Illustration: Paris rally in support of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, 11 January 2015
Photo credit: see below

Safeguarding the Sacred

Date: Saturday, 24 January 2015
Author: Rev David M Blunt

The devastating assault in Paris earlier this month on the office of the magazine Charlie Hebdo has brought the subject of free speech into sharp focus. The two gunmen who carried out the attack belonged to a branch of Al-Qaeda, a militant organisation committed to violent jihad or armed struggle against those who are perceived to be the enemies of Islam. While shooting their victims the gunmen cried, “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great! God is great!”). As they fled the scene leaving eleven dead and others wounded they proclaimed, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad!”

Why did these two men, who were themselves later shot by police, target this magazine? What gave them – in their own minds at least – a religious justification for their actions?

Satire

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical publication. It is atheist and secular in outlook and delights in poking fun at religion in general and Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Islam in particular. Islam now has five million adherents in France. In recent years the magazine has carried a number of cartoons of Mohammed, some of them obscene.

The French constitution requires the strict separation of church and state and religion is kept out of the public sphere. There is a ‘right’ to criticise and indeed mock religions, although this is balanced to some extent by defamation laws. The aim is to protect freedom of speech at all costs – even if that means that nothing is ‘sacred’ in the end. Since the attack many in France and elsewhere have rallied in support of the principle of free speech, while at the same time there have been angry and sometimes violent protests against the magazine in Muslim countries.

Some important questions are raised by this sad event. Is liberty of expression unqualified or does it have limits? Do we have a right not to be offended by what others say? And, If there is such a thing as blasphemy, what is covered by it? The Bible provides us with clear answers.

Truth

We may begin with the right to free speech. This really cannot be an absolute right. Truth is paramount in everything we write or say, as we are taught in the ninth commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (Exod. 20:16). According to the Larger Catechism we have a duty to speak only the truth and such things as lying, slandering, reviling and scornful contempt are forbidden (Q’s. 144,145). We are not to say something about someone which we know is factually incorrect or could be. To prevent such a thing happening – or to enable redress afterwards – there are laws in place against defamation of character.

The Catechism also tells us that we are not to speak the truth “unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end”. In other words before we open our mouth or put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) we should weigh up all the circumstances and consider our motive: is it possible that we are about to state the truth out of a desire to humiliate and to harm rather than for the sake of the truth itself?

Offence

What of the offence taken by Muslims to the disparaging of their religion, especially by cartoons of their prophet? Within Islam there are different views on human images per se and images of Mohammed in particular. It is generally held that three-dimensional images such as statues and sculptures are wrong, as they may encourage idolatry. Shia Islam nowadays has no problem about two-dimensional images of Mohammed (although they prefer to depict his face as veiled or otherwise obscured) but Sunni Islam rejected all representations of the prophet centuries ago. 

Some Islamic scholars however have gone as far as to oppose all human images and especially those of religious figures. To them the depiction of prophets, and above all of Mohammed, is blasphemous and may be punished by death. This view has been embraced by many of the modern militant groups. Their attitude to the cartoons and other insults seems to be that the sword will prevail over the pen. 

As Christians what should our stance be? We should oppose the giving of gratuitous and unnecessary offence to the followers of other religions and be careful of giving it ourselves, even to those who may miscall and mistreat us. Our offence must be confined to what is found in the Scriptures: the truth itself may well upset the adherents of other faiths but no-one will be able to complain about the truth at the last day.

It is right for us to be offended and grieved when the Christian faith is defamed. However we are not to respond with bombs and bullets but after the manner of Christ Himself, who, “when he was reviled, reviled not again” and, “when he suffered, he threatened not” (1 Pet. 2:23). The Lord Jesus said to His disciples: “Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you” (Luke 6:28).

Law

Should there be a law against blasphemy? Yes, there should be. God’s Name is holy. The third commandment is: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” (Exod. 20:7) The name of God signifies all that pertains to God and so a law forbidding blasphemy safeguards all that is properly sacred: it also protects men from themselves for to insult God is a far worse thing than to insult our fellow men and will incur an awful penalty at the last day. Blasphemy should indeed be a crime: otherwise we are saying as a nation that we do not care about the Lord’s honour.

The sin of blasphemy can only be committed against the true God – the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The civil power should therefore safeguard the Christian religion from denigration, including the Person of Jesus Christ. Sadly this is no longer the case in the UK generally. When the blasphemous production Jerry Springer: The Opera was broadcast by the BBC some years ago the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland considered a complaint but did not proceed with charges. Such is the state of things in our ungodly times.

If men had more respect for the God of the Bible they would have more respect for themselves and for each other. What is truly sacred ought to be safeguarded – not by vigilantes but by the law of the land reflecting the law of the Lord.

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Photo credit:
Paris rally in support of the victims of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting, 11 January 2015.
By sébastien amiet;l [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons