The oldest image of Jesus Christ is a crude, mocking caricature

The oldest image of Jesus Christ is a crude, mocking caricature September 30, 2012

Blasphemy is an indispensable human right. Without the right to engage in blasphemy, there can be no freedom of inquiry, expression, conscience or religion.

Hussein Ibish

We can have laws against blasphemy or we can have religious freedom. We can never have both.

We have every right to take offense and to give offense. But we should not seek to take offense. And we should not seek to give offense.

Since blasphemy is a theme today across much of the Web, let me quote again some wise words from David Dark’s fine book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything.

This is from Dark’s chapter on “Questioning Our Offendedness”:

It might be of interest to note that the earliest known pictorial depiction of Jesus on the cross was a cartoon. Often referred to as “The Alexamenos Graffito,” it’s a crude drawing of a human figure raising a reverent hand toward a crucified individual with the head of a mule. Discovered on the plaster wall of an ancient Roman school, this second-century parody of a certain Jewish Messianic movment includes, scrawled beneath the caricature, a taunt perhaps best translated as “Alexamenos worships his god.”

I wish this particular cartoon could find wider distribution because it dismantles the image of the Christian, historically speaking, as a member of a special interest group, a sleeper cell for a political party, or a power constellation of offended people looking for something to boycott. …

It probably would have been out of keeping with the presumed ethos of the Jesus whom Alexamenos dared to admire to angrily condemn the ridicule as unacceptable (with a hint of violent reprisal). If the Sermon on the Mount is any indication, Jesus taught his followers that suffering public denunciation is part of the deal. Proclaiming the kingdom of God does not include shouting down anyone who finds your proclamation unconvincing. …

The feeling of offendedness is invigorating. It might even be an effective way to bend a population toward a tyrant’s will. But we must never settle for it. We must not confuse an accelerated pulse rate for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. We must interrogate our offendedness, hold it open for question. …

Feeling offended is a reassuring sensation. It’s easier than asking ourselves if the redeeming love of God is evident in the way we communicate with people. It’s easier than considering our relationships with the huddled masses throughout the world who find themselves on the wrong end of our economic policies and other forms of warfare. Perhaps our cutthroat ways bear some relationship to our confused notions of God. Maybe we think God, as an intergalactic economist, is a survival-of-the-fittest type. … We might even think that being offended and angry and on the defensive is to be more firmly aligned with the Almighty. …

To keep it all simple and safe, we often become selective fundamentalists. We know where to go to have our prejudices explained as just and sensible, our convictions strengthened, our group or political party reaffirmed. We process whatever already fits the grid that is hardwired (or re-hardwired) in our heads. It’s difficult for anything else to get through. We’re easily offended. Maybe we’re looking to feel offended, which can make us feel better about ourselves. Feeling offended summons a sense of being in the right, a certain strength, a kind of power, an espresso shot of righteous indignation. And if the image of God hardwired into our nervous system is easily offended and put off by certain people and their offensive behavior, there’s a feeling of being that much closer to the winning side, that much more likely to be numbered among the elect, the saved, the documented.

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  •  Oh, and…

    Are you really asking me to prove that anti-hate-speech laws don’t cause harm?

    No, not at all. I was quoting you claiming, in as many words, that such a proof exists. And I was challenging that claim.

    But apparently your claim was actually that, in the absence of demonstrable harm, we should as a matter of law assume they’re OK. Which I can accept.

  • Lunch Meat

    If I’m not mistaken (and I may be) there have been cases where the authorities did attempt to prosecute a public figure for incitement to murder when the murderer did cite the public figure’s words or was otherwise obviously inspired by them. I don’t think anyone is saying (please correct me if I’m wrong) that someone who says “Kill all X” shouldn’t be prosecuted for incitement to murder if it can be proven that that person’s words actually did act as an incitement–such as if the murderer cited those words. However, criminalizing hate speech would mean that someone saying “Kill all X” would be prosecuted whether or not anyone was listening and whether or not anyone acted on it.

  • But people keep insisting that the person who says “kill all fags” on TV
    is not responsible for one of their viewers trying to do so. Why?

    Dunno about people in general. In my particular case, because you keep eliding the difference between legal accountability and responsibility in general. They are different ideas and they serve different purposes.

  • aunursa

    There are many cases in which someone is not responsible for a death that would not have occurred if that person had not performed an action that indirectly led to the death.

    For example, if a suspect fleeing the police crashes his car into an innocent motorist, the police officers are not legally responsible for the resulting deaths even though the deaths would not have occurred if they had not initiated the high-speed chase in the first place.

  • EllieMurasaki

    (1) subtle but relevant difference between “wish Scalia would die soon” and “someone ought to kill Scalia”; there is a reason that my hypotheticals have all included someone saying “kill all fags” rather than someone saying “fags should die”. (2) someone here saying someone ought to kill Scalia should only be prosecuted for it if someone else tries to kill Scalia and cites the comment here as inspiration. Which is not to condone anyone calling for Scalia’s death, but if Scalia doesn’t actually suffer death or injury as a result of someone calling for Scalia’s death, then the law shouldn’t get involved.

  • bobnelsonfr

    Do you think it would be better to avoid killings?

  • EllieMurasaki

    I don’t know of any offhand. How about we pretend you said Glenn Beck?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Why would the cops be responsible for a suspect getting in a car crash that wouldn’t have happened if the suspect hadn’t ran?

    Why would someone who advocates killing gay people not be responsible for someone trying to kill a gay person and saying that it was on the first person’s instructions that they did it?

  • Madhabmatics

    Seriously the image people are painting of places like france* are hilarious. “No, you don’t understand, we will all sink together – only the apathetic will survive!”

    this thread is literally the plot to G.K. Chesterton’s “The Ball and the Cross”

    *A country that has hate speech laws AND literally banned protesting against blasphemy,

  • bobnelsonfr

    OK. We’re cool.


    I don’t think anyone is saying (please correct me if I’m wrong) that
    someone who says “Kill all X” shouldn’t be prosecuted for incitement to murder if it can be proven that that person’s words actually did act as an incitement–such as if the murderer cited those words.

    I don’t think I’ve said that, though it’s hard to be sure… I try to be precise with my language, but there are limits to how precise I can in practice be in a blog comment.

    That said, though, I’ll say it now:
    someone who says “Kill all X” shouldn’t be prosecuted for incitement to murder even if the murderer cites those words.

    That said, someone who says “Kill all X” with the reasonable expectation that someone to whom they say it will commit murder should be, which seems to be the case we’re actually talking about, though we’re handwaving away the question of what constitutes such a reasonable expectation. 


    Do you think it would be better to avoid killings?

    Of humans? Yes, all else being equal. (There are certainly circumstances where I would prefer someone be killed than that they be allowed to live, but they are the exception.)

    Of life forms in general? No, not really.

  • aunursa

    I regret that your understanding of the American criminal justice system is flawed.  You would make the same act a crime or not a crime based on circumstances completely out of the control of the person who commits the act.

    “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr.–where are you now that we need you?”

    Would you consider that question to be an incitement to assassination?

  •  You edited your question after I answered it, so I’ll answer the second half here:

    Do you think that hate speech (inciting the killing of whatever group) contributes to nutcases’ killing people?


    I also think letting people drive contributes to drivers’ killing people, but I don’t endorse criminalizing driving. Not everything that contributes to killing people is or should be criminal.


    I’m not sure what you’re asking.
    If you’re asking whether I think my position here is coherent: yes, I do.

  • EllieMurasaki

    What would you suggest, then? Let people go unpunished because they did not personally do harm even though they caused harm to be done, or punish people for saying they want harm done even when no harm has been done? Because I am only seeing three choices here.

  • aunursa

    How about we pretend I said the Phelps family.  Because that’s what I actually said.  So the fact that the Phelps family can loudly proclaim “GOD HATES FAGS” and “FAGS SHOULD DIE” does not result in imminent violence against the target of his diatribes.  However disgusting his message is, it is not a direct cause of violence.

    (The fact that you cite O’Reilly, Hannity, Beck, each of whom has tens of millions of viewers and listeners, and of whom a single person claims to have Beck as a primary motivation for his crimes.  This actually proves my point.  Beck has millions of listeners who have not gone out to start a violent revolution as a result of his speech.  Whatever he says, it’s obviously not an immediate incitement to go out and commit violence.)

  • Carstonio

    For what it’s worth, I see laws against blasphemy and laws against hate speech as two different things, and both are affected by the principle of free speech, but in different ways. The latter do not make a distinction between serious claims that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead and pranks such as the one Fred illustrates above.

  • Madhabmatics

     That’s because neither of those things are hate speech, hope this helps

  • aunursa

    Why would the cops be responsible for a suspect getting in a car crash that wouldn’t have happened if the suspect hadn’t ran?

    By your reasoning, the suspect and the cops would share responsibility.  The suspect would bear partial responsibility because the deaths wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t fled.  And the cops would bear partial responsibility because the deaths wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t engaged in a high-speed pursuit.

    Why would someone who advocates killing gay people not be responsible for someone trying to kill a gay person and saying that it was on the first person’s instructions that they did it?

    From a legal standpoint, it depends on whether the directive is specific or advocates imminent violence.

  • aunursa

    What would you suggest, then?

    I would suggest that we step back and realize that without a specific directive to commit violence or a call for imminent violence, the perpetrator is the one who bears the harm that his actions cause.

    Fight hate speech with more speech — not less.
    Refute hate speech — don’t silence it.

  • EllieMurasaki

    No, what it actually means is that ‘rare’ in this case means one in several million.

  • EllieMurasaki

    What criteria are you using to distinguish “a call for imminent violence” from what I’ve been talking about?

  • The_L1985

     Er, no. Both things would be classified as blasphemy.  However, saying that a person who is Christian is stupid or horrible for being Christian, in a society in which Christianity is an unpopular minority (like, say, first-century Rome), is hate speech according to most definitions of the term.

  • AnonaMiss

    I love the fact that parts of America are controlled by religionists who would turn hate speech laws into blasphemy-laws-in-practice in no time flat is being ignored by our enlightened European guests. 

    I imagine them sipping their poor quality tea – with milk and sugar, that’s how bad the tea is – and tutting to themselves. “These Americans think hate speech laws could be harmful! Clearly this is an insult to all countries that already have them on the books, and cannot stand!” Then they adjust their monocles and resume commenting.

  • Madhabmatics

     The example in the article isn’t “saying a christian is horrible for being a christian” and saying a religion is dumb isn’t hate speech. Do you seriously believe that France is running around arresting people for saying “Islam is dumb” as opposed to “Muslims control our government!!”

  • Madhabmatics

    Seriously if hate speech laws automatically mean you can never say anything vaguely against a minority religion, there should be a ton of cases where people are thrown in jail for making invisible sky wizard jokes, right?

  • The_L1985

    It’s like they forgot that Republicans exist.

  • The_L1985

     It depends.  Telling an individual Christian “Ha ha, you’re dumb because invisible sky daddy!!” isn’t hate speech.  It’s mean and obnoxious, but not hate speech.

    However, around the same time as that Alexomenous graffiti was drawn up, you had people accusing Christians of literally killing and eating babies.

    I would argue that what is merely obnoxious in isolation can become hate speech in a larger context of blood libel and discrimination.

  • Madhabmatics

     Perhaps we could make blood libel illegal and let people retain the right to mock the religion, like they do in countries with hate speech laws.

  • AnonaMiss

    Seriously, is there a reason why no one on the “Hate speech laws are cool” side is engaging my objection?

    I’ll admit, I got provocative in my most recent post – but until L commiserated, as far as I could tell, no one was even seeing my objection. Thus, provocation: trying to provoke a response.

    Is the “religionists in charge would turn hate speech laws into blasphemy laws” argument really so stupid or hyperbolic that I’m better off being ignored? Because believe it or not, I am capable of and open to having my mind changed by the internet. 

    If there’s a log in my eye, please, point it out to me. I’m much less attached to being right than to keeping my vision as clear as possible.

  • aunursa

    “[T]he constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
    Brandenburg v Ohio, 1969

    “All fags should die!” versus  “Let’s go kill a fag!”

  • The_L1985

     It isn’t.  People are ignoring you because they’re having too much fun weighing in on the aunursa vs. Ellie argument.

  • aunursa

    Everybody would like to prohibit some speech by their opponents that they find offensive. Yet nobody would like to grant their opponents a veto power over any of their own speech.

    Wisdom is with those like you who recognize that we can’t have one without the other.

  • EllieMurasaki

    As I’ve already explained, “all fags should die” is different in an important respect from “kill all fags”, and you are failing to show the difference between “kill all fags” and “let’s go kill a fag”. Other of course than that, while both speakers intend literal blood on a listener’s hand, only metaphorical blood gets on the first speaker, while the second intends to participate in the killing. Which isn’t a difference that would get Brandenburg involved to prohibit the second speech but not the first.

  • Mark Z.

    Why not? Is there any value in what the Phelps clan does?

    I definitely see value in having a permanent traveling roadshow on ignorance and hatred. It’s educational in the same way that the Holocaust Memorial Museum is educational, but with the added reminder that this stuff still exists.

  • Wait a second, isn’t Pussy Riot being unfairly p(ro|er)secuted for blasphemy and hate speech right now? Does Russia count as Europe these days?

  • Lunch Meat

    Can you give a citation of Beck, Hannity or a similar public figure saying “Kill all fags” or otherwise directly, specifically, and literally instructing their listeners to go out and attack a specific group of people? Your dailykos link cites these examples:

    “The clock is ticking. . . . The war is just beginning. . . . Shoot me
    in the head if you try to change our government. . . . You have to be
    prepared to take rocks to the head. . . . The other side is attacking. .
    . . There is a coup going on. . . . Grab a torch! . . . Drive a stake
    through the heart of the bloodsuckers. . . . They are taking you to a
    place to be slaughtered. . . . They are putting a gun to America’s head.
    . . . Hold these people responsible.”

    Violent imagery? Absolutely. Predicting or condoning violence? Yes. Encouraging violence by implying it’s justified? Yes. But the only imperative sentences, the only real instructions in there have plausible deniability because they’re symbolic and metaphorical: “a torch” and “a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers.” I don’t think these are analagous to “kill all fags.”

  • aunursa

    The U.S. Supreme Court … ruled that Hess’ speech, taken in context, was unlikely to produce any “imminent disorder.” (It was later determined that Hess actually said the crowd could take the street “later” or “again.”)

    Hess continues to be cited by the courts to protect speech that threatens future lawless action.

    Hess v Indiana

    If the speaker indicates that, immediately following the conclusion of his message, his listeners should seek out a person to attack, then his speech would constitute a direction to commit “imminent lawless action” and would be likely to incite or produce such action, regardless of whether the speaker himself participated in the subsequent action.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Not offhand. Know somewhere that’s got all of their transcripts?

  • aunursa

    Yes.  I see great value in allowing bigots like Patrick Buchanan and Louis Farrakhan to spew their filth openly in public so that all can judge and understand their values and goals.

  •  Exactly what do you think society stands to gain by prosecuting those hatemongers who aren’t careful to couch their comments in such a way as to dodge the strict technical definition? I’m pretty sure that Glenn Beck, Fred Phelps, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson et all *are* very careful to say “It would be a blessing if (Obama|The gays|all democrats) would die” and not “Please murder them”.

    Do you really think that the one causes violence in a way the other doesn’t?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Skimming the opinion on Findlaw, Hess was arrested for saying “fuck” in public. Not for advocating violence. Not for advocating lawlessness, unless there is some reason to believe that anyone at that antiwar demonstration was acting contrary to the law, and if there is such reason then it didn’t make it into the opinion, which is odd considering that Indiana said Hess was arrested for advocating lawlessness. As far as I can tell, Hess was participating in a perfectly legal exercise of the rights to free speech and free assembly, the sheriff did not like the message that that assembly was trying to send, and the sheriff heard Hess say “fuck” and used that as an excuse to arrest him.

    This case has not a damn thing to do with the subject under discussion.

  • aunursa

    This case has not a damn thing to do with the subject under discussion.

    The courts that have cited Hess regarding lawless action disagree with your assessment.

    Appellant, who was arrested during an antiwar demonstration on a college campus for loudly stating, “We’ll take the fucking street later (or again),” was subsequently convicted for violating the Indiana disorderly conduct statute. The State Supreme Court affirmed, relying primarily on the trial court’s finding that the statement “was intended to incite further lawless action on the part of the crowd in the vicinity of appellant and was likely to produce such action.” Held: Appellant’s language did not fall within any of the “narrowly limited classes of speech” that the States may punish without violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and since the evidence showed that the words he used were not directed to any person or group and there was no evidence that they were intended and likely to produce imminent disorder, application of the statute to appellant violated his rights of free speech.

    The Indiana Supreme Court placed primary reliance on the trial court’s finding that Hess’ statement “was intended to incite further lawless action on the part of the crowd in the vicinity of appellant and was likely to produce such action.”

    It’s quite clear from the FindLaw summary that the court made its decision on the defendent’s entire (alleged) statement, and not just on the profanity that he uttered.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yeah, it would only net the haters stupid enough to specify that they want the calamity befalling the hatees to be human-caused instead of purely natural, wouldn’t it? So it’s not perfect and probably cannot be made so. And maybe there are better ways to solve at least part of the problem, though I’ve yet to hear one. (Other than ‘wait for demographic change’, but that isn’t happening quickly enough and of course it’d be abhorrent to speed the process.) Neither of those is an argument for why it shouldn’t be done.

  • bobnelsonfr

    One question at a time?

  • EllieMurasaki

    What violence did Hess advocate? What law did he suggest breaking, or encourage the continued breaking of? Far as I can tell from the opinion, the only thing Hess and companions might have done illegally is not get out of the street the very instant the sheriff said to. Might because I have yet to figure out whether a police officer’s instructions have the force of law. Though I suppose there might be or have been a law against peaceful assembly in the middle of the street, in which case I take your point but you do have to first prove the existence of such a law and explain why it applies to an antiwar protest but not to kids at play.

  • aunursa

    In the course of the demonstration, approximately 100 to 150 of the demonstrators moved onto a public street and blocked the passage of vehicles. When the demonstrators did not respond to verbal directions from the sheriff to clear the street, the sheriff and his deputies began walking up the street, and the demonstrators in their path moved to the curbs on either side, joining a large number of spectators who had gathered. Hess was standing off the street as the sheriff passed him.

    It was later stipulated that [the defendent] had said … “We’ll take the fucking street later,” or “We’ll take the fucking street again.”

    It’s clear from the various court statement that the prosecution argued that the defendent was advocating that the demonstrators should commit an illegal action by retaking the street at a later point and again block vehicular traffic.  In other words, he was advocating lawless action, but the Supreme Court determined that his speech was protected specifically because he was not advocating imminent lawless action.

  •  Are you asking me why I only responded to your first question?

    If so, the answer — as I said in my later comment when I responded to the rest of your questions — is that you edited the comment after I first read it, and I was responding to the only question I saw. I responded to the rest of your questions when I noticed that they were there.

    If you’re asking me something different, please clarify.

    If you’re not really asking me a question at all, but just trying to score rhetorical points… here, have a rhetorical point.

  • EllieMurasaki

    What law forbids or forbade blocking vehicles?

  • I’d be happy to engage your objection, except I actually agree with you.