‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial

The title of this blog entry comes from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (6:12a).  It is a line that has come to mind repeatedly over the past few days as I have noted the attention paid to a small church in Florida whose pastor proposed that the Koran (also spelled sometimes as “Quoran”) be burned on this past September 11.  For reasons that I cannot entirely fathom, the news media in this country decided to give that tiny church a great deal of attention, and in the process, created an international crisis of sorts, with Muslim protesters rioting in Afghanistan and beyond, and government and military leaders in our own country urging the event to be called off out of a fear that radicals would use the Koran burning as an excuse to foment violence against American troops abroad or worse.  I became unexpectedly involved in a protracted exchange about the whole thing on my brother’s Facebook page – one of his friends argued passionately for the right of the Florida church to do their Koran burning, even though he was not particularly in favor of it.  In the end, the Florida pastor called off the event, but apparently someone at Ground Zero lit several pages of a Koran on fire this past Saturday, and it was reported that two “religious leaders” in Nashville, Tennessee, held what was described as a “private” Koran-burning.

This brings me back to this bit of wisdom from St. Paul.  The verse comes from a larger passage in which Paul is objecting to Christians taking one another before secular courts.  Within an even larger context, Paul is offering us a meditation on the freedom that he says belongs to those who are “in Christ.”  Paul cautions that this freedom must be used carefully, acknowledging that while “all things” might be lawful to one who is in Christ, “not all things are beneficial.”

It makes sense to me to apply this wisdom to the constitutional freedoms which are ours as Americans.  I have been heard to lament before on my belief that we are losing a sense of the common good in this country, with people from politicians to religious leaders to the average citizen believing that their individual interests, rights, concerns, beliefs and perspectives should triumph over everyone else’s.  Clearly, a society cannot function so as to cater to every individual desire and opinion.  Society can only function when we are willing to weigh our individual interests with the interests of our society as a whole, and to recognize when we need to yield as individuals to a higher value, namely, the common good.

I would agree that Americans have the right to burn just about anything they want as an act of protest or to make a statement or whatever (of course, we have always drawn the line at burning other people’s property or doing something that physically injures another).  But before any of us makes a decision to take such an action, we should ask ourselves whether what we are proposing will truly do more good than harm.  If a few Korans are burned, is the statement made by that action really more valuable than the lives of Americans overseas who may become the victims of people enraged by that action?  Is the statement made by that act really more valuable than promoting the ideal of religious pluralism which, like it or not, is built in to the American story and vision?  Does such an action really help us move forward as a society toward greater maturity?

This whole matter involves great emotion, bound up with the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and with a great deal of fear engendered across our nation not only by terrorism, but by economic uncertainty and concerns over immigration and changing demographics.  We are living in a time of increasing nationalism, bound up with a resurgence in many places of the idea of American exceptionalism and triumphalism.   These things happen when people are scared, stressed and feeling under pressure.  But as we sort through all of this as a nation, we must be careful not to lose our heads.  In the spirit of St. Paul, we must not allow ourselves to use our freedoms to demonize, vilify or heap abuse on others.  The times we live in require great spiritual skillfulness, to borrow a Buddhist phrase.

In the end, a truly great nation is not defined by what it does when times are good, but by what it does in times of crisis and stress.  Let us commit ourselves to doing all we can to help this country move through this time with wisdom and skill.