Picture this: on the side of a van in a busy street, a larger-than-life representation of the holy Prophet himself, stepping out on a journey, perhaps en route to Medina during the Hegira. He is carrying a heavy burden. Between him and a bystander, who seems rather taken aback by this apparition, a bubble contains the words, “How much to Ballarat?”
The van belongs to an “art courier” called Artist Moving Artists, and you can see the image on its website (www.artistmovingartists.com.au/). But just before you check, of course the image doesn’t represent Mohammed. As if it would and the van still be driving freely around. Someone would have complained by now or sued under Section 18C citing Islamophobia. In some places – perhaps even here soon – the van would be torched or the driver decapitated.
No, the image represents Christ and He is carrying His cross, and for all the apparent ease with which he is depicted shouldering this burden, He is on His way to be crucified. The crucifixion of Christ, as Quadrant readers will not need to be reminded, but a lot of other people these days evidently do, is at the heart of the Christian religion. It and the scourging and long trek up the hill to Calvary which preceded it are not only sacred redemptive events for Christians but in human terms a horrifying sequence of brutality and suffering. So of course to a certain mind they are a perfect topic to make fun of, a golden opportunity for satirising a bruised and bleeding man on his way to a cruel death.
I don’t know about Christians in general, but the deriding of Christianity that is all around one today is usually water off a duck’s back to me. Even extreme examples of what used to be considered blasphemy, such as the Piss Christ affair some years ago, fail to move me. It’s not so much that I am good at turning the other cheek. It’s more that I think if some pathetic tosser can only attract public acclaim for his pseudo-art by dunking a crucifix in urine then taking a picture of it, he’s more to be pitied than censured. Botticelli didn’t need to do that.
Yet for some reason when I saw the artist’s art-moving van, it knocked me. Why, I thought, are Christians singled out for a mockery which if applied to any other social group would be condemned as “hate speech”? Why indeed are Christians so hated? What harm have they done? Yes, I know about the Inquisition and the Wars of Religion but there has to be more to it than that. People who deride Christianity often trot out these or similar events as justification, but this is disingenuous. Such people as are really anti-Christian are not so on account of something that happened centuries ago. Indeed they might not have any clear idea why they dislike Christianity, and horror stories from the past help them explain it to themselves. “Just think of all the terrible suffering religion has caused,” you hear people say, as though they feel some sort of excuse is needed for their own less than charitable attitude.
At the risk of over-simplification I suspect the explanation is something on the following lines. There are people who loathe Christianity because of its opposition to their liberal progressive social agenda. Their ideas, being congenial to the media, are constantly diffused throughout the community; and this, combined with the growing indifference to religion characteristic of prosperous societies, helps create a climate in which to ridicule Christians is socially acceptable.
Christians are thus fair game for anyone who wants to draw attention to himself by creating a frisson of shock in a society such as ours which, for all its efforts, has not yet wholly expunged Christianity from its consciousness. If you have a product to sell, like the artist-removalist, publicise it by making fun of Jesus. Just like Andres Serrano, the Piss Christ chap (has anyone heard of him since, by the way? We’d soon hear about him, via his obituary, if he were to essay a Piss Mohammed.). Just like those awful ABC television drama scripts whose writers attempt to give vigour to their leaden dialogue by having everyone say “Christ!” or “Jesus!” every five seconds. The ABC, of course, is most solicitous towards the sensitivities of the select social groups it approves of and puts up signs before certain programs warning viewers that they might be offended by this or that. Christians never merit this consideration from the national broadcaster, though it sometimes seems that there’s little the ABC transmits that doesn’t have the potential to offend them, if only in a program’s implicit views and assumptions.
Insensitivity to what Christians hold sacred is now normal behaviour. I spent time in hospital recently and in a bed across from me was a loud-mouthed middle-aged man, glued to football matches on his overhead television, who shouted “Jesus!” every time something roused him to comment. Above on the wall (and presumably unmoved by his invocations) was a crucifix: this was a Roman Catholic hospital, but no one complained about this taking in vain the name of the founder of the religion which supposedly inspires the hospital in its mission, and neither to my shame did I. That’s how people talk now. In pubs and other low places they always did, but polite society did not endorse such language in everyday life. Now no one cares.
They certainly don’t care about the van with Christ on it. I rang the principal of Artist Moving Artists – his name is Drasko Boljevic and he works as an artist when he’s not moving other artists’ art – and he told me he knew of no one who’d been offended by the image. “Oh yes, there was one lady who said she didn’t like it or something like that, but no one else and people have told me they think it’s funny.”
We know that if it were Mohammed on the van rather than Jesus not only Muslims would be protesting. More likely, in the race to have the image removed there’d be a photo finish between them and our home-grown politically correct. But what if the van carried some image disapproved of by the latter only? What if it bore the words, “Send asylum seekers home”, or “No wogs for Oz”? Gillian Triggs would have the vapours; the goons of No Room for Racism would have a field day. The cartoonist Leunig would produce a silly doodle showing the van as a Nazi death wagon. What if, more polemically, it asserted, “Feminism is a toxic heresy which has poisoned our culture”? What would the liberal-minded advocates of toleration who control the public discourse have to say about that? Imagine the letters to the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. Imagine the torrents of unladylike invective from Clementine Ford rising above the elderly squeaks of “Misogyny!” from Anne Summers.
Seeing that van made me wonder what it would take for Christians, who are still quite numerous in this country, themselves to use a bit of muscle against those who make fun of what they hold sacred. It almost certainly won’t happen, because Christians are obliged to show forbearance (“do good to them that hate you”) and, though they take a stand against issues they believe to be wrong and against the interests of society in general, defending their own faith is something they don’t put much effort into these days. Mr Boljevic told me he had delivered artworks to churches and “no one complained” about the image on the van. (The last big skirmish, apart from Piss Christ, was a protest by churchmen in the 1950s against the Sydney Royal Easter Show opening on Good Friday. Notwithstanding the greater adherence to Christianity 60 years ago, that attempt to defend the solemnity of the day of crucifixion ended game, set and match to the show, so much so that by 2014 a Royal Easter Show media release was able to boast of a “Right Royal Good Friday” at the show, the “royal” having nothing to do with the King of Kings, but referring to the presence at the showground of the future head of the Church of England, the Duke of Cambridge, and his consort.)
One further reason why Christians will not turn on those who deride them, I suspect, is that since the long-gone days when they were in the majority, Christians have been expecting that sooner or later they’ll again become outcasts in a hostile secularised world. And it’s happening before our eyes. If, though, their patience at hearing their faith made fun of ever did snap and wrath turned to violence, how many of the mockers and sneerers would have the courage of the Charlie Hebdo team and keep at it and how many would quietly decide that, as with jokes about the Prophet, that’s one place you just don’t go.
1 December 2015
Published in Quadrant