Just over a year ago I wrote about Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, FL, who had decided to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 with a little Quran barbecue, or what I liked to think of as a Quran-A-Q. Mr. Jones is back in the news, having shifted his public protests elsewhere, in this case against President Obama, an effigy of whom Jones has hanged on the front lawn of his church, The Dove World Outreach Center.
(The word ‘church’ finds its roots in the Greek ekklesia, a term indicating a community of people gathered together: using the word in this sense for the Dove folks seems apt; however, given that the Church’s founder Jesus Christ was crucified, which was the lynching of his day, it’s difficult to employ this term without choking on some sharp-cornered irony.)
In Jones’s effigy, Obama’s right hand holds a baby to symbolize the President’s support of abortion, while his left hand holds a rainbow flag representing his recently acknowledge support of gay marriage. A mock-up of a red, white and blue Uncle Sam stands nearby holding the stars-and-stripes, while a trailer behind the effigy reads, “Obama is killing America.” In a recent interview after the effigy was erected, Jones called ‘radical Islam’ ‘the most dangerous threat to life and national security in America’.
In my earlier essay I took a rather jocular tone, suggesting that Mr. Jones et al get some pre-Quran-burning practice by practicing first on the Jews (at that time the High Holidays were right around the corner). Unfortunately, in this current situation—a Southern white man lynching an effigy of a black man while incorporating hot-button subjects like abortion and marriage equality, to say nothing about the hanged man being the democratically elected head of our country—jocularity’s a little more challenging to find
One really great thing about being an American is that you can say pretty much anything you want, anywhere you want. I think this is a freedom we generally take for granted: after all, when was the last time you or anyone you know was truly censored? You’ve got to travel a bit and experience other parts of the world (e.g., large swaths of Asia, the Middle East, Central America, etc.) to realize and appreciate how significant a freedom this really is.
I can use this space to say anything I want and no one can or will stop me. And it’s not only this space – it’s any space: a street corner, the lawn in front of a federal courthouse, the jungle gym at the local park. And further, since by definition these things are my opinions, truth or accuracy becomes irrelevant.
Chew on that for a moment: a schmuck like me given free reign to ramble and prattle all I want, wherever I want, and no one will stop me, curtail me, harm me or kill me for the airing of my views. And all simply because I was born and live here. And it’s not only schmucks like me, it’s schmucks like us all.
I could say that humankind is sinful and needs to repent and find the Flying Spaghetti Monster; I could claim that by the year 2032 household appliances will be our cruel overlords; I could maintain that the world is going to end this December and we’ll all be facing a terrible eternity of hellfires.
More drastically, I could insist that women and blacks have smaller brains than white men and are therefore less-capable of intellectual pursuits. I could assert that heterosexuals are the true form of God’s grandeur and all homosexuals are sinful misrepresentations of His plan. I could say that the National Rifle Association is unequivocally the most dangerous threat to life and national security in this country (as far as truth-claims go this one seems pretty accurate to me; it’s also a more plausible explanation than Jones’s suggestion of ‘radical Islam’).
As seems to be the way of things, the good of this freedom also contains within it its opposite, demonstrated in this case as the freedom to use speech not only to express oneself, but to incite violence, for frankly it’s difficult for me to see Pastor Jones’s gesture as anything but outright fomentation.
And there’s the glass-gristed grit that grinds the gall: if you want freedom of speech, you’ve got to put up with things that will rankle. To say this differently: on the positive side, fomentation is a form or protected speech; on the negative side, fomentation is a form of protected speech.
This might seem like an overly obvious sentiment, though it’s no easier to resolve things for calling it so.
The truth is that I don’t know what to do with the likes of Mr. Jones. The world into which he is voicing his thoughts is not a vacuum of one; people are listening, and some, frighteningly enough, are even following.
Jones doesn’t seem like the type to respond to rational arguments (eg: The President could ‘support’ any number of things—pigs in space; a real-life ‘Hunger Games’ involving former contestants of reality television shows; the shortening of the shot clock in the NBA—and while it might impact public discussion it would have absolutely zero impact on public policy); simply saying that you don’t agree with him seems a weak-kneed response that accomplishes little, while ignoring him seems to follow in the same vein; calling him ‘nuts’ might be accurate but will probably only appeal to those already opposed to him; meeting violence with violence seems like a mathematical means of increasing violence.
The challenge to me is this: to take Mr. Jones and his actions seriously—which is not only what I think he wants but what I think he deserves—leads to all sorts of serious conundrums, and there’s no easy or obvious path to resolution that doesn’t open up all sorts of other serious problems in its wake.
It’s safe to say I think he’s misguided (that’s about as diplomatic as I can go); I don’t think it’s a stretch to be gravely concerned about his message (white-wash it all you want, but calling for a lynching is still calling for a lynching). The subject matter is too significant simply to ignore him (the President of the United States; lynching; inciting violence; racism; etc.), though I’m at a loss to find a constructive way to engage his nonsense.
At the end of it, I wouldn’t want him not to be able to voice his opinion, because the long-term result of squashing another’s voice is that someday your voice may just as easily be quieted.
That’s about the end of the line for me on this one. I don’t normally invite comments on this site, but if someone’s got a better idea please feel free to share it below.