River Wissey Lovell Fuller

March 2006 Anglican Church Letter

March 2006

Keith puts a new slant on the Mohammed cartoons and examines how best Christians should adapt to the 21st century

I suppose it is rather dangerous to get into the current international controversy about the Mohammed cartoons, first published in the Danish press. But we all have views on these things and we do not always stop and try to work them out. It is good to leave reaction until after thought (which is not to say that it should be simply an afterthought). Jesus reduced the Commandments to two - Love your God and Love your Neighbour. He turned what were mainly prescriptive instructions and denials ('Thou shalt not . . .') into positive instructions on how to lead the good life. As fundamental concepts, they are acceptable to most civilised people, even atheists who will not find it hard to find an appropriate word to substitute for God - eg Nature. Most Christians and not a few Jews don't read too much of the Books of Moses in the Bible, where there are pages and pages of detailed prescriptive rules and regulations. There are also a myriad of behaviour habits ingrained into our societies, which we seek to protect more or less jealously. The Muslim habit of paying attention to the Quran and to the traditions of their religion is hardly unusual or revolutionary.

At the very end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, we read of the end times, when heaven and earth are swept away and there is a new heaven and a new earth. Everything starts again with a clean slate. I suppose in that new ideal world, there will be no laws or rules. Everyone will be free to do as they wish, but will nonetheless behave with compassion and concern for those upon whom they have an impact.

We live in Europe, where the law of custom rules, subject only to statute law. What is not forbidden by statute we are free to do. This is substantially moderated by the basic 'Roman' law of many continental countries, where conceptually, you can only do what the law permits, but the old pre-Napoleonic Common Law still exists to some degree. Similarly, it contrasts with the situation in many Muslim countries. Hence, the Danes are free to publish what they like, subject to libel law. But Muslim countries cannot understand how it is that the Danish Government cannot apologise for what their free citizens did, however unfortunately, unfairly or even downright insultingly.

What went wrong and what can we do about it? Well, nothing went wrong in a legal sense. But some people, specifically one or more newspapers, were gratuitously offensive to a very large proportion of the world's population. Unfortunately, that group of people to a great extent live in countries where 'free speech' is not a right that has embedded itself in their national consciousnesses. Moreover, as religious people, they have sensibilities, which we have substantially lost in England. It is not that long since the blasphemy laws in England would have been supported by the majority of the English and enforced - to protect Christian sensibilities. Now as a largely secular society, we have made laws banning Irish jokes, but not against religious jokes, even those in appallingly bad taste.

For some years, my daughter wore a wooden bangle saying 'WWJD' on it - 'What Would Jesus Do?' Well he would have argued for ever with what he thought was wrong with the Muslim religion, but he would never have insulted them or the religion as such. Most Christian Churches throughout the world (regardless of denomination) now use the Common Lectionary, which sets out readings from the Bible for every day of the year, covering almost all of it over three years. On a recent Sunday, Churches everywhere will have read the story of Jesus curing a leper. Interestingly, once he had done that, Jesus told him to go to the priest and to obey the law of Moses. An appropriate glance at the Book of Leviticus will tell you what the cured leper would have to do as a result of the cure - and what he had to do depended on whether he was rich or poor. The point is that Jesus was telling him to obey the law. Later he made the more famous requirement that we 'Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's'.

Jesus commanded his followers to honour the law (even that imposed by a foreign occupying power) and the customs (the Jewish law in the leper's case) of the country. The Danish papers - and even more so the other papers throughout Europe who thought to support their Danish colleagues, by doing the same thing - were guilty of terribly bad taste - gratuitously so - and their targets have grossly over-reacted. The papers broke customary standards of behaviour - of which many papers are frequently guilty, in England as much as anywhere else - but not the law.

This means that we are in an impasse - where we can only condemn behaviour as bad, but permissible, but Muslims believe that such behaviour should be banned (as it is in their law), condemned and punished - a Mexican stand-off. I doubt that many of the readers of this would want to change our law to accommodate or incorporate these particular Muslim laws.

In recent months, I have been very fond of repeating St Francis of Assisi's injunction to his disciples to go out and preach the Gospel and, if necessary, to use words! This is I think our best response. We have to condemn, with words, bad behaviour of any sort, including the offering of gratuitous insults, but, more importantly, we have to show in our lives and our actions that we respect all peoples and all faiths and non-faiths that subscribe to those two commandments of Jesus, whether they accept that they emanate from him or not.

Keith MacLeod

Licensed Lay Minister

Keith Mcleod

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