I take it that this topic – making fun of Jesus – is fitting for this time of the year, which is conventionally regarded as that time when attention is focused on the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. During a part of the last earthly days of Jesus he was made fun of. But I confess that I have never heard a sermon or lecture on this theme, only ever a passing reference to the crown of thorns.
So reflecting on this at greater length is a fitting thing, and one that may have a certain freshness to it. And I would say a theme to be preferred to the more routine discourses on ‘the death of God’, which find their inspiration more from Nietzsche than from the New Testament. But I also think it is timely. So I wish to link it to a topic of current interest, to freedom of expression and its limits.
The incident of the crown of thorns was part of the fun. The no doubt tedious lives of the battalion of soldiers were enlivened by a little pantomime they devised entitled ‘The king of the Jews’ and performed, fittingly enough, inside the palace, the governor’s headquarters. With the connivance of the powers that be, therefore.
‘The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself”. (Lk. 23.36-7). Another part of the game was to dress Jesus ‘in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns they put it on him’. So ironically they made Jesus the King of kings ‘play king’. They began to salute him, ‘”Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.’ (Mark 15.17-20).
What did Jesus do in return? He endured the cross and despised the shame. Game over. Except that they fancied Jesus’ clothes and at the very end they raffled them. They don’t seem to have done the same with the purple cloak.
All this is taken up by Peter in his first letter under the topic of ‘reviling’. Jesus was reviled, Peter says. But when he suffered, he did not threaten. But not just that. He did not try to get his own back. ‘When he was reviled he reviled not again’. We might say that ‘like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.’ Why was that? What did he keep silent? The answer must be that this was his way of showing that he was entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (I Pet. 2. 23f.)
But what has liberty to do with this? Some posts ago we looked at Calvin’s view of liberty. An important strand of his outlook which is often overlooked is that liberty according to Calvin is, of its very nature, two-way, what used to be called a liberty of indifference. Not merely freedom from, but freedom to and from. Calvin says that the liberty of regeneration, the bondage from which Christ has made us free, is to be part of our characters, our hearts. This freedom is not best expressed in the keeping of a law, a new law. (Incidentally, you’ll notice that in the passage mentioned above, Peter might have reminded his readers of the law’s golden rule, but instead his teaching has a distinctive NT, Christological, centre to it.) We are as a consequence of such liberation new men and women in Christ. We have no other destiny.
Yet, Calvin says, the obligations of the laws of whatever country we live in, in one or other of the passing kingdoms of this world, are nevertheless not optional, provided that the keeping of such laws does not force us to sin. Rather we are to internalize these laws, making the keeping of them a matter of conscience. Why? Because the state is the minister of God. It is interesting (to me at least) that Calvin believed that the church should not enact new laws, but that the state may, and perhaps must, in order to continue effectively to govern in new circumstances. Our conscience has to respect both activities. It ought to tell us not to obey what the church has no business to enact, but to obey new laws of the state.
But aside from these negative and positive attitudes to commandments, the Christian believer, and Christian citizens, have liberty. There are adiaphora, things indifferent. As I’m saying, I think that the word ‘indifferent’ brings out the character of Christian liberty better than the mere word ‘liberty’ does.
Where we have such liberties, we may not take maximal advantage of them. Calvin was an advocate of Christian liberty, but he was not a liberty-maximiser. We might say, Calvin was not a libertarian, regarding liberty and its pursuit as the basic value. He was not an advocate of a minimal state, or such like. It was no part of his gospel. He wasn’t a one for advocating political change except insofar as the interests of the church were involved.
They say they are things indifferent: I admit it, provided they are used indifferently. But when they are too eagerly longed for, when they are proudly boasted of, when they are indulged in luxurious profusion, things which otherwise were in themselves lawful are certainly defiled by these vices….Certainly ivory and gold, and riches, and wine, are the good creatures of God, permitted, no destined, by divine providence for the use of man; nor was it ever forbidden to laugh, or to be full, or to add new to old and hereditary possessions, or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine. This is true, but when the means are supplied to roll and wallow in luxury, to intoxicate the mind and soul with present, and be always hunting after new pleasures, is very far from a legitimate use of the gifts of God. (Inst. III.19.9)
In view of what follows, it is important to stress that Calvin is not a reliable guide to matters of toleration. He thought in a Constantinian way. The Reformed church was to have a specially privileged position because it was the magistrate’s duty to ensure that it alone enjoyed freedom, and to sanction the use of the civil law to silence those who deviated from Reformed orthodoxy, such as Jerome Bolsec and Michael Servetus, as fomenters of civil disorder.
But what of the liberty of those like the Roman soldiers, who made fun of ‘The King of the Jews’? The question of freedom of speech in society exercises many at a time when political correctness has suddenly become the political orthodoxy. There are certain things you may not say, certain words that suddenly have become taboo, certain ideas that you may not air. Besides these, the exercise of traditional liberties are threatened from Islamic terrorists who at the drop of a hat will spray bullets at upholders of freedom of speech. In such circumstances it is tempting to defend such freedom in a retaliatory framework. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Here’s what I suggest. As a part of his general outlook to defend and uphold personal liberties, a Christian ought in to be an advocate of freedom of speech. He enjoys such liberties, and in equity others should enjoy them too. He should take this position knowing full well that his fellow-citizens will use these freedoms in a retaliatory manner, and so misuse them.
But though it is tempting for a Christian to join them, he may not go down that path. It is tempting to respond to Muslim violence with violent acts of one’s own. A Christian may hold that possessing political liberty he may fight fire with fire. But when Christ was reviled he did not revile in turn. That example should be sufficient. In the face of terrorism and its threats and bloody actions, many make freedom of speech a social and political absolute. So they threaten Muslims, along with any one else they may feel inclined to target. Christians ought not to follow them, but to exercise restraint. Because Christians are made fun of, and feel the offensiveness of blasphemy and of lampooning, it is not a sign of weakness when they are not hurtful in return. It is a sign of strength. When I am weak, then am I strong.
At this point Christians say (or they are told) that they should be prepared to laugh at themselves, or take a joke at one’s own expense. And I suppose that we all should do this, even desperately serious secularists, and desperately serious Christians, and weirdos of various hues. It’s hard to keep a straight face, I know. But if people are genuinely hurt by opposition then Christians should not add to their hurt.
Paul’s conduct as an apostle went a step further: ‘When reviled, we bless, when persecuted, we endure, when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things’. (I Cor. 4.12-13) I suppose this response is part of not pronouncing judgment before the time. (I Cor. 4.5) Peter said as much. Jesus believed that now is not the time for judgment. His silence was ominous, though the soldiers did not think so. We are to entrust ourselves to him who judges justly. But in any case the exercise of such freedom is not an absolute right. Christians aren’t to be libertarians.