09/14/2010 11:52 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Turning Provocation into Purpose: Responding Creatively to Hate and Intolerance

Well, he didn't do it. After pleas from the President of the United States, the U.S. Secretaries of Defense and State, the U.S. Army commander for Iraq and Afghanistan, His Holiness the Pope and many others -- and 24 hours of maddening on-again, off-again equivocation -- Pastor Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., finally decided not to proceed with an act of such breathtaking disregard for the norms of decent behavior that we can only shudder at what the consequences might have been.

The decision not to go ahead with burning multiple copies of the Holy Quran outside his small church on Saturday, Sep. 11 followed a week in which the pastor had adroitly sought and largely obtained disproportionately extensive media coverage by dangling and then withdrawing a threat that in its gross violence and recklessness could not be ignored. The country watched spellbound in horrified fascination.

As President Obama remarked in his Sep. 10 White House news conference, the threat was "contrary to what this country stands for." Some of the results from the threat itself are already evident -- serious rioting in Afghanistan, burnings of the American flag in Pakistan, and surely a huge setback in efforts to engage the Muslim world launched in Obama's Cairo University speech on June 5, 2009.

The question remains: what can people of good will do in the face of hateful threats with worldwide coverage? To envisage a single large event capable of restoring in one moment the honor and respect that has been impugned by this repellent provocation would require a Hollywood ending that defies even the most creative screenwriters.

Rather than looking in vain for one defining media response, there may be power in many conversations that bring people together through knowledge. Let me explain.

In our household, as, I am certain, in many others, breakfast-table conversation moved swiftly from outrage at the vile rhetoric in Gainesville to asking what we could do in our small sphere to counter the hate and lies. Who knows whether Pastor Jones bothered to read the Quran before threatening to burn it? But if he had done so, he would know that, like the sacred texts of the other great Abrahamic faiths of Judaism and Christianity, the Quran invokes acts of kindness to strangers. And Muslims are sometimes strangers to Americans who do not follow Islam.

The fourth Surah of the Quran instructs the faithful to do good, not just to family and neighbors, but also to those who may be strangers or wayfarers. In the Book of Exodus in the Torah, the ancient Israelites, and by extension all Jews, are reminded not to wrong or oppress outsiders, "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." And the Christian Bible's Epistle to the Hebrews enjoins its readers not to neglect showing hospitality to strangers, "for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."

These parallel injunctions to welcome the stranger offer one starting point for discussion, an opportunity to gain a better understanding of other faith traditions and also one's own. Such an enterprise has a cherished history. The Christian monastic tradition's practice of Lectio Divina (prayerful reading) finds counterparts in Judaism's Pilpul and Islam's Tafsir. All imply an openness, both to spiritual insight from, and scholarly elucidation of, the sacred texts.

Instead of threatening to burn books, what if we actually deepened our understanding of them? Why not make September "Respectful Religious Reading Month"?

In the face of imminent book burning, and with 9/11 fast upon us, there was no time to convene a group of interested religious laypeople and scholars. My family therefore resolved to honor the day by having an initial discussion about welcoming the stranger.

As the year progresses, we also commit ourselves to remembering the menace that almost disgraced the commemoration of this 9/11. We have begun reaching out to friends from all three Abrahamic faiths, inviting them to suggest texts that expand each faith's injunction to respect those who are unfamiliar. A small discussion group is forming.

We are not sure quite what will eventually emerge from this endeavor. It may be a short package of readings and reflections that could serve as a template for use in many small-scale discussions on welcoming the stranger when (and it will be "when"), another bigot threatens a disgusting stunt. We are not proposing writing a large curriculum sharing sacred texts in detail. Luckily, several exist.

Instead, we are imagining this package as a ready response kit that fortifies people of goodwill with religiously grounded knowledge helpful in standing firm when acts of religious hatred are looming. This taste of portions of sacred texts may also provide a point of safety and space to draw breath -- showing us that there is more to know. We, personally, can take reading books, not burning them, to a new level.