called on his congregation to join him in a Harry Potter book burning ceremony. The pastor had never read any of the novels. The name of the church? Christ Community Church! Pastor Jones and his small Florida congregation threatened to burn Korans yesterday, and he too admitted that he has never read the Koran.
Book burning has a long history. In the late 1980s, many Muslims around the world burned copies of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. In the 1940s and 1950s comic books were burned as they were believed to be corrupting American youth. In 1933 in Germany, Hitler ordered that more than 25,000 books by Karl Marx, H G Wells and Sigmund Freud be burned because they were “un German.” Back in the 16th century, Spanish priests burnt records of Mayan civilization. In the 13th century, Mongols burned the Grand Library in Baghdad. I could keep going back, and the same story is told.
Apart from the tragic loss of culture and literature, there is something far more sinister at work. Books aren’t just part of the collateral damage of war. Destroying libraries is a calculated action based in fear, ignorance and hatred. Why? Because books contain knowledge and knowledge breeds free thought and diversity. Diversity is the enemy of colonization.
Among the books burned by the Nazis was the work of a nineteenth-century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote in his 1820-1821 play Almansor, “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” Is book burning a prelude to a much greater crime? Professor at the University of Hawaii, Rebecca Knuth, studied book burnings in Germany, Bosnia, Kuwait, China and Tibet. She concludes that book burnings often precede genocide. The book fires of 1933 in German cities were followed by ethnocide, in occupied countries, which ultimately destroyed 90% of Polish Jews and 70% of their books, as well as three million non-Jewish Poles and two-thirds of Poland’s books. In the 1970s, the Cultural Revolution in China claimed millions of books. The Chinese Communists’ efforts to extinguish Buddhism and impose communism in Tibet led to mass murder and the destruction of an estimated two-thirds of that country’s texts. Dare I add, the American occupation in Iraq over the past nine years also involved large scale destruction of Iraqi libraries and cultural museums.
The burning question now- Is history repeating itself? The relationship between America and the Muslim world is delicate and could ignite at any time, like dry kindling on a hot and windy day. While effigies of Pastor Jones burn in Kabul, the heat is rising on the development of a Mosque and community center in lower Manhattan and Americans are divided on the issue. This is one of the most tense 9/11 anniversaries yet.
What can we do to douse the flames of fear and ignorance? How can we help to bring a message of love and unity to a world divided?
1. Learn from Islam
The anniversary of 9/11 is a great opportunity to learn from Islam. I’m not talking about the extremist version of Islam that leads terrorists to do awful things. I’m talking about the peaceful essence of the religion. In many ways it is a more respectful of other religions than Christianity is. Why haven’t we heard about Muslims burning Bibles? Because moderate Muslims respect Christianity the way Christians should respect Islam. They respect the Bible as a holy book and they respect Jesus as a great Prophet. Not to mention the fact that Christianity and Islam share their roots as Abrahamic religions and speak of the same God. There is so much in common if we truly understand the essence and roots of the two religions. So much of the Islamophobia in America is being spread by people who have never opened a Koran and never visited a Mosque and have no knowledge of what they fear. It’s a beautiful irony that Pastor Jones and his congregation purchased a truckload of Korans that they are now not burning. Hopefully they will read them and hopefully a little knowledge will douse the flames of their fearful ignorance.
2. Learn about Islam
There is so much misinformation about Islam. In the west we have a warped view of Islam partly due to the prominence of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Taliban, for example, is a Farsi word meaning, “student of religion”. Jihad is a word that means struggle. Jihad is described in the Koran as being two fold, lower and higher. The Lower Jihad is justified self-defense against persecution. Higher jihad, which is far more important, is the inner struggle against inner demons. The word infidel indicates ungratefulness. The mention of Infidels in the Koran is most likely a very specific reference to Meccans who were denying the rights of Muslims to free religious expression.
Islamic fanatics, like Christian fanatics, have given fundamental religious concepts a bad name.
The oppressive and fanatical group from Afghanistan have hijacked the name Taliban and warped its meaning to justify a violent agenda. Jihad is now associated with suicide bombers and terrorists and infidels are seen as anyone who is non-Muslim.
The true spirit of Muhammad and Muslims through the centuries is peace, compassion and mercy based in self awareness.
3. Stop Pointing Fingers
There are certainly parts of the Koran that are very difficult to understand and appreciate. But then again, the same is true of the Bible. While the Koran records Allah’s warning that he will cut off the heads and finger tips of all who don’t believe, the Bible is equally violent.
In Psalm 137 God pronounces a curse on the Babylonians, “Blessed is the one who takes your little children and dashes them against rocks.” In Deuteronomy 7, God calls the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites by burning their altars and culture before killing them so that they can claim Canaanite land.
When read literally, parts of both the Koran and the Bible are instruments of violence and hatred of the worst kind. They both use the image of fire as a metaphor of fear to manipulate people. They both encourage warfare and justify it on the basis that God is on your side. As Ann Lamott said, “You can safely assume you have created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you hate.”
Texts that Unite
It doesn’t have to be this way. We are now free to read the Bible with critical minds, and question ancient, pre scientific and pre enlightenment biblical perspectives. People have died in the cause of biblical scholarship, burnt at the stake to create the freedom we now enjoy.
This time last year a church in North Carolina held a book burning ceremony. Among the books they burned was the Bible in every translation except the King James Version. They believe the King James Version to be the only true and inspired translation. In the 16th century, William Tyndale was burnt at the stake for translating the Bible into English, the precursor to our various translations. The work of Tyndale reminds us that people have for centuries tried to reframe the Bible in a more humane and accessible light.
I offer you Isaiah 6 this morning as a text de force, beautiful poetry that unites people from all sorts of perspectives – theist and atheist, Christian and Muslim, religious and non religious. My focus is on two images, “seeing the Lord high and lifted up, sitting upon a throne, his train filling the whole temple” and, “The whole Earth is full of His glory.” These are verses that offer some amazing wisdom, but cannot possibly be understood literally. Considering the immense dimensions of the temple, to understand them literally is absurd. Did you know that the train on Princess Diana’s wedding dress was 25 feet long? That’s impressive, but it wouldn’t fill a temple. The longest train ever worn was at a wedding in Cyprus. It was 4468 feet long. That’s almost obscene, but still wouldn’t fill a temple. Understood literally, the words lose all meaning.
However when understood poetically, the verses become an incredible prophecy of a God filled humanity. Notice that the verse says that the “whole” temple was full of God’s glory. In this metaphoric vision, the whole temple is thrown open to view like a Saturday morning open house. Even the most holy places within the temple usually seen only by the highest priest were on view for Isaiah. Isaiah was a layman. He had no right to be in the holy of holies, and yet his vision offers him access to what classical Jewish belief described as “the footstool of the almighty.” This is the inclusive spiritual good news- every part of this earth is sacred. Every person has the seed of God within them. Every part of every person has the seed of wholeness within it. That includes you, and it includes Muslims.
When understood literally, Isaiah 6 becomes yet another grandstanding text about whose God is the biggest, mightiest and smitiest. As a poem, the train of the Lord is a beautiful metaphor for the thread of connection that runs through the universe and connects all people and all things. We are all one. Look around you! The whole earth is filled with the train of God, the unity of connection. There is much poetry and story in sacred texts such as the Bible that speak of the pervasive beauty and unity of life.
This beautiful text in Isaiah comes in the midst of the call of Isaiah. It seems to come in chapter 6 rather than chapter 1 to emphasize that this calling was to bring divine presence into the harshest of human circumstances. The Assyrian Empire was closing in on Jerusalem after taking the Northern Kingdom. Isaiah’s vision was one of unity and peace that grows out of a belief that all people are related at essence. It took Isaiah a while to come to terms with his vision. Maybe he never fully processed its full impact. It was his doubt that led him to an appreciation that it was his humanity that would be his resource. He would offer divine prophecy through frail humanity like hot coals on his lips.
Inclusive Spiritual Community
Our calling is to be an inclusive spiritual community, a part of the healing of the world. One of the first steps is to heal the reputation of America around the world. I was leading a downtown church in Auckland in 2001. It was a church that welcomed many tourists from all over the world. I met many Americans who were passing through town. So on September 12, 2001 as news of the terrorist actions filtered through to New Zealand, Americans began flocking into our church seeking solace and meaning. I spent the whole day on September 12 sitting and crying with devastated Americans. As a church we decided to hang a large American flag from our altar as a sign of solidarity and support. Like most of the world, the people of New Zealand felt an enormous kinship with America in the aftermath of 9/11. The mood changed very rapidly when America invaded Afghanistan.
Within a week of 9/11 there was talk of striking Afghanistan. I immediately received requests to remove the American flag and instead hang an Afghan flag in its place. What we experienced in Auckland was a very small instance of what people around the world experienced. The solidarity with America quickly turned to confusion and then resentment for igniting a wholesale conflict with the Muslim world. The world is still coming to terms with this resentment and Pastor Jones and the resistance to the Mosque in Manhattan have now rubbed salt into this wound. The news around the world is not “One Christian crackpot wants to burn Korans” but “Americans disrespect the Koran.”
We have work to do and we CAN make a difference.
Like Isaiah, our calling arrives in the midst of doubt and global tension. You don’t have to agree with everything in the Koran just as you don’t have to agree with everything in the Bible. Just accept that these books have a context and their own cultural power. You don’t have to solve all the problems of the world or single-handedly unite the peoples of the world. Just correct misinformation where you can, live with openness and love and set about being an ambassador for peace and unity.
Like Isaiah, present yourself to the God of your understanding and prepare yourself to build your vision for the world and say “Here I am. Send me.” Send me. Let me be an agent of healing and unity. Like Isaiah, it’s going to take courage. Countering fear is not a popular calling. But counter fear we must.
To be fully human, fully yourself,
To accept all that you are, all that you envision,
This is my prayer:
Walk with me out to the brim of life, beyond security.
Here we are God. Send us to the exquisite end of courage
and release us to become all that we can be and all that the world can be. Namaste.