Freedom, Justice and Conflict

It seems that everyone is still talking about Terry Jones, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Islam, Christianity, Q’uran burning, Obama and terrorism.

In the last week I held four separate conversations on the topic and all you have to type on Google is “ima” before “Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf” comes up or just put in “pastor” and they suspect you are looking up Terry Jones from Gainesville.

One of the most significant discussions that I had this last week was with my intelligent wife, Elizabeth.

There are others sharing  how this really is a comment on the media’s desire for grandiose and shocking stories, or it’s actually a happy story where Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of all faiths condemned the actions of Terry Jones and his little band of followers. These are fair reactions, and worth a read at CNN.

Christians like Eugene Cho and Jim Wallis are also chiming in.

These are all fine contributions and worth a read.

What intrigues me are the issues of religious freedom, religious conflict, justice and free speech at stake in this story of pastors, Q’urans, holy sites and imams.

First, religious freedom and free speech.

The U.S. Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

In these 45 words the founders of the United States made it possible for millions of us to share billions of words on trillions of topics. These words allow me and you to do what we are doing right now; engaging in the free exchange of ideas across a netscape based on the principals described within the First Amendment.

These words allow for churches, Islamic centers, synagogues, temples, societies and the like to establish themselves across the landscape of the United States and, permitting they do not bring outright harm to another individual, continue to preach whatever they want to preach and believe whatever they want to believe.

Now, granted, there are some religious and quasi-religious movements that take these rights for granted and engage in unsolicited hate speech and actions against others they deem inferior or unnecessary. There is great precedent for action against such organizations that impinge on the rights of others.

Some would say that Terry Jones and his merry band of Muslim-haters would fit right into that extremist mold and therefore the government is fully justified in stepping in and shutting them down.

Yet, they didn’t. Well, at least, not really.

Robert Gates called, yes. Obama pleaded that the burning not take place, yes. However, the local authorities in Gainesville were tied to a post in terms of taking legal action, spare shutting down a book burning without the proper fire code permits.


Because under the U.S. Constitution we are allowed to burn books we do not like. That does not constitute an impingement of anyone’s rights. Just as the Supreme Court upheld in 1989 that as disagreeable an act as it may be, burning the flag is a symbolic act of free expression and is protected by the First Amendment so too is book burning.

Less than a decade ago a group of Christians in Alamogordo, NM gathered to burn J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books along with Star Wars DVDs and books. Although they were not permitted to burn the books because it was deemed a fire-hazard by county authorities, they changed tack and went about conducting a book-cutting. Although it enraged a myriad of Potter fans and wannabe Jedis it a) was not against the law of the U.S.A. and b) did not garner such national attention as Terry Jones’ publicity stunt.


Religious freedom.

When one freedom comes into conflict with another freedom, we get fireworks. Fourth-of-July-like fireworks.

While some in New Zealand may consider being a Jedi an official religion, the world over agrees that Islam is a dominant face of religions that make up the world stage. Islam, fundamentalist, extremist, Sunni, Shi’a, Sufi, moderate or mystical is a force to be reckoned with as it shapes culture, politics and the future.

Thus, the conflict.

As Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf made plans to build an Islamic center close to Ground Zero he kick-started what is now an international fracas over religion, rights and radicalism.


Because his, and his followers’, freedom to build their Islamic center in any place where they have purchased, rented or legally procured met up against another religion here in the U.S. – American patriotism.

The blood boiling over the Islamic center’s placement near Ground Zero is the same type as that bubbling about flag burning as well. People get downright angry when it comes to defacing what they view as symbols of America and its omnipotence.

Granted, there is an air of understanding here. People love America. For many, the U.S.A. has given them the world. They would die for their country and in their own way, see an Islamic center near Ground Zero or an American flag being burnt as an offense equal to what it is to burn a Q’uran in the face of a Muslim.

Thus, they rail against the freedoms of others to build such an Islamic center or burn an American flag; just like Muslims cry out concerning Q’uran burning and their right to build an Islamic center wherever they like to.

The same freedoms are at stake. And yet, for one side public opinion is favorable, and to the other public opinion is downright nasty.

Terry Jones was condemned left and right for his proposed actions. Imam Abdul Rauf is garnering more and more support from people of many religious backgrounds throughout the U.S.A. and the world.

What my wife pointed out is that the same rights are at stake and yet in the midst of this conflict nobody mentioned Terry Jones’ rights. Likewise, not too many people (spare my insightful wife) saw how what Imam Abdul Rauf is doing is tantamount to Q’uran burning for faithful American patriot-zealots.

I am all for religious freedom.

I am all for justice and peace.

I am not one for conflict.

I do not approve of Terry Jones’ proposed actions.

But now, I am questioning my previously liberal position on the Imam and the Islamic center. In my view, this man is stepping on incendiary ground and should step away before anyone gets burned. Terry Jones received international pressure to back off because lives could be lost following a book burning. As Elizabeth noted, people could also be beaten, injured or killed if this Islamic center gets built.

In the end, the Imam should be counseled to temper his freedom with an appropriate amount of justice in order to avoid unnecessary conflict. That is, if he wants the peace he claims the mosque is all about (read it here).

In fact, we all must.

Our freedoms are our freedoms. No doubt about it.

However, if peace (and for my Christian brothers and sisters, the Shalom of Christ and his kingdom in all hearts) is our end goal then we must, at times, restrict our freedoms for the sake others and their rights.

I know, because I often stumble here.

May we all hear and heed the words of St. Paul as he writes to people like the Galatians, the Corinthians and us:

“For you were called to freedom, my brothers and sisters. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity to gratify your own desires, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed as well.” (Galatians 5:13-15)

“Take care that your freedom does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak…sinning against your brothers and sisters and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ…Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you the workmanship of the Lord?….Nevertheless, we have not made use of our freedom, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 8: 9, 12; 9:1, 12b)

Peace .



Filed under Christianity, Islam, Religion and the Public Sphere

3 responses to “Freedom, Justice and Conflict

  1. Ken Chitwood

    A short article from Martin Marty (a Lutheran historian at U of Chicago) on the whole “tantrum” at hand and at issue in this blog:
    Sightings 9/20/2010

    Until There Are Churches in Saudi Arabia

    — Martin E. Marty

    The tantrum—let’s call it what it is—against government, taxes, Muslims, and moderates continues to rage, and will through November and perhaps long after. A child in a tantrum eventually stops stomping and rejoins the family, where speaking and hearing, agreeing and disagreeing, can resume. Sightings would like to move on to other topics about religion and public life, and may do so soon, out of boredom, fear, weariness, or, dare we hope, with hope for better, tantrumless times.

    In the meantime in these mean times, out of thousands of choices from columns, blogs, and books, let me select two, one of the best, and one of the worst. In The New Republic Leon Wieseltier challenges readers with a question: Is Islam, as some defenders say, “a religion of peace?” He answers, “It is not. Like Christianity and like Judaism, Islam is a religion of peace and a religion of war,” depending on which era and which circumstances bring forth “the tendencies” within the religion. To relate terrorism to movements within Islam “is not Islamophobic. . . Quite the contrary: it is to side with Muslims who are struggling against the same poison as we are.”

    As for the World Trade Center attacks, he pleads, don’t erect a cross as a memorial. “Christianity was not attacked on September 11. America was attacked. They are not the same thing.” American Christians who use the cross in their ads against Islam “do not deplore a religious war, they welcome one.”

    Now read William McGurn in The Wall Street Journal. Ask yourself what does he and the tantrum-throwers to his far right, the Newt Gingriches and company want? Peace? Moderation? Can you find the beginning of the beginning of a way to peace in the McGurn column? Note that, for good measure, he links American liberalism to radical Islam. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, “perhaps” a “moderate Muslim,” Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, and others support “‘interfaith dialogue,’ and called for American Muslims and non-Muslims to ‘break bread’ together.” Not on your life, says columnist McGurn. Stooping lowest he asks, “What are the fruits” of the efforts at moderation and dialogue?

    These efforts, he writes, produced as fruit the “obscure Florida Pastor” and other would-be Qur’an burners, those who tear out pages of the Qur’an in front of the White House, and—this one is half right—“angry marches between pro- and anti-Islamic Center crowds,” all to be blamed on one “typical experiment in liberal bridge building.” He implies that there should be no efforts at “interfaith dialogue,” “breaking bread together,” or differentiating moderates from extremists in all faith traditions. Whom to blame for the current rages? Muslims, of course; one Imam, of course; and “folks who cling to their liberalism and their antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”

    McGurn does have the grace to scold “Republican politicos” who, thanks to “liberal hectoring,” exploit tensions, “saying no mosque near Ground Zero until we see a church in Saudi Arabia.” Which sets us up for Wieseltier’s best line: “I also hear that there should be no mosque in Park Place until there are churches and synagogues in Saudi Arabia. I get it. Until they are like us, we will be like them.”


    William McGurn, “’Bridge Building’ and the WTC Mosque,” The Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2010.

    Leon Wieseltier, “Mosque Notes,” The New Republic, September 2, 2010.

    Martin E. Marty’s biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


    Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

    Submissions policy

    Sightings welcomes submissions of 500 to 750 words in length that seek to illuminate and interpret the intersections of religion and politics, art, science, business and education. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. The editor also encourages new approaches to current issues and events.


    Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

  2. Pingback: “And the Award Goes To…” Ubuntu Religion Awards 2010 « Ubuntu Blog – umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu

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