The New Blasphemy

21 May 2013, 09:09 | Andrew Sorokowski's column | 2 |   | Code for Blog |  | 


The blasphemous stunts of FEMEN would merit little attention were they not part of a global trend. While blasphemy is nothing new, only recently has it become a form of public protest, gaining the attention of the press. But what does it mean? And how should Christians react?

The two questions are related. How we understand an act suggests how we should respond to it. On the most basic level, blasphemy is an insult, a show of irreverence towards God or a symbol of religion. It may involve words, like the name of Jesus, or images, such as the cross. True, the persistence of blasphemy in ostensibly dechristianized societies testifies to the perennial power of religious symbols.But the usual reflexive response on the part of believers is to condemn the blasphemer and demand punishment. The outrage of church officials and ordinary faithful has become an expected and stereotypical reaction.  In the Muslim world, blasphemy can be punished by death.

There may be more to the blasphemer’s motivation, however, than hatred of God and religion. Some observers consider FEMEN’s attacks on church symbols in Kyiv to be a laudable protest against the political involvement of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. As such, it would be similar to last year’s protest bythe women’s group Pussy Riot at a Moscow church. The Russian state understood Pussy Riot’s political message and responded politically, through the legal system. Yet FEMEN has also appeared in Western Europe, attacking the Roman Catholic Church. And it has targeted Islam. Its message,while vague and unfocused, is anti-religious. In a country that witnessed some of history’s worst anti-religious persecution less than a century ago, this is extraordinary testimony to the power of historical amnesia.

FEMEN’s tactics resemble an incidentlast April at Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S., where a female student half-dressed in mock papal regalia passed out condoms while anatomically desecrating the cross.  a Naturally, Roman Catholic bishop David Zubik protested against this insult to Catholics and Catholicism.But as Matthew N. Schmalz of the College of the Holy Cross commented, “…there is an ethics of offense that comes from a careful consideration of context and content, as well as tone and intent.” (“The ‘naked pope’ and Catholic outrage,” Washington Post, “On Faith,” May 5, 2013.). Sometimes, it is worth considering what may be going on in the mind of the blasphemer. A crude insult may stem from some inner anguish. Since sexuality goes to the core of humanity’s physical survival, while religion goes to the essence of its spiritual survival, it is not surprising that the relationship between the two is fraught with difficulties. And the Catholic Church’s teaching on this matter has been widely misrepresented and misunderstood. But why does anyone care what the Church teaches? Today people are free to leave the Church and live according to their own lights. And many do. Yet some are evidently tormented by the fact that a religion which is so obviously true and good makes such arduous demands. Perhaps they are secretly frustrated by their own failure to meet those demands, and vent their frustration on the Church. Or perhaps, on the other hand, they have found that a life “free” of rules of conduct brings no real satisfaction --yet cannot bring themselves to return to them.

All that, of course, is speculation. As a Russian churchman commented on last year’s Pussy Riot incident, the blasphemer’s sin is a matter between her and God.  One can speak  more confidently of what goes on in the mind of the offended believer. In his comments, Matthew N. Schmalzrelated the story of the Portuguese missionary priest in ShusakuEndo’s 1966 novel “Silence.” Faced with the agonizing choice between trampling upon an image of Christ and seeing his fellow Christians martyred, the hero hears Christ saying “Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.” It can be said that the current epidemic of blasphemy prolongs humanity’s trampling of Christ. And there is a kind of moral suffering, not spectacularly violent or physically painful like that of martyrdom, for those who must witness it.

And that, one may speculate further, could become part of the new role for the Church.  For the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the horrendous martyrdom of the twentieth century is history. For the younger generations, it is as remote as that of the seventeenth-century  Japanese Catholics, or of the Apostles themselves. To be sure, in today’s Asia and Africa, Christian martyrdom is a daily reality. But in Ukraine, the Church finds itself in much more ambiguous circumstances,  without a clearly defined role. It may well be that in twenty-first-century Europe (as well as America), the faithful are called to a less dramatic but more refined kind of suffering: the moral pain of seeing what they hold most sacred trampled on by their society and culture.

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  • toothache | 21 May 2013, 10:35
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    Dear Andrew Sorokowski, Why are your columns not available in Ukrainian? The kind of quite reasonable comments you usually give, are rather food for thought for a Ukrainian language audience. And, for sure, there are various kinds of blasphemy. The way gay folk are trampled upon in Ukraine - by Church folk alike - is in clear contravention of RC Church guidelines and an offense to their human dignity (which the Church does not deny). It mirrors anti-Semitism in times gone by. The problem with a lot of Church folk is that they don’t (re)read Luke 6:42 often enough or just don’t grasp that it is about them too (and even more).

    • Andrew Sorokowski | 4 June 2013, 00:39
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      Dear Toothache, I wish I had the time and ability to write columns in both languages! Once in a while, an article of mine is translated in the journal "Patriyarkhat" or elsewhere. I do occasionally give talks in Ukrainian, here in the USA. I think your comments are valuable, and thank you for sending them. with best wishes, AS

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  • enzian | 12 November 2019, 09:04

    R.I.P., КП.

  • serge1717 | 11 November 2019, 18:50

    гебешне лайно поперло

  • Paraeklezyarh | 11 November 2019, 14:54

    О, то у владики Філарета також мабуть є "спортивні секції активних прихожан"))) Щось це нагадує...

  • | 8 November 2019, 17:04

    І справді: новина ця дуже приємна і радісна! Як мовиться, процес пішов - і слава й хвала Господеві! Іншими словами, відповідна воля і план-задум Божого Провидіння й, зокрема, щодо долі і майбуття

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