Blasphemy to be legalised?

A bit of a misleading title, but with a hint of truth in it. Although there is a law in the Netherlands, that prohibits blasphemy or the use of God’s name in vain, it has not actually been used since the 1960s. It’s a dead law which does not look to be resurrected anytime soon, so politicians from the Socialist Party and the liberal Democrats 66 are now out to have it struck from the criminal code.

Although the initiators of the plan show an expected but disturbing disregard for religious sensibilities (“It’s something for the enthusiast who believes in it,” one of them said), is this really something to get up in arms about? I would say it is.

The State Council has said that the freedom of expression does not mean that this law should be struck, but it also doesn’t mean that blasphemy should remain illegal. The freedom that many will cite in this context is quite neutral on the matter.

Striking a dead law from the code sends a message. The existence of the law does no longer have any effect or consequence, but the fact that it exists also sends a message. And what message do we want to send out?

Maintaining a law that forbids the use of blasphemous words, even if it is not upheld, tells us that we have certain standards in our use of language. Some utterances are contrary to those standards and should therefore not be promoted. Striking the law in question would in essence communicate the message that we no longer hold to these standards. We are free to use any words we please, and that trumps any concerns, insult or characteristics of civilisation.

As Catholics we shouldn’t be too thin-skinned; we may not like certain words and utterances, but the correct response is not to hide from them. Rather, we must intelligently counter the underlying reasons that people have for using them. The existence of a dead law, a hint of standards which were once actively pursued, but today still underlie our society, can be a form of support in our efforts to maintain this civility, this intelligent defense.

For all of us, Christian or not, the law that forbids the use of blasphemous words is a reminder that it once mattered how we said things, how we related to one another, even – especially – when we disagreed. That is something worth remembering in our daily conduct. Striking the law, and so stating that it should be okay to blaspheme and curse, is the polar opposite of that..

Pussy Riot: free speech or scandal?

In certain circles, many people have spoken out against the conviction of Russian punk group Pussy Riot, who staged a protest against that country’s President Putin in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral. They are punished, many on the left side of the political spectrum say, for speaking out against Putin, and therefore their conviction is an example political violence, of curbing free speech.

But, just like the group’s protest was far more than a political protest, the consequences are also. Father Ray Blake, for example, considers the site of the protest and its importance for the Russian nation. He writes (emphasis mine):

“For Russian believers this Cathedral symbolises the very heart of Christian Russia, reborn after the murder of countless of believers and the wholesale destruction of religion in Russia[…]. The demonstration against Putin was one thing but the blasphemy and mockery of religion in the Cathedral was a reminder for believers of the type of thing organised by the persecutors within living memory, it was spitting in the face of the holy Russia.
Can the fatuous western “supporters” of Pussy Riot understand the nature of their demonstration?

And the location, as well as the despicable language and behaviour displayed by the group make a difference. This was not merely a matter of political commentary. It was a blasphemous desecration, an insult to many believers and a spitting in the face to all of Russia. Pussy Riot, as many from whom free speech is a holy grail, consider their own perceived rights an opinions to trump the feelings, rights and opinions of everyone else. In fact, it’s individualism gone crazy.

Is two years in prison harsh? Perhaps (the Russian Orthodox Church seems to think so, as it has appealed for mercy and freedom for the group). Was some form of punishment in order? Most certainly. Pussy Riot are not the victims here.

Photo credit: AP/Sergey Ponomarev

The mythical blasphemy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Tomorrow evening the student parish here is hosting a movie night, and the movie that will be shown is Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the story of the man who just happened to have been born in the stable next door to the one used by Mary and Joseph, and who continuously gets mistaken for the Messiah. “There’s no Messiah in here. There’s a mess alright, but no Messiah. Now go away!”, his mother shouts to the masses gathered outside his house.

It seems that in certain Christian circles this movie is at the heart of a controversy. It is blasphemous, many say. But is it really? Does the movie make fun of the person of Jesus Christ, His message or the faith of His followers? I don’t believe so.

Jesus makes a single appearance in the movie. He is shown in the distance during the Sermon on the Mount, in a scene where all the attention is on a group of people who have difficulty hearing Him because they’re all the way in the back. All we hear from Jesus are the words that are in the Gospel: the Beatitudes. True, the people in the back mangle them (“Hear that? Blessed are the Greek.” “The Greek?” “Well, apparently, he’s going to inherit the earth.” “Did anyone catch his name?”), but that’s not blasphemous, of course. In fact, in a source I have mislaid at the moment, I read that the makers of the movie tried to write a comedy about Christ, but then realised that there really isn’t anything to poke fun at in His words. Thus the character of Brian was born.

Brian’s life roughly parallels the life of Christ. He too was born in a manger, we only get to meet his mother, Mandy (there’s not even a foster father), the Romans don’t like him and he plays an important part in the Jewish resistance against Roman rule (many scholars in the 20th century also depicted Jesus as a resistance leader). So are the things that happen to Brian blasphemous? Not really. Brian’s adventures are mostly the result of stupidity of the people around him, who mindlessly follow him because he looks like the Messiah (“Only the true Messiah denies his divinity.” “What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right, I am the Messiah!” “He is! He is the Messiah!”), or of his own clumsiness. Life of Brian is, in the first place, the story of a man who tries to live a normal life.

There are also other (post-)Biblical themes in the movie, chiefly the presence of doom prophets. Brian pretends to be one for a while (and fails miserably) to escape the pursuing Romans, and he also makes a desert father break his 18-year vow of silence. Granted, the prophets are depicted as raving loonies, but be fair: how would a prophet like Amos or Ezekiel be looked upon by the general populace in their days? It doesn’t make them any less important or wise.

In my opinion, what Life of Brian pokes fun at is mindless faith. The brainless following of anyone who may seem to promise something better. The crowd that follows Brian around is a great example of that. They positively worship the shoe and the gourd he looses in the chase, one of them claims he is the Messiah, because “I should know, I’ve followed a few!”, and they are taken advantage of by both the Romans and the resistance. And Brian is stuck in the middle, with all his clumsiness and desperation.

Ultimately, the only possible blasphemy is in details. The Jewish faith, for example, is treated no more reverently than any other religious or social construct. Look at the stoning scene, for example. The crucifixion of Brian and others, at the end of the movie, contrast heavily with the sacrifice of Christ in the cross, but He is not the butt of the joke: the Romans and the resistance are. So Brian, in that scene, is redeemed a bit: he prevails over the people who used him. It is these brainless fools, together with the equally mindless masses who followed Brian (and abandoned him when things became difficult), who are made fun of.

And that is not at odds with a healthy Christian faith. On the contrary, faith and reason are both part of a developed human life. Faith without thought is just unmotivated action. The brainless running after anyone who has something to offer, even if they don’t. And that is worthy of pointing out.

Life of Brian will be shown on Tuesday 28 September in the parish house of the cathedral of St. Joseph, starting at 8 pm.