The Pentagon confirmed recently that for the past two and half years, military personnel assigned to the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba have on occasion defaced copies of the Quran—the Muslim holy book. The Pentagon identified more than a half-dozen cases in which guards ripped out pages or scribbled obscenities in the margins.
Followers of Islam were predictably outraged. After all, the Quran is their sacred text–the very word of God for them.
Why would anyone think that defacing the sacred text of another people is an effective and appropriate interrogation technique? The words of Jesus come to mind. “Do unto others,” he said, “as you would have them do unto you.” These words are the simple logic behind the Geneva Convention agreement on the Treatment of Prisoners. We promise to treat our captives in a way we would want our enemy to treat any of our troops who may become prisoners of war.
Of course, apart from interrogation technique, why abuse someone else’s scripture at all? I fear that our willingness to abuse the faith tradition of others is a reflection of our own spiritual condition. In other words, our own understanding of sacred things may be at least part of the problem.
Let me explain.
According to Vincent Miller, in his book Consuming Religion, Americans have a severely underdeveloped sense of sacredness. Miller argues that our underdeveloped sense of the sacred has roots in Protestant capitalism. In America, we can turn anything into a product—including sacred texts. And as a product it can be bought, sold, and consumed—just like chewing gum.
For instance, a recent letter to the editor expressed surprise that Muslims were upset over the abuse of the Quran. The writer described how his own Bible was practically falling apart from having been banged around and dropped on the floor.
It’s as if he were saying, “It may be God’s infallible word, but it’s my Bible and I can do with it what I want.”
This is not an isolated instance. Visit a local Christian bookstore and you will find words from the Bible printed on t-shirts, engraved on jewelry, carved on book ends, and even stamped on candy. It may be God’s word, but we can put on anything and sell it.
Behind all this semi-sacred marketing is a noble intent. Believers want to spread the word, to get the scriptures out where the people are. The faithful believe that the visible presence of “the Word” will somehow help make the world a better place.
But if Miller is right and we allow holy things to become mere commodities, we actually end up with the very opposite of our noble intentions. By reducing the sacred down to the level of a mere product, the sacred loses its meaning. Religious symbols and language, cut off from the source of their vitality and purpose, become abstract, fragmented and powerless.
There is an interesting twist to all this. Many Christians worry that we are slowly becoming a purely secular society. But do we really make the world more sacred by turning our sacred text into jewelry or wall art? Do we really honor the Bible if we print a portion of it on a poster to hold up in the end zone, only to toss it when the game is done? And could it be that we find it easy to deface the texts of others because our own is so easily discarded?
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.