Faith and Freedom of Speech

When New York artist Andres Serrano plunged a Qur’an into a glass container of his own urine and photographed it under the title Urine for the Qur’an, he said he was making a statement on the misuse of religion.

Controversy has followed the work ever since, but reached an unprecedented peak on last week when it was attacked with hammers and destroyed after an “anti-blasphemy” campaign by French Islamic fundamentalists in the southern city of Avignon.

The violent slashing of the picture, and another Serrano photograph has plunged secular France into soul-searching about Islamic fundamentalism and Nicolas Sarkozy’s use of religious populism in his bid for re-election next year.

It also marks a return to an old standoff between Serrano and the religious right that dates back more than 20 years, to Reagan-era Republicanism in the US.

The photograph, full title Urine for the Qur’an, was made as part of Serrano’s series showing religious objects submerged in fluids such as blood and milk. In 1989, rightwing senators’ criticism of Urine for the Qur’an led to a heated US debate on public arts funding. Republican Jesse Helms told the senate Serrano was “not an artist. He’s a jerk.”

Serrano defended his photograph as a criticism of the “billion-dollar terrorism-for-profit industry” and a “condemnation of those who abuse the teachings of Mohammed for their own ignoble ends”.

The photograph had been shown in France several times without incident. For four months, it has hung in the exhibition I Believe in Miracles, to mark 10 years of art-dealer Yvon Lambert’s personal collection in his 18th-century mansion gallery in Avignon. The show is due to end next month, but two weeks ago a concerted protest campaign began.

The Muslim Brotherhood, a lobby group that says it aims to re-Islamize France, launched an online petition and mobilised other fundamentalist groups. The staunchly conservative Imam of Vaucluse, called Urine for the Qur’an “odious” and said he wanted this “trash” taken off the gallery walls. Last week the gallery complained of “extremist harassment” by fundamentalist Islamic groups who wanted the work banned in France.

Lambert, one of France’s best known art dealers, complained he was being “persecuted” by extremists who had sent him tens of thousands of complaint emails and bombarded the museum with spam. He likened the atmosphere to “a return to the middle ages”.

On Saturday, around 1,000 Islamic protesters marched through Avignon to the gallery. The protest group included a regional councillor for the extreme-right Front National, which recently scored well in the Vaucluse area in local elections. The gallery immediately stepped up security, putting plexiglass in front of the photograph and assigning two gallery guards to stand in front of it.

The above account is true but the religion has been changed to make a point. The original article is titled, Attack on ‘blasphemous’ art work fires debate on role of religion in France. It is decrying the narrow minded treatment of the “art” of artist, Andres Serrano. In nation’s which affirm freedom of speech and expression, one of the consequences is that sometimes, perhaps often, some will say or express things with which we would strongly disagree. The reason this peaked my interest is that if Serrano had actually done the same thing with a Qur’an, the same media which is shrieking about “Christian Fundamentalists” would be calling for Seranno’s arrest for inciting Muslims.

Here in the U.S, Pastor Terry Jones held a Qur’an burning and in response Senators Graham and Reid want to make Qur’an burning illegal.

Why the difference? Why defend an artist’s right to desecrate symbols used in Christian traditions but try to outlaw the use of Islamic scriptures in the exercise of free speech? Two reasons I think. First, Progressives in the liberal media and in politics, love to see themselves as defending the disenfranchised minority, especially if the minority is opposed to Christian values and teaching. Second and perhaps more importantly, Muslims are more likely to attempt to kill any who treat their sacred objects and/or Scriptures. They may even attack the media, politicians and/or nation that would defend such sacrilege as freedom of speech.

Am I surprised? No, not at all. This is not even one of those “we are victims” and are being persecuted for our faith type articles. Instead I am saying this should be expected. Christianity was the predominate worldview in the West for nearly 1700 years. I am not saying that all were Christians, they weren’t but the prevailing view of the world, morals, ethics, etc, were derived from Judeo-Christian thinking. As I have pointed out in past blogs as well as out Journals, Western culture has transitioned from a Christian Worldview to a Darwinian/Marxist/pagan worldview since the early 1900’s and took full charge in the 1970s and 80s.

Rather than being discouraged perhaps we need to revisit some of the things we find in Scripture. In John 15:18-19 Jesus said to His disciples:

“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.

The church and Christians spend entirely too much time trying to get non-Christians to like them. They do so at the peril of sacrificing the faith in favor of being liked. I am not saying that we should be intentionally offensive. Paul writes in Colossians 4:6:

Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.

Our response should be kind in spite of how others view us. I would suggest that Pastor Jones was wrong not because burning the Qur’an should be illegal but rather because our task as ambassadors to the lost is to “season” our speech. We are called to contend for the faith (Jude 3). That is to give a reasoned, rational argument for why we believe what we believe. In the process we expose false teaching and error. Rather than weakening the faith, it will strengthen the faith. This doesn’t eliminate free speech but encourages it. In the world of ideas Christianity can stand against all comers and has no fear of being questioned. The role of the church and church leadership is to train and equip believers to, as Peter writes:

always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame(1 Peter 3:15-16)

Yes, we will be slandered but our behavior will demonstrate to observers that it was slander. The result is unbelievers wanting to know the reason we are do not view ourselves as victims and we can share the truth of the gospel with renewed power.


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