Over the last few weeks, violent reaction to the publication of political cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed has led to considerable property damage and the loss of several lives. Before we Americans and Christians become too comfortable upon our high horses, clucking our tongues at what we are tempted to see as the over-reactions of religious fundamentalists, it might be well to recall some of our own behavior when cherished symbols are abused or defamed. Recall, if you will, the reactions to the burning of the American flag, and the legal efforts to defend this symbol as if it were more than fabric — as if it were the fabric of our country itself. Or recall not so many years ago how the figure of a crucified woman, exhibited in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine as part of the UN Decade of the Woman, was denounced as blasphemous and monstrous — to some it seemed almost as bad as the willfully offensive crucifix in urine or the Madonna with elephant dung that hung in a New York gallery and museum.
Symbols no doubt are powerful. But when we give them this power, and react in this way, do we not violate the purpose for which the law against such symbols was given? The voice from Sinai spoke against the making of images — to the end that they not become the objects of worship. When the Muslim rages at the insult to an image of the Prophet, when the patriot protests the burning of the flag, when the Christian seethes at the sight of the sacred symbol defaced or defamed, have these things not become, to some extent, idols? Is this the reversal of dulia — the honor given to an icon — turned upside down, so that the insult to the thing of paper, wood or cloth is somehow transferred to the sacred reality which cannot be portrayed? Or is it a dangerous overstepping into a twisted form of latria — have these physical representations themselves become so sacred that we dare not offer them an insult?
In his novel, Silence (Chinmoku), Shusaku Endo describes a Portuguese priest in feudal Japan forced to make a terrible decision. In order to prevent further torture and execution of the converts in his flock, the magistrate demands that the priest, the leader, publicly defame an image of Christ — a bronze plaque expressly created for that purpose — by trampling upon it. This will show that he has forsaken his faith, and sap his authority in the community. As he gazes on this image of Christ lying at his feet, he weighs the matter in his heart and mind. It is not a beautiful image as conventional beauty goes: it is the ugly face of the crucified one. He regards it in all of its vulnerability, until finally, he chooses to save the flock at the cost of his own position as a leader, perhaps even as a Christian. As Endo puts it:
The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”Who is our God? What is our nation? Who are our prophets? If they cannot bear an insult — or if we cannot bear the insult given to their shadows — are they what they seem to be, and are we? Have they become idols and we idolators indeed?
God in Christ bears the shame heaped upon him by those who know not what they do; God in Christ bears the pain inflicted upon all of his images — not the ones of wood and copper, of pigment and plaster and paint, but of flesh and blood: the brothers and sisters demeaned and defamed day by day in this fallen world of idols. As we do it to the least of them, we do it to the one whose image they bear. May God help us to turn from wrong and insult, towards mutual respect, forbearance and righteousness.
—Tobias S Haller BSG