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Uproar Over Cartoons: Islam Grants no Room for a Needed Argument with God and Human Reality

Chalet Mon Abri
CH - 1882 Gryon, Switzerland
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Dear Reader of Footnotes:

In response to my November 2005 letter I received the suggestion that I may only have expressed a typical European reaction to the frequent moves and changes, the whole migrations and wanderings of Americans. I had described our reflections on the pioneer movements, specifically those who left home and hearth for no other reason than to be on the move, to claim new land and to get away from the next generation of immigrants. Almanzo’s father left when he heard the sound of another man’s ax. Free land in the wilderness and later gold were a sufficient attraction to break up established communities, relationships and the stability of the known.

I wrote: “The history since then, including our culture today, questions that and makes one wonder whether that search for freedom was in fact irresponsible, irrational and idealistic. It brought with it immeasurable suffering at the time to both settlers and Indians. It contributes even today to the mind set that imagination was more valuable than knowledge, that to pretend was the same as to create, that a dream pursued may easily overlook the need for skills to be acquired first.”

I come back to this comment to clarify that I am not suggesting that the comfort of the old and familiar is at all times to be preferred. We are no fatalists or sticks in the mud, nor do we treasure traditions for their own sake and without frequent evaluation. When rot sets into the old it is time to move on. There is no intrinsic value in repetition. There is no place for valuing land, blood descent and roots as what defines a human being. That notion is pagan, not Christian.

But many pioneers moved against the pleas of their wives and children to settle. They wanted their children to attend school, be in churches and attend markets in more stable communities. However, many men, and many times women, wanted to move on for the excitement, not away from, but into hardship, from labor to what was believed to be easy profit, from tilling the land to washing for gold.

There was an element of idolatry in this, a sentiment of being like God, a romantic notion that a person could invent himself or herself anew many times in numerous locations. At times it was also a way to run from trouble and past sins.

Often there are reasons in life to move on. The present location may have become impossible. But an open or hidden appeal to the Bible to justify wanderings is not correct. Jews did not wander as such. Abraham left Ur to single himself out as one who believed in the God of heaven rather than of the sky (sun, moon and stars) and of earth, the seasons and floods. His house was a tent only for a determined time. He waited for the Promised Land, where Israel would then settle for good without further wanderings. The Biblical ideal is a man sitting under his own fig tree, in his own vineyard.

Oliver Cromwell erred when he read passages of the OT about killing men, women and children before attacking Irish Catholics. Dutch Boers in South Africa were in error when they drove out the local tribes, believing they were coming into their own promised land. They drove them out in what to them was a parallel to Israel’s conquest of the Canaanite lands.

The New Testament also does not invite us to wander, to break up settlements or to describe “having no fixed home” as more spiritual. “Here we have no continuing city” addresses the coming judgment of the world as sinful, not the denial of geography, time or ownership. “Our citizenship is in heaven” speaks about our belonging to God’s family of people, but makes no statement about present possessions. The elements that will burn in the judgment by fire are not chemical, physical or geographic parts, but principalities and powers. The earth shall then be found purified again.

There are times to move on, but it is not in itself a spiritual principle. For the Bible sees the whole world as God’s possession, to which he will return as ruler over real people and their work.

The search for ways to be not attached to location, to have no sense of place, weaken any continuity of commitment comes more from a set of ideas opposite to paganism with its attachment to earth. But it is just as non-Biblical. Romanticism is a pursuit of the spirit, the soul, the image and the unbounded ideal.

Paganism sees God or the divine, the source of all being, in earth, in things, in idols. Romanticism sees the divine in the human spirit, in the imagination, in unbridled possibilities of reinvention.

Many pioneers were driven by such romanticism about a supposedly empty land, a wilderness to be harnessed and savages to be civilized. They had a rare freedom to give names to plants and places unknown in the countries they had come from, as Adam had been able to do in his garden. But they often forgot that it was too late for such virgin enterprise. They were married and owed protection to their families, help to neighbors and management of land and rivers. There it was easy to leave all and to go out in pursuit of their private dreams of being like God.

Happily not all of it resulted in tragedy, but there was surely more of it than probably necessary along the way.     

The willingness to start again, to pick up broken pieces and to turn them into something is indeed admirable. When the cook forgot the sugar in the cake recipe the dough could still be turned into noodles and not be wasted. But ideas of another way must always be subject to the control of the factual world and the past that shaped me. Otherwise I will more likely smash all I have and am in pursuit of a vain ideology.


The book market is awash with information on loosing weight, fixing cars, traveling with ease, building churches, finding your spiritual gift and all areas of counseling. Families may cook fewer meals, yet the number of cookbooks is staggering. They do it better now and come up with more variety in their spacious kitchens, but eat out more often as well. In many areas we are eager to seek help. We are not too proud to assume perfection. On the buyers’ side it is a sign of healthy curiosity, of wishing to improve one’s life, of learning another skill against declining muscle tone, fading memory and longer times to recall stored information.

The Christian market adds its own multitude of suggestions. Together with helpful ideas come books that prescribe with great determination what is right and wrong in most situations. You dare not think otherwise for fear that things may go wrong in your marriage, with your children, with your expectations as you live out your roles.

Allow me to suggest that in many cases what is proposed and supported by Bible verses is more than what God would want us to work with. There are all together far too many prescriptions given, too many narrow ways laid out.

We are prone to accept them uncritically, for we know how easy it is to sin, to make a mistake. We often feel guilty already before we are actually guilty. We also assume that any failure is a moral sin, forgetting that many things are not working for any other reason than inherited brokenness or unperfected skills. Nancy Pearcey is one of the few serious Christian writers on my reading list who pointed this out in the book How Now Shall We Live, which she mostly wrote for and with Chuck Colson.

God lays out the framework, but also created the space between the boundaries, in which our freedom, significance and imagination should have a place for play. Perfection to God and man is not something static, set in stone and touching all eventualities. In Greek thinking a perfect God could never encounter something new without being himself imperfect. That is not the God of the Bible.

He created in six days and then told Adam and Eve to continue to create. They named the animals, they would bare the children, and they would find out in their love how they would arrange their marriage, their parenting, and the distribution of labor in and outside the home. There are no rules for this prescribed in the Bible, for there is in many areas not only one right way.

Likewise there are certain biological and psychological realities that are fixed from the beginning. Only women carry children for nine months. But beyond that there is little in scripture that describes fixed roles for ever, just as there are no lists of possible jobs, no prescribed lengths of life, no table manners, clothing styles, no courtship rules or what side of the road to travel on. Perfection before God is not just one right way. In contrast to Islam where the content and purpose of life is to obey God the Bible establishes a wider field of purposes. We are to obey the facts of creation, the rules of moral conduct and the content of faith. But we are also to live, to create, to imagine and to explore, i.e. to create new situations.

This applies to most areas of life. Often limits are stated in the negative, as are many of the commands. We are told what to avoid, not what to create. For perfection is not one thing or one way only. The dress code for instance is expressed in the negative, leaving a door wide open for creativity. So also is the command not to commit adultery, not to steal, to murder or to bear false witness. We are left with the outer boundaries, not a prescription for some ideal or perfection, for these are fluid and can have many different expressions.

Even in the relationships to people much space is given to explore what makes sense, what has beauty and what is wise. The command to love the neighbor as oneself indicates the direction of a relationship, but not its specifics. Love is a choice to create, to care and honor, to serve and to surprise. There is nothing mechanical about it, no program to follow.

The proverb about the rod to punish a child is not a doctrinal prescription or a magical tool to produce God’s blessing. There are few elements of male or female roles delineated in Scripture. Husband, wife and child are all neighbors to each other. Go and follow the example of the Good Samaritan!

There is an unfinished reality to life into eternity. Things are not settled, a day is not the repetition of the previous one. Not only will sin still have to be removed. That is what we have in mind immediately. But also all good situations, choices and things should be accomplished as well. The God of the Bible took delight in the names Adam chose for the animals God had created. That was a first. Building a relationship between man and woman came next. Many other things still wait for their realization. There is work outstanding.

This is very different from religion, where the command is to obey and repeat. In Islam God made all things to remain the same. In the Bible took time to create and in time expects us to continue to create.

In the measure in which we seek to have instruction how to behave and what to do or say in every situation we have abandoned the freedom and glory of man and converted to Islam’s prison, in which there is no room for the human soul. Our God enjoys the surprising experience when what he foreknew in his vast knowledge becomes actuality through our creation, acts of mercy, invention and poetry, discovery and daring.

For the God of the Bible makes a distinction between his knowledge and what comes to pass through the determination of the creature. Not everything that God knows will at some time inevitably become actuality. Much will never happen. The Greek mind does not know this distinction between God’s knowledge “in thought” and his knowledge as experienced joy or sorrow “in fact”. For the Greek Man was a victim of fate. All things that the gods knew came to pass, and people were exposed to the drama of inevitable fate. There was no way out of that link and no alternative to it.

Not so our God, who has infinite knowledge of all possibilities and impossibilities. But only some of the possibilities may come to pass, limited by what God or the creature chooses in the flow of history. The rest remain knowledge in the mind of God and will never become actuality in history. That makes all choices significant, and our good choices a pleasure to God. After creation by God our work consists of the fulfillment of the social mandate to multiply and of obedience to the work mandate. We should exercise dominion within set boundaries, but within them dominion is not prescribed in any detail.

How we exercise the two mandates is not a surprise to God’s knowledge, but certainly a novelty, pleasure and real experience to God. For, you see, the Greeks only know an abstract perfect knowledge. The Jew understood God also participating in the experience of his knowledge as choices produced its realization in concrete and living history.

We should then be careful before being caught in the spider web of prescriptions for the Christian life, as if all potentialities were covered in Scripture. In many areas there are no rights and wrongs, there is no guilt either way. The guidance we often have is the invitation to create within the boundaries of what is real. We should ask God for wisdom to discover a way that pleases him for no other reason than that is ours. And there our preferences may and should change in time. Each expression shall in many ways be unique.

This perspective will certainly be more sensitive to people and situations, more fulfilling to our calling as people in God’s image than what any amount of obedience to a multitude of rules could ever be.


Whatever your views are on the right, taste or wisdom of publishing the caricatures of Mohammed with a bomb in his headgear in a Danish Newspaper last September and the uproar across Muslim communities this winter, I found very helpful reflections on it in a piece by Etienne Barilier in the Geneva paper Le Temps on February 17, 2006.

I want to give you the gist of his ideas and the reasons for my appreciation of this perspective. Barilier suggests that we may deplore that many Muslims saw the caricature as an attack on Mohammed. But there is no reason to apologize. For, an apology requires that two parties agree on a common standard, by which one party has injured the other and now regrets it. It would require sympathy and adjustments to the insulted person’s world view. An apology is out of place when the standard is different. In that case each side considers the other to be wrong.

The reason why an apology is not the answer is based on the fact that the argument over the content of the caricatures is not primarily an argument for or against freedom of the press or of expression. Were it that one might ask whether the freedom might not be restrained or silent when dealing with the holy, the sacred or other religions.

But the discussion revolves around more than the question whether a journal or a person is free or not to say what they want to say. For, the cartoons were actually more an expressions of liberty than a case of the freedom of expression. The liberty expressed in them distinguishes between the sacred and the profane, between belief and facts. It is up to individuals to recognize common facts and to make up his individual mind about what to believe.

Islam refuses to recognize or to make these distinctions. It does not give liberty to individuals to distinguish between fact and faith. Instead it obliges a whole people to be responsible to define and to excise the blasphemy. Since in Islam everything is sacred every human utterance also refers to the sacred. There is no room in Islamic perception for irony, allusion, hypothetical ideas, critical questions or fictional portraits. They are simply unthinkable.

I am reminded of the Pakistani medical doctor who pointed out that since Mohammed had his revelation from the angel in his twenties there were that many years before when Mohammed was not a Muslim. He was sentenced to death for blasphemy, suggesting that Mohammed was not a Muslim his whole life.

The Muslim must, by his approach to words and reality, read the caricatures on their surface meaning, as it were ‘literalistically’. Read in the same manner you would expect literal cats and dogs raining from English skies.

For us utterance can also be symbolic, precisely a caricature. We see the images and understand that they suggest that in the name of Mohammed bombs are used for terrorism, which is exactly what those people did, who now claimed to be wounded by the caricature.

In addition Islamists confuse two distinct aspects of reality, which we designate as fact and belief. They are shocked that the cartoons about Mohammed do not upset us. They accuse us of a double standard, when we are in turn upset by cartoons that mock the holocaust. We find these insulting, unacceptable and tasteless.

But we are not on a level playing field here. There are precise reasons for differentiated responses.

Islamists fail to see the distinctions between these two offenses. To us the Shoah is not sacred in the same way or for the same reason, for which Mohammed is sacred to Muslims. The reason for this is that the Shoah is an obvious historic fact. Sacred about it is its historicity. To mock it makes as little sense as to believe that it never occurred, for this merely denies facts open to all men and women in accessible history. People go to prison in Europe for denying the holocaust. A teacher had his credentials to teach history withdrawn, when he denied historic realities of such magnitudes.

By contrast the sacredness and intangibility of the prophetic voice of Mohammed is a matter of belief. Mohammed was an historic person, but his claim to be an untouchable prophet is not a factual claim, but a matter of faith that confronts all people equally.

How Islamists turn these things on their head will be seen in these three examples. Firstly, they want us to believe in the holocaust as a matter of faith, but in Mohammed as a matter of fact. We must remember that the Palestinian leadership and Iran are supporting the view frequently repeated in parts of the Arab press that the holocaust is a fabrication of history by Europeans to justify the establishment and existence of Israel.

Secondly, they refuse to see the distinction between sacred and secular, between spiritual and temporal. They refuse to see that any discourse in cartoons, words or pictures stands by itself and provokes as a consequence question about whether these are true and false, holy or blasphemous. The text in itself is not holy or blasphemous. Whether the message is received, believed or rejected is then a matter of facts believed or rejected and faith affirmed or denied.

Thirdly, Islamists refuse to admit to their followers much of what is basic to being a human being: taking responsibility to explore through freely expressed thoughts and ideas, speculations and propositions, the nature of reality and the truth of propositions. All this necessitates and demands real freedom of expression, skills and an integrity to evaluate them once stated.

Therefore, rather than apologizing we must reflect on the philosophic reasons for the Islamist reaction. Here we face the conflict of two opposing views of life, reality and meaning as lived out in the practice of each worldview before the TV cameras around the world. How far apart in fact our worldviews are becomes even clearer when we might suggest that an apology to us is needed from their side. After all they changed the facts on the ground and sent us the live images, not just caricatures, of (f)actual executions of real people. Here enormous cruelty was done in fact, not in our belief, to what we consider sacred in human beings.

Blasphemous is not the caricature of Mohammed, but that in his name powerful bombs strapped to suicide murderers or thrown by human hands kill so many innocent people. The butcheries, committed in the name of their God and his prophet, are far more immediate and lethal than any caricature can ever be.

Of course I also wonder how so many citizens in the Near East were able to view the small Danish newspaper that published the cartoons last September.


Recently a pastor in England resigned from his parish after months of trying to forgive the terrorists who attacked the London Transport last July and had killed his own child with their suicide. Not being able even to see and confront the terrorists he found no way to forgive them. Increasingly he felt that his work in the parish became inconsistent with the Christian’s obligation to forgive.

The pastor drew the conclusion from the common view that Christians should forgive at all times. Peter asks how many times were meant and receives the answer that instead of seven times it should be seventy and seven times (Mat 18: 21f), an expression of abundance, similar to a baker’s dozen or speaking of 110% certainty.

I suggest that this can lead to a serious misreading of Scripture. It does not follow the example of Christ. It contains little if any  legal wisdom and harms rather than heals social realities. The readiness to forgive at all times should not be confused with an obligation to forgive, no matter what. Fighting a spirit of revenge must at the same time leave room for the vengeance of God.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa resulted in something good only because the perpetrators of moral and political evil under the preceding regime were present, looked into the eyes of those they had injured and expressed an apology in words, in tears, in regrets, and in showing how some of them were so caught in their roles through moral weakness.

God’s forgiveness is not without the shedding of blood (Heb 9:22). If we confess our sins he is faithful and forgives us (1.John 1:9). In Christ the sinner has been made alive (Col 2:13/4), for in Him God has forgiven us (Eph 4:13). Through his blood we have redemption and the forgiveness of sin (Eph 1:7).

Christ was ‘given forth’ by God to take our place. He took our sins on himself, including death and separation from the Father, with whom he had been and now is again One. There is no easy forgiveness, no wiping clean of the slate without the cost of the Savior’s death. A price has to be paid by the guilty or his substitute. The judge of the universe has taken the judgment on himself.

Forgiveness is therefore never granted without repentance. John the Baptist preached the baptism of repentance, so that there could be forgiveness. The prodigal son was only forgiven, because he saw the error of his ways, the end among the pigs, and returned to the father. There he had to acknowledge his wrong and accept forgiveness before the party given for him.

The woman acknowledged her guilt by pouring the ointment on Jesus’ feet and wiping her tears off them with her hair.

Forgiveness is not real when in its granting evil is overlooked. It is then a psychological crutch to make our life easier. But it fails to fulfill the other side of our calling from God, to denounce evil and to seek justice. We will feel better, but sin has been allowed to reign.

When Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek he does not give us new regulations for behavior. He addresses attitudes in personal relations. Our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees with their many regulations. So what does that mean? Surely it requires us to be wiser, more circumspect and surprising in our way of dealing with the wrong of others. First it means that the person, who hits me has no right to influence or determine my reaction. I am free in Christ to choose which way I shall respond. At times that will be gracious, at other times firm, then again surprising when we understand why the act occurred in the first place.

For if God forgives upon repentance and we should forgive in the same manner some form of repentance must be present. Luke17:3,4 reminds us that if your brother repents you should forgive him.
Forgiveness does not make things well, it does not repair the prior damage. It only puts reality on a new footing, because someone is now being willing do to without: The Father without the Son, the injured without his mobility, or the molested adult without a memory of a pleasing childhood.

When Jesus prays on the cross that the soldiers be forgiven “for they know not what they are doing” he refers to those who did their job without realizing the enormity of their crime. Some of them return to recognize it with “Surely this was the Son of God”. 

The suggestion that forgiveness by man leads to the guilty being forgiven by God (John 20:22,23) is totally flawed, for the text merely states that people can declare by the Holy Spirit what has already previously taken place when people repented to God. The verb is in the perfect tense, not the present or future. God must have previously forgiven what they forgive. It is a declarative act, not a judicial one.

Making a practice out of forgiveness without some form of recognition of wrong is not found in the practice of Jesus. We have no record of his forgiving Herod or Pilate. Even the rich young ruler was loved, but not forgiven. He answered those who tried to trick him with questions, but he did not forgive them their attitude or acts.

For to forgive in the face of wrong makes mockery of our public mandate to state, declare and live what is true, good and just. Even were we to overlook the harm done by someone we are not free to expect others to live with the consequences. I must be willing to give the shirt off my back, but not let someone steal the shirt of my child, wife or neighbor. We have a mandate to insist on order, law and justice.

I understand that much of the forgiveness literature wants to enable people to get on with their life, to free themselves from past burdens and unresolved conflicts. But that is not done through forgiveness.

That independence, that freedom of the Christian comes with the confidence that none of us is finally responsible for the actions of others. God will judge them. There is a wrath of God coming. Christians in Russia do not have to forgive Stalin the crimes against their families. But they can free themselves from the bondage and fear Stalin wished them to inherit. For they are God’s children.

Likewise we must have sympathy for the father who wounded our childhood, we regret the neglect experienced, and we grieve over scars: but all that is not our definition. We live in a fallen world without any perfection. We are all damaged, including those who damaged us. But our faith trusts the promises of God of a new world ahead, in which there will be no tears or death, and in which old scars will be healed. Imagine, we shall then even be able to get along!

Until then, welcome to the real and wounded world of Adam’s consequences! Life is unfair, and any forgiveness without prior repentance only makes it more unfair down the road of history in the lives of others, because instead of giving a name to evil it is allowed to merely hide.

The pastor in England was greatly burdened, but he should have cast his burden on the Lord and gone on in his ministry to people who need to know that God is not just forgiving or accepting the present.

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