Maybe it is just a pious fantasy, but if we Christians were as passionate about the mistreatment of actual human beings, including those outside the church, as we are about our symbols and the loss of our privileged place in Western society and elsewhere, maybe our Godward face would have more credibility in this world.
These days we face regular periodic uproars over religious offence, including depictions of Jesus in the mass media. Another case is the recent news story, "Jesus Caricature Draws Flak in Malaysia." The offending newspaper is in "hot water" with angry Christians and angry Muslims alike.
Earlier this month (August 2007) Malaysia's Muslim-led government slapped a one-month publishing ban on Makkal Osai, the Tamil daily, for printing a caricature of Jesus holding a cigarette and a can of beer.
According to an Assist News report, "The daily apologized for the publication, but [Malaysian Indian Congress] deputy president G. Palanivel urged the country’s internal security ministry to act against the newspaper for hurting the feelings of Christians in the country."
When Jesus was in the very process of being cruelly executed, he asked the Creator of the Universe to "forgive them, they don't know what they are doing." But his followers and admirers want the coercive forces of the government to "act against" offenders.
Isn't there a more imaginative way to respond? What about asking the newspaper to host a panel discussion on what to do when people are offended? Or submitting another cartoon in response, showing Jesus reading a newspaper with yet another "violence in the Holy Land" headline and saying, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing."
How hard it is for us to understand that Jesus is not an object of austere reverence, but a loving brother, the firstborn of God's heirs, and we're right in there with him. Only with Jesus by our side, not on our wall, can we have the perspective to challenge the same forces in our time that objectified and tortured and murdered him 2000 years ago.
And we need to recognise that those forces, luring us into arrogance and objectification of the other, are partly inside us. We don't overcome those forces by turning right around and practicing that same objectification, that same impulse to punish, that led Jesus' executioners to wish to delete him from the human family.
If we don't learn this lesson, we earn the derision we get from principled religion-haters like Bill Maher, the American comedian, actor, writer, and producer. Sometimes when I watch a Maher clip, I cheer for the passion he displays. But somehow he cannot see that for many of us, the ground for that passion is the crucified and risen Saviour who opens our eyes to the cost of torture.
Johan Maurer is a freelance writer and recorded Friends minister living in Portland, Oregon, USA. His weekly commentaries appear on Can you believe?