Burnt Offering

By DuncanRhys C. Liancourt

––And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. (Genesis 22)

––The views set forth in a book may be profoundly mistaken, even absurd, but that is no justification for burning the book any more than it is for silencing someone whose views are mistaken or absurd. (Ronald A. Lindsay, Centerforinquiry.net)

Was Abraham trying to comfort himself with thoughts of ‘the lord giveth and the lord taketh away’ as he prepared to sacrifice his favorite son to the flames? In the end he, not more than Isaac one assumes, was greatly comforted by God’s substitution of a ram for the young man. The question back then was not to burn or not to burn only who or what. Today most of us are at least somewhat less sanguine about animal sacrifice, and burnings of humans are uncommon, yet we remain pyrophiles, fond of igniting symbols as a form of protest.

Can we really separate the symbol from what it represents? Burning a ram is less horrible than burning a person but it is still pretty horrible, and Ronald Lindsay is right that burning something that represents someone is more like silencing the person than disagreeing with their ideas. Burning in effigy does no violence to the body but it portrays the silencing of the body by portraying the body’s violent end.

Burning things is a protected form of free speech, though it was once illegal to burn draft cards and the American flag. In the present century, books are the most commonly burned items, with Harry potters and Da Vinci Codes as popular as Books of Mormon, Bibles, and Korans. In America we have the right to burn these books.

I believe recent controversies over planned Koran burnings beg a question bigger than those posed by this specific book at this specific time and place. Is Burning a symbol ever a fitting form of protest in the 21st century, or is burning too fraught with hatred and violence such that it leaves prosaic ashes from which no phoenix may rise?

To burn is to destroy utterly. Still, our relationship to fire is dualistic; we both need and fear it, desire and flee from it. Fire comes to our rescue as an SOS, warms us, cooks our food, but it also comes unbidden to destroy homes and lives. Protest looks forward, literally. Its pro (forth) is the twin of the pro (forward) in proceed, promote, and progress. To protest is to state your grievances publicly so as to provoke (call forth) thought and discussion that leads to change. What can you call forth from ash?

Fire only takes. Protest gives. When a protestor marches, ties herself to a tree, or rides a bus, he gives himself to his cause. When he gives a speech and when she engages in a debate ideas confront ideas. When she runs for office, when he carries a sign, when she volunteers her time, and when he donates his money they are putting forth what they have hoping, as they see it, to make something better. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that protest was a making and antithetical to the unmaking of fire: “when evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind.”

For more than a century the only bibles available in English were those hand written from John Wyclif’s translation. At least one of these was used as kindling in the burning of one of Wyclif’s followers. Wyclif was fortunate to die a natural death, but his remains, the symbol of the man and his ideas, were not so fortunate. Was it not nearly as horrible to burn Wyclif’s thoughts than it would have been to burn him? Should not others have countered Wyclif’s thoughts with thoughts of their own? Bibles, Books of Mormon, Korans, Da Vinci Codes, Harry Potters––whatever we think of the ideas it is our right to say, to shout, to speechify, or to turn the book to ash. It is also our right to think our own thoughts and it is our duty. Lighting up is easy and the flames will seem to burn all your troubles away; thinking is hard because it creates, but creating can build a life as full of comfort as that of Abraham.

––Burning Wyclif    By Thom Satterlee

Sometimes you have to raise the body up

to burn it down. So it was with Wyclif,

who rested forty-two years under chancel stone

condemned by the Papacy, protected by the crown.

Finally, a bishop came with a few men,

Spades, shovels, a horse and cart. By then,

Not much was left of Wyclif––hair and skin gone,

his bones slipped out of place inside the simple alb

they’d buried him in. The bishop gathered what he could.

Beside the river Swift, he lit a pile of wood

And tossed the bones on one at a time,

Curing the heretic from limb to limb.

Afterwards, they shoveled ash into the water

and no one even thought the word martyr.

2 Responses to “Burnt Offering”
  1. Very good. I present a quote from D.H. Lawrence. I was reminded of it when I watched clips and listened to all the hateful rhetoric these past weeks in our news cycles.
    “…the myth of the essential white America. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

    Feeling that way right now. Lucy

  2. Fred Stewart says:

    Good one, Duncan! One of the clearest commentaries on this lunatic threat of an act I’ve read.

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