In the news recently Muslims are protesting the shaming of their prophet
Unless you’ve been intentionally avoiding all forms of news media over the last several months, you know that around the world Muslims have been protesting about a low budget film that makes fun of their prophet, Muhammad. We’ve seen vandalism, violence, killing, and the declaration that all those who offend their religion of insult the prophet should lose their head. The most recent turn of events as I write this is that a government minister in Pakistan has put a bounty on the head of the filmmaker. Killing him is now a way of making a quick $100,000. It is disturbing, and it certainly invites the inevitable comparison between religions as to “which one makes better people,” along with the equally inevitable roasting of the old chestnut that “religion causes violence.” Apparently violence carried out in the worship of nationalism gets forgotten when that argument is wheeled out.
As Christians where does the issues of pride, honour, shame, humiliation and self-sacrifice fit in?
But as Christians, all of this gives us the opportunity – one that we should all take, I think – to look again at the issues of pride, honour, shame, humiliation and self-sacrifice, and the role that they play at the very centre of our faith.
Doubtless, plenty of people who were anticipating the Messiah would have been hoping for a warrior King to deliver them – someone who would inspire the people to rise up and throw off their yoke of oppression. In the prophet Mohammad we have all that and more as he issued the rallying call to take up the sword. He was about as great as men come – a skilled general winning many battles through tactical genius and ruthless force. Those who revere him see evidence that he was God’s man in the many victories he won. Although he was eventually tricked and killed (poisoned), the mark of his life was his greatness, fearsomeness and military prowess. To speak ill of this man, to belittle or insult him – unthinkable, met with harsh redress. This was a man of honour, and his mission was one of greatness. His goal – outright victory, his foes vanquished, and those who spoke out against him (or in the case of Jewish settlements like Khaybar, who just happened to be leaders in the wrong town at the wrong time) were beheaded.
What do we think of when we read through the Gospels and think of the greatness of Jesus? Here he was, the saviour who had come into the world. What did he look like? Who did he associate with? How did he want people to see him? Was his goal victory and conquest? When Jesus’ disciples decided that enough was enough, and that as he was being taken out of Gethsemane by the guards they would take up weapons to defend him, he stopped them – “enough of this!”
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you,” and “A servant is not greater than his master – If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you”
The Glory of Jesus : His shame and suffering?
Jesus spoke of the glory that he had with his Father before the world existed (John 17:5). The Apostle Paul, when calling believers to live lives marked by humility, asks us to think of the example of Jesus who, even though in the very form of God, emptied himself, gave up the dignity to which he was entitled, and became a slave (many of our English versions say “servant,” but this blunts the force of doulous. In a world where slavery was so common, there’s no doubt that Paul’s audience would have understood this to refer to a slave without rights). When rebuking his disciples for using violence to defend him, he tells them that he could have asked his Father to provide an army of angels to fight for him, but in order to fulfil the Scripture he did not. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was derided as a drunkard, as a man possessed by demons and condemned as a blasphemer. This was not a mere precursor to his righteous vengeance wreaked on those who dared to mock the man of God. These were the forebodings of the accomplishment of his mission, when the Son of God was finally delivered into the hands of sinful men, beaten and exposed to unspeakable public shame as he carried his cross to his own execution.
And yet, this was victory. This is what he had come to do. The shame and suffering that Jesus was forced to endure is paradoxically referred to – by Jesus himself, as glory. As the awful hour drew near, Jesus – inexplicably by any sensible human standard, surely – instead of running for the hills, told his friends, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). Glorified! If the disciples had known what Jesus meant by those words, they would have had little choice but to think that Jesus had lost his mind.
If Muhammad, after being scorned by the local population, told his loyal supporters that the time was drawing near when he would be glorified, the thoughts of what would be about to happen are not pleasant. It would be swift and brutal. In the account of Muhammed, God never forsook him, in spite of whatever setbacks he may have faced. For Jesus, there was no thought of reclaiming his honour in order to fulfil his mission. The horrific pinnacle of his mission comes as he – finally – expresses his state of forsakenness on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus is our example
You get the point. Christians have been making the point for two thousand years. Jesus came into the world, set aside his own honour and dignity, endure shame and mistreatment, ultimately laying down his life. Quite apart from doctrinal concerns, there’s a lesson here, and it’s the lesson that Paul draws out in Philippians 2. In Jesus we have an example of Christ-like (obviously!) humility, and it’s an example that we should emulate. It’s an example we struggle to emulate, too! And yet, it has been a mark of committed Christians from the beginning. When followers of Jesus were beaten for preaching the Gospel, they identified with their suffering saviour, and “rejoiced” that they were counted as worthy to suffer dishonour for his sake. In the second century a now famous letter was written by an unknown author to Diognetus (a tutor of the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius). In it, the writer observes of the Christians that “When they are cursed, they bless. When they are insulted, they answer with kind words.” This was written as though it could not be denied by any who read it, as though this would serve as evidence that what had happened in the lives of followers of Jesus was something real. We could just stop there. Unlike the warrior leaders of some other religious movements, Jesus’ mission was directed towards giving up honour, setting aside his entitlement, and laying down his life. As his followers we are called to be humble and gracious even to those who hate us and what we stand for. We could simply allow ourselves to be chastened and corrected by this, and that’s a perfectly worthwhile thing to dwell on. But there’s more.
The Humiliation of Christ and Conditional Immortality
If conditional immortality is true (as I think it is), then the doctrine now known as the “humiliation of Christ” takes on a terrible – and yet, wonderful – significance. Unlike Muhammed, whose life was marked by brutal victory over his enemies, Jesus’ life was marked by identifying with those enemies. He become one of them, a point hit home by Luke’s connection between Jesus’ death with criminals and Isaiah’s prophecy that he would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Luke 22:37). We can say that Jesus suffered a sinner’s fate, and what’s more, we don’t have to come up with ingenious ways of explaining why, in identifying with sinners and suffering their fate, Jesus somehow never had to endure the eternal torments of hell. We don’t need to explain why the fate of sinners in the death of Christ looks nothing at all like the fate of sinners in our theology. We don’t have to bend over backwards to explain that although Jesus’ death looked like a regular human death, really it was something else, it was an infinitely bad death (whatever that is) because Jesus was infinite (in which case he didn’t really identify with sinners, it only looked that way, as the heretical docetists might have said). We don’t have to add on bits and pieces to the death of Jesus as the “Word of Faith” movement did, and say that since Jesus stood in our place, and since (as we all know!) our place is one where we deserve damnation in the fires of hell, Jesus went to hell after his death to suffer for a while (why not forever? Apparently that’s an irrelevant detail).
When we say that Jesus became one of us, and in his degradation, suffering and death, he actually and fully identified with a sinner separated from God and reaping the wages of sin, we don’t have to flinch, waver or add footnotes about why that doesn’t really mean what it sounds like it means. We can say it and mean it.