How to Think About the Embassy Violence

NOTE: I’ve made several changes to this post from earlier this afternoon. Unlike professional journalists or media outlets I am not equipped to follow a breaking story like this throughout the day. Thus, some of the information in the original post was in need of qualification or correction. In particular, three points:

  • The attacks in Libya may have been preplanned and coordinated for the 9/11 anniversary. The YouTube video may be cover for the premeditated actions which were conceived well before the movie. We don’t know all the details yet.
  • Terry Jones involvement may be little more than a lurching for the spotlight after things began to escalate. This “pastor” should not be given more credit than he deserves.
  • It’s become clearer to me after I first published my post that the remarks from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo came before the attacks in Libya and before the full scale protests arose in Egypt. This puts the “cowardly” comments in a different light. Even if observers think they were too apologetic (which is probably why the White House didn’t want anything to do with them), they should be seen in their proper context. The previous iteration of this post was too quick to cast a harsh judgment, when a more judicious criticism (or saying nothing at all) was in order.

I’ve decided to keep the bulk of the post the same because I think the overarching points are still valid. The tensions between the West and radical Islam are worth commenting on. The big picture problem is not going away, but as a pastor I’m not in a good position to comment on all the specific issues in real time. Lesson learned.


What we are seeing unfold is terrible, uncalled for, and has to stop. All the way around.

The U.S. Ambassador to Libya along with three embassy staff were killed by al-Qaeda linked gunmen in a raid on the consulate building in Benghazi. Meanwhile, in neighboring Egypt thousands of protesters tore down an American flag, burned it, and raised a black Muslim flag in its place. Reportedly, the reason for this international upheaval is a video on YouTube which criticizes Islam and mocks the prophet Mohammad (though increasingly it seems the 9/11 anniversary may have more to do with the violence). The film was reportedly produced by an Israeli-American property developer and has been promoted by Florida pastor Terry Jones.

Everything about this ordeal is monumentally unfortunate and unnecessary.

Let’s start with Terry Jones. I wrote about him two years ago when he threatened to burn the Koran (a stunt he dropped and then later carried out). What I said then I’ll say again now: Jones’ actions are stupid and selfish. He puts American troops at risk, American dignitaries at risk, and American church workers around the world at risk. He certainly knows how to get attention. But he doesn’t seem to know how to make a difference for the good of the gospel, or even the good of his country. And as for the video, by all all accounts its depiction of Islam is unsophisticated, undignified, and unwise.

However insulting and detrimental Jones and others like him can be, however, the response of the gunmen in Libya is positively deplorable. To murder an ambassador over a YouTube video–or even over the pretense of a video–is wicked and evil. As I also pointed out two years ago, Muslim extremism cannot be laid at the feet of Western aggravation. No pastor or cartoonist or novelist is responsible for the outrage and violence carried out by some extremists Muslims and by terrorist-affiliated groups. Some may tempted to say, “Well, who can blame them when their prophet or holy book is desecrated.” But we can still blame them, and we ought to. Jesus is mocked in a thousand public ways every day in this country (and in most countries). This is wrong and deeply offensive to Christians. But it gives us no right to riot and threaten and murder. Every Christian should agree that killing people is not an acceptable response to religious offense. Every human being with a little common grace and a functioning conscience should agree with this principle. Muslims included.

This incident underscores one of the most significant challenges facing the Western world in our day. Will peoples who believe in free speech and freedom of religion sacrifice both when faced with the angry shouts and gunfire of those who don’t? As long as top ranking officials plead with crazy pastors every time they are itching to be annoying, the aggravating people among us will wield astronomically more power than they deserve. Citizens in this country have freedom of speech, which means they have the right to be annoying. Our authorities ought to protect that right, no matter whom they offend, including Muslims. No country can apologize (nor should they try to apologize) every time one or ten or three hundred of her citizens do something outrageous.

We don’t yet know all the details of who, what, and why. And, no doubt, we haven’t heard the last word on the matter from our government or our politicians. But we should not hesitate to restate and defend our first principles. In a democracy people are allowed to say and create things others don’t like. What they can’t do is perpetuate crimes that are deplorably wicked and violent. To act like the former offense is the real problem and not the latter is a foreign policy blunder, not to mention a moral one.