How a single voice threatened to set the world on fire

Minnestota Public Radio (MPR, 91.1 FM) published this commentary after a Florida pastor threatened to burn the Quran. Some things don’t seem to change.

– Gordon C. Stewart, September 28, 2010

Everyone from time to time feels insignificant. As I did, while watching fires burn across the world, lit by the words of one pastor in Florida. I felt like a spectator in the stands watching the game I care about go terribly wrong, a hostage of verbal terrorism uttered in the name of Christ.

I would imagine that the Rev. Terry Jones and his small congregation also had felt insignificant before they announced the 9/11 Quran burning, and that they were stunned when their pastor’s voice, although terribly misguided, lit the forest on fire without ever burning a Quran.  One of their own, one who had felt insignificant, had raised his voice and now had the ear of a commanding general, the secretary of defense and the president of the United States.

The difference between the Rev. Jones and most people is that he has a pulpit.  On any given Sunday he speaks and a few people actually listen.  Most of us do our ranting and raving in the shower, at the water cooler or with like-minded people at the coffee shop, but we don’t much expect anyone to listen.

But as the Jones story developed, those of us with pulpits were feeling no less beside the point.  Then, as I prepared for worship, I was drawn by some old lines about spiritual arson. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is a fire … a restless evil, full of deadly poison” and “the seeds of righteousness are sown in peace by those who make peace” (Letter of James 3).

The thought crossed my mind: We could invite a Muslim friend to join me in the pulpit, perhaps my neighbor Muhammad or Abdi or one of their children, whom I meet daily while walking the dogs.  I decided to invite Ghafar Lakanwal, a Pashtun Afghan-American cultural diversity trainer, a Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, to bring greetings of peace and share some passages about peacemaking from the Quran in our Sunday worship on 9/12.

Our little church in Chaska welcomed Ghafar, and his words about the spiritual “obligation to learn, not burn” still ring in our ears. Our service drew media attention, and Ghafar’s words were heard on the evening news  and noticed by a stranger in Australia, who sent a message through the church website. “I was touched,” he wrote, “when I read about your recent Sunday service in the news. …  I for one can testify that it has certainly comforted a far away Muslim to know that there are neighbors who will stand together in difficult times.  My salaam [to you].  May we all grow together to attain Allah’s pleasure.”

“Ah!” someone will say. How can any Christian rejoice when the author uses the name “Allah” for God?  But the reaction to the “name” is misbegotten.  It is not the name of God; it’s the Arabic word for what we in English call God.   The forest fire lit in defense of “God” in advance of the anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that two kinds of religion potentially exist everywhere people gather to practice their faith. One kind burns. The other kind learns.  One hates; the other loves.

As James, writing to those who would follow Jesus, put it: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10).  We can set the forest ablaze with our small spark or we can use it to light a candle of hope and peace. But, after the events of this month, none of us can again think that what we say is insignificant.

I would imagine that the Rev. Terry Jones and his small congregation also had felt insignificant before they announced the 9/11 Quran burning, and that they were stunned when their pastor’s voice, although terribly misguided, lit the forest on fire without ever burning a Quran.  One of their own, one who had felt insignificant, had raised his voice and now had the ear of a commanding general, the secretary of defense and the president of the United States.

The difference between the Rev. Jones and most people is that he has a pulpit.  On any given Sunday he speaks and a few people actually listen.  Most of us do our ranting and raving in the shower, at the water cooler or with like-minded people at the coffee shop, but we don’t much expect anyone to listen.

But as the Jones story developed, those of us with pulpits were feeling no less beside the point.  Then, as I prepared for worship, I was drawn by some old lines about spiritual arson. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is a fire … a restless evil, full of deadly poison” and “the seeds of righteousness are sown in peace by those who make peace” (Letter of James 3).

The thought crossed my mind: We could invite a Muslim friend to join me in the pulpit, perhaps my neighbor Muhammad or Abdi or one of their children, whom I meet daily while walking the dogs.  I decided to invite Ghafar Lakanwal, a Pashtun Afghan-American cultural diversity trainer, a Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, to bring greetings of peace and share some passages about peacemaking from the Quran in our Sunday worship on 9/12.

Our little church in Chaska welcomed Ghafar, and his words about the spiritual “obligation to learn, not burn” still ring in our ears. Our service drew media attention, and Ghafar’s words were aired on the evening news and heard by a stranger in Australia, who sent a message through the church website. “I was touched,” he wrote, “when I read about your recent Sunday service in the news. …  I for one can testify that it has certainly comforted a far away Muslim to know that there are neighbors who will stand together in difficult times.  My salaam [to you].  May we all grow together to attain Allah’s pleasure.”

“Ah!” someone will say. How can any Christian rejoice when the author uses the name “Allah” for God?  But the reaction to the “name” is misbegotten.  It is not the name of God; it’s the Arabic word for what we in English call God.   The forest fire lit in defense of “God” in advance of the anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that two kinds of religion potentially exist everywhere people gather to practice their faith. One kind burns. The other kind learns.  One hates; the other loves.

As James, writing to those who would follow Jesus, put it: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10).  We can set the forest ablaze with our small spark or we can use it to light a candle of hope and peace. But, after the events of this month, none of us can again think that what we say is insignificant.