What are we supposed to condemn Terry Jones for? And, while we are at it, who is the “we”? Until there is clarity about those two questions, condemning the Koran-burning pastor is little more than an exercise in smug self-righteousness which make those of us who would condemn him feel good about being better than Jones.
Don’t get me wrong, I have not the slightest bit of sympathy with his actions. Burning books is a particularly ugly act – one which reflects a level of rage and contempt not only for the books which are burned, but for ideas in general, and often for any human beings who in any way identify with, or are identified with, the books being burned. In fact, book burning has historically been a pre-cursor to burning those very people. So there is nothing good, and much that is bad, about Jones’ stunt.
Condemning Jones however, in terms which are entirely meaningless to him and to whomever supports him, is almost as meaningless. If they believe that it really is the “Christian thing to do,” then some other Christian, let alone well-intentioned Jews, Muslims, atheists, etc., telling him/them otherwise, is not going to work. Not at least if the goal is to see fewer Koran burnings.
For starters, any claim that Jones is wrong based on what is “really” Christian, simply continues Jones’ dangerous game of seeking some essential truth which, if others would only learn, the world would be okay. Even if I like that truth better than Jones,’ it’s a very dangerous game. So as satisfying as it might be to play “whose side is God on,” it’s a game which ultimately makes losers of us all.
Also, for people like Jones — people who see themselves as the keepers of the “real truth” which is missed by the “misguided masses,” condemnations from the outside simply reinforce the notion that Jones and those like him are really correct, and once again the larger world “just can’t see the real dangers which are out there”.
The real challenge is not condemning Terry Jones, though I get that a certain amount of that may have some PR value. The real challenge is developing sufficient empathy for the terror and/or belief that drive him, so that he might come to see that he can still be himself and have alternatives to burning Korans.
If condemnation is really meant as more than a form of achieving cheap grace in the face of a genuine challenge, and our real goal is a culture which addresses its fears and angers with less violence, then this is as much a moment for conversation as it is for condemnation. Having spent time in conversation with versions of Terry Jones in a variety of traditions, and admittedly always eager for more, I know that is the only way to make real progress. It’s hard, and it rarely feels good, but I know that it can work.