How to Respond to Fanatics

This afternoon at the bus stop, I had a conversation with the Muslim woman who picks up her granddaughter, a lovely little first grader with a big smile, straightforward manner and lime-green head scarf (how do they keep it fastened all day?). I told her I was sorry about what was going on. I was sorry about all the ugliness, all the scapegoating, all the offensive, hateful gestures. As a Christian pastor, I was sad, and disgusted, at what was being planned in Jesus' name in Florida on Saturday. I debated whether to say anything, though. I don't hold moderate Muslims responsible for 9/11. So why should I apologize for the KKK, Fred Phelps, or pastor Terry Jones?

I ultimately decided that in this case, "I'm sorry" meant "I share your sorrow." And that's always a good, worthwhile message. At the end of the conversation I was surprised when this reserved, soft-spoken Muslim grandmother from Pakistan hugged me. We live in a very tolerant melting pot here in Fairfax County, but she seemed... relieved? I share this story in case there's anyone out there thinking, "Surely my Muslim neighbors know I'm not one of those people." Maybe not. Or maybe they do know, but it's still nice to be reminded you're not alone.

Here is something I struggle with: I don't want to give those attention-mongers in Gainesville one iota of additional publicity. This is a meaningless stunt, and it's a tiny, fringe group of people behind it. Yet some things are so egregious that they must be answered with action. I know folks who are going to donate $1 to Park 51 for every Qur'an burned. Others are scheduling a "read the Qur'an" day. I'm considering a pastoral letter to the congregation asking people to consider similar actions on the anniversary of 9/11.

How do we thread this needle?

I wrote on a friend's blog this week, in response to a different topic:

Karl Barth once preached an entire hour-long sermon in the 1930s to a group of German pastors without once mentioning Hitler. He was accused of being irresponsible, but he said, "Hitler is a nothing. I am called to preach Christ crucified." ...Hitler is not a “nothing,” but Barth’s point is, we sure can get blown off course... And we can get mired in the pointless kerfuffles that don’t ultimately matter. I think it’s time to stop talking about Glenn Beck, for example. We’ve said our piece and will continue to preach social justice and it’s time to move on.

Hitler was not a pointless kerfuffle, of course. But are we going to let the fanatics define what we say and do? Talk about being blown about by every wind of doctrine! (Ephesians 4)

The tension is this: When must we stand up and say, "No," and when does standing up and pointing at the thing we're condemning increase the attention to (and thus legitimize) the fanatics?