Thursday, September 09, 2010

Misuse of Acts 19:19-20 in the "justification" of Koran burnings

Before I get into the meaty part of this blog entry, I just want to make it very clear that I, in no way, condone the actions of radical Islamists and their destructive actions that took place in New York on September 11, 2001. What I also want to make clear is that I do not personally have a hatred or disdain for the Muslim religion or Muslims themselves. My sincere hope is that all of mankind, Muslims included, will one day turn to Christ and devote themselves to living as Christ instructed, in faith, hope, and charity.

You've probably heard by now that an Evangelical church in the United States of America plans to burn Korans this Saturday, September 11, to mark the ninth anniversary of the attacks on New York (World Trade Center) by Muslim extremists and as a sign of protest against said Muslim extremists.

Okay, here's the first problem: this church claims that the Koran burning is a sign of protest against radical Islamists, but the Koran belongs to the whole of Islam; to all Muslims. By burning the scriptures of a particular religion, you're going to end up offending the entirety of its people. Put the shoe on the other foot: if some protestor wanted to burn a Bible to send a message to, for example, Catholics specifically, guess what? They're going to end up offending all Christians since the Bible is the scripture of the Christian religion!

I'll touch on that issue a bit more later on in this blog entry, but what is at the heart of this entry is the misuse of scripture to justify the action of Koran burning. I've seen used by Christians verses from the Book of Acts to rationalise this action, specifically from Acts 19:

"And a number of those who practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all; and they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord grew and prevailed mightily." - Acts 19:19-20 (RSV)

In other translations of the Bible, the phrase "magic arts" is sometimes referred to as "the occult" or "black magic". Some Fundamentalists believe that Islam is an occultish religion and so the use of this verse from Acts 19 is, according to them, completely congruent with their view of Islam and why they want to burn copies of the Koran. Occultish or pagan religion or not, these Fundamentalists have read Acts 19:19-20 completely out of context and have twisted scripture (2 Peter 3:16) to "justify" their position and action.

This is how the Fundamentalist is thinking: they see people with a dubious religious (i.e. pagan) background burning their books (which we can assume contained writings pertaining to their "magical arts" or occultish practices) together in a fire and they draw a parallel between this and Muslims and the Koran. "Hey, we believe that Islam is especially dubious; we should burn their book because of what a handful of them did on September 11, 2001! We can do this because there's a precedent set for us in scripture!"

Acts 19 is not about burning books, at least this is not the underlying theme or message of that particular chapter. The Fundamentalist has cherry-picked these verses of scripture and used it/read it way, way out of context. Remember that rule of thumb? If you have a text without a context, then it's a pretext.

So why are those people who practised the "magic arts" burning their books? In order to gain the answer to this question, we have to read around verses 19 and 20. Fortunately, we don't have to go very far to find the answer, but let's look at what's happening before we come to verses 19 and 20:

"And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to pronounce the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, 'I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches'. Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, 'Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?' And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, mastered all of them, and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks; and fear fell upon them all; and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. Many also of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices." - Acts 19:11-18

St. Paul is in Ephesus and he's doing some amazing things; performing miracles. People are being healed even by the handkerchiefs and aprons that St. Paul was wearing were seen to have healing properties (by the grace of God, of course). News of this was travelling quickly: the name of the Lord was being proclaimed and many were witness to His power.

The last line - verse 18 - is particularly important because this provides the reader with a crystal clear indication of why books were being burned. For the sake of clarity of understanding, I'm going to repeat that verse:

"Many also of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices." - Acts 19:18

"Confessing and divulging their practices".

These people had just seen the power of Christ; they were compelled by it and wanted to convert! What does it mean to "convert"? It means "to change" or "to turn". These people were becoming Christians. To be a convert means to leave the old self behind and start anew; to become a new creation in Christ. So by confessing and divulging their practices they are admitting to wrongdoing and want to change much like we Catholics do when we partake in the Sacrament of Reconciliation: we confess our sins (wrongdoings), make an act of contrition, are absolved of our sins and make an act of penance to set things right. All this because we want to leave that old self behind and renew our relationship with God.

The new believers in Acts 19 now in the process of being converted want to leave their old selves behind. They do this by (yes, you guessed it) burning their books. They're not doing this as a sign of protest, no, but because they want to leave that part of their lives behind and make a fresh start. You might see a smoker do something similar when they're trying to quit smoking: they throw out their cigarettes, their lighter, etc. or what a dieter might do after they've lost a lot of weight: they might throw out a pair of old pants that are now way to big for them as if to say, "There's no way I'm ever going to be that big again". These new believers, by burning their "books of magic" are saying something similar: "I'm a Christian now; there's now way I'm going to let anything get between myself and Jesus. That old life: I'm leaving it all behind!"

Now knowing this, is it right for any Christian to those verses of Acts 19 to justify burning the Koran? The only way anyone could justify - and I'm not suggesting anyone should actually do this - burning the Koran in light of Acts 19 was if they were a convert from Islam to Christianity. Since these Evangelicals in Florida are not converting from Islam to Christianity (they're already Christian) and have divulged to us precisely why they're burning the Koran, they or any other Christian cannot use Acts 19 to justify this action (even if the context was different).

So is burning the Koran the best way to protest against radical Islamists and remember the lives of those who were lost on September 11, 2001? In short: no. Burning the Koran is an asinine and inane response to a problem and is about as effective as burning a flag or an effigy of a world leader, or breaking your toys on purpose so no one else can play with them. This act, burning the Koran, is an act of hatred, plain and simple. Can there be eternal life in the man (sic.) that fills their heart with hatred?

"We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Any one who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." - 1 John 3:14-16

Violence begets violence; if you burn the Koran, they'll burn our Bible. If you act in anger, they'll react in anger. So what's the true Christian response? How should a true Christian respond? Are we forgetting the very words Christ himself gave us?

‎"'You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?'" - Matthew 5:43-46a (RSV)

Christ is telling us to reach out to our enemies in love; witness to them.

One of the greatest lessons I learned growing up and in reading the Gospels was that nothing gets under the skin of your enemy more when you respond to them in humility and love. The more they hate, the more you love. Hating them back is only going to give them another reason to hate you; the hate begets itself. Tell them: "Jesus loves you" (share Christ with them); preach to them (but do not condemn them) and help them to see the error of their ways, and above all: pray for them.

"'But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.'" - Luke 6:27-28


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Further reading:

Sharing the Gospel with Muslims -

Islam, Peace, Violence (by Jimmy Akin) -


  1. Thanks, I was looking for the proper perspective on this verse.

    I searched for more info about this verse after reading an anti-Role-Playing-Game comic by Jack Chic which invoked Acts 19:19. The comic no doubt has many people believing that the evil Jesus and his followers were excorcising in first century Asia-minor was the desire to play role-playing games and the books the coverts burned were fantasy RPG rulebooks and adventure modules. :o

    Here is an excellent pro-RPG review of the Jack Chic comic for anyone interested:

    Here is the Jack Chic comic in full:

    Which brings me to another question I do not see answered anywhere: I see so much misuse and abuse of the Christian faith and out of context Bible verses by the most vocal and publically visible people claiming to represent true Christianity how can real Christians cope with the enevitable waves of negative feedback they generate for all of us and what can we do to replace the shame they bring upon us with honor and dignity?

    I used to expend so much effort fighting all the non-sense that all too often passes for genuine Christian teaching but alas I have grown older (40 now) and weary of the never ending waves of ignorance and have all but given up hope for the ultimate triumph of Truth in this world.

    I sometimes feel like the wandering Jew from A Canticle For Liebowitz [though I do not subscribe to his false belief in some other messianic hope in place of Jesus] who remembers historical truths long forgotten or hopelessly distorted and mythologized by the Order of Liebowitz. And like him solitude beckons me like a soft warm blanket. It seems the hermit life is the way to go when the world has plunged into the darkness of ignorance. Of course I don't live as a traditional hermit or monk, but I am quite solitary by nature [or is it nurture?].


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