A small church in Gainesville, Fla., (ironically called Dove World Outreach Center) has announced plans to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11, in vengeful commemoration of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington nine years ago. This news item happened to reach me while I was attending a conference in Berlin, Germany - and for that reason it struck me with special force.
Earlier that same day, I had stood in a public square known as the Bebelplatz, just across the street from Berlin's Humboldt University. In the middle of the Bebelplatz there is a translucent panel embedded in the pavement. Looking down through the glass, you see below ground many rows of white bookshelves, all completely empty.
This simple but moving memorial is designed to recall the events of May 10, 1933, when Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels instigated a book-burning to destroy books by Jewish authors, along with other ideologically "incorrect" works. With the eager participation of the SS and the Hitler Youth, more than 20,000 books were burned in the Bebelplatz on that infamous day, in the shadow of Germany's pre-eminent university.
Nearby stands a plaque containing the words of the German poet Heinrich Heine: "Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen" ("There, where they burn books, they will in the end burn people.") Heine wrote those words in 1820. One hundred and thirteen years later, his prophecy began coming true, and Heine's own works were among those burned by the Nazis.
Having just witnessed Berlin's rueful monument of public contrition, I was dismayed to hear the report of the planned book-burning in Florida - not least because I fear this planned event is a sign and symptom of the angry temper of our times.
Many Christian leaders in the United States promptly disavowed and deplored the spiteful plans of the tiny Florida church. Richard Land, director of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called the plan "appalling, disgusting and brainless."
News reports gave several reasons for such disapproval: Burning Muslim books is contrary to America's own ideals of freedom of speech and religion; such actions will exacerbate tensions between Christians and Muslims around the world; if Christians burn the Quran, we may soon see Muslims burning Bibles. (The last point seems to be a pragmatist permutation of the Golden Rule: Don't do something bad to somebody else, because if you do, they may retaliate.)
But in fact followers of Jesus have deeper reasons not to burn the books of their enemies, reasons integral to their own faith.
The apostle Paul, struggling against opponents of his gospel in the city of Corinth, insisted that "the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world." Rather than resorting to violence, he sought to "demolish arguments" and "captivate every thought" through open statement of the truth.
For him, to use coercive or deceptive means would be to succumb to the forces he was opposing. His message could be defended only by clear, peaceful proclamation of the word. As Angel Nuñez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference observed, "The greatest weapon a Christian has is godly love."
Similarly, the Gospel of Luke tells a story about Jesus' response to a Samaritan village that rejected him and his followers. His disciples James and John asked, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But Jesus rebuked them and said (according to some ancient manuscripts of Luke's Gospel), "No, you don't know what spirit you belong to" (Luke 9:51-56).
I fear that my Christian brothers and sisters in the Dove World Outreach Center, like James and John, do not know what spirit they belong to. If they burn the Quran, they will be acting in the spirit of Goebbels. History has taught us where that leads. But if they listen to Jesus, they will learn that his way is not to call down fire against enemies. Instead, his way is to commend the gospel through open statement of the truth - to act in a spirit of patience and generosity, to return good for evil, to pray for those who hurt us. That is the spirit of Jesus.
I pray that the citizens of Gainesville will not someday in the future need to build a memorial like the one in Berlin's Bebelplatz.
Richard B. Hays is the dean of Duke Divinity School.