Posted by: Ken Brown | July 13, 2008

Islam, Christianity and the Freedom to Insult

This post is based on another from two years ago, originally posted at Signs of the Times:

Amidst the brouhaha over PZ Myers’ claimed intent to publicly desecrate the Eucharist, some have been asking how this incident relates to that surrounding those 12 caricatures of Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper in 2005. Strictly speaking, the two cases are quite different. First of all, As Mike Dunford notes (HT James McGrath), there is a clear difference between merely depicting something offensive in a cartoon, and actually stealing a sacred object in order to desecrate it. But thankfully, Myers has not (yet?) followed through on his threat, so it is possible to interpret his words as no more than an in-your-face challenge to what he perceives as false reverence.

But perhaps the more important difference lies in the respective reactions these two incidents received. While Myers and his supporters might like to treat this as proof that Catholics are just as bad as radical Islam when it comes to taking insults, the facts simply do not support this. As Mike puts it:

In the case of the cartoons, the religious group involved was demanding a great deal from those who do not share their faith. The message that they were sending was, “I believe it is a grave sin to draw or print images of the prophet. Therefore, you must never draw or print such an image.” That goes farther than demanding that others respect their belief; it is a demand that everyone constrain their actions because of that belief.

In the case of the Eucharist, the demand is much more modest. All that you need to do to refrain from desecrating the Eucharist is to stay away from Catholic churches. Period. That’s it. You could argue, I suppose, that this demand also constrains your actions, but that’s a bit of a stretch. After all, “don’t go places where you haven’t been invited” is (in most circumstances) nothing more or less than basic politeness.

And while a very small handful of angry Catholics have sent hate mail and death threats as a result of the present affair, those cartoons sparked real violence. Riots and attacks, even actual murders, spread across much of the Muslim world, all because someone had the audacity not to share their qualms about depicting Muhammad. However Myers may splutter, nothing even close to that has happened in this case. And no, Bill Donohue’s press releases (over-the-top though they may be) can in no way be compared to the fatwas that were issued for the Danish cartoonists.

All of which has reminded me of one of the more absurd responses to those comics. During the very week before Easter of the year they came out, South Park aired its own reaction to the retreat from free speech which had resulted. In the episode Cartoon Wars Part II, they mock the prohibition of any depiction of Muhammad, by claiming to be about to show the Prophet doing something totally innocuous (handing a “salmon football helmet” to another character), though actually showing a black screen with the words “Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network.” The show then depicted an immediate reprisal by al Qaeda: A video of George Bush and Jesus (among others) defecating on each other and the American flag. Take that free speech!

It was incredibly crude and sophomoric, so it’s little surprise that it drew the ire of some Christian groups, but once again the difference in reactions was telling. Muhammad was shown in a series of otherwise mild comics, published in an obscure newspaper, and sparked rage across half the Muslim world. Jesus was broadcast on national TV, during Holy Week, in the crudest possible way, and this was met with, what? A couple negative editorials and some hand-wringing?

The difference, no doubt, was largely a result of the fact that contemporary Westerners in general are less apt to rage over religious matters than those in some other parts of the world, but I also think it points to something deeper than the current political realities of blasphemy and free speech. It illuminates the nature of two very different worldviews. Islam teaches that Muhammad was a mere man who was so honored by God as to warrant treatment almost as if he were God. In sharp contrast, Christianity teaches that God himself became man, and willingly embraced treatment as a man.

Therefore, to depict Muhammad doing anything at all is to commit blasphemy, and can lead to violent consequences. Yet Jesus can be shown defecating, and the reaction is and should be quite different. That is because the central claim of Christianity—that God came in the flesh—is already a far greater insult than anything South Park could possibly portray.

As Joshua Anderson once argued in reference to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, much of the insult Christians do sense in such “art” actually reflects an overly spiritualized view of Jesus. To drop a crucifix into a jar of blood and urine, to show Jesus “crapping” all over the place, even to threaten to desecrate the Eucharist, these are certainly offensive, but can they really compare to the offense of the crucifixion? In that moment, Christians believe, God himself was executed as a rebel.

The day of the crucifixion is known as Good Friday in the Christian Church, but that should not mask the true insult it’s meant to recall: God on a cross. The outrageous claim of Christianity is that in Jesus, God himself took on human flesh—blood, urine, feces and all—and faced our jeering insults with grace. Thus, in shying away from showing Muhammad, while openly mocking Jesus’ humanity, South Park expressed something deep and important in the difference between Muslim and Christian worldviews, even if only inadvertently.

Free speech—even PZ Myers’—must include the freedom to insult, for the world is full of evil, and sometimes the only proper response will be offensive. Yet freedom also requires a worldview that is comfortable enough with its own humanity to be mocked. On Good Friday, we are told of a God who affirmed that freedom to his very death; on Easter, we are told of a God who laughed even from the grave.


  1. Thank you for this insightful post; this is included in the Christian Carnival, up later today at Diary of 1.

  2. I think there’s another difference. Those complaining about the Muhammad cartoons are asking for punishment. They think it should be illegal, and those who do such things should face the consequences. Christians who don’t want sacred or sacred-like things desecrated don’t generally go that far. They just insist that someone who does such things is morally despicable, not that they should be punished.

  3. Jeremy,
    Though it would be nice if the majority of Christians thought that, in fact quite a few people do seem to think Myers should face more than mere social condemnation. Calls for his job (or worse) have been regrettably common, which is part of why I wrote this post–to challege that mindset as unbiblical.

  4. Nevertheless, we need to distinguish between the following things:

    1. Thinking his employer morally ought to fire him.
    2. Thinking the U.S. government has a legal right to enforce such a call for his firing.
    3. Issuing a call for someone’s death.
    4. Thinking secular governments ought to oblige you when you do #3.

    Prominent, top leaders in Islam have done 3 (and I think 4 too). I’ve seen very few Christians saying such things about anyone besides real terrorists and oppressive leaders.

    2 certainly is too far. 1 depends on his job, and I don’t see how this is related to Myers’ job. It might be justifiable to fire him because of his ironic lack of peer-reviewed scientific research (given his repeated claims that intelligent design proponents never do what he never does). But there’s no grounds for firing a biologist for this sort of thing. Nevertheless, my point was that there’s a big difference between things like 1 and 2 and things like 3 and 4, and I think what explains the difference is an underlying difference between Christianity and Islam.

  5. Very true. My only caution is a cultural-historical one: a few hundred years ago, most Christians would have been just as comfortable with 3. and 4. as many Muslims are today.

  6. Yes, that’s true, and it’s too often ignored by Christian apologists. But it’s completely at odds with the Christian scriptures. I’m not sure you can say the same of Islam, and you can certainly say that Islam has always been this way. Christianity has only sometimes been this way. I think the reasons for that have to do with a difference in the ethical assumptions of the two scriptural bodies.

  7. […] it is not as a conquering king, but as a “suffering servant.” It is on the cross that God finally resolves the tension between freedom and justice, when he allows us to do our […]

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