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Burning scriptures and human lives

[ by Charles Cameron ]


Which is more sacred? You own life? Or an ideal you would be willing to die for?

I ask this, because we often think, act and speak as though one human life, any human life, is automatically more sacred, more to be preserved, than any idea – or book.

We make allowances, to be sure, and “thou shalt not murder” is no doubt closer to the Hebrew than “thou shalt not kill” – but we tend to think of human life as a paramount value, and in this we have the support both of our legal code (“murder one”) and of many scriptures, including the Qur’an, which declares, “whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind” (for details, see below).

And I also ask this because Martin Luther King said, “If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live” — and even if I find MLK’s exact phrasing a little strange, I think I know what he’s getting at.

Somehow, then, I think we can agree that there may at times be good reasons to value something that’s not a human life but an ideal of some sort more than one’s own life itself, but that in general, a human life, any human life, is of comparable worth to one’s own.



Which brings me to this thought experiment – a list of rhetorical questions designed to elicit thought, not to be answered like a questionnaire…




These are rhetorical questions, and I’m asking them for specific reasons.

Under Islamic theology, for instance, the Qur’an cannot be destroyed, since it says of itself (Sura 82, al-Buruj, 21-22:

Surely this is a Glorious Qur’an, inscribed on an Imperishable Tablet.

It is physically possible to burn a physical “copy” [mushaf] of the Qur’an in book form— one particularly obnoxious pastor in Florida has recently done so, although he had been warned in advance by GEN Petraeus:

the safety of our soldiers and civilians would be put in jeopardy and accomplishment of the mission would be made more difficult.

— and the Muslims who recently bombed a Sufi shrine in the Punjab no doubt burned more than one such copy / mushaf, hence my final question in the list above.



I could add many other questions to the list — for instance:

  • For Protestants: How precious is the Saving Blood?
  • For Catholics: If someone bombs a church in which the Mass is being celebrated, does that destroy the Marriage Feast of the Lamb of which every Eucharist is a foretaste?
  • And if someone assassinates the priest while he is “in persona Christi” (in the person of Christ) celebrating Mass, does that kill Christ (again)?

That last, I should add, did in fact happen, not only more recently to Archbishop Romero in El Salvador, but also, several centuries ago, in the little parish church of the village of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell near Oxford where I was raised — and is commemorated there by a brass which reads:

Here lyeth the body of Master John Scoeffyld who died on the 15th day of the month of May in the year of our Lord 1507, on whose soul may God have mercy, Amen

So you see, I have a personal interest in these things…



As to the value of a human life, opinions vary…

Some humans feel the need to hold ethical discussions before wantonly taking other human lives:

For weeks, they had weighed the ethics of bagging “savages” and debated the probability of getting caught. Some of them agonized over the idea; others were gung-ho from the start. But not long after the New Year, as winter descended on the arid plains of Kandahar Province, they agreed to stop talking and actually pull the trigger.

Mark Boal, The Kill Team, Rolling Stone, March 27, 2011

Around two percent of the human race is psychopathic, I’ve read, and most of us can be strongly tugged and swayed by peer-pressure, this was wartime — the pressure-cooker of souls — and whatever got into those men could very likely get inside me, too.

Who’s to say I wouldn’t buckle under pressure like that?



But I’m at peace, here, philosophizing.

One could perhaps be forgiven for thinking the US values the loss of “two sons, two daughters and one grandchild” to an Afghan villager in Gardez at two sheep, because that’s all the payment that’s mentioned in a 2-page ABC News article about VADM William McRaven‘s visit to the village, in which he offered to sacrifice one of the sheep at the door by way of asking for forgiveness, as is customary among the Pashtun. That ABC report, however, was based on and cited a first-hand report in the London Times, which mentions also that the Afghan generals present “gave the family a wad of cash wrapped in a handkerchief. Relatives said there was almost $30,000 (£19,000).” The ABC version omitted that part… That’s a bit better than a couple of sheep – but even so, two sons, two daughters and a grandchild?

Look, that’s better than what the German Bundeswehr is willing to pay for the victims of an admitted bombing error in Afghanistan that killed a hundred or so people, perhaps five of whom were Taliban. From another ABC News report, worth reading in its entirety:

Now the Bundeswehr will be paying $5,000 — not for each life that was lost, but to each family of a victim or multiple victims. In other words, all families will receive the same compensation, no matter how many of their members were killed in the Kunduz bombing.



But, you know – no mention there of the sacred, except perhaps in VADM McRaven’s exemplary gesture.

So let’s go back to some religious authorities…

There is the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4) teaching:

Therefore man was created alone to teach you that whoever destroys a single life from Israel, is considered by Scripture as though he destroyed an entire world; and whoever preserves a single life from Israel, is considered by Scripture as though he had preserved an entire world.

Some would argue that the qualification, “from Israel” renders this passage less than universal in its implications — yet the same passage goes on to say, without making any distinction between Jew and Gentile:

the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He, fashioned each man in the mold of the first man, yet not one of them resembles another. Therefore, every single person is obliged to say: The world was created for my sake.

That would appear to cover every created human being… and that is clearly the sense of the Qur’an, in Sura 5, al-Maeda, 32:

We decreed for the Children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.

Less generous and more specific, alas, is the Shafi’i jurist Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, who writes in his Reliance of the Traveler:

The indemnity for the death or injury of a woman is one-half the indemnity paid for a man. The indemnity paid for a Jew or Christian is one-third of the indemnity paid for a Muslim. The indemnity paid of a Zoroastrian is one-fifteenth of that a Muslim



I’ve already admitted that if the pressure were sufficient I might buckle – what about inspiration, how strong could I be if need be, how high do I reach?


I ask myself: how much suffering am I ready to take on myself, to save the life of a child dying of leukemia in some country far from my home? And if my actions to date are anything to go by, my answer must be: not much.

That’s my walk.  Here’s the talk I talk.

Life is infinitely complex and rich in nuance — dappled, as Hopkins says, with swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim

The value of one human life is the value of the world. The Qur’an is indestructible. It is deeply inadvisable to threaten, attempt or facilitate the destruction of man, world, or book:

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.

15 Responses to “Burning scriptures and human lives”

  1. Critt Jarvis Says:

    Wherever two or more are gathered: DoubleQuotes, Charles Cameron and David Karki

  2. Critt Jarvis Says:

    Wherever two or more are gathered: DoubleQuotes


  3. Fred Zimmerman Says:

    If I read this correctly, your final sentence is a waffle.  If all the holy books in the world were burned, it would not justify a single murder.

  4. Fred Zimmerman Says:

    And, incidentally, I say that as a devout Christian.

  5. J. Scott Says:

    @Fred Zimmerman, I’m not sure what to make of the last sentence; so perhaps it is a waffle. I’m not sure of the context of the sentence, "the value of one human life is the value of the world"—because from a Christian theology perspective, this could be cause for debate.

  6. Fred Zimmerman Says:

    @J. Scott, agree on the last sentence.  Also agree on the difficulty that some Christian theology would encounter with the Mishnah cited previously.  The response that comes to mind is Matthew 5:17: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." (KJV)

  7. zen Says:

    Critt – it was Akismet that bonged your comments, not my horrible comment filter 🙂

  8. J. Scott Says:

    @Fred Zimmerman, I was thinking along the same lines from a Christian theology perspective. I was also considering the opening of John’s Gospel the real power of the Word. John asserted that the "…Word was God." There is some truly deep water in the "valued of human life is the value of the world"—and I’ve been chewing on this since reading and I wonder if this is a straw man argument, for I have difficulty discussing the two on equal terms [and admittedly I may be missing something and approach from a protestant Christian perspective].
    Charles, I do like the poem and the line of thought. We have a history of people dying for all kinds of ideas; albeit many conscripted/cannon fodder [perhaps in the grand scheme, most].  Also, can you explain more the value of life vs. the value of the world? As an object, the Holy Bible and the Qur’an can be destroyed, reduced to cinders. I’ve a hunch that we’re trying to rationalize an irrational publicity-seeking "Pastor" and irrational semi-literate religious people; not a fool’s errand, but one bound to confound. [I’ve spent too much time today thinking about this—thanks for posting.]

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Critt:
    That’s a very provocative DoubleQuote you’ve crafted from my words and those of David Karki.
    It’s also one of the very first DoubleQuotes I’ve seen that I didn’t put together deliberately myself, so I get to sense what it’s like to read them, rather than to compose them, which is pretty neat.
    If you feel like saying anything about the DQ form itself, the choices you made, or the parallels and/or oppositions you saw between the two quotes, I’d be very interested to learn more…

  10. Fred Zimmerman Says:

    Charles — I should echo J. Scott’s sentiment that was a very thoughtful and interesting essay.  

  11. Charles Cameron Says:

    Fred, Scott:
    Greetings.  Your comments deserve a more extended treatment than would be wise in the comments section here, so I’ve decided to make a post of it, which I’ll title Of Quantity and Quality and link to once it’s up. It’ll probably turn out to be more of a philosophical meditation than a direct point by point response to your own posts, however — so this is my way of alerting you to it, letting you know I’m working on it, and begging your indulgence while it’s in the works.
    [edited to add:] And Fred — thanks for your last comment, which I hadn’t seen when I first posted this one.

  12. Jimpa Says:

    Books are paper and ink and can be republished. A human life is a miracle of creation (regardless of whose theory is used to explain it.) There is only one of each of us there are no copies of anyone, even cloning can not create a replacement. So killing in the name of an all mighty God who does nothing is obscene to say the very least. If God is all that the three sisters claim he his, then why not let him do his own killing? I can find no scripture that says while I God am away kill on my behalf, I authorize it. Thugs and murders are just that regardless of their justification.Ven. Konchog Jimpa

  13. Charles Cameron Says:

    First part of my extended response now up at https://zenpundit.com/?p=3873.

  14. Matt Says:

    Excellent post.  My thoughts are that human life is more important than a book field with the thoughts of humans.  I totally concur with Jimpa and his comment.

    Also, what happens if a person deletes a downloaded copy of the Quran on Kindle? Would these folks kill in the name of Allah over such an act, or do they only do that when obscure religious nut jobs in Florida burn a copy of a Quran.

  15. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi, Matt:
    The issue of deleting downloads adds a whole new dimension to the discussion, eh?  What happens when "we" can be downloaded and stored — and perhaps "read" or "deleted" — as in mind uploading?

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