Instead of Burning, Try Learning

So the Florida group planning to burn the Quran has backed down. That’s good. But does anybody doubt some other group will soon realize how gullible the media is to grant free publicity for irresponsibility and extremism, and try it again?
It’s not enough to stop burning one another’s holy texts: we need to start learning about them and learning from them.
I’m embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until a decade or so ago that I actually read the Quran. Sure, I had read selections extracted by anti-Muslim critics – all intended to cast Islam in a negative light. And sure, I had read selections extracted by others, intended to cast Islam in a wholly positive light.
Christians and Jews know that a hostile critic could do the same – extract Bible verses to make their religions seem truly barbaric, just as they know that a sympathetic kind of extraction could hide some of the discomforting bits that our best theologians find ways of sequestering so they aren’t abused.
When I read the Quran itself in its entirety, I got a more holistic impression than either the hostile or sympathetic digests could offer. And the same would happen if a Muslim or Jew were to read all four gospels, or better yet the whole New Testament, just as it would if a Muslim or Christian read the Law and Prophets from start to finish – not seeking to find faults to pounce on and extract, but seeking to learn. (Thankfully, the recent media frenzy has prompted many people to do just that.)
But even so, it’s not enough to learn about and from one another’s holy texts. A note from a Muslim friend in the Middle East made this clearer than ever to me this week. He was trying to calm some of his Muslim brothers about the threats of Quran-burning here in the US, and he said something like this to them:

Where does the holy Quran really exist? If someone burns a copy, do your beliefs suddenly disappear from your mind and heart? Isn’t the place where the holy Quran truly resides in the minds and hearts of believers – not simply in words on a page?
Yes, the words on a page are important and should be respected – but what will happen when most of us read the holy Quran in digital form on our laptops: will it be an outrage for someone to hit delete? Couldn’t this whole episode remind us that what matters most is not the words on paper, but the message alive in our hearts? Could this be what God wants us to learn?
Whatever the holy Quran says on paper about peace, if we are violent in the name of the Quran, doesn’t that speak more loudly to the world about what we believe? And whatever the Bible says on paper about loving neighbors, strangers, and enemies, if Christians burn the Quran, doesn’t that speak more loudly to the world than anything else?

My friend’s wisdom explains why I say that beyond learning about and learning from one another’s sacred texts, we need to learn how those texts are embodied in real people. We need to learn from people. And when we do, we will see that for every Christian who wants to burn Qurans, there are millions who would never do so, and for every Muslim who … you get the point.
The most important translation of our texts is the translation into daily life … in acts of kindness, generosity, courage, humility, justice, self-control, respect, reverence, fidelity, and compassion. If we stop burning texts and comparing “our best” with “their worst,” we can start learning not only about each other – but with each other. And by God’s grace, perhaps we can translate the best of our texts into our lives, communities, and world. That is my hope, my plea, my prayer.