I’m not sure blasphemy (a word from the Greek blasphemos, meaning “evil speaking”) is the right word for what Florida pastor Terry Jones did. To my mind, blasphemy has two levels. The first is honest and conscientious expression of non-Orthodox opinion. If I have the following exchange with a Christian, for example, I’m clearly expressing blasphemous opinions:
Believer: Why aren’t you a Christian?
Me: Because I suspect that the triune God is imaginary and I doubt that Jesus rose from the dead.
To express such views concerning the trinity and Jesus are, from the vantage of the Orthodox Christian, blasphemous. They are expressions of evil speech, and are therefore offensive and displeasing to the ears of the Almighty.
And this is where blasphemy takes on its second characteristic: owning the appellation of evil speech that the Orthodox attach to it. If the Orthodox are going to call non-Orthodox opinion “evil speech” (and not merely the honest expression of dissent), then there are some people who wish to theatrically embrace the stigma as a kind of reductio ad absurdum. And so we end up with fundraising stunts like this:
The Center for Inquiry, in its regular confusion over what fund-raising gimmick to try on next, made 2009 its first international Blasphemy Day and invited people to send in cartoons, jokes, slogans, and anything else to show just how lucky we all are to live in a country that cherishes free expression and where Nothing and No-one is sacred.
In the Blasphemy Day example, notice that an overt act of blasphemy is used, not just to mock religion, but to affirm the right to unfettered speech.
So all three forms of blasphemy—as an expression of conscience, as theatricality, and as an assertion of speech rights—are, in my view, in accord with liberalism. But in an age in which image (not speech and print expression) drives mass communication, there is the temptation to shock, not with words, but in the destruction of sacred objects and symbols, and this is not exactly blasphemy but iconoclasm.
Unlike blasphemy, which is utterly consistent with a liberal society, iconoclasm is more borderline in nature—an act substantially less liberal. If, for example, one blasphemes a religion—either in the honest expression of non-Orthodox opinion, in holding it up for ridicule and parody, or as an assertion of the absolute right to do so—there is still an implicit social contract in effect. Something in a free society is being argued and thought about with words among literate people.
Not so with iconoclasm. With iconoclasm something eliminative is going on. You are done with talk. You are in the realm of both symbolic and literal destruction. You want the public square wiped clean of a group, and to demonstrate this you destroy the physical objects associated with that group. And the message reaches not just the literate but the illiterate, who might then feel impelled, in the name of their dignity, to “retort” with the only tools at their disposal (some sort of counter iconoclasm or violence).
There are numerous examples of iconoclastic behavior in the Bible. After St Paul, for example, preached the gospel in Ephesus, and won numerous converts, the Book of Acts says, with approval, that there was a book burning (19:19-20 KJV):
Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed.
Book burning is closely akin to iconoclasm (the destruction of things sacred to others), and when we think of iconoclasm, we perhaps think first of the destruction of temples or the smashing of idols, as in this fearful gesture of iconoclasm under the Taliban-like reign of the zealous monotheist Jehu, recorded in the Bible, in II Kings 10:26-27 (KJV):
And they brought forth the images out of the house of Baal, and burned them.
And they brake down the image of Baal, and brake down the house of Baal, and made it a draught house unto this day.
A “draught house” is a polite way for the King James translators to tell us that the ruins of Baal’s temple were used by the Judeans as a place to take a piss.
Book burning and iconoclasm have disturbing precedents not just on the “Jerusalem” side of Western cultural history, but also is represented on the “Athens” side as well, as when Aristophanes, in his comic drama Clouds, ends the play with the gleeful burning of the school of Socrates (which presumably possessed books as well). Plato famously attributed at least part of the reason for Socrates’s death to the popular prejudicial passions inflamed against him by Aristophanes’s play.
And atheists are not immune from the temptation to iconoclasm either, as when, in the summer of 2008, P.Z Myers, in a bizarre and hysterical anti-Catholic rant, asked his readers at his popular blog, Pharyngula, to sneak a consecrated Catholic host out of a Catholic church and send it to him. He said that he wanted to record himself desecrating it, and then post it on the Internet:
Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I’ll send you my home address.
Of course, P.Z. Myers scored his Catholic wafer and satisfied himself with a public gesture of desecration, joining the ranks of other iconoclasts and book burners, a short list of which includes these:
- John Calvin in his destruction of Catholic art and icons in Geneva;
- Nazi book burners in Vienna;
- anti-Vietnam War American flag burners in the 1960s;
- Taliban fundamentalists in Afghanistan gleefully dynamiting the Bamyan Buddhas; and
- fundamentalist Pakistanis burning Danish flags.
Such behavior has an ugly history both within the Bible and without it. Here’s a 16th century depiction of Protestant Calvinists engaged in an iconoclastic “cleansing” of a Catholic cathedral:
Thus, whereas blasphemy can be a prelude to thought, iconoclasm is most frequently a prelude to war (or something accompanying war).
So Terry Jones is more an iconoclast than a blasphemer. His illiberal St Paul-like book burning iconoclasm was met (by a largely illiterate and impoverished mob in war-torn Afghanistan) with an illiberal Jehu-like iconoclastic escalation (an attack on a symbol which many in the West regard as sacred—Enlightenment secular humanism). That secular humanism symbol was embodied in the form of a United Nations building. What, however, to call those who then decapitated United Nations workers in response to pastor Jones’s iconoclasm are a bit easier to define. They’re not just iconoclasts. They’re murderers.