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Engraving of book burning
Burning holy things

Posted on 06 April 2011, 2:07

Pastor Terry Jones of Florida finally got to burn the Qur’an on 20 March, months after he put the holy book on death row and despite appeals for clemency from Barack Obama. Bizarrely, Jones’s church, the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, subjected the Qur’an to a show trial, and four forms of execution were considered: burning, drowning, firing squad or shredding.

I don’t think shredding was available in medieval times (thanks be to God for that), but the popular practice of burning, always such a crowd-pleaser back then and a favourite of the church, won out in the end, and the Qur’an was soaked in kerosene and burned to a crisp.

As a direct and easily forseeable consequence, protests were sparked in Afghanistan and five UN staff killed, allegedly by agents of the Taliban. Pastor Jones, clearly a man of limited imagination as well as charity, is reported to be unrepentant.

Writer and publisher Jon M Sweeney wrote an interesting piece in the Huffington Post in response, reflecting on the correct way to dispose of unwanted holy books. Copies of scripture which are worn out are honourably buried and shown the respect given to human beings when they die, he said. This is how old and ragged scrolls of the Torah are laid to rest, as well as ancient copies of the Qur’an.

Jon Sweeney himself has buried Bibles with cracked leather covers and well worn pages in his back garden, and he imagines future owners of his house puzzling over what they find when they do some gardening.

The respect normally given to the scriptures of almost all religious traditions highlights the incredible shock value of Pastor Jones’s Qur’an burning. When violence is done to a book which is normally treated with reverence and care, the impact is emotional.

Jon Sweeney’s piece reminded me of something I’d read a long time ago about orthodox icons and what happens to them when their images fade beyond recognition. I actually have an old icon in that state, and I’ve been reluctant to simply throw it away. How are sacred objects treated at the end of their working lives?

Fr David Moser, a Russian Orthodox priest in Indiana, asks ‘what then do we do with those things – dried bread, old icons or other holy items – of which we wish to dispose in a respectful manner? Such things should be burned and then the ashes buried in a place where they will not be walked upon.’

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Washington DC agrees: ‘A holy item, even if it has lost its original appearance, should always be treated with reverence.’

But it wasn’t always like this. Writing in the 7th century, this is how St Leontius, a bishop of Cyprus, defended icons against the charge that they were idols: ‘If it is the wood of the image that we worship as God… then we would not throw the image into the fire when the picture fades, as we often do. And again, as long as wood is fastened together in the form of a cross I venerate it because it is a likeness of the wood on which Christ was crucified. If it should fall to pieces, I throw the pieces into the fire.’

Leontius’s approach sounds very straightforward and robust. His description of ‘throwing the image into the fire’ does not sound like disposing of something ‘in a respectful manner’ to me. Possibly he is exaggerating in his eagerness to show that icons are not idols. Or maybe his bonfire of old and unwanted icons reflects a time when sacred objects were handled with more confidence and less fear.

Either way, how we behave towards the precious and revered objects of our own faith and other faiths, and why we do it, deserves careful thought.

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