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Elizabeth Glass Turner ~Nothing Sacred: Sacrilege in the Public Square

It’s happened again and again.

Do they give out Webby Awards” for“Best Social Networking Campaign Aimed at Disenfranchised Young Men Searching for Meaning and Manhood in a Post-Religious Context”?

In the 90’s, radicalization looked like bored, angry, white, oddball suburban teenagers shooting up their classmates as they latched onto whatever Nihilistic philosophy made sense of their bullied, middle-class ennui. 

Now ISIS just Tweets. And young men sit with their laptops or tablets or smartphones, drawn to the message and imagery. 

What a tragic form of religious “outreach.”

The public response to a bombing, shooting, or terror attack ranges from dismay and compassion to fear and confusion. While Muslim representatives present a memorial wreath at the British embassy in the U.S. and immigrant cab drivers give free rides to Manchester residents, social networking graphic design pops up with endless variations of hearts, ribbons, candles, and prayers for the London Bridge victims, for the northern English city of Manchester. Just like profile pictures changed for Paris, and Nice, and Orlando. There’s been less outcry over the English driver who plowed into Muslims leaving a mosque after services.

Underneath the response that ranges from depressed acceptance of the new norm to calls for blanket discrimination in an effort to control damage, there’s a pulsing anger: is nothing sacred? Can’t holidaymakers – innocent civilians – go about their leisure in peace? Can’t children and young teenagers go to a concert in peace?

Terrorism disrupts the basic social contract we have with each other in the public square: you stay in your lane, I’ll stay in mine, and I won’t swerve my vehicle towards yours just because the impulse hits. You sit and watch a film in a cinema without standing up and screaming in the middle of it, I’ll sit and watch a film in a cinema without standing up and screaming in the middle of it, and we’ll both function within these unspoken norms because we both want to enjoy the movie.

Globally, anxiety has grown as these basic modes of interacting together in public life break down. I may intend to stay in my lane, but I can no longer assume that you will stay in yours. I may intend to go to a crowded mall just to shop and not to take out my anger with a firearm on strangers, but I can no longer assume that you will. This is different than sacrilege: it’s a problem, but it’s not sacrilege.  

There is sometimes sacrilege in the public square, and it can be easy to confuse sacrilege with the breakdown of social mores. Yet many people would say that sacrilege isn’t even possible because – and this is important – there is no identifiable or agreed-upon sacred. Sacrilege implies profaning the holy. But it assumes the existence of the holy. For a great many people, if you ask them even rhetorically, “is nothing sacred?” they would be inclined to say, “no, nothing is.” If you cannot really know anything, then you cannot name it sacred. So at the same time that the mores that govern our public interaction together are ripping and frayed, the very notion of the sacred is also disappearing from public consciousness. (And an intellectually honest person who doubts the existence or the knowability of the sacred is not likely to attend Sunday worship, no matter how well-designed your social media graphics are, no matter what your theology is.)

In recent American politics, one of the biggest tug-of-wars has centered around whether the current U.S. president is an iconoclast or a defender of the sacred. Most arguments pivot on whether he functions in the public square as someone who rips apart unspoken social contract, publicly verbalizing lewd or rude content (iconoclast) or whether he functions as a guardian of a particular ideology, specifically, certain evangelical political interests (defender of the sacred). Is he defending the sacred or smearing it? Almost all conflict condenses down to that question.

But most Americans don’t use the word “sacrilegious,” even if they mean it. Even most fundamentalists wouldn’t describe the phrase “oh my God” as sacrilegious, even if they defined it as “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” Shock-jock antics long ago ballooned to absurd lengths for ratings, so that now, this spring’s high school graduates were born years after Sinead O’Connor tore up a photo of the Pope on SNL to the instant dismay of many.

In the past few years, the most famous incident related to anything touching on the word “sacrilege” was the shooting of employees at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for its artistic depictions of the Prophet Muhammed. Extremely strict interpretations of Islam forbid portrayals of Muhammed and attackers targeted the magazine for its alleged blasphemy. Plenty of moderate Muslims still believe in the sacred; but extremists chose to kill non-Muslims for acts that they deemed sacrilegious. And so the extremists are willing to ignore western social contracts (iconoclasts) of communal and public safety for the good of guarding a particular religious ideology (defender of the sacred).

People of many religions face the challenge of how and what to expect in the public square. Like agnostics or atheists, within the public square, most people of faith hope for basic social mores to be upheld – you stay in your lane, I’ll stay in mine. The Catholic priests “live and let live” down the street from the Hasidic Jews, and the progressive Unitarian Universalists “live and let live” down the street from the Amish farmhouse. In North America, free speech is prized – but in the past, social contracts have guided how and when, as a religious person, to politely express that speech so as not to be sacrilegious in the presence of someone of another religion. Insulting another person’s religion in the public square might have fallen under freedom but it wouldn’t have fallen under good etiquette. One needn’t be a universalist to be kind. For all its political baggage, separation of church and state was a vital part of the founding of the United States, many of the inhabitants of which had come pursuing religious freedom.

It can be easy to forget that there are still places in the world where religion and state are one in the same. (Even in the Western world we have Great Britain, where the monarch is the head of the church.) But you do not need to have a fused church and state in order to have a robust approach to the reality of the sacred.  

When the average secular citizen sees the sacred defended with explosions, death, and terror, it tends to drive them harder towards deeper secularization. What Christians need to do is to present the Beauty of the sacred in self-sacrificial love. The response to violent defense of the reality of the sacred isn’t to abandon the sacred but to recalibrate our response to it and our appreciation of it.

If you are asked, “Is nothing sacred?” you may respond with a resounding, “Yes! Yes, it is!” but your response will not be filled with examples of passengers being polite to each other on a jumbo jet – that’s meeting basic social contracts, not defending the sacred. Your response will likely have little to do with putting out a flag on national holidays or keeping explicit content off television networks while children are still likely to be awake. Those may be considerate for the good of the community, but failing to do so isn’t sacrilegious.

Christians are called to witness to the Beauty of the sacred through our rituals, our service, our worship, our love. Christ, the Word Made Flesh, brought heaven and earth together, and no act of sacrilege can undo that. Christ, the great cosmic insurgent, turned the system upside-down already, and when we say we bring his Kingdom, we do not mean at gunpoint. We mean we arrive with a bowl and washcloth to clean the feet of the violent, just as Christ washed the feet of his betrayer, Judas Iscariot. We believe that the sacred can be experienced but not contained, and that Jesus wants us to love those who are sacrilegious, not to punish them on his behalf.

We are comfortable being neighbors with those of other religions in the public square, but we are not afraid to live out our understanding of our faith – that God is three-in-one, and that we are called to a lifestyle in which we are individually and communally transformed more and more to be like Jesus Christ. We do not expect the public square to bend to accommodate us, but we enter into public space and dialogue with the intent to witness to the Beauty of God through humility, integrity, and humor.