Should Christians Burn the Qur'an?

Aaron Poffenberger

By now most everyone has heard about "International Burn a Qur'an Day," a movement by Dove World Outreach Center and Pastor Terry Jones to burn copies of the Qur'an "in remembrance of the fallen victims of 9/11 and to stand against the evil of Islam." Like many I find it a questionable act and also like many I agree that Pastor Jones and his parishioners have every right to burn the Qur'an (though I would disagree with most American as to why they have that right[1]).

Unlike most, however, I don't object to burning the Qur'an per se or worry that it will inflame additional anti-American sentiment or harm efforts to evangelize Muslims, important as these issues are. The question in my mind is whether it's a Christian act. That an act be Christian is much more important to me when it's Christians qua Christians acting — especially when they tell the whole world what they're doing.

On their Facebook page, Pastor Jones and his supporters tell us their burning the Qur'an as remembrance of the 9/11 victims and to stand against the evil of Islam. Let's see whether they stand up to scrutiny.

A 9/11 Remembrance

Remembering the victims of the attacks of September 11th is the least persuasive argument I can imagine for a Christian to burn the Qur'an or engaging in any other scandalous[2] action. Indeed, if the attacks on September 11th were against Christians or America because it's a Christian nation (at least in the eyes of the attackers) or even killed Christian then retaliation shouldn't be in the Christian's repertoire of responses. We needn't search any further than the life of Christ, to whom we Christians look, and the early Church to see why.

From before his birth and well past his earthly life Jesus lived in Roman-occupied Israel. Most of Jesus' contemporaries were unhappy about the occupation. Some looked for the promised Messiah to free them while others looked for a more worldly resolution in the form of zealotry and resistance against the Romans.[3]

The Romans maintained garrisons in Jerusalem because of the unrest, which further exacerbated the situation. Jews were taxed, beaten, mistreated, accused and tried before Roman magistrates. They were punished and put to death by the Romans — as Jesus himself would be. Yet Jesus never protested the Roman occupation. He held, as far as we know, no remembrances, no public burning of Roman documents. He didn't comment directly on the situation in Jerusalem until asked pointedly by the Scribes and Pharisees whether they should pay taxes to Caesar.[4] Jesus set his face for Jerusalem and never wavered from preaching the Good News that the Kingdom of God was at hand.

If we're tempted to believe that Jesus' life is too difficult to emulate, that we cannot live as detachedly as he, then perhaps the we should look at the lives of the disciples. We should note first that when Jesus was taken and crucified that other than Peter's half-hearted attempt at defending him, the disciples did not take arms or protest. They ran away.[5] Even later, when made bold by the giving of the Holy Spirit, the apostles focused their attention on their task: preaching the Gospel. As during the life of their Lord, they took no issue with the Romans. They organized no protests against the Chief Priest, the Scribes or the Pharisees. They held no sit ins. When Peter and James were taken into custody they offered no resistance. Rather they prayed for them.[6]

Through the ages the only form of remembrance the Church has consistently practiced is that of private prayer and corporate services like those on All Saints Day.[7] Publicly burning books doesn't appear in the Bible or any of the traditions of the Church as a form of remembrance.

To Stand Against the Evil of Islam

It would be easy — and sufficient — to quote Matthew 5:39 to argue against this position:

But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. [ESV]

Could the correct course of action be any clearer? Yet many Christians believe this verse doesn't apply in this or many situations at all. In defense of the argument that Matthew 5:39 doesn't apply, some Christians might note that Luther understood the verse to allow the State to punish criminals and wrongdoers so that lawless not abound. If the State can punish wrongdoers that Justice might be done, can't we as American Christian's, from whom the State derives its authority to govern, burn the Qur'an? While enticing as an argument, there are three responses:

  1. If you hold that the State governs by the consent and the will of the

governed and therefore derives its authority to punish wrongdoers from the same then you must remember the other part of the bargain: individuals surrender their rights to punish those wrong them.[8] That is, the individual delegates his natural right to punish those who wrong him to the State in return for the protection against "wrongful" or mistaken punishment. The individual gets a mediator between himself and his neighbor.

  1. Luther was able to defend his position that the State and its

functionaries (judges, princes and others) could act where the individual Christian couldn't because of the doctrine of the two kingdoms. Luther believed that while God is the ruler of all the world, He separates it into two kingdoms: the Kingdom of the Right Hand (the spiritual) and the Kingdom of the Left Hand (the secular). Thus rightly understood, a Christian judge could sentence a criminal to prison or the gallows whereas a Christian who suffered at the hands of the same was bound by the dictates of Matthew 5:39. Further, Luther didn't hold the view that government derives its authority from the consent of the governed. That's a view that would be developed later but probably based on his view of separation between the spiritual and secular realms.[9]

  1. Lastly, if indeed the State's right to punish criminals and other

wrongdoers stems solely from the natural rights of the individual, then a Christian nation would be just as bound by Matthew 5:39 as the individual Christians who comprise its citizens.

If Matthew 5:39 isn't clear enough as a reason why Christian's shouldn't burn the Qur'an then look at how the Church has responded throughout the ages. Peter did not resist his crucifixion but went willingly, asking only that his executioners grant him the favor that he be crucified upside down because he didn't think himself worthy of dying as his Lord had. Paul went to both Rome and the executioner's blade without protest, using his Roman citizenship merely as a means to proclaim the Gospel before princes and magistrates.

When Rome sacked Jerusalem and burned the temple Jewish Christians did not retaliate. When Rome sent Christians to the lions they did not resist the evil that befell them. Christians throughout the ages have not resisted martyrdom. Rather they have accepted it as part of their calling.

Are There Times when Christians Could or Should Burn the Qur'an?

After the preceding arguments one might conclude I would never burn the Qur'an, the Bhagavad Gita or any sacred text. That's not my position at all. Indeed, there are times when burning the Qur'an might be the correct Christian action. But they are rare and have to do with Christian doctrine and liberty.[10]

I stand by my arguments against burning the Qur'an as a remembrance or to take a stand against evil. These are not Christian actions. And I'm not going to make silly arguments that it's OK to burn the Qur'an to heat an orphanage in winter. No, the only time burning the Qur'an is a Christian act is in response to legalism or "works righteousness." By these I mean specifically claims that burning the Qur'an abrogates the saving working of Christ or that by not doing so one gains favor with God.

Christians are bombarded with countless rules, regulations and proscriptions by preachers of "holiness". As Paul puts it:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings?[11]

From the Judaizers of Paul's day to the preachers of "fundamentals" of our own, there's always been someone telling Christians they aren't doing enough to merit God's gift of grace. Sometimes the correct answer is to do something specifically on the proscribed list. It's not the act itself that makes it Christian, as if eating meat sacrificed to idols is Christian per se. What makes it a Christian act is that it exposes as a lie the claim that God will love you more because you didn't do it. That does not mean, however, that Christians should go about murdering one another. As Paul writes, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?"[12] But when the act itself is not sinful and to do so would not scandalize[13] those weak in faith it may be necessary to do it so that the truth of the merit of Christ's death and resurrection are made known and that all other works shown for what they are: worthless.

Let's review the current situation in this light:

  1. With some minor exceptions, no one is telling the Christians at Dove

World Outreach Center they'll go to hell or lose their salvation for burning the Qur'an. There are many of complaints about the action as being unloving, harming the proclamation of the Gospel or creating additional tension in the world, but the debate about burning the Qur'an in this instance is not a debate about salvation.

  1. This isn't an isolated debate among Christians. The Qur'an burning

isn't planned as a private event. To the contrary; Pastor Jones has made every attempt to publicize the event. It is, as the Facebook page publicly states, for the world to see and participate in.

The planned "International Burn a Qur'an" day is not in my opinion a Christian act and Christians should not participate.


[1] Most American I know would say it's their right because the right to free speech is in or protected by the U.S. Constitution. I would say it's more fundamental than that: free people can dispose of their own property any way they want to, including burning it, and that their right to do so on their private property for all to see stems from the same root.

[2] The word "scandal" comes from the Greek σκάνδαλον (scandalon) meaning a trap or stumbling-block. Within Christian tradition "scandalous" actions were dealt with quickly and sometimes harshly because they might the hurt the faith of those who were "scandalized" by the action. When Hester Prynne was discovered with child she was forced to wear the scarlet letter "A" because her actions, if left unaddressed, would be both to her detriment and others in the community as they might be emboldened or tempted to the same sin.

[3] One of Jesus' disciples was known as "Simon the Zealot." C.f Mark 3:18. For more on Zealotry see the article on Wikipedia.

[4] After having been shown one of the coins used to pay the tax which has Caesar's image and name, Jesus responds simply "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." Matthew 22:21, English Standard Version [ESV].

[5] John 18:10.

[6] Acts 12.

[7] All Saints Day (All Hallows from which Halloween, the Eve before All Hallows, comes) is not, as some might think, a specifically Roman Catholic festival. The departed "saints" in Christ are remembered everywhere by Christians whether on a particular day or every day.

[8] Depending on one's view and the rules (i.e. the laws) that govern the relationship the individual may retain his right to self defense which differs from Justice, punishment and compensation.

[9] For more about Luther's views see his On Secular Authority. Luther's views on the role of secular government are very interesting. He was one of the earliest proponents of the position that spiritual beliefs must not be coerced.

[10] Strangely, "International Burn a Qur'an Day" is coming close to qualifying, but not close enough as we shall see.

[11] Colossians 2:20 - 22, English Standard Version [ESV].

[12] Romans 6:1 - 2, English Standard Version [ESV].

[13] In 1 Corinthians, chapter 8 Paul tells those who are stronger in faith that eating food offered to idols is permissible because the gods the idols represent are nothing and therefore the meat sacrificed to the idol isn't tainted. But, if doing so harms those who are weak in faith, it would be better not to.