The following excerpt is from a sermon preached at Westminster Abbey last Sunday by the Anglican priest Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian of the Abbey. Needless to say, it concerns a very difficult subject; I suspect that many of us would want to revise a sentence or two in the sermon. But I do think that Canon Sagovsky – who has played an important role in the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue – has something important to teach us here:
But what about the freedom not to be a Christian, the freedom to be converted away from Christianity, the freedom to satirise the Church and the freedom to satirise Jesus Christ (as with ‘Jerry Springer the Opera’)? With the last, there is a fine line to be drawn, because we know that if people do not see how hurtful to Christians sacrilegious satire can be they may think we do not care at all – whereas we care profoundly. Nevertheless, I believe there are profound theological reasons not to seek to defend by legislation what to us is holy, and certainly not by violence. These reasons lie in the incarnation and the crucifixion, two of the most central truths for Christianity.
Christians believe that in Jesus Christ the holy God took human flesh, and in the Gospels we have a true record of this event. By taking human flesh, God freely and in perfect love, gave himself away- into human hands. What then became of God was for human beings to determine. With the incarnation, God made himself vulnerable as never before. What happened to Jesus Christ was what happened to God, just as what happens to a child may hurt and wound a parent. When challenged about his lack of resistance to those who came to arrest him, Jesus said very clearly that he could have called on all the forces of God (he talks of ‘twelve legions of angels’) to defend him, but he chose not to. His way was to submit to human violence and in doing so to break the spiral of violence in which we are all enmeshed.
In the events leading up to the crucifixion, we see the one who represents for us the perfect image of God spat on, flogged, mocked (he was dressed up satirically as king, wearing on his head a crown of thorns), rejected, and horribly tortured to death, and we see his reaction: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. When God has made himself utterly vulnerable to human abuse, both verbal and visual, Christians have rightly concluded that it is not our business, indeed it is profoundly dangerous to our spiritual health, to seek to defend God. Paradoxically, it is God who defends us from hatred and anger as the Holy Spirit cultivates within us the gifts of love, joy and peace, and reminds us insistently to pray for those who hate us.
Surely, this gives us a clue as to how Christians should approach participation in a plural society, where the Christian faith is bound to be satirised and attacked. We should be prepared to be vulnerable as God is prepared to be vulnerable. And we need to remember that what Jesus did in his profound vulnerability was done for those who neither accepted nor loved him. It was done for all, and all, whether they accept it or not, are included within his love. On this theological basis, Christians struggle and yearn for a society in which all are truly included. As Christians, who pray ‘thy kingdom come’, we are committed to playing our part in an inclusive and plural society, where the concerns of each become the concern of all. If my Muslim sister or my Muslim brother is offended, then I share their hurt – but always under the imperative of working peaceably for peace and reconciliation.
For Christian disciples, there are Christian reasons to thank God for the freedom of religion and freedom of speech we now enjoy; for Christian disciples there are Christian reasons passionately to defend these freedoms, always remembering that in the end it is not we who by our strength defend God but God, who in his weakness, defends us.