“And Jesus said My wife [is not like these]…”

by admin Posted on September 24, 2012

The gnostic scrap preposterously labeled the “Gospel of Jesus’  Wife” (GosJesWife) and described in painstaking detail by Annemarie Luijendijk in an article by Karen King of Harvard Divinity School will be old news by the time this comment appears.

That is as it should be, because the “discovery” was old news before the article appeared.  Ms. King along with an established succession of gnostiphiles has consistently been guilty of sensationalizing relatively  minor corrections, rethinks and supplements to the gnostic corpus as breakthroughs, if not by self-promotion then by acquiescence in the kind of glassy optimism that sees everything as a headline.

Ms. King is known primarily for her work on the Gospel of Judas (with her protégé, Elaine Pagels) and thus belongs to that clan of constructivists who might suggest (today) that Jesus and Judas were more than friends and (tomorrow) that after a failed experiment in same-sex polyamoury with the twelve, he returned  to the arms of his beloved wife Mary, where he settled down like a good Jewish soykher, made babies (or if a gnostic Jesus, emanations), and carved icons for the booming idol trade in Sepphoris.

Mind you, Ms.  King doesn’t say any of this. She doesn’t have to. Her scholarship equates roughly to a Hungarian director’s reconceptualization of Hansel and Gretel from the perspective of an abused peri-menopausal stepmother: it uses the text merely as a backdrop for conclusions reached independently of chewable evidence.  –The fantasy that the Gospel of Judas can be situated in a period of “Roman persecution,” for example, was never adequately challenged, despite the fact that (with the exception of the non-gnostic Marcionites, who get honorable mention by Eusebius as late as the fourth century) the gnostic communes  are not known to have contributed fodder to either Roman nor later to Christian persecution of heretics.

Even “unequivocal” Christians had their “Don’t ask don’t tell” rubrics when things got hot; Gnostics were far more furtive than that.  The very sober treatment of Judas by Nag Hammadi facilitator James Robinson and the assessment of Amy Jill Levine—that Judas “tell[s] us much about second century belief and practice, but very little if anything about the man from Nazareth himself” were quickly engulfed in the belief (evangelised by King and Pagels) that it represented a significant “alternative” to the orthodox story.

That view is what is also being promoted in the unfolding saga of Jesus’ wife.

The disinformative Pagels-revolution in gnostic studies was based on a fundamental, and to a certain extent  deliberate, misunderstanding of gnostic thought.  Thirty years later, its rootage in the liberation  theologies of le fin de siècle looks more superficial than ever before.   Conditioned by a 1970’s impatience with male-dominated church structures, it was a slap at the patriarchal systems that dominated the western religious traditions—especially the Roman Catholic Church—and was refracted in other institutional,  glass-ceilinged hierarchies like the academic and corporate worlds.

The very fact that the inventors of this “apostolic” band-of-brothers  tradition–bishops like Irenaeus (Pagels’s least favourite prelate)–hated Gnostics was in her view and the view of her acolytes, reason enough to turn them into oppressed heroes.  The fact that the “heretics” (old form)  were a band of theosophical predators whose writings can charitably be described as garble seemed to make no difference to the cause: what mattered was that they told a different story to the canonical one, and in the age of canon-bashing, through the end of the twentieth century, that was all that mattered.  One of the few courageous voices at the peak of Gnostimania between 1975 and 2000 was that of New Testament scholar, and a former teacher of mine,  Joseph Fitzmyer, who commented matter-of-factly that  the gnostics were the crazies of the second century, and did not improve with time.

Like Pagels, King has devoted some time to (unsuccessfully) overturning the early twentieth century idea,  associated with the church historian Adolph von Harnack that Gnosticism was a radical “Hellenization” (or Neoplatonizing) of Christianity.  The idea that it was a social equality movement comes from spending too much time with the theosophist rabble and almost none with Numenius, Plotinus and Porphyry. (Why worry about where the crazies got their craziness?).

And of course, eschewing Irenaeus and his “brother” bishops as being out of the picture.

Yet everything we have discovered from Nag Hammadi bears out the idea that gnosticism, even in its stammering and repetitious diversity, was just that: a mythological substrate—a plot line, so  to speak—that sees creation itself, and humanity’s role in it, as a fall from divine perfection into material corruption.

Salvation in this myth is all about waking up, or rather about a select few waking up, to the promises of a God so distant that a cipher named Jesus, and his  female consort/hypostasis/mother/wife/Achamoth/Sophia/Mary is needed to telepathize the message of redemption (opposite to the diremption or  unraveling of the sacred fullness) to the broken world made by a rascal  equivalent to the platonic demiurge, often identified as the God of the Jews, but with fewer superpowers.

The universe of thought in which gnostic ideas swirl is so different to the “canonical world” that it can properly  be called alien, and with few exceptions—the letter of a gnostic bishop named Ptolemy to a catechumen named Flora (Epiphanius [Hær. XXXIII, 3-7]  is often cited) –incomprehensible.  It is cited because its sentences parse. Nothing quite as sober was found among the Coptic papyri in Upper Egypt.

The problem with seeing the gnostic gospels as the “other side” of the Christian story is that they aren’t. They tell another story.  It is the cultic iteration of Neoplatonic missionaries who used Christian ideas as window dressing—or as Irenaeus said, as bait. It is the nether side of cultic frenzy, an elitist fantasy that replaces the more democratic apocalyptic hope of the first Christian generation with a Jesus who is never born, whose feet never touch the ground, whose  crucifixion is an illusion, and whose resurrection is unnecessary. This revelation happens in the minds of first century republicans, the 1% who deserve to be saved—not in the lives of sinners—and not in the biography of a flesh and blood, sexually-complex figure named Mary Magdalene.

This Jesus talks in runes, numbers, and aeons, even when the dialogue is framed (as it is for example in  the Gospel of Judas), using superficial historical markers tacked on from the canonical narrative: In fact,  the core of Judas (ll 47-53) is a non-Christian gnostic discourse that has been superficially resituated as a dialogue between a Jesus who comes, goes, morphs into a child, disappears from view, and spends the rest of his time laughing at the stupidity of his disciples for their worldly ways–Judas, unlucky man, being mysteriously counted as disciple thirteen:

Here,  just for the flavor, is a sample:

Judas said to Jesus, “So what will those generations do?”

Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, for all of them the stars bring matters to completion.

When Saklas completes the span of time assigned for him, their first star will appear with

the generations, and they will finish what they said they would do. Then they will fornicate in my name and slay their children [55] and they will […] and [—about six and

[a half line is missing—] my name, and he will […] your star over the [thir]teenth aeon.”

After that Jesus [laughed].

Even in the strained dialogues of the Gospel of Thomas  (which is somehow connected to this scrap) the gospel writers only succeed in making Jesus sound like a fourth rate Socrates—even though during my time at Harvard, a respected New Testament scholar could argue that Thomas was at least circumstantial “proof” of the existence of Q.  (It was one of the reasons I absconded for Oxford.)

Given this as background, what should we make of the “marriage of Jesus”? The short answer is, Nothing at all.

It is intriguing to me that in all of the discussion so far, but in keeping with a new biblical orthodoxy  that eschews calling texts “canonical” and “non-canonical,” this non-canonical passage is seldom called gnostic, as though to call it what it is “privileges” orthodox discourse.

This is absurd of course—a bit like saying that calling the plays of Thomas Greene wretched (they are) privileges the plays of William Shakespeare because they kept their audiences awake.    Presumably this labeling discriminates against the full-bodied potential meanings (always plural) of the text, because (having dispensed with the category of heresy as a judgment of power-hungry male bishops of the second and third century)  by classifying it we enable a distinction between “orthodoxy” and “heresy” that postmodernism has decreed is not pertinent to the historical narrative.  As a standard older book on the subject of the gnostic religion proves, spending too much time with the gnostics will eventually find you in the embrace of Jung or Derrida, secure in a cosmos ruled by the gods of deconstruction.

Odd, therefore, that in judging the value of the gnostic literature for its “revolutionary character,” constant reference has to be made to the canonical plotline, since not to do so would leave us swimming in the ether and aeons of cultic savants who did not care about history, marriage, groceries, or everyday life.

What is at stake here, to be blunt, is not whether Jesus was married. Nor is the issue (as King tunes it) whether there were groups of Christians who thought he was, at least allegorically–since at least allegorically the author of Ephesians 5.22 seems to think he was.  What is at stake is how we deal with the intellectual parameters of evidence

The scholars who are arguing against this “gospel”  on the basis of its “authenticity” are brutally confused and in fact are swallowing the premise that it causes us to “question” what we may have thought about Christian origins.

From everything I have read, I am prepared to think (with a significant reservation) that the fragment is authentic; that it dates from the third century; that the orthography is Sahidic, and that it is not the work of an antiquities forger.  And I am equally prepared to believe that Professor King believes that it is genuine.  While I deplore her interpretation, I think her skills in Coptic are self evident to someone, like me, who knows the field and knows the language.

The eighteen lines of the fragment as reproduced and described by King are these:

1) not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe] … ”

2) The disciples said to Jesus, “

3) deny. Mary is worthy of it

4) Jesus said to them, “My wife

5) she will be able to be my disciple

6) Let wicked people swell up

7) As for me, I dwell with her in order to…

The natural reaction to reading these lines simply as text is to say that we do not know more than we  know.

Its connections with the Gospel of Thomas (114) will be evident to anyone who knows that gospel, where Mary queries Jesus about the identity of his followers (21).  In the celebrated conclusion of Thomas, Peter suggests (114)

“Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.”

To which Jesus responds,

“I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The purely symbolic and desexualized nature of Mary in the discourse is obvious: women were closely  associated with the reproductive faculty that the gnostic telestai regarded as corrupt and (like the world) defiling.  Jesus suggests, rather than exclusion, to redeem her through transforming her, perhaps baptismally within the cult,  to a sexuality that is not associated with reproduction–the perpetuation of the “primoridial error.”  Incultation is very much like a marriage: it is a union, it is transformative, and it is salvific. it is also asexual and sterile.

While the peri-verse “Mary is [?] worthy of it” raises suspicions as to the authenticity of the fragment, especially in apposition to the word “life” in [1], the editors prudentially note (35) that the verse may read “is not worthy of it,” which would in fact be in keeping with the extant verse in the Gospel of Thomas. 

Furthermore, if this fragment is a periphrasis of Thomas 114, then the logical conclusion to the fragment,  “As for me, I dwell with her in…” is “[in] order to make her male.”

The phrase, “Jesus said, my wife….” Or “my spouse” needs to be interpreted within this general framework, and  within the gnostic system as a whole.   King’s suggestion regarding [1] and the preceding lacuna seem at first  glance reasonable:

A probable restoration for the lacuna prior to first line and in →1: ([“Whoever does not hate his father and his mother will] not [be able to become] my [disciple]. My mother gave me li[fe]”) can be suggested based on comparison with GosThom 101 (49:32-50:11); cp. also Luke 14:26 (Sahidic).

Internally however, this interpretation is unjustified:  To complete the lacuna in this way contradicts the core belief that the “life giving mother” Mary is viewed negatively, and does not explain the transition between this and the assertion that Mary is (or is not) worthy of life.  In Thomas Jesus does not say what King wants him to say, but this:

Whoever does not hate his father and his mother as I do cannot become a disciple to me. And whoever does not love his father and his mother as I do cannot become a disciple to me. For my mother […], but my true mother gave me life.” [Lambdin trans.]

That is to say, the true mother is not the one associated with Jesus by the earthen disciples, but a revelation  of a higher power.

In “classical” gnostic thought, this power is either the female emanation of the pleroma, or Sophia, though gnosticism played fast and loose with names from a variety of theosophical schools and religions, including Christianity.

King’s conclusions about [4] however are therefore even more insecure:

The meaning of  “my wife” is unequivocal; the word can have only  this meaning. Given that Jesus is the speaker, the possessive article indicates  that he is speaking of his wife.  Given the dialogue form, Jesus seems to be  addressing his disciples (which does not precluding her presence among the other disciples, especially given the following line’s affirmation that “she is  able to be my disciple”).

This assumes what is not “given” at all. As our closest analogy to this text distinguishes  between the assumed and the true mother, in true gnostic Doppelganger fashion (a literary device used to enforce the Neoplatonic distinction between the real and the apparent) it would be far more reasonable to suggest that the verse can be completed as

“Jesus said, my wife is not like [her]

But the one who is saved,

She is worthy to be my disciple.

…And I dwell with her in order

to make her male.”

King has done an admirable job describing the fragment.  Yet its tantalizing parallelism with a theme in Thomas that has often  been seen as “anti-woman,” creates a troubling uncertainty about its provenance, and casts a reasonable doubt over its authenticity. Nonetheless, what is more troubling is the disconnect between Professor King’s meticulous description and her willingness to leap from that to a reconstruction and conclusions that do not comport with what we know about the context of  gnostic thought.

The question inescapably becomes, What about this fragment would require us to see a valence for marriage higher than that which we normally associate with gnosticism?  What in this piece of a piece requires us to see it, virtually, as a “correction” of Thomas?   Anticipating this sort of criticism, and to avoid the most extreme view—that the fragment “proves”  a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene  (who is never mentioned)–King says:

On the other hand, we can ask whether it might instead be Jesus’s wife whose worthiness is being denied, questioned, or defended by the disciples in →3 …especially because Jesus’s response in →4-5 deends her ability to be his disciple. If so, this means that GosJesWife is identifying Jesus’s wifes “Mary” in →3. It is highly likely that this Mary would have been understood to be Mary of Magdala, given the existence of early Christian traditions which identified a close relationship between Jesus and Mary, and some which questioned Mary’s worthiness.

“Worthiness” is an interesting betrayal of the entire modus operandi of this exercise.  It is the membrane toward which all of the descriptive propellant has been directed, and falls totally outside the range of evidence, totally outside the range of gnostic thought.  In gnosticism, flesh, the world, and all that serve to perpetuate them are unworthy.

It is this kind of speculation that sinks the ship, hybridizing King’s own interests in a gnosticism reformed and reconceived to reflect an interest in social ethics, and the actual evidence, the ciphers of which do not begin to justify this translation and fictional reconstruction.

For example, once it agreed that the gnostic Mary’s are not “canonical,” it is all but useless to use the canonical models as touchstones for the “historical” relationships the New Testament provides.  What Gnosticism believed about birth and marriage (despite repeatedly ludicrous claims made about the Gospel of Philip, perhaps the most habitually abused of all the gnostic corpus) is that both were misfortunes of the creator’s world.  Even the Marcionites prohibited marriage, cohabitation and the use of meat. What in this fragment would cause us to suppose that the “real” mother of Jesus or a putative “real” wife of Jesus would suddenly become prominent role-players in Christian tradition–different from the completely contrastive roles they play within the larger scheme of gnostic metaphysics?

In short, the mainstreaming of the idea that gnosticism should be taken seriously as part of the story of early Christianity (it should) has led here as in many other cases to a nugation of the fact that gnosticism was itself a rejection of the sorts of relationships modern interpreters press to find in these early texts. Professor King and her cohort seem unable to distinguish between accepting–as many of us since the time of Walter Bauer have done–the fact that early Christianity was a many splendored thing–from the fact that some of early Christianity was merely incoherent.

Does the fragment, small as it is, suggest a reformation of gnostic thought that would redefine the view of marriage and sexuality we find in other sources—especially Thomas?  That is an interesting idea—Marcionisn underwent such a change under Apelles—but the evidence here is too scant to make it an argument.  And the argument is not made: instead, we have the inconceivable notion that a flesh and blood Jesus is making the case for the “worthiness” of a flesh and blood Mary Magdalene to be his wife. Pray, what would be the religious reason for that appeal? What would be its location in history?

I am interested to know, as well, why Ms. King fleshes out other verses and fills gaps, but does not expand on “Jesus said, my wife….”:

“Given that Jesus is the speaker, the possessive article indicates that he is speaking of his wife.”

This tautology (because it is scarcely a grammatical point in Coptic) is true, but King’s further view that “The sentence should therefore be understood to mean that she [Mary?] will be able to perform the functions of, or have the characteristics of being (or becoming) a disciple” is simply wishful thinking.

My own suggestion, in keeping with Thomas’s and other gnostic use of what is called collusio oppositorum, is that Jesus contrasts Mary (if that is who is meant) with his true wife,” who is not like the women of this world.  “Jesus said, my wife [is not like her].”

In the canonical gospels, a kiss is still a kiss. In gnosticism it is—complicated, as Irenaeus suggests in discussing the incestuous begetting of the savior—a passage I suggest King re-read before going any further with her speculation:

“When all the seed shall have come to perfection, they state that then their mother Achamoth shall pass from the intermediate place, and enter in within the Pleroma, and shall receive as her spouse the Saviour who sprang from all the Aeons,  that thus a conjunction may be formed between the Saviour and Sophia, that is, Achamoth.” (AdvHaer 1.7.1))

Much more titillating to think that the verse refers to a “wife” than to a wife who is also a mother—but that is the way Gnostics often thought.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Evil in Your Midst

by admin Posted on September 17, 2012

So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it. (Deut 21.21)

As the smoke settles in Libya and Cairo, it seems to collect in the heads of people like Jerry Coyne, P Z Myers and Eric MacDonald.

All three cleave to the quaint 18th century assumption that the right of free speech is as sacred as the Bible, a book they reject as a compendium of intellectual rot. Odd, how the freethinkers are willing to be slaves of the right pope. Sacred writ is stupid and retardant. Secular writ, that’s something else again.

The First Amendment to the Constitution–like the Second, the favorite of gun-toters–was written at a time when people could be charged with treason and hanged for criticizing the King. Its scope is now so broad that it has become the rhetorical equivalent of carrying a Smith and Wesson SD9 VE (available online) to within one hundred yards of a presidential speech in New Hampshire. Live Free or Die–your choice.

If you begin with the doctrine that Islam is evil, as Coyne and company do, then I suppose your Manichaen instincts provoke you to want to stamp it out. It’s one of the reasons the formidably smart Christopher Hitchens supported Bush adventures in the Middle East, because in terms of stamping out religion, you have to bomb someone, and on average (at least recently) Muslims behave worse than Christians.

I agreed with Hitch about so much else: but not about that. It was a cyclopic, post-in-the-eye blind spot with him. But if you begin with a more sensible proposition: that men, and many women, in the Islamic world and especially in unstable zones like Libya, parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and now Egypt (following the colossal failure of the Arab spring to yield flowers) are grossly undereducated, passionate, and often irrational, the question becomes whether the United States, in its national interest, needs to test the limits of its precious liberality abroad. Our vaunted attachment to free speech and bullets (and their odd convergences) is not something we have a right to expect the Islamic masses–mainly young, mainly bored–to “get.” They have the internet, with all the offending images to get their testosterone roiling, but they could never have created it: that, symbolically, is part of the problem.

This is not 1776 or 1789. It’s 2012. If Muslims had been buzzing hornets in 1776, news of an insult against their sacred book or holy prophet would have travelled so slowly that it would have died of attrition before it reached the target.

We are not talking about insult or the right to blaspheme (which has become a cardinal right and rite among the new atheists) but about restraint in the pursuit of moral objectives. Restraint? America? Not in Don’t Tread on Me Land, where cutting someone off in the next lane is enough to get you shot.

I know that when I call a Catholic priest a child molester, or the pope a moral fascist who manipulates doctrine to control people’s sexual lives, there will be those who take offense. I also know that I run almost no risk for doing this, because (to be blunt) Christianity has just about run its course, influence-wise. It is only in the fusty, historically challenged heads of some atheists that blasphemy continues to be interesting; dissident Catholics, Catskill comedians and liberal theology sucked the real life out of parody and insult decades ago (South Park did the rest)–leaving only the odoriferous vestiges of evangelical gas as a target.

Most sensible religious people in the United States don’t care how much you insult religion–even their own–as long as you don’t actually murder the priest or harass their pastor. But reality demands that we look at Islam in a different way. Not the way poofy religious inclusivists look at it–a good faith gone wrong, ruined by subverters–but as an unstable and insecure faith that commands the affection of almost 2 billion people worldwide. That is not a population you can enroll in American Values 101: where would they all sit?

The number of evangelical Christians in the United Sates is about 70,000,000. That is a big number–about 25% of the population (and shrinking)–but it is is not a very big number, and within that number there are lots of smaller numbers: fundamentalists, pre-millennialists, Pentecostals, dominionists old and new, sectarians, and low, low down on the food chain, people like the Rev. Terry Jones and his allies.

In the earliest stages of the Libyan crisis, the Obama administration tried to diminish the effects of the viral YouTube video by saying that Americans don’t really see the Prophet as a child molester, womanizer and murderer. That is probably true–they don’t. In fact most Americans are so ignorant of Islam that they don’t know the story of Aisha or the basis for the well-worn calumny. (It goes back to the Christian Middle Ages). An equivalent claim–that Mary the mother of Jesus was a prostitute or unwed mother, for example, is not only not scandalous to many Christians outside the evangelical and Catholic camp, but a theory that looks plausible to some very good scholars. That is how different the two traditions are at the “intellectual” level, and how much alike they are at the level of extremist yahoos. But a yahoo fringe aside, Christianity, slowly but surely, has moved on over the centuries, dragging its lunatic fringe along behind it. Islam has come into modernity without actually leaving its tent.

Hard as it is for me to say it, Obama and friends were wrong: You cannot put YouTube back in the tube anymore than you can toothpaste. When it’s out it’s out: nothing can be done. But the hard facts remain: a hack named “Sam Bacile,” with the express blessing and encouragement of the Rev. Terry Jones, conspired to beam his “film”-trailer around the world. He was able to do this because he is an American who can hide behind an Amendment designed to protect people from arbitrary punishment for their political opinions. It was not designed to protect cowardly long-distance assassins and provocateurs from scrutiny.

“Bacile” like Jones’s mock trial of the Koran in 2011, becomes a hero to a thousand fools. He is defended by mobs of men and women who are committed to their own kind of terrorism–people (as I’ve already said) who will turn their gaze on the next enemy (atheists?) as soon as they create Vesuvius in the Ummah.

And he is protected by religion-hating pundits like Jerry Coyne–who each time he opens his mouth on any topic but evolution proves yet again how badly we need other subjects than science taught in our universities. The secular-atheist absolutism of people who reject controlling the sources of violence at their inception, and prefer instead to look on a row of caskets as the “price” of free speech and liberty, using hackneyed, unmodern, and useless eighteenth century slogans, is frankly insidious and pathetic.

Not only pathetic but a study in bad analogies: If I were looking for a good one for what’s wrong with letting hatemongers stoke fear and resentment, I would say that just as we require parental and legal controls to keep the worst forms of pornography out of the hands of children, and children out of the clutches of unscrupulous men, we need to accept the infantile nature of some religious views and act accordingly. That is a mature thing–a reasonable thing to do.

The permissible boundaries of pornography as it affects vulnerable populations has been tested again and again in the courts and the pornographers seldom win. We need to see the crisis in Islam as a test case in the use of visual pornography intended to incite, not as a test case in the right to voice an “opinion” or engage in blasphemy as a parlour game. But I can hear the clamber already: if you believe, as the Coynes of this world seem to, that all religion is pornography, then it follows that all religion should be controlled–and we wouldn’t want that, would we? It’s a red herring, but let me throw it at my own argument.

The suggestion that (as Romney says of Obama) that I am capitulating, apologizing tiptoeing, coddling, or missing the point misses the point by an imperial mile. The coalition of Christian crackers, dissident Islam-hating ex-Muslims, and atheists now seems to be an established fact. –A bit like the one-issue coalition of anti-abortion fundamentalists and zygote-worshipping Catholics.

It is not an alliance that can last, because the hidden fractures will grow larger over time. It may seem counter-intuitive to say that liberty requires restraint. But that is what I’m saying. To insist on the right to blaspheme and insult, at this price, beggars the morality of the right. What calculus do we use to determine the value of any principle? The Constitution? The Constitution is not a calculus; it is a list of legal commandments based on political compromises–some of them theoretical, but many just practical. It is not a primer on ethical reasoning. Once it envisaged slavery, male only voting, and the prohibition of spirituous liquors. Its infallibility is for high school debaters, young Republicans and American Legion conventioneers to celebrate–not people with a good grasp of its history and interpretation.

There is nothing to be gained from giving the abusers of free speech and the perverters of freedom the right to shoot from a distance and then claim that they were just being good citizens. Every soldier killed in Iraq and Afghanistan sacrificed for a period of time his right to do as he pleased in order to do what he was told. In the interest of peace, there is a greater good, one that can only be pursued by using reason as a measure of action.

That has always been the real strength of the west, and what has largely guaranteed its political evolution. There’s nothing reasonable about tormenting a mentally-challenged woman just to show to others how stupid and preposterous she is. But for Myers, Coyne and MacDonald, there seems to be something reasonable–if the sacred writ of the Constitution is your guide–about throwing stones at the stone throwers to see how they will respond.

Far better, it seems to me, to seek out the real evil in our midst–the “occasions of sin”–and deal with them before they leave dead bodies on the ground for which, they can plausibly say, they are not responsible.


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Deja Vu: How Tone Deaf Atheists and Blockheaded Muslim Haters Cost Lives

by admin Posted on September 15, 2012

In 2011, The Revd Terry Jones put the Koran on trial and torched it in his church in Lake City, Fl. He live-streamed the proceedings to ensure maximum effect abroad, and within 48 hours, eight UN guards had been killed.

I suggested then that in the cyber-age Justice Holmes’s comment about “falsely crying fire in a theatre” needed a new interpretation. It was no longer about a prank at the Roxie in Middletown, Ohio, where patrons might get jostled or knocked down in a stampede at the exits. Now it was about religion- haters in the Bible-belt trying to do harm without being harmed themselves. And nothing was clearer than that Mr. Jones wanted to cause harm.

My suggestion was that if he went forward with his plan, and if remonstrations to cease and desist (there were many) did not succeed, a restraining order should be issued to prevent Mr. Jones from carrying out his act of incitement. Such orders are issued for many lesser threats, ranging from domestically violent partners to annoying stalkers. And it was more certain that Jones’s actions presented a real threat (if not “a clear and present danger”) to Americans living abroad in the Muslim world.

But religion-haters come in different flavours these days. The Florida cracker flavour is matched by the piquant sophistication of new atheist Islam haters–even Christopher Hitchens was one. The atheist tack, of course, was that the “greater principle” of free speech was at stake in this struggle, and that no matter how obnoxious Jones is (very), his right to be obnoxious, even dangerously obnoxious, was absolute. Of course, the fact that Jones’s views about Islam happened to coincide directly with the views of the hate-mongers was of no consequence: it was ONLY about the sanctity of the First Amendment.

–The blockheaded response from atheist heavyweights like Jerry Coyne and P Z Myers was immediate: “Hoffmann coddles Muslim”.  Eric MacDonald, in a singularly ill-informed piece, wondered out loud if I hadn’t paid attention to the “cartoons controversy,” evidently missing the fact that I had written extensively on the topic in 2008 and had conditionally defended the right of Free Inquiry magazine, where I was an associate editor, to publish the cartoons in the US.

Past is prologue and now we see how history can surprise us. The hyperactive Rev. Jones could not slumber forever, not when a man who likes a mirror thinks he can influence a presidential election–which is fact is what this trick is all about.

Jones promised he would do better, and he has: this time with deadlier consequences, through one of his more media savvy, Muslim-hating accomplices.

I have just one question for PZ: What are you thinking now? God save the First Amendment?

Arrest This Man

by rjosephhoffmann

First Published: September 8, 2010

And his little Dove, too.  With predictable ghoulish clarity, the American media is goading the Reverend Terry Jones to follow through with his Koran bonfire on September 11th, while politicians (both kinds) and religious leaders of all stripes are urging him not to do it.

Of course, there is no story if he doesn’t do it–and media hate that.  And if it’s called off he will be called a coward for capitulating to the “supporters” of a religion he has t-shirted as “of the Devil.” Jones has stated that if Jesus was alive he would light the first match.  And he has said, as all cultic leaders do, that a gunfight with the police wouldn’t faze him and his followers: “We’re prepared to die for what we believe in.”  Echoes of another Jones, another catastrophe.

Mr Jones is all the usual cultic suspects rolled into one.  He is a gay-basher, a hate-monger, and a crusader for the old time religious value of intolerance.

He founded the Dove World Outreach Center as a front for his hate-inducing sermons and grandstanding.

He is a Christian Triumphalist with a clear millennial vision, which he saw previewed on Septmber 11, 2001: the first fiery signs that the Antichrist was entering the world.  He considers the pastors and priests organizing “prayer” and loaves of bread protests around him “lily livered Christians” for failing to stand up to the the threat of Islam.  –Although it is not clear why, if Islam betokens the end-time, Mr Jones would want to oppose it: in his theology anyway, it’s the last act in a very big plan wrought by God himself.

And what do Gainesville officials do?  Besides praying and dissuading, they have denied Mr Jones a burn permit.  Perhaps the next recourse might have been for him to order a hundred porta-potties to the parking lot of the Church?

But no, Jones says the burning will go ahead as planned. There’s something, as every Klansman knows, about a fire.

Meanwhile, we are all missing the point and the President of the United States is missing an opportunity.  The same president who personally intervened in a squabble between a fumbling Harvard professor and a Cambridge cop when the former locked himself out of his house is staying away from this one.

Despite the fact that the country is in wars with Muslims all over ther world, both hot and cold, and that the burning of Korans is likely to be seen as the most vicious symbolic attack on the Islamic faith since Urban II called the First Crusade.

There will be riots, there will be murders and bombings, there will be dead Americans and others.  All because one undereducated self-ordained cowpoke took refuge in the First Amendment’s free expression clause.

Loaves of bread, prayer marches and picket signs–”good religion” vigorously expressed–are not going to have an effect on this donkey of a man so deeply out of touch with modern religion that he may as well be Osama bin Laden’s cavemate.

Mr President:  You are a lawyer.  You know the Constitution. You know the difference between hate speech and incitement.  You know the line is thin, but that once it is crossed the damage cannot be undone.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes. During my time in Pakistan, in 2009, the mere rumour that some Christians had “desecrated” pages of the Koran led to disaster.

Four women, a man and a child died as Muslim militants set fire to Christian houses in the town of Gojra. Two men died later of gunshot wounds. Houses were burned and streets strewn with debris as people fired at each other from rooftops.  There were bloody riots throughout the country.  Then it was “revealed” that the rumours which led to the unrest were false and probably started by some children.

But Mr Jones is real. He will use real matches and real (if doubtless inexpensive) copies of the Koran.  This very dangerous man has publically announced his intention to flout the law and to cause riots, even gunfights.  He has already cried fire–real fire–in the crowded theater of global religious tension.

Mr President: Arrest this man.  Do not turn this discussion over to political theorists, Constitutional talking-heads and interfaith tweeps.

If the dignity of Henry Louis Gates was important to you and the chance to be seen defusing a “racial situation,” this is infinitely greater and a thousand times potentially more harmful.

Arrest him without delay.  Deploy the National Guard.  Surround the Church.  Be seen to be doing something courageous in this instance.

Your top general, not known for emotionalism, has already announced the consequences on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan.  But it will spread–you should pardon the expresion–like wildfire. You will have let it happen.

You will be criticized, but your critics won’t prevail in this argument: you are trying to prevent loss of life.  You are not trying to save Korans.

If you do not arrest this man, Christians in Pakistan, Lebanon, and corners of the Islamic world will be in jeopardy.  Some will be killed; churches will be torched.

If you do not do this,  American-Muslim relations, already lying in the dust will suffer an unimaginable blow.  And Muslim Americans will consider you weak and treacherous.

Please, Mr President: show us this man in handcuffs and a U.S. marshall doing his sworn duty before Saturday.

Thank you.

Bloody Fools

by rjosephhoffmann

First published April 1, 2011


It has been amazing and distressing to me that responses to this blog from a cadre of readers have focused only on the twin lunacies of Islamic extremism and Christian triumphalism.  Some of them want to vindicate Terry Jones as a kind of litmus test for their belief that a butterfly is enough to ignite the Muslim world–so why worry about an ox?  If there is logic there, it must be part of the initiation ritual.

Some have even taken the “What would you expect?” line, as though Mr Jones’s actions necessarily excited the “Muslim animals” and renders him, therefore, innocent.  From what tank is that slimy conclusion fished?  The further logic is that Islam is all about violence anyway, so a a little more (what’s the difference) can hardly be laid at the door of a Florida fundagelical.

Some respondents think that there is a moral equivalence, such that Terry Jones and the Afghan and Pakistani responders are cut from the same cloth. How that renders Jones innocent or raises the dead I am not sure. I find that kind of response both uninformed and worrying. Very worrying coming from nonbelievers, and maybe because it raises in my mind questions about whether a certain level of atheism isn’t also an impediment to moral reasoning–specifically that kind that finds all religions “naturally” guilty of atrocity and hence no one at fault and no one innocent of crimes.

Yet one wonders if Mr Myers–who also figures in this story–had been approached by NSS agents and told that his act of “desecration” would lead to the loss of life,  would have gone through with it.  Something tells me that the redoubtable Dr Myers would have relented. Because he knew his was a stunt.

Terry Jones’s acts were not a stunt: they were intended to light fires and kill innocent people.  Indeed they were done to prove that innocent people would be killed.  “For some of them,” he said, “it [the torching of the Qur’an] could be an awakening.”

…The world was reminded of the 30-person Christian congregation at Dove World Outreach Center on Friday, when a mob incited by the burning of the Koran attacked a U.N. compound in Mazar-e Sharif, killing seven U.N. employees. On Saturday, related protests in Kandahar left nine dead and more than 90 injured.

Jones, 59, had considered the possibility that burning the text might elicit a violent response and that innocent people might be killed. In his characteristic drawl — a slow-motion delivery that seems incongruous with the church’s fiery rhetoric — the pastor said the church also debated whether to shred the book, shoot it or dunk it in water instead of burning it. But in the end, his desire to shed light on what he calls a “dangerous book” won out. The Koran was burned in a spectacle streamed live on the Internet. To reach out to Muslims overseas, Jones included Arabic subtitles….”

As if we needed evidence. That, thankfully is the difference between an atheist Koran hater and a fundamentalist Koran hater: and if ever there were a clear bisection of the “rules” for blasphemy, this should be it–because people are dead as part of the definition.  Jones now plans to move house so to speak and put Muhammad on trial next month.

To my atheist colleagues, I say: please, before you snipe, try to understand.  We are not yet at the point where atheism is the “cure” for anything, least of all for the kinds of violence these acts have made manifest.  I know that it’s tempting to think that unbelief is the silver bullet cure for all the atrocities of religion [Imagine], and that a world free of it would be world in which neither Terry Jones nor Afghan extremists would hold sway.  Arguably that would be a more peaceful, reasonable, less violent world.

That is not the world we live in, so the question of what to do does not only involve the meager 1.6% of the population of America willing to identify as atheists, who have their answer and are sure it’s the right one, but the 1.66 billion Muslims in the world who want to differ.  The choice, frankly isn’t about No God or Your God; it’s about moving beyond the short-sighted religion-bashing of some atheists to a realistic position where criticism of religion can be effective.  That is the only business plan worth discussing.

Ultimately, the way forward is going to be a matter of tone and technique, not the outcome of the work of a few commando God-bashers writing from the safe haven of first world democracies telling the majority how foolish they are.


What do Professor P.Z. Myers and the Revd Terry Jones have in common?  Not very much, except both have desecrated the Koran.  Is it important that they did what they did for different reasons, and with different results? Do such distinctions matter when we’re talking about a book that neither man finds particularly–attractive?  Yes.

Terry Jones

As readers of this blog will know, I think the use of blasphemy to draw crowds and win followers is probably on a moral par with Jesus’exorcisms in the New Testament: you find something or someone that will grab people’s attention–a man possessed by 6000 demons will do– then you let fly, do the hocus pocus,  and hope the nasties will go into the pigs (like the trick requires) and not into the audience. When the pigs go shrieking in agony over the cliff and the “demoniac” is still in one piece, the crowd applauds wildly and proclaims you the messiah.  That is sort of what happened for both Myers and Jones.  But with different results.

Myers, simply an atheist showman, wrote a pretty nifty article about blasphemy on his site in 2008.  In it he documented the insidious reverence in which Catholics held to the doctrine of the “real presence of Jesus” in the eucharist in the Middle Ages and the violence shown to disbelievers, especially Jews, who were always getting on the wrong side of Catholics and always being accused of desecrating the communion host, or “cracker” as Myers snarkily likes to call the matzah used at Mass.

“That is the true power of the cracker, this silly symbol of superstition. Fortunately, Catholicism has mellowed with age — the last time a Catholic nation rose up to slaughter its non-Christian citizenry was a whole 70 years ago, after all — but the sentiment still lingers.”

Had he performed his oblation a couple of years later after the results of the 2010 Pew Forum Poll on Religious Knowledge in America, he could also have added that 45% of Catholics do not know their Church’s teaching on the Eucharist, though they like the Spaghetti suppers on Friday night.

Never was there a “mellower” target then than Catholics, who in the main seemed not to care very much when Myers drove a rusty spike through the cracker, some garbage (a banana peel and coffee grounds) and–importantly–pages of the Koran.  Of course, as soon as he did this, the eyes of the superstitious religious blind were opened, and the lame man leapt as an hart.

Crackers and Korans and peels, O My.

Myers’ antics made him the dark darling of full frontal atheists, those who hold to the curious view that the angrier you make people who believe in sacred books and objects, the likelier you are to win over people who hold a weak or no opinion on the subject.

Desecration, confrontation, Yo-mama style insult and blasphemy are tangible blows for reason, the commandos believe.

Though their training manual is being revised.  The Center for Inquiry, in its regular confusion over what fund-raising gimmick to try on next, made 2009 its first international Blasphemy Day and invited people to send in cartoons, jokes, slogans, and anything else to show just how lucky we all are to live in a country that cherishes free expression and where Nothing and No-one is sacred. The small difference between an inside joke that like-minded people think is funny and real blasphemy, which can only occur among people who take religion pretty seriously, and which might get your head blown off, escaped the organizers who soon enough put Blasphemy Day in the bottom drawer and rolled out Blasphemy Rights Day.

But, predictably, no one died as a consequence of Mr Myers’ brainstormium.  And an unclimaxed Myers was reduced to pasting letters from a few lost souls who wrote almost pathetically of their upset:  ”As a Christian it is an insult for anyone to call my beliefs stupid shit. I have respected every religion and every idea for years.” To which Myers felt obliged to respond in derisive detail, defending himself against a volley of feathers by saying: “They [the pages of the Koran and the Bible] are just paper. Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet.”

He observed that in addition to pages of the Koran he also used a few pages of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, which as far as I know is not yet considered sacred scripture by any group, and whose spiking would not likely ignite a revolt–especially since it was well known that the sympathies of the spiker were pro-Dawkins anyway.  The point was half-clever, but the whole incident was tasteless, and (as I’ve said before)  cowardly: to be effective, try it again, only this time in downtown Lahore after you send the memo.

Tried, convicted, soaked in kerosense, ignited

Which brings us roundabout to Pakistan and the Reverend Jones.  Jones is the intellectual Omega and pastor of the sixty member Dove World Outreach Center in Lake City, Florida, who threatened to burn the Qur’an in August 2010.

His reason for doing so was to bring the book to justice  for the violence and murder “it [sic] had perpetrated.” Unlike Myers, who began with the view that no book is sacred, Jones is of the opinion that Islam’s holy book and Islam itself is “of the devil.”

A jittery National Association of Evangelicals disowned him, local Florida fundagelical groups (some of them militia) distanced themselves from him, and condemned his statements.  In the War Zone, General David Petraeus explained that soldiers ”will be killed if this event happens.”  Jones demured, hedged, tried to stretch out his fifteen minutes to thirty six hours of fame (longer than a news cycle), then “postponed ” the trial and burning of the book while he “negotiated with the planners of the Ground Zero Mosque.”

The media being a fickle lover, lost interest in the story and almost missed more recent developments when Jones announced that the trial and sentencing would take place on March 20, 2011.  Funnily enough, the Interior Ministry in Pakistan was watching developments closely after a spate of incidents involving charges that Christians (about 3,000,000 in a country of 170,000,000) were secretly desecrating Korans and a spate of church-burnings and murders.

The trial was held, the sentence rendered by a Jury of 12 church elders, and a Dallas imam, according to reports, acted as a defense attorney. The book was soaked in kerosene for two hours,and was then ignited by Jones’s assistant pastor Wayne Sapp.  Further events are planned for Good Friday (April 22, 2011) in Michigan.  One thing that comes through clearly is that religious zealots know a thing or two about lighting fires. The Catholics Jones also despises are satisfied to light a Paschal candle on the night before Easter.

Reaction has been slow, because media attention has been erratic, but  in Afghanistan, thousands of outraged protesters stormed a U.N. compound killing at least 20 people, including eight foreigners–this at a critical moment in the Afghan war when America is trying to “win hearts and minds.” The demonstration in Mazar-i-Sharif turned violent when some protesters grabbed weapons from the U.N. guards and opened fire, then mobbed buildings and set fires on the compound. Demonstrators were also massed in Kabul and the western city of Herat.

So far, three attempts to burn churches have been thwarted by Pakistani security forces, but it is just a matter of time before death and destruction, related to the imbecility of a small-time Christian publicity whore, rears its snake-maned head.  Predictable but terrifying right-wing approval for Jones’s action is also beginning its viral crawl across the internet.

As to Myers, despite the development of a blasphemy fan club and admiration for the cowardly use of free expression rights in the safe haven of Morris, Minnesota, the only serious “threat” came from Catholic League president Bill Donahue.  The League (like B’nai B’rith) was founded as an anti-defamation society at a time when discrimination against Catholic immigrants was on a par with discrimination against Jews.  Donahue filed a complaint with the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, offering that Myers’ actions violated the University’s anti-discrimination policy: ‘Expressions of disrespectful bias, hate, harassment or hostility against an individual, group or their property because of the individual or group’s actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion…can be forms of discrimination. Expressions vary, and can be in the form of language, words, signs, symbols, threats, or actions that could potentially cause alarm, anger, fear, or resentment against others.”

It was a far-fetched complaint both in terms of accusation and in terms of consequences; Myers’ action only succeeded in cementing his hard-crafted persona as a jerk.  And even as a one-off expression of jerkiness, the actions of 2008 did not rise to the standard of blasphemy, which is usually understood as an interreligious act designed to malign or humiliate a religious opposite.  Secular “blasphemy” against religion is more problematical, and Myers’ showpiece proved it. That is because there was no real conviction behind the act.  ”Religion is sooooooo stupid” is not an impressive bumper sticker.  The defense of free speech is only relevant and brave when free speech is actually abridged, not when threats to its exercise are manufactured.

Jones is a different story.  A more dangerous one.  He is the ugly Id unchained from the soul of an America I’d hoped had died.  It is moronic, armed, and dangerous.  It does not question the ontological correctness of its religious and political views.  It burns a book in Lake City, Florida, and Muslims (and others) die in Afghanistan and soon Pakistan and elsewhere.  Jones does this knowing they will die, praying to his defective God that they will die, in order to prove his belief that the devil is with us.  He is with us, and he needs to be charged with and convicted of murder.  His name is Terry Jones.

Filed Under: Uncategorized

The Devil in Mr Jones

by rjosephhoffmann

First Published: April 4, 2011

Codex Gigas (The Devil Codex)

Since I posted my commentary on the Terry Jones case I’ve received lots of feedback–mainly attempts to vindicate Jones and wondering why I am “coddling Muslims.”  I like the term feedback because it doesn’t discriminate as to the quality of responses.  Some were actually very insightful–the ones laying out, for example, the conditions for incitement and sedition; some less so–the ones that simply insist that we are citizens of a democracy that values free speech above everything else. I’ve received no recipes for coddled Muslims, but I’m sure they’ll be coming soon.

Often misquoted, in the United States v. Schenck case (1919: involving a man’s distribution of anti-draft flyers during World War I), Justice Holmes wrote that

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

“Falsely” is the word that is often omitted. What emerged was the “clear and present danger test,”  since weakened and greatly modified.

I’m reliably informed by no fewer than three lawyer-respondents and my buddy Guido that its successor, the “imminent lawless action” criterion, cannot reasonably be applied in this case because the damage and the loss of human life, even though preventable, did not transpire on American soil and that under current law (Hess v. Indiana [1973], Brandenburg v. Ohio [1969]), Jones would likely be given a pass.

And even though Americans, according to groups claiming responsibility, including Afghani Taliban, were the target (United Nations workers were an easier and softer hit), so far (April 5th) American soldiers did not die as a result of this provocation.  On the other hand, those who have replied that it was not Jones’s intention to do harm have not been following the story closely enough: he is quoted in the Washington Post as saying that after due consideration he felt he had no choice, and was only indecisive as to the method of execution (drowning, shredding, or shooting).  Fire is always the first choice of southern Christian bigots. And there is the small matter of his careful plans to broadcast the events in English and Arabic.

But my guess is that Terry Jones will become a kind of hero.  He already is to his congregation and thousands of well-wishing ultra-conservative Christians around the country. And much more cheaply than buying billboards, his gallon of kerosene has ignited his “Stand up for America” campaign.

But I hope he will not become a culture-hero to people who see his actions as brave and somehow correct–as a test case of the right to express hatred in equal measure to the religious population of a country where American lives are being lost each week in defense of democratic principles that the Afghan people, like the Iraqis before them, have shown no natural interest in pursuing on their own.  I am highly distrustful of the respondents who say they “disagree” with Terry Jones, but approve of the principle.  What principle?  That Islam is evil and he is no more evil than it is?  Or that his example serves as proof to the world (as if it cares) that America is the beacon for the unfettered right to speak even the most hateful and dwarfish ideas openly?

Terry Jones is not fighting for a principle.  He’s merely hiding behind one. It seems plain tawdry to invoke the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on behalf of a listless cracker who wants to see people killed seven  thousand miles away from his sanctuary.

A weird  undercurrent of responses has seen Jones as a symbol of the cowboy freedom to shoot the people who get on his nerves. It’s hardly a mariage de covenance (like the one between anti-abortion Catholics and fundamentalists), but Islam is regarded by right wing Christians, as well as by many atheists, as a toxic faith, so the symbol works for both constituencies in slightly different ways. When Jones sells the movie rights to his saga of upward struggle against the forces of Satan and his lonely coup de grace for freedom and democracy in this sin-loving land, the part should go to (no relation) Tommy Lee Jones.

There are two propositions that keep me away from reducing this episode to just another example of hate speech or civil disobedience, on the analogy of the Klan marching through Skokie in 2000 or burning draft cards in 1969 or the Haymarket riots of 1886.   The difference may not be immediately obvious, or compelling, but it is a difference.

If Mr Jones had staged his execution of the Koran, “a work of the Devil,” in 1969, it would have been the shot heard round Lake City, Florida.  No one would have cared; few people would have known.  It would have the resonance of a wooden clapper.  As a Florida boy myself, I can easily imagine a woman outside the Lake City Winn-Dixie store saying, “He burned the whut?” But it did not happen in 1969.  It happened in the age of rapid information-transfer, and sudden celebrity–the age and space that Jones is counting on to raise him from evangelical crackerdom to national guru.  I see Dancing with the Stars down the road for this guy and I pray that his partner will be someone named Aisha.

The Amendment we depend upon to protect us from slander while, at the same time, defending our right to blaspheme, criticize, oppose, peaceably assemble and demonstrate was carved at a time when America was relatively isolated from the foreign effects of domestic action.  Even though the polemic was hot and strong throughout the pre-Revolutionary era (one of the reasons the First Amendment exists at all) reaction was slow because news traveled that way.

I think there is something qualitatively different about Jones and the way he does business, and it has to be acknowledged. There is something different about what constitutes “imminent and likely lawless action” in an age where cause and effect have been reduced to days, sometimes seconds.  And one day the courts will have to deal with it–but not yet. Jones’s only miscalculation in this case was that the media wasn’t paying attention to him anymore, so he had to try doubly hard to get the word out.  He was duly abetted by Hamid Karzai.

As to preserving free speech against the odds of too much sway in the direction of controlling it: As a Christian triumphalist, Jones would like nothing more than an America in which the very thing he was permited to do could not be done.  A sheer increase of the Terry Joneses of this country–among people who now see his action as noble–would lead to a Christian state wherein it would, at a minimum, be illegal to burn a Bible or insult a man of the cloth, or more precisely, the evangelical cloth. Atheism in Jonestown, USA? As likely as a women’s right to education act under the Pakistani Taliban.

No one realistically thinks that this kind of America is coming, least of all me.  But it is an interesting test of priorities that condemning Jones’s action as being fundamentally opposed to the cardinal American values of freedom and tolerance  should be immediately seen as a complaint about hypothetical ”infringement” of Mr Jones’s rights, without any equivalent assessment of what he did and the way he did it.  –I’m reluctant to mention the one muddled response that compared Jones’s burning of the Koran to the 1933 (fol.) book burnings in Nazi Germany because, frankly, I couldn’t understand the premise.

The way the Rev did it was to make sure that Muslims were paying attention.  When he streamed the “trial” and execution of the book, with some hapless imam from Dallas acting as a defense atttorney, he dressed in judge’s robes.  He streamed the proceedings with Arabic subtitles.  Those are the facts; I am guessing, but cannot know for sure, that he was also trying to convey an impression of “authenticity” to the web-viewers, as though to suggest this was a real trial.  Given the limited sophistication of the Arab street, this would not have been a difficult thing to do.

So, this was not an act confined to the churchyard; this was a belligerent act designed to do harm, to substantiate his weird metaphysic about Islamic violence, and he was right: harm was done. People are dead. or should I say, more people are dead.  Now to search “Koran Burning” on Youtube will link you to dozens of copycat rituals going on all over the world.  Congratulations, Mr Jones: you are a success because this is how we now measure success, the degree of lunacy that a single image can generate.

After further thought, however, I have decided that Mr Jones is really being judged by the wrong criteria.  His case falls between free exercise and free speech, and so it falls between the stools.  Holmes’s aphorism about “clear and present danger,” and all later refinements, are not going to help us with the Terry Jones case, unless he magically appears in Kandahar and starts shooting Muslims.  Even then, alas, he would likely find supporters back home and die a hero.

I’ve asked a number of respondents if they think Jones is “guilty” of anything other than bad judgement.   Law and ethics are not only two different areas but fields that often collide on principles. If law does not help us with this one, is there a moral position that can be condemned–or vindicated?  Is Mr Jones “just a cracker” and his actions as predictable, and thus as unremarkable, as the predictable response of angry young men in Afghanistan?  After all, we have become accustomed, to the point of dozing off, to images of angry, mainly young Muslim men all over the Islamic world.

I don’t fully understand the pathology of their anger, but I do know that the symbolic respository for what they are willing to die and to kill to defend is the Koran. I also think I know that lectures on God’s existence or their foolish and superstitious ways are not going to get their attention.

Muhammad Iqbal: The Mosque of Cordova (1932)*

Mosque of Cordoba” (c.1932)

Masjid  e- Qur-tubah

Silsilah-e roz-o-shab

In the flow of light to dark

the jeweller is hard at work.

In the spaces between light and dark,

in birth and death:

Silsilah-e roz-o-shab:

With coloured silken strands,

he works a royal robe.

In the flow of light to dark,

Azal: The pre-eternal sadness,

where the Jeweller speaks

or hisses his decisions,

Weighing you,

dangling me in the balance,

The master assaying

in the shadows, day to night.

If you are wanting–

If I am wanting:

Terii Baraat–

Marii baraat.

Death for the all the worlds

in the kingdom where

there is no day and night.

The works of our hand,

all glister and fashioning

will flash away–

Kaar e jahaa; N be-;  sabaat!

The world comes at last to this!

In the beginning was the end.

Within the form was its formlessness.

Inside the new, its destruction.

At the start of the journey, its end.


*This poem was written by Iqbal on a visit to Spain in 1931-32.  It consists of eight stanzas (the first of which has been translated here.)  The structure of the poem is discussed here, where there is also a very literal English translation that misses the assonance of the original Urdu text.  As the editor rightly observes, Iqbal’s sense of language suffers under any translation.  I have tried to capture some of the resonance by rendering his complex verse structure and internal rhyming, using English conventions.

r j hoffmann 2012 09

silsilah-e         roz-o-shab

sequence of day and night, shape-maker of events

= In silsilah there’s also the sense of ‘lineage’, and other complexities as well (*Platts*) silsilah-e roz-o-shab , naqsh-gar-e ;haadi;saat sequence of day and night, origin of life and death silsilah-e roz-o-shab , a.sl-e ;hayaat-o-mamaat 2) sequence of day and night, two-colored strand of silk silsilah-e roz-o-shab , taar-e ;hariir-e do-rang from which Being makes its robe of qualities jis se banaatii hai ;zaat apni qabaa-e .sifaat 3) sequence of day and night, wail/lament of the tone/instrument of eternity silsilah-e roz-o-shab , saaz-e azal kii fi;Gaa;N through which Being shows the treble and bass of possibilities jis se dikhaatii hai ;zaat zer-o-bam-e mumkinaat = More precisely, azal is the eternity before creation. 4) this one examines/assays you, this one examines/assays me, tujh ko parakhtaa hai yih , mujh ko parakhtaa hai yih sequence of day and night– the Jeweler of Creation silsilah-e roz-o-shab , .seraafii-e kaa))inaat = It’s apparently the Jeweler of Creation who examines the ‘sequence of day and night’, the way a jeweler would test the quality of gems. 5) if you would be of low quality, if I would be of low quality tuu ho agar kam-((ayaar , mai;N ho;N agar kam-((ayaar death is your assignment, death is my assignment maut hai terii baraat , maut hai merii baraat = This is the Arabic baraat , with no connection to the Indic one meaning “wedding procession.” 6) of your night-and-day, what other reality– tere shab-o-roz kii aur ;haqiiqat hai kyaa the movement of one age, in which is neither day nor night ek zamaane kii rau , jis me;N nah din hai nah raat ! = The “sequence of day and night” itself is doomed, and not only human works and accomplishments. 7) momentary, oblivion-bound, all the miracles of craftsmanship aanii-o-faanii tamaam mu((jizah’haa-e hunar the work of the world– without stability! the work of the world– without stability! kaar-e jahaa;N be-;sabaat ! kaar-e jahaa;N be-;sabaat ! 8) first and last– oblivion, inside and outside– oblivion avval-o-aa;xir fanaa , baa:tin-o-:zaahir fanaa whether it be an old shape or new, the final destination– oblivion naqsh-e kuhan ho kih nau , manzil-e aa;xir fanaa

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