Scatological humor. Crude drawings mocking revered religious figures. I am speaking, of course, of Lucas Cranach’s Birth and Origin of the Pope [image below], one in a series of woodcuts commissioned by Martin Luther in the 1540s under the title “The True Depiction of the Papacy.” In it, an enormous grinning she-devil squats in the foreground, excreting the Pope along with a heap of bishops while in the background another infant pontiff suckles at the teat of a serpent-haired wet nurse.
Forget the South Park dust up; forget Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. If you want to see truly shocking anti-religious cartoons, you have to go back to the sixteenth century. Near the end of Luther’s life, his propaganda campaign against Rome grew increasingly vitriolic and his language grotesquely pungent. He took to calling his ecclesiastical enemies ‘asses,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘pigs,’ ‘blockheads,’ ‘basilisks,’ and ‘pupils of Satan,’ and the Pope himself ‘Her Sodomitical Hellishness’ and ‘fart-ass’ (no, it doesn’t sound much more dignified in German—fartz-Esel). Eric Cartman would be in awe.
The debate over cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad is often framed as a clash between free speech and religious attitudes. But it is just as much a clash between conflicting religious attitudes, and the freedom at stake is not only freedom of expression but freedom of religion. For while Luther was surely engaging in offensive speech, he was also exercising a right of freedom of conscience, which included the right to dissent from Catholic orthodoxy. Debased though Luther’s rhetoric may have been, there was no way to be a reformer without offending the hegemon. It’s a story as old as religion.
Orthodoxy = Blasphemy + Time
Pope Benedict XII began his career as Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers, an expert Inquisitor who made it his personal mission to stamp out the last pockets of Cathar heresy in France. He was particularly incensed by those who refused to pay the new taxes he had imposed on livestock, or scoffed at the performance rites by which the Church extracted additional fees. Regarding the ritual of placing a candle in the mouth of a dying loved one, one cheeky Cathar commented that they might as well shove the candle up the anus.
One of those caught up in the Bishop’s dragnet was Beatrice of Planisolles. Like many others persecuted at the time, Beatrice existed on the margins of medieval society. The scent of freethinking, transgressive sexual behavior, herbal medicine, and witchcraft were already on her when she was called to testify before Fournier on June 19, 1320. Thanks to his meticulous note-taking, we have a remarkable record of her testimony. She seemed to have a knack for asking disconcerting questions, and confessed to having once asked one of her companions, “How can it be that God created men and women, since so many of them are not saved?”
The incriminating evidence against Beatrice was found in the contents of her bag (along with some herbs and a rag stained with menstrual blood): some crumbs of bread. To her interrogators, these signaled that she had shared communion with the banned Cathar sect. She was found guilty of, among other charges, blasphemy, and sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to wearing a double cross on her outer garments to signify her repentance and admission of error. Back in the day, Yahweh probably would have had her stoned (see Leviticus 24), but his medieval viceroys wanted her kept alive to proclaim the falsity of her former opinion. For Beatrice’s blasphemy was not defilement of God’s name as such, but defiance of the earthly authorities who had installed themselves as the custodians of His Truth.
The Cathars believed in an angel-like Christ who did not really undergo human birth or death; their human right to live by this belief was blasphemy to their fellow Christians. In 1553 Miguel Servetus was executed in Calvin’s theocratic Geneva for entertaining the heretical thought that Jesus was a human being in every way. Servetus’ insight would become essential to the religious life of millions of later Christians—the Unitarians. Jesus himself was a blasphemer, if you were to ask some of his fellow Jews.
Muhammad’s revelation relegated Jesus to the status of a great prophet, not the son of God. The Qur’an states, “[p]agans indeed are those who say that God is the Messiah, son of Mary… Anyone who sets up any idol beside God, God has forbidden Paradise for him, and his destiny is Hell” (5:72); and “[t]he Messiah, son of Mary, is no more than a messenger like the messengers before him, and his mother was a saint” (5:75). Without these doctrines, Islam is inconceivable; with them, Christianity implodes.
The orthodoxy of today is the blasphemy of yesterday. From the beginning, the spiritual search for religious truth has not been against blasphemy, but by way of blasphemy. Depending on where we sit metaphysically, we may want that search called off, or we may want it furthered. Either way, we must welcome religious offense as the unavoidable consequence of a free religious conscience.
This is nowhere more urgent than in those parts of the world where charges of blasphemy are still used to violate freedom of religious conscience, whether in Pakistan, where members of the persecuted minority Ahmadiyya Muslim community are accused of “defaming the Prophet”; or in Iran, where seven Baha’i leaders have been unjustly imprisoned since 2008 on charges of “warring against God.”
I don’t mean to compare Matt Stone and Trey Parker to towering reformers and prophets of history or to persecuted religious minorities today. I’m not suggesting that South Park has much of a theology beyond a lightweight libertarianism that says we can all get along so long as no one tries to “impose their beliefs” on anyone else. In practice, the creators seemed to acquiesce all too easily to Comedy Central’s imposition of black bars and bleeps on their episode. However, Stone and Parker were exercising their freedom of religious conscience, and their supporters and detractors alike—whether they know it or not—are taking a stand on religious questions.
Progressives who oppose the publication of Muhammad images like to think that they are demonstrating tolerance and broad-mindedness by remaining strictly neutral on the culture of the “Other.” They are wrong. In fact, by responding to some Muslim voices instead of others, by anointing groups like Revolution Muslim as de facto representatives of “Islam” and “Muslim opinion,” they are taking sides in important theological-political disputes internal to Islamic communities.
And they are taking the wrong sides: with theological conservatives and Islamist governments, against a spectrum of spiritual countertraditions. The injunction against depicting the Prophet does not appear in the Qur’an but in contested hadith. Medieval Persian artists routinely included Muhammad in their magnificent painted miniatures. The Prophet himself approved of pictures of prophets. According to the earliest biography of Muhammad, upon conquering Mecca he went to the Kaaba to purge the holy site of pagan relics and religious icons—with the exception of representations of Mary and Jesus, which he ordered to be preserved.
From the outside, it is easy to miss the fact that having one’s saints satirized is a way of being baptized into the American “civil religion.” A community is not a full member of this society until its sacred cows have been slaughtered publicly—preferably on cable television. Atheists breathed a sign of relief when Richard Dawkins was mocked on South Park, thinking, “finally, we’re becoming a part of American culture.” And so we say to every newcomer: Welcome, welcome to the fold. Take the sacrament of laughter. Now you’re one of us. We’re ridiculous, and we admit it freely.