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The relationship between laws against blasphemy, secularisation, and freedom of speech is complex, writes James E. Harding.
Last week, Act New Zealand leader David Seymour sought leave of the House, unsuccessfully, to table a Bill to have New Zealand’s blasphemy law repealed. It would, I suspect, have come as a surprise to many to know this country has such a law, the Prime Minister Bill English among them (ODT 9.5.17). The immediate background to this was the recent news from the Republic of Ireland that gardai in Dublin were investigating a complaint made against comedian Stephen Fry for comments made during a television interview with Gay Byrne on RTE One back in 2015: ‘‘Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’’
The relationship between laws against blasphemy, secularisation, and freedom of speech is, to be sure, very complex. It raises different issues in New Zealand from those in Ireland, where public debate at times remains haunted by the ghost of ecclesiastical power to an extent difficult to imagine here (though in this particular case the lack of genuine interest in the matter on the part of Irish Christians has been noteworthy). Arguably as surprising as the existence of New Zealand’s law against blasphemy is perhaps the fact that in Ireland blasphemy is covered by a law passed only in 2009. This is well after the precipitous decline in the authority of the Catholic Church in a country where members of that church’s hierarchy have been irrevocably tarred by their complicity in egregious sins against those under their pastoral care.
The investigation against Stephen Fry, which the Garda soon dropped, may seem on the surface to have a hint of the trivial about it. Yet it touches on issues that have played out very differently in other contexts around the world in recent years. Of those which have been most widely broadcast, we might think of Pussy Riot’s protest in 2012 against the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for Vladimir Putin, and the divided response of Orthodox Christians to it. More recently and tragically, we might think of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris in January 2015. Depending on the particular contexts and circumstances, the consequences of causing offence to the religious sensibilities of a person or group can be anything from trivial to devastating.
I approach this issue as a Christian, indeed as a priest, and as someone with a scholarly interest in the Hebrew Bible, but also as someone who has grown up in a largely secular society, namely England, where the relationship between Church and state has been eroding for a long time. There is much that I find curious about the ways in which the treatment of religious matters can be a source of deep offence, and while there are certainly contexts in which I find myself offended in this way, I find it difficult see why a secular, multicultural society that values critical discourse in the public arena should have blasphemy laws.
The Hebrew Bible certainly contains laws and narratives that reflect a horror of treating the name of Israel’s God with contempt (see Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:12; 1 Kings 21:10, 13). What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that it also contains traditions that, in effect, put the God of Israel on trial for exactly the sorts of issues to which Stephen Fry alluded in his interview with Gay Byrne. There are important traditions in which the role of the prophet seems to have been to challenge the justice of God, precisely in light of the evident flourishing of injustice and pain (see e.g. Jeremiah 12:1-4). This tradition of protest, found principally in the prophetical books and the Psalms, had a rich afterlife in the Jewish tradition, and has received renewed impetus in the wake of the modern enormity of the Shoah. What made such a tradition possible was the particular relationship between the believer and God implied by the covenant. God was to be encountered as a person, not simply defended as an idea.
There is one book, namely Job, which takes the possibility of cursing God as one of its fundamental themes. It is a book which uses ambiguity and irony as essential elements in genuine discourse about God, to an extent that subsequent translators, and later tradition, found difficult even to recognise, let alone to accept. Will a rich and pious man who has lost all his possessions and health maintain his piety, or curse God (Job 1:11; 2:5) and die (Job 2:9)? Job calls God to account for allowing his power to outweigh the demands of justice (Job 9:2-4), treating Job as an enemy without just cause (Job 9:17; 13:24), allowing the unrighteous to thrive (Job 21:7-26), and failing to redress the oppression caused by the wicked (Job 24:1-25). Moreover, he calls his friends to account for speaking falsely in God’s defence (Job 13:7-9). Ironically, it is the one whose words are tantamount to blasphemy who speaks the truth.
The book is ambiguous to the end. It is not clear whether God’s speeches (Job 38-41) put Job’s suffering and complaint in a cosmic perspective that shows the sufferer the bigger picture of God’s mysterious and beautiful order, or whether Job’s charge that God is a deity of power rather than justice is implicitly proved right by a divine monster. It is then not clear whether Job is satisfied by what God has said, or disgusted by it (Job 42:1-6). The reader must wrestle with questions such as this, and in the process wrestle with honesty and integrity with what her or his tradition has taught about God. This willingness to call sacred tradition into question in the name of intellectual and moral integrity seems a much healthier path to follow than one that sees a particular understanding of God as an idea to be defended at all costs.
- The Rev Dr James Harding is senior lecturer in Old Testament studies at the University of Otago, and a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Dunedin.