Vail Daily column: Can God take an irreverent joke?
Christianity, Judaism and Islam expect believers to reverently speak of supreme authorities and religions’ founders. These Abrahamic faiths condemn irreverent jesting of venerated figures.
Should organized religions loosen up and tolerate trash-talkers who blaspheme respected authorities? Or, should their hardnosed policy be like a government’s war against terrorists. By stealth drone attacks, the military erects a national “shield” against terrorists.
The most primitive stories in the Bible and the Koran decree death to ridiculers who bad-mouth founders and deities. The Bible dispenses terrible punishment for a young man who cursed God during a quarrel with another Hebrew. Moses, who felt duty-bound to protect God’s honor, declared a harsh verdict against God’s ridiculers. “He who blasphemes the name of the Lord,” Moses judged, “shall be put to death. The entire congregation shall stone him” (Leviticus 24: 16). Ancient Hebrews believed God had a short fuse for mockers who poked fun of Him.
Today, Muslim jihadists enforce this conviction that Allah needs armed guards to protect His reputation. Last Jan. 7, masked men stormed into the offices of the weekly French satirical tabloid Charlie Hebdo. They cried “Allahu Akbar” and, in their native tongue, “We have avenged the prophet.” Then they shot and slaughtered 12 people in Paris, mostly the tabloid’s employees who offended Muslims. The gunmen regarded as irreverent crude depictions of the Prophet Muhammad who is so revered that he can’t be pictured.
Protesting such barbarism, Charlie Hebdo’s editors jabbed again with irreverent barbs. In the post-carnage issue, they caricatured Muhammad, inflaming Muslims. The in-your-face cartoon shows Muhammad holding a sign at chest-level. It declares, “Je suis Charlie” under the headline “All is forgiven.”
A cartoonist’s remorseful tear doesn’t wash away slams against Muhammad. Following this cold-blooded rampage in Paris, an ISIS sympathizer fired bullets into a free-speech meeting in Copenhagen.
Now killing rage has jumped across the Atlantic Ocean. On May 3, the first annual Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest was held in Garland, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. Copycat murderers planned to stop this desecration by shooting their way into the contest that made fun of Muhammad. Cartoonists provoked the jihadists’ rage. In the nick of time, a policeman killed the gunmen.
What gives any religion the right to kill trash-talkers who blaspheme? Have Western cultures become so uncivil that blasphemy doesn’t faze us? Our polite conversation tolerates irreverence. Coarse jokes about religious founders carry little shame. Politicians slam opponents. Comics tell raunchy jokes. Wit is gone; what’s risque grabs headlines.
“Civil discourse” sounds old-fashioned. Thomas Jefferson lamented that colonial tabloids printed trash-talk. He railed against “the demoralizing practice of feeding the public mind habitually on slander, and the depravity of taste which this nauseous ailment produces.” In contrast, who gets upset about irreverence today?
The Dutch language has a word for irreverence. When my mother scolded me for “taking the Lord’s name in vain” by cursing, she exclaimed, “Stop your spuyten! (rhymes with “mutten” and literally means “spouting devilish words”). That is, speak courteously of God. Don’t spoof Him. When Mom said to stop sounding irreverent (spuyten), I shut up.
After the slaughter in Paris, Pope Francis echoed my mother’s convictions about respectfully addressing God. Speaking Italian on a plane from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, the pope defended his mother’s reputation. If a satirist “says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” the pope joked, according to an Associated Press translation. “It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Disparaging mothers is off-limits.
Although he’s not Dutch, Pope Francis shares a spiritual kinship with my mother. Both are offended when God’s honor is mocked. Spuyten is offensive. But killing trash-talkers is too perverse a cure for the disease. Francis denounced the Charlie Hebdo murderers as practicing “deviant forms of religion.”
What’s wrong with Moses’ edict that blasphemers deserve death by stoning?
The Bible reveals God who doesn’t sulk over snide remarks hurled against Him. His ego isn’t wounded by sacrilegious critics. God doesn’t recruit religious thugs into the avenging business. Nor does He need armed guards to protect His reputation. The Bible corrects faulty religion that Moses and today’s Islamic extremists exploit: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves. For it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
This means God doesn’t use vengeance to even the score. He has retired this tactic, like super powers that deactivate nuclear warheads.
God answers softly when ridiculed harshly. When provoked, God doesn’t lash back. He’s big enough to take sacrilegious slams.
God lovingly empowers rather than hatefully overpowering. He kills militancy with kindness. Religious fundamentalists who avenge to wipe out irreverence end up destroying who God or Allah is: sources of goodwill.
Even if it’s irreverent, God can take a joke.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.