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For God's sake get over it

Is it really so offensive to suggest that, with or without Britain's ancient blasphemy laws, God is big enough to look after himself? STEPHEN TOMKINS hopes we've seen the last of daft legislation.

OUR starter for ten and no conferring: Who was the first person in Christian history to be condemned to death for blasphemy? Come on! I'll have to hurry you. No? The correct answer is Jesus. ''You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?'' says the High Priest at Jesus's trial according to Mark. 'They all condemned him as deserving to die.'1

It is a point that ought to give pause to Christians who believe blasphemy should be punishable under the law, and that we should use what remains of our collective muscle to stop people offending against the faith. The defence of God is a tradition we can trace back from the post-Christian west through inquisitions and councils to the gospels, and when we get there Jesus is not on the side that some of us might have assumed.

The most obvious problem with Christians fighting blasphemy is with the very idea that Almighty God, maker of all things seen and unseen, needs sticking up for. Spurgeon is said to have laughed at the idea of being urged to defend the Bible: 'You might as well defend an uncaged lion.' How much more would you expect God himself to be able to stand up for himself?

If some of his spokespeople are to be believed, a swift delivery of boils and/or locusts ought to see off his mockers. There is quite a discrepancy between the claims that anti-blasphemy campaigners make for the majesty, power and wrath of God, and the idea that this is manifest in a picket line of Christians in cycle clips and nylon shirts. They may see themselves as David versus Goliath, but it is hard to imagine David's fight culminating in anonymous death threats to Goliath and in stopping him making donations to a cancer charity - as did the campaign that Christian Voice led against Jerry Springer: The opera in 2005.

Alternatively, if we believe that he calls his followers to suffer whatever insults - and worse - are thrown at them for his name's sake, humbly and forgivingly, then how can we believe he demands they fight back when he is insulted himself? Surely believers who called for the Pythons to be imprisoned for The Life of Brian did a greater dishonour to the name of their God than anything in the film.

The crucial problem with believers defending the name of God is that it is hopelessly entangled with defending their own names. When Christians fight blasphemy, they do not protect God, whose feelings cannot be hurt, but do protect themselves, whose feelings certainly can. Blasphemy cannot dent the honour of God, but it dents our own sense of honour, by insulting our religion. What we call serving God is so often self-serving.

Proud Christians have a long history of wreaking harsh vengeance on behalf of their humble and meekly suffering Messiah. In the early days, however, it was the other way round. After Jesus was punished for blasphemy, many early Christians followed his example and were killed for offending the God of the Israelites or the gods of Rome - according to their defenders on earth. Christians quietly endured attacks against their own faith, counting them a blessing as Jesus instructed.2

It was only when Christianity became a monolithic state religion that the church took it upon itself to start protecting the name of God from attack. Blasphemy is politics, and the church state cannot allow freedom of speech. For the powerful church, meekness is weakness, and insults are not blessed but punished ruthlessly.

So today we are in the preposterous position where Christians in a secular, multi-cultural society are still trying, in their stands against blasphemy, to exercise power which not only seriously compromises the gospel, but which we no longer even have, to impose a uniformity that died generations ago. It has often been noted that the UK law against blasphemous libel, dating from that monolithic past, technically at least only ever protected the Anglican faith, and therefore barely covered the majority of British Christians let alone adherents to other religions. Muslims who failed to have Salman Rushdie prosecuted for The Satanic Verses in 1990 proved the practical limitations of the law.

Of course, such an anachronism could be dealt with by extending the law to cover all religions. But if it is unfair and potentially tyrannical for a state to protect one religion from offence, trying to protect them all invites chaos - especially when all Christianity has been traditionally accused of blasphemy by Muslims for calling a crucified man God, just as Judaism has been by Christians for denying it.

Even within Christianity, the church has condemned an impressive array of its great thinkers, reformers and popes for blasphemy. This fact alone ought to make us question our competence to police the honour of God.

There are those who would wish to keep the blasphemy law, along with other such remnants, to shore up 'traditional Christian Britain' against the threat of being overtaken by other religion. But if Islam does indeed continue to grow and catch up with Christian observance in the UK, its influence is surely more likely to be restrained by secularism than by a shell of historic religious privilege. Fifty or a hundred years from now, won't it be better for today's Christians to have left the UK a country with a robust tradition of secular government and pluralist toleration, than one where a dominant religion can impose its proclivities on the rest?

The fight against blasphemy has a strong tendency to philistinism too. The puritans handicapped Shakespeare, preventing him at one point from mentioning God in his plays, while Rome banned major novels from Richardson's Pamela through to Les Miserables, not to mention most philosophers of the enlightenment era. In our own time, believers have tried to silence novels, plays, opera, films and poetry, often of the highest quality.

The Life of Brian is a perfect example. Though not the most serious in tone, it is one of the finest religious films yet made, a shrewd and brilliant satire on the follies, manipulations and self-delusions of religious followers. The outrage that greeted it, with, for example, Mary Whitehouse's Festival of Light appealing to the BBFC to ban it as a 'scurrilous abuse of God', illustrates how offences against the Lord that believers try to censor turn out to be offences against themselves. This satire on religious prejudice was publicly condemned by Malcolm Muggeridge as a transparent attack on Christ, after a screening where due to an overlong lunch he missed the rather crucial opening scene.3

There is, to be sure, a biblical case to be made for the punishment or censorship of blasphemy. If, as we are told, the Lord killed Uzza for merely touching the ark of the covenant to stop it falling,4 how much do those who deliberately defame him deserve? But this just brings us back to the boils question. If activists really believe the Lord is able and willing to visit himself in such a way upon those who dishonour him, their efforts to defend him rather seem to undermine that.

The law of Moses punishes blasphemers with death. As it does unfaithful fiancees, those who proselytise Israelites to other religions, and anyone who works on Saturday.5 The laws of Mosaic theocracy are not for Christians, as Galatians reiterates throughout.

Don't the Ten Commandments put not taking the Lord's name in vain at the heart of Christian morality? Perhaps, but there are two problems. The main one is that Christian morality is for Christians. It is not obvious that we have a responsibility to impose it on the world and demand that people honour the name of a God they believe does not exist.

Secondly, it is not at all clear what misusing the name of the Lord meant in the ancient world. Scholarly theories include magical incantations, false prophecy and dishonest oaths, but almost certainly not saying 'Oh God, my sandal's broken'. Misusing God's name may well, for believers, include blasphemy, but encompasses much more besides. How about making false promises in the name of God? How about using his name to manipulate people emotionally? How about controlling their behaviour with threats of divine vengeance? How opposing free speech in God's name? How about saying 'Lord' 17 times in one sentence when you pray? It behoves Christians to put their own house of God in order before trying to control how unbelievers use the name of the Lord.

And when we turn to the New Testament, that is precisely where the focus is. 'You, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself?' demands Paul. '...You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, 'The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.''6 Likewise 1 Timothy and Titus say that the way for believers to stop others blaspheming is not to deserve it. The concern of the New Testament is never with imposing the teachings of Jesus on the world, but imposing them on ourselves.

That Christians use their remaining influence to get films and shows banned is an intrusive abuse of power. But for that power to be enshrined in law, as it has been for so long in the UK, is simply indefensible. It is repressive and biased. And yet it has done no favours to those whose faith it protected either, giving an impression that Christianity in this country is so past it that it can only be shored up by anachronistic discriminatory coddling.

At the time of writing the repeal of the blasphemous libel law has been waved through the House of Lords with cross-party support, and the backing of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who however wants it to be replaced with more workable legislation to restrain language that limits 'a believer's freedom to be visible and audible in the public life').7 It's due to reach commons as we go to press. So I'm hopeful this anachronism will already be history by the time this article reaches you. Either way, while some protests are inevitable, the whole episode is much better commemorated as the time Christians amazed their critics by supporting freedom of speech on principle, whether or not it is in their favour, and by showing that their beliefs do not need the support of law.

It is time for Christians in the west to stop trying to control non-Christians' attitudes to God - and the dismantling of this absurd law is a good place to start. It tells the world that not only can God take it, but now so can we.

--

1 Mark 14: 64
2 Matthew 5:12. For an example, see The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 14.
3 The Pythons: The autobiography by the Pythons ed. Bob McCabe (Orion, 2003) 300. The Festival of Light's letter was shown in the 2007 Channel 4 documentary The Secret Life of Brian.
4 1 Chronicles 13:10-11.
5 Leviticus 24:14; Deuteronomy 13:6-9
6 Romans 2:21-24.
7 'Religious Hatred and Religious Offence', the 2008 James Callaghan Memorial lecture (given?January 29). Williams went on to say 'Rather than assuming that it is therefore only a few designated kinds of extreme behaviour that are unacceptable and that everything else is fair game,the legal provision should keep before our eyes the general risks of debasing public controversy by thoughtless and (even if unintentionally) cruel styles of speaking and acting'. The whole, unmediated, text is now available online on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s website at http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/1561.