This week in world news there have been two cases of blasphemy.
One was in Ireland where there is a 2009 law about insulting God. Stephen Fry, a well-known British comedian and actor, was asked if after he died he went to heaven and was met by God at the pearly gates what he would say. Of course to frame the question in such way – with a literal heaven, with entry gates, and a being called God who lets people in or not – is to invite an answer with the same degree of literalism.
Fry replied: "[God] how dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It's not right. It's utterly, utterly evil.” Questioned further in the interview on how he would react if he was locked outside the pearly gates, Fry responded: "I would say, 'Bone cancer in children? What's that about?' Fry addressed his audience when he said, "Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?"
The charge that Fry had blasphemed against God was brought to the attention of the Irish police. However, the blasphemy law states that more than one person has to find the accused words offensive, and nobody else in Ireland seemed to have complained. So the charge was dropped.
The other blasphemy case is somewhat more serious. The outgoing governor of Jakarta, Indonesia, a man called Purnama has been sentenced to two years in jail. In the election campaign Purnama accused his rivals of deceiving people by using a verse in the Koran to say Muslims should not be governed by a non-Muslim. Purnama is a Christian. It seems Purnama’s audacity to presume to interpret the holy book of the Koran is what his detractors have used to whip up public opinion, and convince the court to convict and punish him.
In the Irish example Fry was critiquing the theistic notion of an all-powerful God who seems to allow unjust suffering. In the Indonesian example Purnama was critiquing the interpretative monopoly that some followers of Allah want to exert over the Koran [not unlike in times past the Roman Catholic Church’s Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition]. All religions have people who want to exercise control over interpretation.
But the question that these events raise for me is ‘How do we insult God?’ And how would Jesus, who in his day was seen as a blasphemer, understand insulting God?
You will remember the blasphemies that Jesus was accused of. He spoke ill of the Temple. Was that a critique of top down religion? Or was it a critique of trying to appease God by slaughtering animals, presuming of course that God needs appeasing?
Jesus too disregarded some written ‘sacred’ regulations about what one can do on the Sabbath – implying, contrary to other teachers, that healing and feeding people were legitimate Sabbath activities.
Jesus also disregarded the rules about who could eat with whom – and he promoted mixed gender, mixed religion, and mixed social class dining arrangements.
These ‘blasphemies’ got him into big trouble. He wouldn’t have stood a chance in that Jakarta court.
Although I think, like Jesus, that systems of blame and appeasement need critique; and religious thinking that prioritizes traditional regulations over the needs of people and animals needs changing; and non-egalitarian policies and practices need to be challenged… I think in our context today to insult God is to do nothing to address injustice.
I think we insult God when we do not care about the degradation of the environment, the enslavement of people [physical, economic, and psychological], and the violence that people mete out to each other.
When our streams, air, and lands are badly polluted we are not caring for Mother Earth, and we are not caring for those who come after us. This is insulting to God.
When some 2.5 million people are victims of human trafficking we are not caring for mothers and the children of mothers. When many times this number is enslaved by poverty [and all poverty’s consequences]… this is insulting to God.
When 24% of New Zealand women and 6% of New Zealand men have experienced one or more sexual attacks at some point during their lives; when disabled women are about twice as likely to be victims of violence or abuse compared to other women; and when one Kiwi kid is likely to be murdered every 5 weeks [most being under 5 years old]… this is insulting to God.
It is not words that I think are insulting to God, but actions.
So let us clothe ourselves in compassion, caring for our land, water, mothers and children. Let us knit together the frayed edges of lives that have been torn apart, offering what we can. And let us gird ourselves with resolve to build a society where no one dies at the hands of another, no one goes hungry, and no one is denied help.