Satire and Blasphemy in the Teachings of a Galilean Sage
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You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?’ All of them condemned him as deserving death.” Mark 14.64
“Christ before the High Priest,”
Gerrit van Honthorst (1617)
Radical religious extremists with a distorted view of Islam commit horrific acts of terror, executing the staff of a small satirical French publication. The satirists had dared to depict the Prophet Mohammed in cartoon caricature; all the while lampooning those misbegotten adherents who in turn regard such irreverent acts as blasphemous.
The Western world reacts with outrage and defiance to such an affront. World leaders join a million person protest and unity march through the streets of Paris, chanting “Je Suis Charlie,” in defense of freedom of speech, and on behalf of the publication’s name. When the modest magazine runs its next issue a week later, the printing presses can’t keep pace with consumer demand.
Anti-blasphemy laws are common in countries where there are a majority of Muslims. At the same time, it is notable that nearly ninety countries in the world, including France, have laws against the defamation of religion and public expression of hate against religious groups. In the U.S. there are laws that prohibit “hate speech,” where it pertains to words that “offend, threaten, or insult groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.”
While a clear distinction might be drawn between the use of words and the vehement reactions they may incite, more profound underlying questions remain. Once the dust settles and more thoughtful discussion ensues, what constitutes the differences between hate speech and freedom of expression? After all, what one might consider merely irreverent, others might regard as not only offensive, but blasphemous and in violation of established law, whether religious or secular. When should freedom of expression be curtailed if, and when, it leads to deliberate or even unnecessary provocation? What meaningful purpose might blasphemous satire serve, justifying its use as being of greater importance than the negative consequences that may result?
While a clear distinction might be drawn between the use of words and the vehement reactions they may incite, … what constitutes the differences between hate speech and freedom of expression?
In the Qu’ran there is the passage, “Those who annoy Allah and His Messenger – Allah has cursed them in this World and in the Hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating Punishment. … They shall have a curse on them: whenever they are found, they shall be seized and slain (without mercy).” (Qu’ran 33:57-61).
In the Jewish faith, the religiously observant is forbidden from even pronouncing the name of their god, let alone seeing the face of the divine; hence the tetragrammaton YHWH (translated into four Latin letters that are commonly pronounced ‘Yahweh’ in English). So holy is even the utterance of the name, that Adonai (“Lord”) is often substituted. To do otherwise could be considered blasphemous. In the Torah, it states that he that blasphemes the name of the LORD “shall surely be put to death.” (Lev. 24:16)
In the canonical gospels of the Christian scriptures, Jesus’ antagonists are continually portrayed condemning the Galilean peasant preacher’s words and actions as blasphemy. The gospel author’s construct their stories to include the gradual, but cumulative, effect of tension and controversy surrounding Jesus. Moreover, he continuously breaks the rules, healing on the Sabbath, usurping God’s exclusive right to pronounce absolution, and making use of political satire in his depictions of the reign of god; until the mounting evidence is sufficient to condemn the offender as deserving death.
Whether it is the religious institution that passes judgment — or some zealous religious extremists with their own aberrant interpretation and expedient claims to their religious tradition who hijack their own religious tradition and assume the authority to be judge, jury and hangman — both the question and consequences may be the same. What useful and greater purpose might “blasphemous” satire serve, to make it worth the risk?