Thursday, September 19, 2013

The American-Christian Confusion: The Tale of Terry Jones and His Magnificent Handlebar Mustache

by Ian McLoud

Okay, you absolutely have got to read this: “Pastor Terry Jones Arrested Before He Could Burn Qurans.”

That guy is crazy right? And by “that guy,” in case you didn’t read it, I mean Terry Jones, everyone’s favorite Muslim-hating, Quran-burning, Christian pastor. He decided, along with his associate pastor, to gather up about 3,000 Qurans, soak them in kerosene, load them up in a giant barbeque grill and tow said grill to a park in order to burn them. This would, in his mind, best commemorate those souls who were killed on September 11, 2001. Unfortunately for him he was arrested because, among many other things, he was transporting fuel illegally. Who even knew that was a law? I see you Polk County Sheriff deputies; keep up the good work.

Now, I’ve not talked with Terry, but I’m certain he’s upset. And I’m certain he feels that his rights as a US citizen, mainly those of freedom of speech and self-expression, are being attacked. You may remember that this is not the first time this guy has tried to burn Qurans. To my knowledge he’s only been successful once, which must be so frustrating. I mean, you work on this grand elaborate plan and every time you get so close, so very close, to executing that plan someone comes along and tells you to stop. Talk about the man keeping you down.

And this time, not only could he not burn his Qurans, he was arrested for some joke charge like transporting fuel illegally and not following open-carry laws. Talk about not respecting your rights. And, icing on the cake, his assistant pastor gets in trouble for not having the right registration for his giant grill-trailer. What is this, communist Russia?! So you can see why Terry might be upset. The constitution says he has a right to burn all the Qurans he wants to, but every time he gets close someone gets in the way! They’re just books. What’s the big deal?

I don’t like this story. I’d almost say I hate it, but that’s not quite accurate. I’m disappointed by this story, but not because Terry Jones is having his rights violated. I’m disappointed because some out there will only see that a Christian has made the news again for being flagrantly provocative. And, on the other hand, I’m disappointed that several Christians are probably upset right now that he was “persecuted,” that he wasn’t allowed to exercise his right to freedom of speech and self-expression. And that is my problem, really. Our knee-jerk appeal to our rights as US citizens.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful for the Bill of Rights; I’m grateful to be living in a country where, for the most part, people are allowed to live as they wish inside the bounds of the law. But I don’t like the mindset that often permeates Christian thought in the US, were our first instinct is to define ourselves first as American citizens, rather than holding that our identity comes from Christ. We cling to our rights, but we cling to the wrong rights. And I say we because I have done this, I do this, and I will probably continue to on some level or another. All too often Christians in the US feel like we have to stand up for our rights. That we have to use our rights to force some opinion on others because we can and because it’s what God would want. But what if we’re wrong?

Paul talks about just this sort of thing in 1 Corinthians 9:1-19, especially 12-19. He has a right to marry. He has a right to expect the churches in Corinth to support him, since he worked among them to bring the Gospel. But he doesn’t make use of those rights. Rather, Paul forgoes them so that “no obstacle may be placed in the way of the Gospel.” Let’s make sure we understand what’s being said here. Terry Jones probably feels like his rights have been taken from him because he can’t burn some books. Paul is telling us his rights too have been repealed, there’s no question about that, but that he has repealed them himself. He has willingly forsworn what he was entitled to, for the sake of the kingdom.

Stop and think about that for a moment. Would you give up your right to seek a spouse? Would you go to your employer and say, “Hey I’ll work for free if it means I can preach the Gospel once a week at lunch?” What rights are we willing to just give away so as to not put an obstacle in front of the Gospel. Because that’s our call; to seek first and foremost God’s kingdom, long before our political rights enter the equation.

And this is why I don’t like this story about Terry Jones. I don’t like the idea that underlies it. I’m sure most Christians would agree that what Terry Jones was trying to do is wrong. But I’m not so sure that most Christians would agree that we needn’t always use all the rights that the constitution grants us.

But that’s exactly what Paul is getting at and that’s exactly what being a Christian is about: giving up our rights so that the ultimate goal of spreading the Gospel can be achieved. You know, the whole turning the other cheek and all that. What the issue really comes down to is: how do we define ourselves? Are we, to quote Lee Camp, American Christians or Christian Americans? The answer to that question, and the life that it entails, may just undo a lot of the Terry Jonesing in the world. 

Ian is the Youth and Family Minister at the Lakehoma Church of Christ in Mustang, Oklahoma. You can follow him on Twitter @KindaScottish.

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