Bad Theology Leads to Bad Morality

An image deemed insulting to a prophet is printed in a newspaper. Religious leaders express their dismay. The common faithful see the picture as an attack on their religious beliefs. Welcome to the delicate world of religious sensitivities. But where are the violent protests? Fiery denunciations are not issued from pulpits up and down the land. No buildings are burnt down, and no death threats are issued to those responsible for the outrage.

This must be an alternative universe to ours, not unlike that in Douglas Adams’ “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”, where a group of devout members of the Church of the Second Coming of the Prophet Zarquon are dining in Milliways, the restaurant at the end of the universe.

This remarkable catering venture is built, of course, on the fragmented remains of an eventually ruined earth which are enclosed in a vast time bubble and projected forward in time to the precise moment of the End of the Universe. Of course, Zarquon’s followers have to sit through a routine by the restaurant’s entertainment host, Max, during which their prophet, whose Second Coming has been awaited for centuries by his followers, is lampooned for still not having turned up, with only minutes to go before the apocalypse. Instead of rioting and destroying the restaurant, as any self-respecting religious believer in our universe would, they merely shift in their seats, then sit rigid and stony-faced.

Max, seeing their disapproval, says to the audience, “No, but seriously though folks, seriously though, no offence meant. No, I know we shouldn’t make fun of deeply held beliefs, so I think a big hand please for the Great Prophet Zarquon …” (here, the audience claps respectfully) … wherever he’s got to!”

A Tamil daily, Makkal Osai, recently printed a reproduction of a popular Roman Catholic icon of Jesus Christ, the Sacred Heart, to illustrate its “Thought for the day” section. The inspirational verse was “If someone repents of his mistakes, then heaven awaits them”, a thought that the editors of the paper must have taken to heart in the days that followed; the picture — untraditionally, and to the dismay of some Christians — showed Jesus holding a can of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

Bishop Julius Paul of the Evangelical Lutheran Church rejected the apology printed in the following day’s edition of the newspaper. He called for the paper to be banned, citing the banning of two newspapers that had reproduced the Jyllands-Posten caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad the year before. Not having access to a device as useful as a fatwa, the bishop took refuge instead in claiming an ability to read minds, declaring that the apology was unacceptable because the publication of the picture “looked deliberate”.

Bishop Paul’s response should surprise no one; the banning of books, as well as their public burning (often with the author included in the conflagration), has long been part of Christian tradition.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Datuk Murphy Pakiam, also expressed his dismay, calling the picture “a desecration and therefore hurtful to the religious sentiments of Catholics”, but then went on to accept the paper’s apology and said that he considered the matter closed.

Unfortunately for Makkal Osai, the Christian tradition of raining destruction upon the sinner trumped the Christ-like tradition of showing the sinner mercy. The Internal Security Ministry suspended the paper’s printing permit.

The Catholic bishops’ weekly paper, The Herald, criticized the suspension: “Why was there haste and eagerness to punish the paper for a mistake that was already forgiven by the aggrieved party? The fact that the paper is owned by a MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) strongman and is at loggerheads with the current MIC leader smacks of political interference.”

The Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur said he was “perplexed and bemused” by the newspaper’s closing, and pointed out that “Christians believe in reconciliation”.

The burning of the Malaysian flag in Kuala Terengganu, Terengganu, this week has also been described as a “desecration”; MPs from the ruling coalition did not disappoint us in the enthusiasm of their rhetoric concerning the incident (they were somewhat more muted concerning the shooting of unarmed civilians). One MP said that those responsible for the flag-burning “should not be forgiven”. Another MP — developing on the theological theme — described the burning as “a big sin”. Following upon this, it was only to be expected that a third MP would declare that the flag-burners “should be sent to hell”.

This theology of the flag (semionology?) sheds some light on the attitudes of certain religious believers towards perceived desecrations of their sacred icons. Flags partake of the nature of tribal totems and, as such, are guarded jealously by the tribes concerned, particularly against the depredations wrought by rival tribes. Whether it be an ancient carved piece of wood handed down through generations of tribal shamans, a royal banner lost to an opposing army in mediaeval warfare, or the Stars and Stripes raised over Iwo Jima, a totem represents its tribe’s supremacy and very self. A lost flag is a lost battle, just as the destruction of tribal totems was seen as a premonition of the tribe’s own eventual demise.

Tribal totems and tribal gods share the same nature; the only reality they represent is the tribe itself. Is a prophet insulted if a picture of him is defaced, or if he is satirized? Can a supreme God be hurt if His (or Her) imagined form is destroyed or lampooned? Does Jesus Christ really care very much if he is shown having a beer, or is portrayed, as he was recently in Australia, as Osama Bin Laden? It is the worshipper’s amour-propre, his self­-regard, that is violated by such acts, not his God or his revered prophet.

Our images of God condition how we behave. If we believe in a God who readily condemns many to the violence of an eternal hell, we then become ready to accept and inflict violence as part of our religious observance.

Christians who still use the traditional language of “the wrath of God” tend to be wrathful persons themselves who would be only too pleased to see the wrath of God descend on those they deem to be lacking in virtue. When their God is remiss in defending His honour with thunderbolt or worse, such people often take it upon themselves to smite the sinner.

When Terrence McNally’s play, “Corpus Christi”, opened in New York, the Catholic League denounced as “blasphemous” its portrayal of Jesus and his disciples as homosexuals. The theatre received fire-bomb threats, and the staff and cast were told they would be killed. McNally himself received numerous death-threats from Christian zealots in the USA, and then, for good measure, and in the spirit of interfaith cooperation, found himself sentenced to death by the Shari’ah Court of the UK when the play opened in London.

Thomas Aquinas says in “Summa Contra Gentiles”: “Error circa creaturas redundant in falsam de Deo scientiam (mistakes about creatures lead to mistaken knowledge about God).” The converse is also true; mistaken knowledge about God leads to errors about creatures.

I always ask people who are outraged by apparent insults to their chosen deit: “How big is your God?”

We project many things onto God, but these are just that, fallible human projections that seek to make God in our own image. God is never limited by our images and our projections. If God is real, then He is a big God, beyond imagining, beyond insulting, and beyond the smallness of tribal projections and aspirations.

The celebrated Zen Buddhist koan or paradox expresses this apophatic theology: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The Buddha that you imagine you know, whom you defend against insults – he is not the Buddha, and you must rid yourself of him.

Was Makkal Osai banned because the authorities want to appear to be even-handed in the punishment meted out to anyone who offends the sensitive souls of the pious? If this were the case, then the numerous Islamic publications — sold in Malaysian bookshops –­ such as the works of (Muslim scholar of Comparative religion) Ahmad Deedat (Sheikh Ahmad Hussein Deedat, 1918-2005) that caricature and condemn Christian doctrines would also be banned.

Did MIC internal politics play a significant role in the paper’s downfall? The party has not hitherto been noted as a champion of Christian sensibilities and yet, it was inquisitorially zealous in its prosecution of the campaign against a newspaper that has been a trenchant critic of the current party leadership.

When Elizabeth I was urged to enforce greater Protestant orthodoxy in England, she is said to have responded, “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.” We could do with such reticence in matters of religious conscience in Malaysia today. When politicians take it upon themselves to defend to the death (always the death of others, and not their own) the honour of God, or of God’s prophets, we would do well to ask if they are concerned with eternal life or their own political life.

When our leaders run amuck in defence of their religion, we find ourselves wishing that they would pour a fraction of that energy into defending the rights of God’s poor, or into dismantling the baroque edifice of corruption and patronage that they, and their predecessors have built.

God is not insulted when images of His Son, or of His Prophet, are made into playthings. If you truly wish to mock God, then destroy the environment that He made for our dwelling-place in the name of development, abuse the migrant and the refugee, wallow in wealth while others struggle to make a living, ignore the rights of the dissident, the marginalized and the weak. Christians who worry too much about the offence done to a picture of Jesus should perhaps remember that the Bible tells us that it is humanity that is made in the image of God: the only desecration worth talking about is the harm done to humanity by our violence and our indifference.

The predominant Christian metaphor for the afterlife is that of a banquet where Jesus shares food and drink in fellowship with those who are saved, and which is prefigured in the meal he shared with his disciples before he was killed. It is ironic that the man who so loved wine that he changed water into wine, and drank a last cup of wine with his friends before his death, should be deemed to be insulted by being portrayed enjoying a can of beer.

Seriously folks, no offence meant. I know we shouldn’t make fun of deeply held beliefs, so I think a big hand please for Jesus Christ… whatever he’s drinking at the moment.


Father Aloysious Augustine Mowe is a Jesuit priest in Petaling Jaya. He wrote this piece on a Mac using a voice-recognition programme because he had a can of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

Makkal Osai is a Tamil-language daily owned by former MIC deputy president S. Subramaniam. The controversial image of Jesus appeared in the newspaper’s 21st August 2007 edition. Having been found to have “contravened a permit condition under sub-section 6(1) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984”, the daily was punished with a 30-day suspension on 24th August 2007.

First Published: 14.09.2007 on Kakiseni

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