February 13, 2006

Costly Freedom and the Clash of Symbols

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


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that passage from Endo, Tobias. Powerful stuff.

pax et bonum

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful stuff. Thank you.

Grace and peace.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tobias,

I suppose I had never thought of the things you mentioned as idols. Personally, I am not offended by the burning of the flag (although I can certainly understand how a veteran would be), or the female cricified, or any of the other items you mentioned. Perhaps that is a good sign.

But are you comparing the response of Christians to these various "offenses" to the violent response of the Muslims to the cartoons? Perhaps you were simply using that as a means to springboard to the Christian responses to certain offensive displays.

I agree with you that making a created thing into something sacred is idolatry. Perhaps it is our near compulsion to do so that led God to prohibit it so strenuously. Paul says in 1 Cor. 10:14, "Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry." And in verse 20, "I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons." I take verse 20 to mean that these things (flag, crucifix in urine, woman crucifed, etc.) are creations of men sacrificed to demons. Therefore, we ought to "flee" from granting the creators of these things any satisfaction that we are offended...Indeed that we should not be offended at all, for God is spirit.

Do you know if the Koran says anything about idolatry? Well, I guess they are angry because their Prophet is being depicted. I am just curious as to whether they have the same prohibitions regarding idolatry that we have.

Anonymous said...

The prohibitions in Islam against idolatry are stronger than any in Christianity. This is precisely the reason for the strong reaction to these cartoons. It's not just that the depictions are derogatory (although that certainly doesn't help), it's the mere fact that they are depictions.

In Islam, any depiction of Mohammed is forbidden - not just worshipping an image, just making one. Similarly, any depiction of God is totally forbidden. So, all those works of Christian art (the Sistine chapel ceiling, with God reaching out to Man, for example) are blasphemy in Muslim eyes. Whereas Christians feel free to explore the use symbolism of various sorts to show aspects of the Godhead, Muslims are explicitly forbidden from doing anything like that.

pax et bonum

Monk-in-Training said...

Br. Tobias,
Your post makes me wonder what are the Idols in my own life and how far would I go to protect them!? Thank you for such a post.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks John for the clarification and answer to Belinda's question on the prohibitions on imagery in Islam.

When I went to review the scripture readings for this coming Sunday I found that they related to some of these themes, so this is going to reworked into a sermon (check out my other blog site, Ekklesiastes, next week if you are interested.

Monk-in-training, thanks also for your comment. As I worked on the sermon I was reminded of the hymn "O for a closer walk with God" -- especially the verse concerning the "dearest idols" that we place upon God's throne.

All blessing,

Anonymous said...

In that regard, this thread seems like the best time to ask Belinda a question that I have been wanting to ask her. Have you read Adam Nicholson's book, "God's Secretaries"? It was published about two and a half years ago, and is an account of how the King James Bible came into being, and about its translators. If you have not, I think you would find it fascinating. If you have, I'm curious to know your reaction to it. Pax.

Anonymous said...


I have not read the book. I am happy to put it on my reading list though.

Anonymous said...

John, is it really true that any depiction of Mohammed are forbidden? Take a look at http://www.zombietime.com/mohammed_image_archive/. It appears that there's a long tradition -- even within Islam -- of depicting him.

Puzzled in Missouri --

Anonymous said...

Hi Fr. Tobias--

I apologize for the off-topic comment, but I didn't see an email link on the front page of the blog.

I just wanted to let you know that I linked to your site on ikons from this post on my own site. I've visited it a number of times over the years and hope to start writing ikons myself soon. Just thought you'd like to know about the link. (I also link to this blog, though I'm in the middle of re-doing my blogroll.)