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Powerlessness and Burning the Quran

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Sep 10, 2010

September 11th is rapidly approaching and with it a painful reminder of the forces that seek to divide us. I have followed the media coverage of the minister in Florida that plans to burn the Quran on this anniversary of the attacks on the United States. I am still a bit stunned that one person, with a congregation of only 50 people, could garner such attention. But I suppose the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only think that ever has” apply to any small group of committed citizens. I wonder though, how thoughtful they really are?

I know that we all act from our own values and beliefs. I know that we all seek like-minded people — people who share our views and values with whom we can socialize and spend time. I have heard that often enough in our own churches and fellowships. When I hear it, it always makes me a bit uneasy. If I sought only like minded people, who would challenge me on my assumptions and biases? Who would question my thinking and offer a new frame, or perspective?

Being with like-minded people is comforting especially for those who live and work in conservative areas. For some it is a relief because the challenge comes everyday from co-workers, family and even friends. I wonder, though, if the challenge is real; if we can take it beyond the rhetoric and invite others to really engage in dialogue. I wonder if we can accept the differences and celebrate our common human bond. The Dalai Lama is my hero.

I wrote in a previous blog post that America has not had an opportunity to heal from the pain and trauma of the 9/11 attacks and, as a result, we continue to suffer. Burning the Quran is not a way to heal our wounds, but I believe it is an attempt, albeit horrifically misguided, to do just that. Revenge is a human reaction to pain. It is a reaction that is motivated by powerlessness and the desire to feel or be powerful again. A vengeful response is rarely effective as each side justifies their actions. The cycle of revenge and retribution continues, escalating with each perceived slight and reaction. It is, I believe, a base response, and not a thoughtful spiritual response.

No one wants to feel powerless and this “pastor” in Florida has clearly tapped a sense of that in his small congregation. It seems he believes he has found a way to restore their power. And yet, he will do what so many have done before — he will continue the cycle of violence and hatred to make himself and his followers “feel” better. But experience and history shows us that feeling is sustained only for a short while. Soon enough they will realize that this action brings only a fleeting and false sense of power and they will not be satisfied. Or, it will bring a response, a “justified” response by those who feel attacked by this action…and so the cycle continues.

To truly overcome our powerlessness, we need to publicly share our sorrow and pain. Not by lashing out, but by crying out, and by crying. Grief is rarely dissipated by anger. In fact, in my experience, anger seems to sometimes interfere in the grief process, holding us hostage to thoughts and desires that we know are not healthy.

America has suffered a great loss. We may never fully know or understand the reasons for the attacks. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Why is rarely a question that offers satisfactory answers to complicated and very human actions. (A woman abused by an adult is seldom satisfied to know the abuser was also abused, the victim of an attack is seldom satisfied to know the attacker was born into poverty and given few opportunities…) We will probably never be satisfied by any answer to the question why.

Feeling powerless is difficult and making meaning to restore our sense of power is what religion is supposed to do. It’s easy to call these people “monsters” and to dehumanize them, but dehumanizing others is exactly what allowed them to do this violent act in the first place. For me, the meaning in I get gain from these kinds of acts of violence takes the form of a renewed commitment to moving away from judgment and dehumanizing. I understand a sense of meaning to be grounded in the call to move toward a more compassionate and loving response; to treat others with more respect and love. Because I believe that for someone to attack an other with such force and violence, they must feel deeply powerless.

I don’t claim to fully understand the intricacies of Islam. In fact, I have made several attempts at reading the Quran and have found it very challenging. I do know that like any religious text, it can be read with compassion or hatred (and anything in between) as the lens. I know that my religious faith calls me, as the Rev. William Ellery Channing insisted, to read the text with reason as my guide.

I also know that my faith calls me to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people. My faith calls me to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. My faith calls me to reflect deeply on my own life and my own actions and to consider how those actions affect others and the world around me. A responsible search requires self-reflection. A responsible search requires compassion.

The Dove World Outreach Center will probably go through with their plans. I can only feel deep sadness for them because I know it will not satisfy them; it will not restore their sense of power. That restoration can only happen in the heart by opening to the power of love that permeates the universe.

Our Association of Congregations may be small, but if we are truly thoughtful and committed, if we are willing to truly stand on the side of love, we just might change the world.


Rev. Paul Langston-Daley
West Valley Unitarian Universalist Church

6 Responses to “Powerlessness and Burning the Quran”

  1. Thank you so much. I do agree that it is probably powerlessness is at work here.

    This piece corresponds to my own blog post on 9-11 at http://thepeaceadvocate.blogspot.com/2010/09/9-11.html

    May peace prevail for us all.

  2. Diana Kennedy says:

    excellent, excellent insights. One of the most humane things I have seen written.

  3. Tom says:


    You mention that the Dalai Lama is your hero. A few years ago I read an interview in which the Dalai Lama mentioned that he never read daily newspapers. I doubt he watches TV news either. I suggest taking a six-month sabbatical from all broadcast news, including Colbert and NPR. I bet you’ll feel a lot better.

  4. Well said reverend daley…

    Diversity is essential to our survival and growth as is being willing to live and let live with harm to none.

    Blessed be.

  5. Thanks Tom- I do not have a TV. My news comes from what I read in online versions of the NY Times and Washington Post as well as a few other more liberal sites. I listen to the local NPR station,, which here in AZ is more conservative than i would like. I suppose if i ever reach the peace of the Dalai Lama, i won’t have to watch the news, but for now…i remain engaged and aware of the struggles of the world. I both lament and celebrate the news.

  6. Anne- the Charter for Compassion and the Declaration of Human Rights are my two “go to” documents…

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