We're familiar with the pattern by now: artist or performer produces work seen as insulting to Islam; threats ensue; artist or performer backs down. In the case of the infamous South Park Episode 201, it wasn't the creators who backed down but their network, Comedy Central. Trey Parker and Matt Stone usually get away with throwing mud pies at various religious figures, but this time Mama said no. Don't toss that stink bomb, boys; you could get our heads cut off. That was the actual threat, implicit or not, after Episode 200 featured the prophet Muhammad in a bear costume. A post by New York blogger Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee included a picture of the partially decapitated body of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gough, with whom radical Islam had its disagreements. Warning, Parker and Stone: This could happen to you.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that the Times Square car bomber's vehicle was parked near the headquarters of Viacom, Comedy Central's parent company. To nervous studio executives, discretion seems the better part of valor, at least in this case. There are other ways to push the envelope. How about this: a cartoon comedy series called JC, featuring an all-powerful but indifferent Father whose divine Son seeks excitement in New York City. Programming head Ken Alterman was asked the inevitable question: Won't Christians be offended? "In general, comedy in its purest form always makes some people uncomfortable," he helpfully explained. But, he added, the show is still in development and potential offendees shouldn't jump to conclusions.
By now everyone knows that making Christians uncomfortable is much safer than poking certain quarters of the Islamic community. A more interesting question: Now that radical Muslims have demonstrated how easy it is to shut down blasphemy, why don't Christians show the same outrage at brazen ridicule of their Lord? The organized boycotts of the last 20 years have fizzled, and attempts to reclaim the media have faltered-we seem either powerless or apathetic. Why aren't radical Christians as dedicated to our beliefs as radical Muslims are to theirs?
We are-but radical Christianity is, to say the least, different. Culturally, we have a long tradition of freedom of conscience rooted in the Reformation and freedom of expression spurred by the Enlightenment. Biblically, we are called to appeal and persuade, not threaten and coerce. Our message is, "Believe in Christ because . . ." not, "Believe in Christ or else." Our job description is to make disciples, not break dissenters. And when we are persecuted the Lord says, "Vengeance is Mine."
But there's something else, too. He who dwells in unapproachable light deliberately made Himself vulnerable to human mocking. Those who beat, spit upon, and facetiously bowed down to Him did so with His full cooperation. His response was to beg mercy for them, "for they know not what they do." Shouldn't that be our response? Stone, Parker, Alterman, Al-Amrikee-such were some of us. May the Father be merciful to them and bring them to repentance. The alternative is terrible to contemplate, because there's a flip side to mercy.
Several years ago I questioned a young friend about her enthusiasm for the movie Dogma, which portrays God as a slightly flaky girl. In all seriousness, my friend told me that "God has a sense of humor." He may, but it's not earthly humor, which is often one step removed from humiliation. God never laughs at Himself. What's appropriate for us is antithetical to Him-holiness is often joyful, but never funny.
Be not deceived; God is not mocked. Jesus Christ is the One who offends. Those who present Him as a docile pushover are as blasphemous as the creators of JC. He is a rock that makes men stumble-you either stand on Him, or you trip over Him. He's thrown among us like a gauntlet, the ultimate challenge: Every individual on earth will one day be judged by Him. When God laughs (see Psalm 2) the joke is on us.
Email Janie B. Cheaney