“Truth does not need a bodyguard” (Rhonda Strite)
The news out of Paris today (read here) is a reminder again of the power of ideas. Twelve people are dead and apparently in killed defense of something deemed sacred. Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper that showed less than flattering images of the prophet Muhammad, was the target of assassins today who apparently yelled “we have avenged the prophet” and fled the scene.
I do not believe these murderers speak for all Muslims nor even for the one they claim to have avenged and who should all be left to speak for themselves. However, what the violence does speak for is the power of ideas. It is obvious those responsible have been influenced to believe that prophets of God need to be honored by spilling of blood. It is an idea that ‘truth’ must be defended by violence.
Defending the Image of Our God
This idea of violence in the name of honor isn’t exclusively religious territory either. In fact, it is a quite common theme in personal romances gone sour. I don’t even know where to start a list of popular songs about the angry and jilted person taking out their wrath on the vehicle of the a former lover who insulted their dignity by choosing to be intimately involved with someone else. It is the same sentiment that leads a man to kill his wife and her new boyfriend in a fit of rage. It is a defense of honor. It is an idea that the other person did damage to you or the reputation of what you value and now deserves to be harmed in return. But this kind of behavior does beg a question about character and specifically the character of a person who thinks violence is their right when insulted.
Since I am not an expert on Islamic teachings, I will leave that analysis to those who are and stick to what I do know. What I do know well are teachings of another man who is recognized as a prophet by Muslims and that is the man named Jesus. The one who is called both “word” and “truth” in the Bible:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:6-7)
We, in this age of democracy and freedom of the press, can easily forget history. But there was a time not too long ago when insulting a king could cost a person their head. Throughout human history leaders have demanded, upon penalty of death, that their image be honored and even worshipped. In the time Jesus lived and his followers after it was no exception. There is speculation that the last book of the Bible was written in response to imperial cult in Rome to encourage believers who had to choose between faith and physical life.
A Different Image of God
Jesus was also referred to as a “king” or “lord” in scripture and yet one quite different from others in example. He was was the king who served in the lowliest capacity and in a way that even confounded his most loyal followers. He claimed a different type of leadership, a leadership by example and a radical idea even today in a day of competing individual rights:
“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
It is really an impossible standard in human terms. Even self-proclaimed Christians are seemingly not able to live out this standard. I am often caused to wonder about this commitment when I see outrage expressed over a song being played that openly calls religion a lie and overt concern with individual rights among those claiming to be of Christian faith. It would appear the image of Jesus some claim to defend with their anger is more like the prophet Muhammad than the man described as being stripped naked, beaten mercilessly without a word, humiliated and killed like a common criminal.
Killing as a response to blasphemy is not unique to Islamists and was taught as part of the law of Moses in the Bible. This Biblical law was enforced in ‘Christian’ United Kingdom (fully up until 1697 and in part until 1921) before falling out of favor. We could blame religion for this idea of killing to honor or defend a person and idea, but that would be ignorant of the many examples of those who killed only because they themselves felt disrespected. People have killed in the name of ideas ranging from defense of the Constitution of the United States to Imperialism and Marxism.
Does real truth need to be defended by killing those who dishonor it?
I believe an idea that needs us to kill to defend it is a weakling idea. A god established on the blood of those who offend is a puny god indeed. Unfortunately people like little gods and that includes many “people of the book” who confuse Bible for God and their own ideas for truth. They confine God to the understanding of their own mind and the work of their own hands. These are the fundamentalists who take offense on behalf of ‘truth’ and kill to defend it. But I believe in a truth greater than my own mind, one that frees me of need to kill others to defend it and is personified in our following the ultimate example of self-sacrifice:
“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
Many have killed in the name of Jesus. Many feel God is honored in their defense of prophets or books. Many study the scripture diligently without ever finding the word of God despite their best efforts and that is in fact recorded in the Christian scripture in John 5:16-47. But there is another way to live. I believe in a “way” a “truth” and “life” that is bigger than mere human knowledge. I believe in an advocate that is beyond my own efforts to religiously memorize texts or methods. The truth is a spiritual person and teacher, not a book or religion:
“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. […] But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:15-17, 26)
A Different Defense and Truth
The bigger view is that God can speak for himself and real truth does not need murder to protect it. Silencing the voices that oppose us is a weak defense. Do not kill the messenger and think you are defending truth. Instead, speak the truth with love, because God is love. There are many ideas that people use as justification to kill, but just one that is worth dying for and that is love.
“When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Luke 12:11-12)
The law brings judgement, but the Spirit brings love and life. That should be our source and guide to all truth.