Mocking God: Freedom of Speech in a Blasphemous World

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It is generally now recognized that a pluralist state cannot restrict free speech simply because someone might be offended.

Speaking our minds has become a dangerous business in today’s world. Perk up your ears to the alarmingly common sirens from the world’s great capitals, Paris being only the most recent, and you’ll see that “freedom of speech” is in a fight to the death with blasphemy and apostasy laws— with what international jurists call “the defamation of religion.”

The problem is as dangerous as it is vexing. What is a Christian to make of the offensive and baldly inflammatory images of the prophet Mohammed, of the outrageous cartoons that have set so much of the Islamic world on edge? Shouldn’t Christians be more responsible than this, turning to more practical and productive interfaith work whose calling card does not include dragging cherished icons through the mud?

The Responsibility of Governments and of the Church

Let’s take this in two pieces: first, what is the responsibility of governments, of justice, in the face of blasphemy and apostasy charges; second, what is the responsibility of Christians and of the church to these same issues? These are, for reasons of history and theology, not the same thing.

The Christian Reformed Church has startlingly clear teaching on blasphemy and justice, partly because we shifted directions on this issue quite dramatically just after World War II. We did this by changing one of our oldest confessional standards, the Belgic Confession.

The Belgic Confession is rooted in the problem of blasphemy and apostasy. Its author, Guido de Brès, who died as a martyr in 1567, went to great lengths to prove to his Catholic persecutors that the Reformed faithful were not rebels; in fact, they stood ready to obey the government in all lawful matters. But, sounding like they could be living in a Syrian border town in the 21st century, the signers of the confession said they would “offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to the fire” rather than deny the truths of the confession.

That multiple confessional identities can somehow persist amidst a single political identity was not obvious to medieval Europe. Even the Belgic itself is a bit cagey on just how far we can take this confessional potpourri. Article 36 (in the original language) admonishes government to uphold sacred ministry and to remove and destroy all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist, while further promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Which is why in 1958 the CRCNA did a full 180 on Article 36, judging its original content “unbiblical.” The substituted Article, while calling on government to restrain human lawlessness, punish the evildoer, and protect the good, confirms government’s task of “removing every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship.” This should be done, further, “while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority,” so that “the Word of God may have free course.”

So before Article 36 changed, it was the government’s responsibility to restrict blasphemy and apostasy, and to promote, in its own language, the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Now? There is still a general recognition that governments have a responsibility to govern and restrict things like “hate speech” or speech producing “clear and present danger”—classically, falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. But it is generally now recognized that a pluralist state cannot restrict free speech simply because someone might be offended. The freedom to give offense is intrinsic to a whole package of other freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech, of the press, of association, and so forth.

The Offense of the Gospel

These fundamental freedoms of a just society also safeguard the proclamation of the gospel and the witness of Christians. In these times where “niceness” can be the measuring rod by which people will “know we are Christians,” we sometimes forget that the Word of God describes itself as an offensive message. There is nothing especially lovely about being told we are damned sinners; that this damnation is so utter, so cosmic, that we are wholly unable, of our own power, to find reconciliation with God, with each other, and with creation. The wrath and judgment of Good Friday are brutal, powerful facts that must stand, by any accounting, as offensive.

Evangelically, this might not be the best lead-in to faith conversations over coffee. But the point is to say that the Christian gospel is an offensive message, and plenty of countries around the world―including Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan—have lined up to agree. In these countries, preaching salvation and reconciliation in the name of Jesus Christ is a crime, as is conversion from Islam to Christianity, punishable in some cases by death or exile, all under the title of “blasphemy and apostasy.”

Freedomand Responsibility, Truth and Love

But the truth, we say, is full of love. Or, in another old favorite attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words.” Good deeds violate no blasphemy laws, so why should we? The apostle Paul says something similar in Galatians after naming fruits of the Spirit, that “against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:23). So shouldn’t Christian responsibility avoid, at all costs, offending or blaspheming other traditions and faiths? Shouldn’t a responsible witness be a witness characterized by action, not brash sermonizing?

In my opinion, no. Insofar as it is possible, I believe it is responsible for Christians to avoid giving offense, but this is at best a secondary, not a primary, consideration. Offending, even the act of blasphemy, is intrinsic in any candid expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a kind of “blasphemy” that deserves passionate Christian support.

It has passed so beyond the public consciousness in North America that it is nearly banal to mention that Christians here have their most sacred beliefs blasphemed with casual regularity (perhaps most famously in “Piss Christ,” a depiction of the crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine).

It seems to me that Christians should object to this sort of thing—not with lawyers and litigants, since a Reformed Christian perspective on justice includes the right to offend in a pluralist society—but with social witness and debate. The “substitutionary argument” can often be especially effective: substitute the offending Christian image/idea with a Muslim or Jewish one, and does it suddenly violate the rules of decorous public debate? Beyond that, it is a prize of Christian theology that we need not suffer any special anxiety when the true God is mocked. The God who makes and unmakes a cosmos stretching far beyond our meager imaginations will sovereignly have his own justice. There are no stockades in the good society for blasphemers, either of Christian or other faiths.

So what about those prophet cartoons, or the plight of those like Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie, trying to name frankly, if satirically, social and religious repression? If you follow the argument, you’ll read a Christian defense of the justice that includes the freedom to offend and blaspheme in a pluralist society.

But you’ll also read a genuine effort to argue that the Christian exercise of that freedom should be responsible. It is truth, but it is filled with love. That’s not always inoffensive; in fact, it may necessarily be offensive, but it should always bring the light and life of Jesus Christ. That is the essence of Christian responsibility in a blasphemous world.

About the Author

Robert Joustra is a member of First CRC, Hamilton, Ontario. He is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College, a fellow with The Review of Faith and International Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for Public Justice.

See comments (2)


Thanks Robert for an interesting article on being offensive, whether through our unkind words towards other religions or through the offense of the gospel itself.  I would agree that it does no good to offend needlessly those of other religions.  And I would agree, also, that the gospel itself is an offense to most people who do not claim Christianity as their own religion.  We may try to couch our gospel message in a pillow of niceness, but that doesn’t take away from the underlying message that, with or without any other religion, people are moral failures in God’s eyes and are deserving of damnation.  That’s half the message that Christianity conveys and should convey if Christians are true to the God inspired Scriptures that we claim are infallible.  But we don’t.  How often do we hear a message of hell fire and brimstone anymore, or how often do we, ourselves, proclaim such a message?  I think Christians are faced with a real dilemma, and I’m not sure what the answer is.  Maybe you can help.

I find it deceptive and untruthful when a religion has teachings that are kept secret from everyone except the insiders, and often even from them.  And of course that is what Christianity tends to do.  And of course, we do that because the message of salvation is even more offensive than what we present it to be.  It may sound great to say that Christianity is the only religion that offers a Savior who will remove our offense (of moral failure) before God.  But of course, Christ only removes that moral offense for those chosen by God, and not for everyone.  So the substitutionary argument that you suggest, really isn’t as impressive as you make it out to be.  Christ is the substitute only for the elect. The rest are left behind.  And if history is proven correct and the symbolism of the Bible is true (wide is the gate that leads to destruction) then the majority of the world’s people are not on God’s “chosen list.”

You may want to protest and suggest that everyone who hears the gospel of Christ has the same opportunity to respond favorably to the gospel.  But of course that’s not true.  Apart from the empowering and enabling of the Holy Spirit, no one would respond.  So it is only the elect that are enabled to respond to the good news of the gospel.  This gospel (good news) message is not sounding as good as we make it out to be in our gospel presentations.

But wait.  I does not get better.  As Reformed Christians, we tend to say that God not only determines the ends but also the means to the ends.  That means that God not only determines who is going to heaven and to hell, but also determines what is necessary to insure they get to their destination.  So for those not chosen for salvation in Christ (the rest of humanity), they must rely on their own efforts. 

But there is a problem, the standard of acceptance to meet God’s approval is perfection, not a single sin.  As the New Testament teaches, it is impossible to please God.  So one, God sets up an impossible standard for the lost to achieve.  That in itself will insure that the lost will never make it to heaven. 

But wait, there’s more.  God credits everyone, coming into the world, with Adam’s sin.  It’s called original sin, which according to Romans, gets credited to everyone’s account even before or at birth. That’s a double whammy. That will ensure the damnation of any person apart from Christ, because they are guilty and lost even before they come into the world.  They are guilty of Adam’s sin.

But wait, God is not quite done determining the means by which all, other than the elect, are damned to hell.  God imputes a sinful nature to everyone born into the human race. Having this fallen nature was not the choice of humans, but is given at or before birth. That means, apart from human choice, everyone comes into the world with a natural inclination to sin (a sinful nature).  This is also the result of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin.  So having this sinful nature imputed to us by God means that all things being equal, our human response will naturally be toward sin.  And for the sinful acts that humans naturally commit, the blame is placed on individuals, as though God had nothing to do with it. Do you believe that?

So, you see, the gospel or the message of salvation is not as simple as saying, God loves you and wants you saved, so accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.  That in itself is offensive to people of other religions, because it claims that the Christian way is the only true way to have God’s acceptance.  The ways others may propose to God are not true, in fact are false gospels.  That is an offense to most people.

So we can couch our Christian gospel (though not the full gospel) in niceties and try not to overtly criticize the message of other religions, and we can demonstrate our love for others by our actions.  But when the rubber hits the road our message of salvation is necessarily offensive.  And in reality, the world just does not know how offensive it really is.  So is it true, the less said is better?

This is and insightful article, and a needed one.  Too often these days, including in the CRC, we do not separate the two issues that the author separates early on in this article.  Rather, we tend to nearly always seek government backing for those things we believe are right and good, and government restraint for those things we think wrong and evil.

A theory of government consistent with reformed thinking is careful to define the jurisdiction (sphere) of government, and a reformed worldview is careful to emphasize that not all things legal are right or good, even if the government allows them.