By now you know the story of Florida pastor Terry Jones. Jones is the pastor of a tiny church called Dove World Outreach Center. (Where do people come up with these names?) By all appearances there is not much “outreach” going on in this church and the idea that a “dove” (as the representative sign of of the the Holy Spirit) is the basis for the mission of this church is ludicrous, at least on the surface.
After Terry Jones finally carried out his threat, first made prior to 9/11 of last year, to judge the Koran and burn it in a church service, violence broke out in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This led to the death of a number of innocent people in both countries. When prayers ended at a mosque some went across a street and began the violent attacks.
There are a number of questions we can and should ask about these events but mine is simple: What should Christians do in the public space, which is now global because of the news cycle, when an event like this one happens?
I suggest that any response less than being appalled at Jones’ antics is unacceptable. The moral high ground is lost if we condemn the actions of radical Muslims and then fail to condemn the foolishness of a Christian like Terry Jones. I realize Jones killed no one but numerous people assured him that his actions would lead to the death of innocent people. In the end he would not listen. In this sense he bears deep responsibility for his words and actions. Words and actions do have consequences and “free speech” does not mean that you can say whatever you want as a Christian.
Let me put this another way. If we do not condemn the radical fringe in our own ranks, and Jones surely qualifies as the radical fringe, then we dare not condemn the radical fringe in other religions. We rightly argue that Christianity should not be condemned based upon the actions of this one man. But we appear arrogant and ignorant to the world if we fail to strongly condemn the actions of such a pastor in our own context.
I realize Terry Jones does not speak for me but I also know that some persons (and some Muslims in particular) have a hard time making this distinction. One liberal Christian minister wrote: “Jones has chosen to descend into an ideological abyss which has nothing to do with how Jesus taught those who follow him should live does not mean that all who call themselves ‘Christian’ are as arrogant and ignorant as he appears to be. In other words the entire religion cannot or should not be demeaned because of this man . . . unless we remain silent and through our silence give the impression that Christians stand with Jones.”
I could have written the same statement and I am a paleo-orthodox evangelical Christian. The Bible has been hijacked by all kinds of radical fringe groups. But this is not a first in Christian history. In the name of Christ some of my fellow Southern church members lynched black Americans in my own lifetime. In the name of Christ, and even in the name of conservative Reformed Christianity, apartheid was defended in South Africa until twenty years ago. Such Christians argued that the Bible warranted their response. Their ideology went well beyond anything remotely biblical.
Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, Secretary General for the World Evangelical Fellowship, rightly said:
While many in the western world understand that Jones and his tiny fringe congregation are not in any way representative of true Christianity, we know that his actions would have been nuanced very differently in other parts of the world and that radicals would use them to stir up violence.
Whenever we substitute ideology for serious and thoughtful biblical theology we get ourselves into serious trouble. This is the case with pastors like Terry Jones. His words and actions need to be openly condemned because the world watches and wonders what all of this has to do with the good news of Jesus Christ. If we did not have a 24/7 news cycle and the Internet we might be afforded the luxury of remaining silent about one pastor in Florida but we do not have that luxury any longer.
I wonder how many of you heard public prayers in your worship service last week for those who suffered in Pakistan and Afghanistan? I wonder how many of you heard any condemnation of the words and actions of Terry Jones? I wonder what we are (collectively) saying by our silence when the world is listening and assumes that all religious people are a lot alike.
There is a time and place for moral outrage. I am outraged at the actions and words of Pastor Terry Jones. God is his judge but his actions must be condemned in the name of Jesus, especially by those who have opportunity to speak for the gospel in a public context.
One final question: Could the fear that drives anti-Islamic response in America have caused many conservative Christians to remain silent during such a time of upheaval? Are we afraid to condemn such words in our churches lest we appear too “soft” on Islam? So many of us live in fear of terrorism but love for our religious neighbors is still the teaching of Holy Scripture regardless of geo-political violence and threats.