So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ – Job 2:7-9
NB: This song contains the following lyrics:
Impending death for partaking in blasphemy,
The end to all for he ones who will not believe,
Evading time and discard to entitlement,
A wailing wall of destruction of innocence…
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39
This topic has arisen in a couple recent conversations I’ve had, and as it is at least tangential to the larger project of which I wrote yesterday, I thought it best to set out my views. I will admit up front that mine is most definitely a minority view, even among what many consider “liberal” Christianity. That’s OK. And that view can be summed up simply: I do not believe there is such a thing as “blasphemy”.
Right away I can hear the objections, most of which are valid. The Commandment not to take the name of the LORD in vain. “Blasphemers” as those listed by St. Paul who are to be shunned. The long history, across human societies, cultures, and religions, of the taboo against any negative statement against the deity. All of which is correct. All of which I would submit is irrelevant to the question that my statement raises: What is blasphemy?
If one understands the matter as simply a taboo against any degrading word or image of the deity or related religious symbols, simply invoking history isn’t enough to prove that, in fact, blasphemy is a “thing” about which we human beings should be mindful. Consider there are many nation-states, particularly Muslim, that have anti-blasphemy laws for which the punishment is death. Many of these laws are so broad that converting from Islam to another religion; stating publicly one’s atheism; proselytizing another faith; all these are enough to get one convicted of blasphemy and receive judicially sanctioned murder as punishment. Isn’t it possible that criminalizing speech so far is a bit much, regardless of context?
None of this is to deny that words have power. In fact, one of the amazing things about the Internet is we see just how powerful words are. Just the other day, in a discussion of another topic, someone insisted that other persons be willing to risk their lives, and their family’s lives, in order that that person would be satisfied that the language in the United Methodist Discipline is changed. I responded with sarcasm, for which another person chastised me. The person insisting that Bishops living in countries where homosexuality is criminalized risk their lives – an insistence made from a distance without any threat to the person making the demand – was somehow less offensive than a sarcastic response from me is typical of much internet discourse. We’re all familiar, after all, what happens when a young black man is killed by a white person. Immediately, the discussion becomes about the volatile nature of racial discourse rather than the history of racial violence in our country. To deny that words have power is to deny a reality we all experience.
At the same time, as Christians who proclaim the grace of the Father, through the crucified and risen Son, offered to Creation in the Spirit of Life and New Life, how is it – how can it be – possible that many of us continue to hold to the idea that words and images might well not only offend God, but be actions that separate us, permanently, from God? Language, after all, is a contingent, historical thing. Words have layers of meaning, rarely clear. Furthermore, words are mediate rather than immediate, conveying imperfectly meaning among those who share the same language. Considering the act of immersing a crucifix in a glass of human urine to be blasphemous confuses the sign – “Piss Christ” – with the thing signified – anger, rage, and/or rejection of the tenets of the Christian faith.
None of which means that I, personally, am completely comfortable around words and deeds others consider blasphemous. On the contrary, I am very uneasy. That unease, however, has to do with years of unthought acceptance of an all too human teaching that does not touch upon the reality of God’s grace. Too often, the very power of certain words and images arrest thought, and we forget that it is how we live our lives, i.e., in love toward others, rather than whether or not any particular word or image is “correct”.
Thus it is that I do not believe there is a Christian sin called “blasphemy” which we Christians should fear. On the contrary, some of that which we call blasphemous – the expression of anger at God over injustice or personal pain; the announced rejection of belief in God; the celebration of the destruction of the Church in the name of Satan – is the expression of a faith so deep the pain wrenches our soul out of shape. We give ourselves over to voicing our rage and pain, or listening in as others do it for us, in order, like Job, to demand a hearing, to demand an answer to our questions.
There is nothing wrong, unChristian, and certainly not “blasphemous” about such actions. It is in church, indeed, that the depths of human pain and suffering – including voicing our rage and confusion – should be allowed to reach their peak. There is no place safer for us to express what some would call blasphemy than in a community of believers. How else can we expect people to move through their anger if we do not keep space open for such expressions?
This includes in our liturgy. Too often, particularly in what is called “contemporary-style worship”, the emphasis is upon praise, at the expense of lament. Yet the Bible is filled with human cries to God, cries that receive no answer, cries from pain and suffering, from injustice and destruction and death. How is it possible to praise God when there are those in the congregation who wish to weep, to demand answers, to cry out like the Psalmist: “Oh God, why have you forsaken me?” Without that space within our liturgy, our praise is too often empty, or at the very least incomplete. We should become more comfortable with what many would call blasphemy if we are going to open our churches to a world that is hurting, that has questions rooted in pain, and that sees far too little to praise. Unless we give up the idea of Christian blasphemy, we cannot minister fully and completely to a world that no longer believes God is alive and active in our world. We will be far busier shushing such complaints than we are hearing them, and considering not only their legitimacy, but that perhaps we do not have a ready response to them; that only time, prayer, and being in a community that uplifts those in such pain offers any hope for an answer. Or perhaps not. We must, however, make that offer, knowing full well it may fail.
That is why I do not “believe” in “blasphemy”. Not that such things don’t happen. Rather, I do not believe that any human action, including things we say, can separate us from God. I also believe much of what we call blasphemy is rooted in deep faith demanding answers to questions for which ready answers just don’t exist. I believe that we must overcome our discomfort and reach out, even to those who express themselves in ways we find distasteful, listen, and offer the possibility of forgiveness and love in the blessed community. Sometimes, there is no way to blessing except through the angry rejection of God.