Thursday, April 05, 2007

Responding to Sacrilege

How are we to respond to insults and sacrilege against Jesus? As I consider a couple of incidents that have taken place lately, I confess to having mixed feelings about how my fellow Christians are responding.

Let's consider, first of all, the so-called "chocolate Jesus" a controversial naked statue of Jesus by Canadian-born artist Cosimo Cavallaro made entirely of milk chocolate. A planned exhibition in New York was canceled last Friday amid a choir of complaining. Cardinal Edward Egan called it "a sickening display." Bill Donohue, head of the watchdog Catholic League, said it was "one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever." The hotel and the gallery where the display was held apparently were overrun with angry phone calls and e-mails, including death threats against the artist. Some stated that if they had been Muslims and this statue has been of Mohammed, they would have beheaded him.

The second incident took place on March 29 in Sheikhupura, Pakistan, when a Christian pastor discovered that a Muslim cloth retailer named Munawer Tariq Doger was selling cloth printed with pictures of Jesus Christ and scenes of the crucifixion. Muslims were apparently buying the cloth for bed sheets, pillows and sofa covers. Stung by the fact that Christians are so easy charged with blasphemy against Mohammed in Pakistan while Christians cannot easily bring such charges against Muslims, some local church leaders decided that this was their opportunity to turn the tables. They lodged a legal complaint against the shopkeeper, claiming that their religious feelings were hurt "by selling the cloth containing pictures of our savior Jesus Christ for the use of bed sheet and other use. That our hearts are broken. So legal action be made against Munawer Tariq Doger so that requirements of justice can be fulfilled."

The shopkeeper was subsequently arrested but under pressure from the police station house officer, the complainants finally changed the nature of their legal application when they realized that they might not be allowed to charge the man. The shopkeeper swore that he would never sell this cloth again and the complaint was reissued against the manufacturer of the cloth who is expected to be arrested and charged. The fact is, this case is being brought forward more to make a point about the blasphemy laws of Pakistan than because of offense over sacrilege.

What bothers me about both of these cases is the fact that, in my opinion, they do not seem to reflect very well the attitude that Peter refers to in 1 Peter 2:21-23: "For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly."

As I look at how we are called to respond to insults and injury because of our identity in Christ, threats and acts of retaliatory justice do not seem to find much biblical support. In the same way, defending the honour of Christ in a fashion similar to how our persecutors defend the honour of their prophets and deities does not seem, to me, to be the way of Christ, the way of the Cross.


terri said...

Expressing concern in a tacful way is never wrong. Threatening legal action, spouting all kinds of rhetoric and manipulating legalities should never be a part of a Christian response to offense.

It's too bad more Christians don't realize that.

Glenn Penner said...

I think that part of the problem is that we have forgotten that we do not war as the world does (I Cor. 10:3)

Jack Niewold said...

I disagree. We are to be harmless as doves, but wise as serpents. If Christians can use the legal apparatus to defend their beliefs and the legitimacy of their presence, this is in accord with Romans 13, and should be done. The church historian Henry Chadwick shows in his work THE EARLY CHURCH that the second and third century church was politically and socially active, and that the image of Christians hiding in the catacombs was not the common experience. Richard Wurmbrand was an activist, and on occasion had to be arrested in order to be protected from the mobs he angered. Of course nobody would argue that Christians act out of hatred, as our oppressors do; but to use the mechanisms of the state to protect believers and create an environment for more effective protoevangelism, this to me is a no brainer. There is plenty of real persecution without our participation in the self-endowed variety.

Glenn Penner said...

The problem with these two cases is that they were not really motivated by a desire to create an environment for more effective protoevangelism, now were they?

Incidently, I have Chadwick's book... never found him very useful in my studies of early church history or when I taught it at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. A lot of research has been done since then and not all of it would agree with his assessment.

jack niewold said...

The two cases in question are not my point of argument. It is Terri's comments to which I am responding, and her categorical dismissal of legal action vis a vis discrimination or persecution, where any response seems to be, to her, the moral equivalent of "threatening... spouting... manipulating." I find such piety naive and dangerous.

I would be interested in your suggestions of works of church history that alter the substance of Chadwick's views. I have taken my reference from page 55 of the (admittedly old) first edition of his work.

I hope we can play with this subject for a while, respectfully and honestly, and of course in a spirit of friendship. I would like to learn how VOMC deals with situations where there may be legal redress available for persecuted believers.

Glenn Penner said...

Dangerous piety? Hmmm. I think not. I think we need to leave a little more room for disagreement here.

But regardless, I would love to discuss this more with you but I am a little swamped right now with other projects. I will try to do what I can perhaps later in the week.

You should know that VOMC is the only Wurmbrand mission that actually has a Legal Defense Fund that pays for lawyers for Christians who are imprisoned and that we have also provide funding for the training of Christian lawyers. So it is not that we are opposed to such things. I have a bigger problem when our approach, however, takes the tone of vindictiveness, such as the case in Pakistan that I referred to in this blog. But to defend one's self in court is in line with the example of Paul in Acts.

terri said...

jack...naive piety? there any other kind? Being wise is not the same thing as being worldly.

Please show me where, in the Bible, that the legal system is used to purposely evangelize or condemn those who don't follow Christ? The only time I can even think of the two interesecting is when Paul appeals to his rights as a Roman citizen to extricate himself from a sticky situation.

And that, is a completely differnt thing. There is no shame in using the rights of one's country to fight oppression. Is "chocolate" Jesus really opression? No, it is simply somthing offensive. Not everything that offends us is persecution or oppression.

Paul condemned the use of the legal system against fellow christians. We are told to meet our accusers/brothers before they get to the court in order to reconcile our differnces.

Should our standards be lowered when relating to unbelievers?

There is an intrinsic manipulation in legal proceedings. Often times the winner is not the person who is right, but the person who could most succesfully use the courts to legal advantage.

I hate to see Christians working from a place of gaming the system. It has inherent temptations that are best to be avoided.

Jack Niewold said...

We don't disagree on the use of the legal system, Terri. I am no more for manipulating it (as if we could) for religious purposes than you are. I am only saying that we should use it when we can, and when it is appropriate to do so, to protect Christian believers and the legitimacy of our cause when these would be otherwise disadvantaged. Glenn states that even VOMC recognizes such use of the courts.

Is there a naive piety? I think so. I see it every day and hear it in our churches. It's the counsel of those who argue that Christians should never be involved in politics, as if the clash of worldviews isn't engaged in the realm of the political. I find naive piety in what Richard Wurmbrand called the "quiet evangelical creed" that has margninalized the church in its cultural mandate. I find naive piety every time a Christian acts as if his or her belief system is primarily an internal spiritual matter.

Regrettably, the only piety I see displayed in large swaths of the evangelical movement is naive, and this helps explain why we have seen our cultures (and none more than Canada's) become overwhelmingly secular over the last 40 years.

To my thinking, a different kind of Christian presence is needed, one more public and less private, wiser and less pietistic, more active and less passive, and yes, more confrontational and bold. I know I am in the minority.

terri said...

The problem with being politically active, confrontational, and bold is that it leads to all sorts of public gaffs. How many "christian" politicians and church leaders have been revealed to have serious moral problems and deficiencies? They use their clout and persuasive personalities to rally the church to meet their agendas. When they fall, they fall hard and take out a large swath of credibility with them.

Should we vote our conscience? Absolutely. Should we be able to explain our positions in an articulate and truthful way? Yes.

However, I have seen many people be swept up into political movements and support for candidates based on what a church leader or radio personality has told them. That is naive.

Change comes from poeple following Jesus. If you want a more "christian" country, then you need to evangelize. I see the deterioration of society, not as the cause for fewer people coming to Christ, but as the effect of it.

Jack Niewold said...

Blessings to you, Terri. I am enjoying our good-natured exchange.

I would like to question at least two "myths" that I see in your posting.

First is the idea that because Christian leaders make gaffes, we should therefore cease the activities in regards to which they make said gaffes. I think that you can see already that this is an absurd position.

Nobody has made more gaffes than Mel Gibson, yet I would argue that more people have been converted by his movie "The Passion of the Christ" than any other mainstream film.

The Prince of this world would love for all of us to so fear making gaffes that we ceased striving for the conversion of our cultures. Had we done so, he would have won the Battle long ago. Perhaps the more effective we are, the more gaffes we will commit.

The second myth I detect is your argument that a society is transformed through the conversion of individuals. This is a problematic position to take, and in the case of the US (where I live) almost certainly not true.

Unless there is a social dimension to the gospel, the church becomes a marginalized institution full of well-intentioned but ineffectual people. A social dimension means, in spite of all the protestations of "the pious naive," a political dimension. Of course, it means an artistic and intellectual dimension as well, but that's a debate for another time.