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Asking the clergy: At what point does irreverence become blasphemy?

Marjorie E. Nunes

Marjorie E. Nunes Photo Credit: Hicksville United Methodist Church

In a free, multicultural society, a thin line can separate irreverence and the more serious charge of blasphemy. This week’s clergy discuss the scriptural basis for deciding when mocking religion crosses the line into sinful defamation and insult.

The Rev. Marjorie E. Nunes

Hicksville United Methodist Church

Irreverence is a lack of respect for people or things that are generally taken seriously. Wherein, blasphemy is the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence to a deity, holy persons or sacred things. Blasphemy is condemned in Christian theology. “But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:29) The teachers of the law attributed Jesus’ healing to Satan’s power rather than the Holy Spirit. Also, in Matthew, when Jesus healed and forgave the sins of a paralyzed man, some of the teachers of the law said, “This fellow is blaspheming” (Matthew 9:3). In this instance, the term blaspheming includes usurping God’s prerogative to forgive sins. We later read, “Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matthew 12:31).

The context suggests that the unpardonable sin was attributing to Satan Christ’s authenticating miracles done in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I have always felt that when people swear in the name of “Jesus Christ” that it is blasphemy. But this could be more of an irreverence for the sacredness of the name of Jesus Christ. Blasphemy of the Spirit, then, is not the occasional bad thought or episode of anger against God. Such things are sins, but they are not the persistent, deliberate rejection of the Lord’s work — the intentional lack of respect. Irreverence then becomes blasphemy when this continues to occur.

Rabbi Mendy Goldberg

Lubavitch of the East End, Coram

To gain an understanding of what blasphemy may or may not be, we ought first understand where this prohibition comes from and what it’s directed at. At the dawn of human history, God gave man seven rules to follow in order that his world be sustained. This universal moral code is the acknowledgment that morality — indeed, civilization itself — must be predicated on the belief in God. Unless we recognize a higher power to whom we are responsible and who observes and knows our actions, we will not transcend the selfishness of our character and the subjectivity of our intellect. If man himself is the final arbiter of right and wrong, then right for him or her will be what he or she desires, regardless of its consequences to the other inhabitants of earth. One of these laws is “Respect the Creator.”

As frustrated and angry as you may be, do not vent it by cursing your maker. The other laws include: Establish a judicial system, do not worship idols, do not engage in forbidden relations, do not murder, do not steal, do not consume a limb from a living animal.

Irreverence is defined as a lack of respect for people or things that are generally taken seriously. For those behaving in such a manner, their lack of respect is because they do not care for a higher standard and wish to debase a godly morality. By engendering themselves and the world around them with irreverence for the almighty, they are being blasphemous. However, when it comes from a cry of despair, or a lack of knowledge, and ambivalence of not knowing what is sacred, the irreverence is not excused, but cannot be called blasphemous.

Salaam Bhatti

National spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, USA, and member, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community mosque in Amityville

There is much ignorance about blasphemy and apostasy in Islam coming from both Muslims and non-Muslims. This ignorance results in people thinking Islam prescribes punishment for these two things, which results in Islamophobia. Pew reports that more than 60 percent of Americans do not know a Muslim, which cements the Islamophobia. It must be unequivocally stated that the Quran (the holy book for Muslims) clearly shows that there is neither a punishment for blasphemy nor for apostasy. If someone commits blasphemy, Islam advocates complete restraint, because the Quran states, “And the servants of the Gracious God are those who walk on the earth in a dignified manner, and when the ignorant address them, they say, ‘Peace!’ ” (25:63). Rather than prescribing violence, the Quran prescribes just the opposite. Additionally, it addresses blasphemy on five separate occasions but never permits any worldly punishment for it. There is no worldly punishment for apostasy because faith rests in God’s jurisdiction. The Quran teaches, “And if Allah had enforced His will, they would not have set up gods with Him. And We have not made [Muhammad] a keeper over them nor art thou over them a guardian” (6:107) and “There is no compulsion in religion.” (2:256). These verses show that no person has any right to compel others in matters of faith. Islam condemns any worldly punishment for apostasy and blasphemy because it recognizes that only God can judge such acts. Therefore, Islam advocates freedom of religion and speech.

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