A christian reflection on the freedom of expression


Published on

  • Be the first to comment

  • Be the first to like this

No Downloads
Total views
On SlideShare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide

A christian reflection on the freedom of expression

  1. 1. A Christian reflection on the freedom of expression Anita Cheria and EdwinA surfeit of injury There has been a lot of injured feelings, not least within the church and the faithful in India, takingoffence at the perfectly legitimate freedom of expression that others (including fellow Christians) exercise.The expose of a supposed ‘miracle’ at a catholic church in Mumbai as nothing more than ditch water andthe reaction of the church authorities—including the bishop, who is expected know better—is only onesuch case. Christians have protested the depiction of Jesus with a cigarette in hand on the cover of theofficial diocesan magazine Pavan Hruday Doot in Anand, Gujarat. The image was downloaded from theinternet and the cigarette was not noticeable in the black and white proof. After inadvertently publishing it,they immediately put up an apology on their website, but to no avail. Some faithful insisted on being morecatholic than the pope—or in this case the Jesuits who print the magazine—and registered a police case. Inan earlier incident, the same picture resulted in curfew following riots in Batala, Punjab in 2010 and theCatholic Church banning Skyline Publications from all its institutions in India. There have been misguidedprotests against using ‘hosanna’ in a song in 2012. In Keralam there was protest against the depiction of theInquisition and Reformation in school text books in 2011. In the past, Christians have protested distributionof Christian Brothers brandy, and the film ‘The last temptation of Christ’. The Global council of IndianChristians (GCIC) filed a Public Interest Litigation requesting ban of the book and film titled Da VinciCode. The book and movie are banned in Nagaland and the film in Punjab. Internationally too we seem to be getting hyper-sensitive. The Harry Potter series is frowned upon by everyone from the evangelicals to the Roman Catholic Church and others (but loved by young Christians and Catholics across the world anyway), Madonna (the singer not the saint) is considered blasphemous. We seem intent on making Christianity a religion of old, humourless men (sourpuss would be a better term) and coming to church a funereal experience. Not too long ago, ‘Negro spirituals’ were banned, and ‘the devil had all the good music’, because happy music was not ‘serious enough’ to be sung in the solemn (funereal) environs of the church. As a bishop of indigenous origin exclaimed, how can singing my traditional songs and dancing with joy in front of the lord be satanic? That these misguided protests are done by otherwise reasonable and well meaning persons makes it all the more distressing. We needto be ever vigilant against the creeping re-talibanising of the church. In the case of Sanal Edamaruku, theRoman Catholic faithful—egged on by the bishop—have actually abused the secular legal system to harasshim for ‘hurting religious sentiments’ rather than thanking him for saving the church the potentially majorembarrassment of causing an epidemic by distributing ditch water to the gullible as a miracle. There can be many positions, depending on our sensitivity and ideological leanings, to respond to theseincidents. Depending on our position, these instances would be trivial, therefore below our dignity torespond, our Christian duty to turn the other cheek. Or it could be a call to demonstrate the depth of ourconviction and somehow ‘defend our faith’ or even ‘come to the defence of Christ’. Not to do so would beseen as a denial almost as shameful as that of Peter before the cock crows. Fortunately, there is amplebiblical text to guide Christian action. For the purpose of this note, we will not touch on ‘turn the othercheek’ (Mathew 5:9) or ‘love thy enemy, do good to those who persecute you’ (Mathew 5:44) which,though appropriate, would be a little trite given the circumstances. They are difficult responses, but it isnobody’s case that being a Christian is easy—if so everybody would be, and there would be no need forchosen people of a ‘new covenant’(Luke 22:20)—hence the saying ‘the last Christian died on the cross’.11 There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross. The Antichrist (Der Antichrist, German,1895) Friedrich Nietzsche. A Christian reflection on the freedom of expression anita cheria and edwin; May 2012; page [1]
  2. 2. Kippenberger’s testament For clarity let us examine, as a ‘worst case’, a triptych considered blasphemous by the pope (just as artportraying Christ as a black woman was about a couple of decades ago). The triptych itself is innocuous.The work by the late German artist Martin Kippenberger (1953-1947) shows a green frog, bug-eyed, withwarts, nailed to a cross with its tongue hanging out, holding a mug of beer in one hand and an egg in theother. For Kippenberger, the frog was an alter ego, and the triptych is part of a series depicting it indifferent poses. Regardless of what Kippenberger thought or intended, and instead of trying to second guesshis intentions, let us look at different reactions to it. A local politician in northern Italy went on a hungerstrike (2008) demanding its removal. The directors of Bolzano’s Museum of modern art stood firm (6 to 3)and allowed the exhibit to stay on, solely in the name of artistic freedom. If they were truly practicingChristians of faith, they would have ensured that it stayed on as one of the most inspiring calls to Christianaction in the 20th century. For a true Christian, this would be a powerful call to action, deeply resonating with Christ’s call to seeChrist in the ‘least of my brothers and sisters’(Mathew 25:45)—in the drunkard and the drug addict, those of a different skin colour, and those who look different. We are indoctrinated into picturing Jesus as a Hollywood actor with blue eyes, blond hair and white skin without any infirmities. We have lost our capacity to see Jesus in the brown, the yellow, and the black, the gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals, the differently abled, those with HIV... It is in doing so that we actually become Christians. Kippenberger’s triptych is a timely reminder for us to do so, a truly Christian depiction of Christ, though far removed from the Hollywood spectacle. When most devout, practicing, and pious Christians hear the above explanation, they immediately agree unreservedly that the call for ban is unjustified, and most of the others agree with reservations, and would support theartists freedom of expression. Then they do not agree with the ban call. Till then most staunchly support theban. The point is that a priori banning would not permit a reasoned discussion—and leave Christianity thatmuch poorer, and farther from Christ. The same can be said about the ‘work of art’ photograph by artist andphotographer Andres Serrano that puts the crucifix into urine. It shocks us, it traumatises us, at the sametime makes us acutely aware of how we treat the Christ in our euphemistically called safaikaramcharibrothers and sisters. Every time we make one of the safaikaramchari women clean shit, isn’t it what we aremaking Christ do? Can we not see Christ in that woman—or can we see Christ only in the white, effeteHollywood blonde? To take the imagery further, would we not be able to see the crucifix when theAmerican soldiers similarly defiled the Afghans recently? and the Roman soldiers probably did on Christ aswell. That crucifix ‘work of art’ too is a Christian call to action, which in the present day high decibelworld of communication, rises above the cacophony to catch attention and spurs us to our Christian calling. Just because the call comes from the Roman Catholic Pope (who, incidentally, is considered the anti-Christ by some Christians2) does not give it any special sanctity, since the papacy has proved to be wrongtoo often and on the wrong side of history for more. To succumb to the thought policing of the misguidedcleric is to accord the Bishop of Rome the status of the Furheur, something that is difficult to believe thatBenedict, nee Ratzinger, though a former member of the Nazi youth, is aspiring for.The biblical position The Bible tells us clearly that ‘to those who believe, he gave them power to be children of god’. (John1:12) Right from the saviour’s mouth comes that ‘the kingdom of god belongs to them such as these’,(Mathew 19:14) the children. And what do children do? They are quite irreverent. They sit on the father’sstomach, pull the hair off his chest (ouch that hurt! Yes, papa but I wanted to see how much, and it is sooofunny seeing your eyes become so round), sit on the lap and give sharp kicks to the shin.... God too loves2 See for instance The Great Controversy, Ellen G. White, 1911. Ellen White is one of the founders of the Seventh- day Adventist Church. She is held in high respect as a prophet and is by no means a ‘fringe’ or ‘radical’ element. And who can forget the marginal (commentary) notes of the much revered Geneva Bible (1560). A Christian reflection on the freedom of expression anita cheria and edwin; May 2012; page [2]
  3. 3. naughty children, even children who abuse the familial bonds and stretch their demands. He loves thesenaughty children even more than he loves the ‘obedient’ ones. Christ hints that he does not like subservientchildren and that the rebellious, irreverent ones are more childlike than the obedient ones. Yes, all these arelessons one gets directly from the saviour’s mouth in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-16)—inwhich, to the dismay of the elder, dutiful, sulking son, the rebellious, wasteful son is welcomed with a feastof fattened calf, with no guarantee that he would not be a repeat offender. Yes, but then, what about blasphemy against the holy spirit? Didn’t the saviour himself say that it is theunforgivable crime? (Mathew 12:31) Of course he did. But the debate as to who would give the punishmenthad been settled even in Old Testament times. God made it clear that ‘vengeance is mine’. (Deuteronomy32:35) So it is clear from the Bible, from the words of the saviour himself that freedom of expression,especially the irreverent kind, can at best be met with ‘father forgive them for they know not what they do’(Luke 23:34)) or the more appropriate ‘do good to those who persecute you’ (Mathew 5:44) ... but if wewould like to do an imitation of Christ, it may be best to join in the healing celebration of ‘merry hearts’(Proverbs 15:13) in the feast that our father has arranged. Many pious Christians name their businesses after Jesus and the saints. Magdalenes are whorehouses. Isthat blasphemy? There are Jesus bars and restaurants. So is Jesus Bar blasphemy? After the abstinence ofLent, the first drink was, and still is in many places, called the ‘holy spirit’. One evening, after sundown, abishop once asked me ‘do you want a Peter or a Jesus?’ in the early days of our friendship, not knowingthat I was a teetotaller. I asked him what the difference was. He told me that if I drank a Peter, I would fallthree times before the cock crowed, but if I had a Jesus I would rise up only on the third day. Is thatblasphemy... or behaving like a child of god? Do we really want to go back to the days of the puritans who,in the words of Thomas B. Macaulay, banned bear baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but becauseit gave pleasure to the spectators?A culture of tolerance The creeping talibanisation is all the more surprising since liberal thought and ideology in the modernage have their roots in the Reformation, and has arisen from an understanding gained at a steep cost—ofthousands killed just for minor doctrinal variance. The ‘loyal opposition’ of the British, where dissent wasnot equated with sedition, the freedom to practice different forms of Christianity in the Americas despitethe internecine conflict in their European birthplaces, were all decisions of enlightened Christians whodrew on the tolerant traditions of Christianity rather than the imperial history. The eclectic practices withinthe Roman Catholic church are mindboggling, despite the monolithic external facade. The priest coming into celebrate mass in the traditional chief’s regalia and traditional war cry in certain parts of Africa is a treatto watch, apart from a demonstration of ritual richness of the Eucharistic celebration. The devil’s advocateis explicitly tasked to find out flaws in the life of potential saints—in blunt terms, to dig up the dirt—but isan honoured member of the Vatican. Early scriptures have Satan in a conversation with god and thentesting Job, without any malice or motive attached (Job 1:6-12). As late as February 2010, the CatholicBishops Conference of India, CBCI, opined that they do not want a blasphemy law in India, due to the highlikelihood of misuse. This rare maturity was shown when the Government of Meghalaya wanted tointroduce a blasphemy law in the wake of a similar downloaded-from-the-web mistake in the Std I cursivewriting book that showed Christ with a cigarette and a bottle of bear. The Indonesian Council of churchesare against the ban on Lady Gaga’s concert in Jakarta and explicitly support her freedom of expression. The Christian members of the Indian constituent assembly were at the forefront of ensuring thefundamental rights of all. In India, many Christian (Protestant) denominations came together to for theChurch of North India (CNI) and Church of South India (CNI). At the time of the fragmentation of thechurch, and the creation of these denominations, the minor doctrinal differences seemed irreconcilableenough to start a new form of worship and a new order. Just a couple of centuries and the differencesbecome irrelevant. Inter-marriage is the norm between many (Protestant) Christian denominations, withcommon communion. But just a few centuries ago, the doctrinal differences were such that they led to warand worse since each microscopic denomination held that they alone were the repository of all true doctrineand all the others were blasphemers. A Christian reflection on the freedom of expression anita cheria and edwin; May 2012; page [3]
  4. 4. Tolerance can be taught. Christians do not riot now when the Muslim call for prayer five times a dayfrom a mosque declares that there is ‘no god but Allah’ or when Muslims celebrate id-ul-fitr (bakrid) as acommemoration of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Ishmael at the altar (Qurân Surat-us Saffat 37:99-109)though the Jewish and Christian texts that predate Islam by millennia clearly mention that Isaac was theintended sacrifice as the only begotten son of Abraham (Genesis 22:2,9 Hebrews 11:17) rather thanIshmael who was born of the slave Hagar (Genesis 16:1-16); or when Islam teaches that Mohamed was theone sent by god whom Jesus was not worthy to tie the shoe lace of (though in Christian text, which predateIslam by centuries, make that out to be John the Baptist and Christ (John 1:27)). These distortions of thebiblical texts on a daily basis is ignored now, as it rightly should be, though it was not so in the past. Therehas been remarkable forbearance for the books Jesus the Man, The book that Jesus wrote and Jesus of theApocalypse by Barbara Thiering, The Second Messiah by Christopher Knight & Robert Lomas and severalothers. Christian educational institutions routinely teach scientific truths, though many are at variance withfaith (and therefore blasphemous), though even that is under threat with some Christian majority areas inthe world insisting on teaching ‘creationism’ and ‘intelligent design’ since the theory of evolution is ‘only atheory not scientific fact’. The fundamental rights and freedoms are indivisible and inalienable. They cannot be cherry picked. TheChristians in the constitution drafting committee were at the forefront of eschewing all communalrepresentation and ensuring all human rights for all. We need to recall and practice the wisdom shown bythem. Fr Jerome D’Souza’s position on fundamental rights and special reservations and protection forChristians in the constituent assembly was words to the effect that if the fundamental rights enshrined in theconstitution were safeguarded for all, then no special protection was necessary for Christians. If they wereviolated, then no special provision, however strong or specific, would protect the Christians from theviolation of their rights. They are worth elaboration and reflection. ... Minority rights and Fundamental Rights are inextricably mingled together in this Part of the Constitution... this is a right and necessary mingling. After all, what the minorities ask is that the right of the individual may be safeguarded in an inescapable manner [...] If the individuals right to his religious convictions, to his cultural preferences, to the rights which accrue to him as a man endowed with free will and reason and charged with the obligation of personal salvation, if these are safeguarded, "minority rights" as such need not find expression. [...] if these rights are really safeguarded in the manner in which they are sought to be safeguarded in this Constitution, if the Fundamental Rights including as they do minority rights, are assured in an absolutely indubitable manner, no kind of political safeguards will be necessary for us and we shall not demand them, as long as, I say, this part of the Constitution is enforced without any kind of "encroachment" or misinterpretation. And, as long as these, cultural and personal rights are safeguarded, we do not need any other political safeguard. [...] the Christian community is [...] giving up political safeguards and we are prepared to go further and give up the reservations which have been made [...] in the spirit in which these fundamental rights have been guaranteed, there is for us an assurance of safety and a confidence which does not need to be propped up or further affirmed by political safeguards and privileges. 3 No matter how obnoxious the freedom of expression is used for, as Christians, as Indians, and as humanbeings, we must protect and defend the right to freedom of expression for all. The freedom of expression isalways for the obnoxious, the revolting, and the offensive, just as the right to dissent is for the minoritysince the majority view becomes the official line.4 If it were not obnoxious, revolting, or offensive then noone would mind in the first place, and ‘defence’ would not be required. We need to get back to the idea of‘loyal opposition’ and see the devil’s advocate (in its original sense) in those who test our faith. We need toacknowledge that all are god’s children (god did create the atheists and is their parent too!) and that godmoves in mysterious ways. Let us not sulk like the elder brother in the parable. Let us, like the younger‘true’ son, pull his leg, or his whiskers. God the Father might say ‘ouch!’ but there would surely be atwinkle in his eye. —oO(end of document)Oo—3 Constituent Assembly Debate, 9 December, 1948 CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY OF INDIA - VOLUME VII.4 Freiheit ist immer Freiheit der Andersdenkenden, Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters, Rosa Luxemburg. A Christian reflection on the freedom of expression anita cheria and edwin; May 2012; page [4]