Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/08/2010

Mulla Mohammad Omar and Pastor Terry Jones—Soul mates?

If I believed in a God of judgment and punishment rather than a creator of a world of grace, I would feel compelled, perhaps, to “acknowledge and bewail [my] manifold sins and wickedness” (as the 1928 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church would have me do). As it is, however, I feel compelled only to admit to an overreaching judgmentalism that allows me to see “the mote that is in [my] brother’s eye, but [consider] not the beam that is [my] own eye” (1).
In March, 2001, the news was full of a perfectly horrendous event.

KABUL – Ignoring an international outcry, Afghanistan’s puritanical Taliban Islamic militia began demolishing statues across the country on Thursday, including two towering ancient stone Buddhas.

Taliban Minister of Information and Culture Qudratullah Jamal told AFP the destruction of scores of pre-Islamic figures, designed to stop the worshipping of “false idols,” had begun throughout the country.

He said militiamen started wrecking the almost 2,000-year-old Buddhist masterpieces in the central province of Bamiyan, including the world’s tallest standing Buddha measuring 50 meters (165 feet), after sunrise. . . .  An edict announced Monday by the militia’s supreme leader, Mulla Mohammad Omar, calling for the destruction of all statues in line with “Islamic” laws, has caused shock around the world (2).

Along with every other sane, sophisticated, history-and-freedom-and-art-loving American I was shocked. It seemed impossible that anyone—for whatever religious reason—could destroy part of the cultural history not only of their own people, but of the world. I admit my shock gave me a predisposition to object less strenuously to events as they have unfolded in Afghanistan since March of 2001 than I could have.

The great library of Alexandria (Egypt, not Virginia) was one of the most important centers of learning in the ancient world. It is thought that part of the library was housed at the Serapeum (Σεραπεον), a temple to the god Serapis.

In 391 C.E. a crowd of christians, if not led by, at least approved by Archbishop Theophilus, tore down the Serapeum and destroyed the “pagan” worship artifacts. Perhaps one of the most important sources of knowledge, science, and history vanished in one episode. Whether or not the library was at the Serapeum, the story bears repeating for the recollection of the rampage.

Another destructive rampage ensued in 401 C.E.  St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, not only approved of the action but led the mob of christians who destroyed the Temple of Artemis in Constantinople. Never mind that the temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. St. John Chrysostom’s name means “golden

Emperor Theodosius Watching Chariot-race. Obelisk of Theodosius, Constantinople, c. 390.

Emperor Theodosius Watching Chariot-race. Obelisk of Theodosius, Constantinople, c. 390.

mouthed.” He was given that name affectionately by his people because of the beauty and salutary effect of his preaching and writing. I assume his incitement to rampage is not included when his golden words are recalled. When he died, his relics were deemed so holy that the Emperor Theodosius all but went to war to have St. John Chrysostom’s bones returned to Constantinople.

On July 31, 2010, CNN  News reported:

(CNN) In protest of what it calls a religion “of the devil,” a nondenominational church in Gainesville, Florida, plans to host an “International Burn a Quran Day” on the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks. The Dove World Outreach Center says it is hosting the event to remember 9/11 victims and take a stand against Islam. With promotions on its website and Facebook page, it invites Christians to burn the Muslim holy book at the church from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

“We believe that Islam is of the devil, that it’s causing billions of people to go to hell, it is a deceptive religion, it is a violent religion and that is proven many, many times,” Pastor Terry Jones told CNN’s Rick Sanchez earlier this week. Jones wrote a book titled “Islam is of the Devil,” and the church sells coffee mugs and shirts featuring the phrase (3).

Abba Pambo was one of the fourth century Desert Fathers of Egypt (ascetics who withdrew from society to pray and to spend their lives in meditation and good works). The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, records Pambo’s understanding of the limited usefulness of rhetoric and preaching, and his understanding of Archbishop Theophilus:

Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, “Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.” The old man said to them, “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech” (4).

It seems to me—and my saying so here seems naïve, neither clever, nor intellectual, nor scholarly—we all need to participate in some edifying silence. It’s time for an end to rampaging bigotry. I’m pretty sure Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria believed he was saving the pagan world for christianity by destroying the—to the church—unenlightened knowledge stored in the library of Alexandria. It’s a foregone conclusion that St. John Chrysostom believed the Temple of Artemis in Constantinople was either a “stumbling-block” in the way of the pagans as they searched for truth or an affront to the truth the church proclaimed (or both).

Mulla Mohammad Omar believed (and most likely still believes) he has made his world safe for his people’s right practice of Islam by destroying reminders of other religious traditions, traditions he believes are evil and corrupt—because they are neither of Islam and nor of twenty-first-century Afghanistan. In order to purify the practice of Islam as he understands it, all reminders of any other religion must be destroyed—no matter how valuable they are to the understanding of history and civilization. His reasoning on the day the destruction began was straightforward:

Because God is one God and these statues are there to be worshipped, and that is wrong, they should be destroyed, so that they are not worshipped now or in the future (5).

Pastor Terry Jones is convinced

“. . . that Islam is of the devil, that it’s causing billions of people to go to hell.” The website of the church of which he is pastor says,

The message of the truth that there is only one way to God, only one way to salvation, and that is through the blood of Jesus. Through the repenting of your sins and being born again. It is time that all Christians unite, stop being passive and selfish and stand up and fight for the truth (6).

I don’t mean to sound like some kind of preacher (and I profoundly dislike that this post does).

But edifying silence. That’s what I want to hear.

“If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.”

(1) Matthew 7:3.
(2) Agence France Press. “Afghan Taliban Begin Destruction of Ancient Buddha Statues.” Common Dreams. March 1, 2001. Web. 8 Aug 2010.
(3) Russell, Lauren. “Church Plans Quran-burning Event.” CNN U.S. July 31, 2010. Web. 8 Aug 2010.
(4) Ward, Benedicta, SLG, Ed. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, Inc., 1975 (80).
(5) Popham, Peter. “Taliban Begins Destruction of the World’s Tallest Buddha.” The Independent on Sunday. 2 March 2001. Web. 8 Aug 2010.
(6) “Islam is of the Devil.” Dove World Outreach Center. Dove Charismatic Industries, Inc. August 2010. Web. 8 Aug 2010.


  1. In her most recent book “The Case For God” Karen Armstrong does not argue for an apophatic theology but does present the practice of saying nothing about God because of the brokenness inherent in our assertions about God in a sympathetic fashion. thus, I believe she would be sympathetic to the argument you and Abba Pambo are making.


  2. I suppose finding God through a negative is as good a way as any at this point. But silence seems to be winning out whatever direction I head.



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