Monday, 13 September 2010

Of flags and books

Pastor Terry Jones wanted to burn copies of the Koran. Most of us know about this story. A google news search will give you all the relevant details, along with plenty of bluster.

Before I go any further, I should say that I think the proposed action goes against Christ's command to love. I don't want to go into a laboured explanation of this point, but it's enough to say that Christ commanded his followers to love, and burning a book which is valued by someone else doesn't seem to fit that bill. One could argue more abstractly that by burning a detrimental book[1], one loves the other by saving them from it. At the same time, there is an argument to say that concentrating on texts one opposes is a distraction from loving the people associated with that text. I'll let you think about it in your own time.

I think what's more interesting to me is the reaction from the "land of liberty" itself. America is founded on principles of liberty, with a bill of rights geared to give people a rights-based mentality. There have been plenty of public debates there about the legitimacy of flag-burning as a means of protest. Usually these debates will invoke the famous remark (allegedly) from Voltaire, which appears in a number of forms, but they all look a bit like this:
I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to your death the right to say it.
It's usually taken to mean that the liberty of speech is more valuable than the content of speech. Many people are swayed by this approach and, although they love their flag, will let others burn it in protest.

So how about the Koran? Or the Bible? Or the Baghavad Gita? Or any other religious texts? Semiotically, they're both symbols that convey meaning. The text conveys its meaning more clearly than a flag, though, but is that enough difference to adjudicate that burning a flag is acceptable, and burning a book is not? What this reveals is that privileging the liberty of speech over the content of speech requires that everyone agree to that preference. When the content of speech has primacy over the liberty, an act like book burning will almost certainly enrage someone.

The question for civil society to think about is whether liberty of speech or content of speech is more important, and whether the necessary social conditions are present to even give people that choice.

From a theological point of view, it must be questioned whether burning a Koran is within the command to love, and whether burning a Koran is using a liberty for self-indulgence (Gal 5:13).


1. At least a book that is considered detrimental by one person and not another. For example, some Christians believe that Dungeons and Dragons is a harmful game and would encourage burning the rule books.
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