Religious conflict has dominated the national discourse for several weeks. For a while now the proposed building of a Muslim community center and mosque in lower Manhattan has dominated national airwaves of radio and television. But the last few weeks have seen a shift of discussion to a focus on a small church in Gainesville, Florida where Pastor Terry Jones planned on burning Quran’s on September 11 as a protest to the Muslim world. As this post was written news broke that Pastor Jones canceled the controversial event.
Public clashes between Christians and those of other religions is, of course, not merely an American phenomenon. A while ago the Associated Press reported that a group of Evangelical Christians attacked a group of voodou practitioners in Haiti as they gathered publicly to pray, sing, and conjure spirits in order to make offerings. According to their report Christians shouted at the voodou practitioners, threw rocks, and urinated on the voodoo objects. Whether the New York City controversy, or that of Haiti, surely emotional considerations are at play, with the former coming from the damage to the national psyche as a result of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the latter in response to a natural disaster. But something else may be at work here. In an increasingly pluralistic world, adherents of various religious pathways are encountering each other as never before, and at times these encounters result in a clash of ideas. Recent examples of this clash between Christianity and other religious traditions provide opportunities to reflect on attitudes and theologies toward other religions. Concerning the reactions of the Christian converts from voodou in attacking the artifacts of their former religion, at times converts react strongly to the religion of their past in light of new religious commitments. We see a similarly strong public statement made by those who converted to Christianity out of ancient magical traditions in Acts 19:19. It should be noted that this passage was used by Pastor Terry Jones as the scriptural foundation for his plans to burn Qurans. But a careful reading of this passage demonstrates that the pastor and his congregation engaged in a misreading. In the Acts passage the new Christian converts burned their own implements of their former religious ways as a result of a public statement about their new faith in relation to the old. The Christians who led them to embrace a new religious pathway did not burn their magical texts as a means of protest or a form of evangelism. Beyond this Christians might also consider that the New Testament also points out that it is possible to maintain a good witness and to do so without blaspheming the deities of other religions, or desecrating their religious items, and that this can provide a positive testimony for the gospel (Acts 19:37).
It is likely that clashes between American Christians and members of other religions will continue in the future for a number of reasons. But a better way forward beyond talking (or shouting) past one another, public protests, and the desecration of religious artifacts and symbols, and our theologies of conflict, involves new theologies and praxis that include respectful forms of religious disputation and dialogue.
Yes, it is one thing to burn your own things, if you see them as symbolic of your own previous bondage, and as a sign that you are leaving them behind. But it is quite a different thing if you require others to do this, and especially require others to do it publicly.
Some years ago an Anglican group went from Zululand to evangelise in KwaNdebele, where they saw a witchdoctor (isangoma), and tore off her regalia, thus embarassing those who invited them. In the Eastern Cape I was driving down the road with some local people, and we passed an igqira (Xhosa equivalent of isangoma) wearing full regalia, and one of the local people said "They are the easiest people to convert to Christ, because they already believe in the reality of the spiritual world." And went on to tell me that there were several in their congregation, and some may have destroyed their regalia after they had become Christians, but having it forcibly destroyed by others would not persuade them to become Christian, it would rather put them off.
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