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Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski

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Turning Cheeks: Why Christians and Muslims Should Break the Cycle of Hate

Posted: 04/ 5/11 09:03 PM ET

To figure out how to build freer, better societies, Muslims need not look across the ocean. They need only look back into their own history ... consultation is the magic word. It occurs again and again in classical Islamic texts. It goes back to the time of the Prophet himself ... power was shared such that rulers at the top were checked, so the Arab and Muslim communities of the vast Ottoman Empire came to include certain practices and expectations of limited government. --Bari Weiss, "The Tyrannies Are Doomed," in the Wall Street Journal, after interviewing Bernard Lewis, April 2

When Jesus said we should turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-42 and Luke 6:27-31), he was not asking followers to become door mats. Rather, in the face of violence, Jesus directed us to "break the cycle."

At the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, we read the Quran on various occasions each year -- on New Year's Eve at our Concert for Peace and at the Blessing of Animals during the Saint Francis Day service on the first Sunday of each October. We are a Christian church, rooted in the Anglican and Episcopal traditions. We also are a Cathedral that was chartered in the State of New York to be a cathedral for all people. Across cultures and faiths for more than 100 years, we have not only endeavored to be respectful and hospitable. Perhaps even more importantly, we have tried to be open to learning from others. We don't have to believe what they believe to want to understand what animates their quest for human dignity, freedom and justice as inspired by the Divine. If what they believe is contrary to those values and goals, perhaps we can learn how to discover common ground on which to stand as we build more just societies even as we disagree religiously.

Last fall I was in Switzerland at a seminar that included several Iranian scholars. The topic was Ecological and Environmental Justice, and Jews, Christians and Muslims gathered around a table studying their respective sacred texts and traditions. What did each say about our stewardship of this planet and responsibilities to care for resources without which future generations will not be able to survive? That seminar took place as Florida pastor Terry Jones was threatening to burn a copy the Quran. I came to appreciate what we would lose if the Quran and its teaching about the environment were to be destroyed: a long tradition of theology about what it means to be faithful to this planet and to each other.

Repeatedly, my Muslim colleagues asked, "What could be so much more important to you, when we say that burning a copy of the Quran would rupture our relationship because of the desecration and disrespect shown?" I kept trying to explain that, as an American, as sacred as my religious vows are, I have a socially binding contract in the vow each American citizen makes to the United States Constitution. I thought burning the Quran would be disrespectful and wrong, but that someone still had the right to do it in my country -- even though I hoped they would not.

Terry Jones did not act then. Instead, he traveled to New York City and met with Muslims -- for the first time, I imagined. Perhaps he even read some portions of the Quran -- also likely for the first time. I wanted to believe education and conversation could open anyone to the realities that in diverse societies we either live together or tear each other down. I was not sure Jones would change, but I wanted also to believe he would see that burning the Quran was more dangerous than courageous, and that any idea it "sent a message" was misguided.

Fast forward several months. Maybe it was ridiculous to expect further that if the Florida pastor followed through on a threat to burn the Quran, Muslims everywhere would see the act for what it is: the unrepresentative action of an ignorant and misguided individual or small group. There are fewer members of Jones's Dove World Outreach Center these days. Reports claim that he's broke. Jones says he gets death threats and that even his neighbors vilify him.

It still mystifies me when I try to comprehend why Jones went ahead and organized a mock trial that concluded with the Quran burning. He told The New York Times, "It was intended to stir the pot; if you don't shake the boat, everyone will stay in their complacency." He went on to say, "Emotionally, it's not all that easy. People have tried to make us responsible for the people who are killed. It's unfair and somewhat damaging."

I abhor the disrespect Jones displayed in this action. The Quran is a holy book. Even someone who seems to know little about it or Islam should, especially if religious, respect that the Quran is a sacred text to others. Read and critique it -- fine. But what is the purpose of desecrating it? To understand what the Quran means to Muslims -- as revelation -- the equivalent would not be for them to burn the Bible but to crucify Jesus. I think Michael Peppard's article in the Dec. 5, 2008 Commonweal should be required reading: "The Secret Weapon: Religious Abuse in the War on Terror." Dr. Peppard concludes, "Religious torture generates determined resistance and long-lasting resentments."

That said, I want also to ask this: What's worse, the idiotic acts of this pastor, or the violence and death caused by "believers" who claim as Muslims to be defending their faith in response to his actions? As President George W. Bush used to say about the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, are we talking about a few "bad apples?" Even if that is true, let's be clear: how anyone responds to such situations says as much about the responder as the original act itself.

Islam has a long and glorious tradition of peace and tolerance. Christianity does as well. There are horrific exceptions in each tradition. Turning the other cheek does not condone the wrong of the other, but it affords us an opportunity in our responses to break cycles of violence by not sowing more violence. Then New Communities of Justice can dawn.