Lawful, But Not Helpful

As of this writing anyway—though the so-called “Ground Zero” mosque controversy is still  unresolved—at least the Gainesville, Florida, pastor who threatened to burn the Koran as a public protest against the mosque has backed off.  

No Koran burnings by Christian clergy, at least for now.

However much as many Americans could understand his frustration, and anger, most no doubt breathed a sigh of relief with the announced cancellation of the “International Burn a Koran Day.” 

 If a few cartoons in a Scandinavian newspaper could lead to violence, one doesn’t need to be a prophet of any religion in order to imagine the outrage that an in-your-face Koran burning would have sparked among Muslims. It already had started protests in Afghanistan, where thousands of United States and other NATO troops are located. No wonder that before the pastor finally relented, everyone from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to General David Petraeus—not to mention religious leaders from around the world—condemned the proposed action. With tensions running high, the last thing anyone needed, or wanted, was this (with maybe the exception of the jihadists, who would have surely found many more disaffected and outraged young men willing to blow themselves up in response).

It all started when Pastor Terry Jones, senior pastor of the tiny 50-member Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, announced plans to burn Islamic holy books on Saturday, September 11, 2010, in order to commemorate the terror attacks.  Mostly, though, the scheduled book burning was an emotional response to the idea of a mosque—or more accurately an Islamic community center—near the Ground Zero site of the attack.

In a macabre kind of way, both the mosque controversy and the canceled “International Burn a Koran Day” are representations of the clash of rights that a liberal democracy such as the United States—with a strong focus on freedom of religion and free speech—is bound to face.

No doubt, however offensive the mosque might be to some Americans, just as the Koran burning would be, both are legal. Though we don’t have a tradition in America of burning books, our free society allows for it, just as it allows for the building of mosques.    

Things that cause offense to others are not deemed illegal merely because they cause offense to others. There’s no right not to be offended in the Constitution (not that such an omission has stopped the courts from finding rights in there that weren’t written down in the document, but that’s another matter completely). Our political and religious freedom would mean nothing if they were curtailed because others found them offensive. People burn American flags on our streets; others carry swastikas down them. Offensive, yes; illegal, no.

In the case of the Koran burning and Ground Zero mosque, the words from the apostle Paul might be worthy of some consideration. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify” (1 Corinthians 10:23, NKJV).*

However lawful either action would be, neither is particularly helpful. Though some might bristle at the idea of equating the building a house of worship with burning some other faith’s holy book, the point is still the same: our free society allows for both.   

We just need to be prepared to live with the consequences of our freedoms. They could lead to actions that might be lawful, but not helpful. And, considering the tensions in the world right now, we need all the help we can get.

Clifford Goldstein writes from Sykesville, Maryland.

*From the New King James Version. Copyright 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Article Author: Clifford R. Goldstein

Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.