Blasphemy and Soul Freedom
Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, January 19, 2015
When I was coming of age in the 1960’s and 70’s, I never dreamed that in the 21st century blasphemy laws would be a significant issue. That seemed such an archaic idea: that the government would punish someone for expressing religious views that offended others. I grew up in a time when in this country censorship disappeared almost entirely. You could print or say almost anything, some of it stuff I’d rather not see or hear, but that was the price of freedom.
But today we hear about someone being beaten or whipped or massacred for the crime of blasphemy against God or his Prophet all too often. It’s not just some radical fringe groups that see blasphemy as criminal. There are still 59 countries that have laws against blasphemy, conversion, or defamation of religion. Thankfully, there are 139 countries without such laws. Those governments who prosecute such laws are clearly violating the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948, which says that everyone has the right to freedom of religion, which includes the freedom to change religions, and the freedom of opinion and expression. It’s hard to understand why persecution of citizens with minority religious opinions is still tolerated and is of so little importance in our own nation’s foreign policy.
Christians like Baptists who stand for religious liberty and soul freedom sometimes find themselves accused of standing against the Bible. After all, civil laws against blasphemy are often based on the Law of Moses. The particular text in question is the one we read from Leviticus 24, which calls for the death penalty for the blasphemer. Let’s take a closer look at that passage.
This is one of only two stories in Leviticus, which is a book of laws. In the days right after the people of Israel had escaped Egyptian slavery, there was a man we would call biracial; his mother was Israelite and his father was Egyptian. These people had to live in a separate camp from the pure Israelites. One day this man wandered over into the other camp and no doubt was told that he was in the wrong neighborhood. He got into a brawl with one of the Israelites and in the middle of that used the sacred name of God in a curse. The rabbis were clear that this was a case of using the sacred name, which we pronounce Yahweh, to curse Yahweh himself.
This issue had never come up before. No one knew what the punishment should be, especially for someone who was not an Israelite but technically an alien. Moses had to wait to ask God what he should do. It may have been that Moses didn’t know whether Yahweh would punish such an offense himself or he would want the community to punish the blasphemer. In the account we have, Yahweh tells the people who heard the curse to take the offender outside the camp and lay hands on his head, symbolically transferring the pollution they had received back to him, and then to stone him to death. And this is what they did. This was understood as a law regarding anyone who blasphemed the holy name of God. This passage was the source of the practice of later Jews of not pronouncing the name, the four-letter name signified by YHWH, but instead substituting the word Adonai, Lord, or simply referring to God as Ha Shem, The Name. Rather than risking blaspheming the name, just do not say it at all—much less in a curse.
The Mishnah, an early collection of rabbinical legal opinions, said that the penalty of stoning applied only to using the Name to curse the Name, but Judaism extended blasphemy to include insults to the Torah or to Moses. There was also cultural blasphemy in which a practice so denigrated God that it was called blasphemy. In the book of Nehemiah, Ezra refers to the act of making the golden calf to worship as an act of blasphemy. But the other kinds of blasphemy never had a death penalty, even in theory, and there is hardly any evidence that anyone was ever tried for blasphemy in Judaism in post-biblical times.
Juxtaposed to all that we have the story of Jesus in the gospels. Jesus was accused of blasphemy, first when he claimed to have the authority to forgive sins, and then, according to John, when he claimed to be one with God. But the most important incident is the inquisition of Jesus held by an ad hoc group of priests and scholars, the religious leaders, late at night in order to find a way to make a case for capital punishment they could sell to the Romans. There are some false charges that clearly will not stick. But then the high priest asks Jesus directly, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One (that is, Yahweh)?” Jesus says, “I am.” But he doesn’t stop there, he goes on to say that he will be seated at the right hand of the Power (that is, Yahweh) and like God he will ride the clouds from heaven. To this audience, that is clearly blasphemy, because to compare oneself to God is to diminish God’s glory. The high priest is so upset that he symbolically rips his clothes and asks, “Why do we still need witnesses?” The council unanimously condemned Jesus to death.
When Christians think about blasphemy, you would think that they would remember that our own Lord was accused of blasphemy and arguably put to death for it, although the Romans had their own reasons. There are no instructions in the New Testament about defending Jesus’ honor. Rather, we are told to join Jesus in his dishonor. We are told to bless those who curse us. We are told that unbelievers are incapable of understanding because they have been blinded, and they are not to be blamed or punished by us. The early Christians were accused of blasphemy not only by Jewish leaders but also by the Romans, because they denied the validity of Caesar-worship. And yet, when the Christians came into political power after Constantine, they began to charge pagans with blasphemy against Christ. It was a terrible turn of events, and only one of the ways that the acquisition of state authority misled and corrupted the Church.
In the Middle Ages, the state had secular authority and the church had spiritual authority, so it was the church that dealt with blasphemy. In Islam, there was no such separation, and the state was a religious state. When you move forward to the situation in England after the Reformation, you have a state-run religion because the king is the head of the church. A challenge to the church is a challenge to the king, and blasphemy is close to treason. But the fact was that all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East it was normal for governments to enforce religious conformity. People who believed differently were uniformly charged with blasphemy even though they had never cursed God or done anything to violate Leviticus 24.
In the 1600’s this was true also in England and in the English colonies in the New World. There arose a small group who called themselves Baptist. Their first spokesman was Thomas Helwys, who wrote a book arguing that the king had no authority in matters of religion, and died for that belief in the Tower of London. The second great spokesman was Roger Williams, who founded the colony in which we live today. In 1644, Williams had a best seller in England with the title The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience. That word “tenent” is the word we spell “t-e-n-e-t,” meaning a principle or doctrine. Roger made the case that the church actually taught a doctrine of persecution of people who followed their conscience in spiritual matters, and that this was a “bloody” doctrine. He said that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, never wanted blood to be spilt over matters of conscience, that the scriptures do not call for the use of secular power to bring people to faith, that civil governments have no authority over religion or the church, and (listen to this) “It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries: and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only, in soul matters, able to conquer: to wit, the sword of God’s Spirit, the word of God.”
This was extremely radical stuff. Christians in Boston and New Haven were routinely prosecuting people for blasphemy and lack of church attendance or, say, celebrating Christmas. There was no nation on earth that separated the church from the state, the religious from the civil. This was long before what we call The Enlightenment, when such views became fashionable. But 19 years after that book was published, Williams and John Clarke succeeded in getting a charter for Rhode Island that allowed “a lively experiment” in having a purely secular state that permitted religious liberty for all. All the other colonies had witch trials, but not Rhode Island. Most had blasphemy trials, but not Rhode Island. Massachusetts hanged Quakers and Virginia jailed Baptist preachers, but Rhode Island was different. The believers here, most of them Baptists, stood for a new doctrine called “soul liberty,” the right of each individual to follow his conscience in matters of religion, and the necessity of each person to reach her own decision about Jesus Christ. Thank God for them and for those Virginia Baptists who pressed James Madison into adding the First Amendment to his draft of the new Constitution. I am proud to be an heir to that tradition.
I am sad to say that many Baptists drifted away from soul liberty. Even in one of the earliest Baptist confessions of faith, the freedom to hold religious opinions is upheld “so long as it is not contrary to Scripture.” What a terrible compromise with the Calvinists! And today some Baptists are the worst of all in calling for America to be a Christian nation, something that must make Roger spin in his grave or do a pirouette on his monument.
But we are not talking about ancient history when we talk about blasphemy laws in Great Britain or America. Several states (including Massachusetts and Maine) still have blasphemy laws on the books. Pennsylvania passed a new law against blasphemy in 2007! It was ruled unconstitutional in 2010.
There was a case in Morristown, New Jersey, near my old home, in 1887 that got a lot of attention from the New York City press long before the “Monkey Trial.” A Freethinker (a disillusioned Methodist) named C. B. Reynolds set up a revival tent in Boonton for a “Freethinker Revival” and passed out pamphlets saying that rational people could no longer accept the Bible’s authority and view of history and creation. He was defended in his Morristown trial by Robert Ingersoll, the most famous atheist and the most famous orator in America. You can still buy copies of that defense speech or find it on the internet. The jury of course found Mr. Reynolds guilty, but the judge said that the blasphemy law was so little used by that time that he could reasonably be assumed to have been ignorant of it, so he only fined him $25.
In England it was a judge’s ruling in a famous case (the Taylor case) in 1676 that moved blasphemy from canon law to common law—from being a church matter to being a matter for the courts, and countless cases were prosecuted from that point on. The U.K. only abolished blasphemy laws in 2008. As recently as 1976 a gay magazine was prosecuted for blasphemy because they depicted Jesus as a homosexual.
Today the U.S. takes free expression of opinion in matters of religion, however offensive, as a basic right. In the U.K. and Europe, though, there are threats to that freedom in the form of laws criminalizing the defamation of another religion. But the primary issue we face is that we are dealing with nations and groups that take blasphemy very seriously and worthy of the death penalty. These are not just radical groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda, but nations that we call allies.
In Pakistan there is a Christian woman named Asia Bibi who is sitting on Death Row because she was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and the death penalty was upheld by a high court last October. Her crime was that she took a drink of water from a well that was reserved for Muslims and then argued with other women at the well that Christianity is not a filthy religion with a bastard for a founder. In May of last year, a human rights lawyer in Pakistan defending a university lecturer accused of blasphemy was shot dead. In September a police officer shot a man convicted of blasphemy in his jail cell. In November, a Christian couple was lynched for alleged blasphemy, and two days later policemen hacked a man to death for saying something derogatory about the companions of Mohammed. All this in a country whose government we support.
You have no doubt heard of the case of Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia. He is the blogger who is charged with insulting Islam because his web site, “Free Saudi Liberals,” made a case for secular government and freedom of expression. He was sentenced to 1,000 lashes—50 lashes a week for 20 weeks. He received the first 50 last Friday, and his wife told Amnesty International that she didn’t know if he could survive the second 50. Flogging is prohibited under the Convention against Torture, which Saudi Arabia signed, and Saudi Arabia is also a member of the UN Human Rights Council. And is a staunch ally of the United States.
I am thankful for the liberty that we enjoy in this country as the result of people like Roger Williams. We don’t enjoy that liberty because this is a Christian country, but rather because it is not. We enjoy liberty because we have a secular government, which is what we should wish for the rest of the world. I am distressed that our own government does not seem to consider whether another nation allows religious liberty a factor at all in our foreign policy. I for one am going to keep calling our nation to stand up for liberty, and reminding people that it was blasphemy laws that killed my Lord Jesus. I pray that Baptists will be true to their original principles and continue pushing others to honor the soul liberty of every person. May it be so.