Whether or not you watch Saturday Night Live, you probably are aware of a recent episode in which Christ was portrayed as a mass murderer. If you are a Christian, this episode makes you angry. How dare anyone pervert the story of Christ this way!
Christians are reacting in various ways. Some have written or called NBC to express their outrage at this episode. One Christian is leading a group to boycott NBC and to boycott all the SNL sponsors. There are probably petitions circulating, too.
The focus of this blog is the way we live our Christian faith in a culture that sometimes merely dismisses Christianity as trivial and mindless and sometimes exerts destructive force against Christianity as if it were a force for evil. The government sometimes acts to restrict Christianity. As Christians we face big challenges and big questions when our freedom to live our faith is restricted. The culture and the government mutually energize the forces of restriction. In the USA, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship protected by the Constitution give Christians the same freedom as anyone else to fight back against restriction. In the face of a dramatic performance that shows complete lack of respect for the Christian religion, Christians wonder what to do in order to obtain the respect the media usually expresses for any religion.
The question for Christians is: how do Christians reconcile the right of a citizen to fight back with Christ’s command to turn the other cheek? To rephrase the question: How can Christians under assault be as wise as serpents in their response to that assault while remaining harmless as doves? Can a Christian fight back against repression and express faithful testimony to Christ in the process?
The SNL episode portraying Christ as a mass murderer is completely in keeping with a developing trend online. In various recent comment threads, writers who reject and scorn Christ and Christians in general focus on stories in the Old Testament about violent wars. Online commentary rejecting the very existence of God or rejecting Christ as a messenger of love talk about Old Testament texts and ask why Christians have no sympathy for the people God destroyed. They ask why Christians have no sympathy for the Amalekites or they wonder why Christians don’t mourn for all the people God destroyed in the flood when he saved Noah. This material is likely the basis for the SNL script. If secular culture today pays any attention to Christians at all, the spokespersons seem to be focused on that Old Testament violence which, to secular thinking, is both unfair to the victims and inconsistent with the message that God is love.
What is the right way for Christians to respond to this kind of speech and this misinterpretation of the Bible?
The person who is leading a boycott of SNL sponsors is trying to force NBC and SNL to take account of the Christian viewpoint by using a tactic that is quite popular in political and cultural clashes. It is a standard tool of political and cultural activism to make businesses leery of appearing to support certain viewpoints. A boycott of SNL sponsors takes the battle over the legitimacy of Christianity and the right of Christians to be respected like any other religion to the people who provide the money that makes SNL possible. Production costs for television are huge, even for a production as devoid of sets and props as SNL. If consumer outrage means that nobody is willing to sponsor the program, it will be hard for the program to survive. To date, no similar boycott on behalf of any idea has really accomplished the goal of creating a change, but it has certainly shaped public conversation. It has been effective enough that some businesses have caved to the pressure, even though it was clear that the business was acting under duress, not conviction.
The question for Christians is whether the objective of Christians is to obtain compliant behavior or to lead to spiritual transformation.
When Christians use the tools of activism, the tools work. They worked in the sixties and seventies, for example, to put pressure on government to eliminate segregation and promote the equal standing of all citizens before the law. In fact, the tools promoted preferential treatment for previously persecuted minorities and required specific behaviors that supported the goal of eliminating inequality based on physical appearance. (This writer refuses to use the word “race” because 1) there is no genetic evidence that skincolor or any other attribute differentiates one human from another in any significant way, and 2) the word “race” has such political overtones that it takes control of the conversation away from the speaker.) Unfortunately, the activism led to the creation of laws and regulations and cultural practices, but it did not lead to the transformation of the human heart. Segregation is immoral, and the public culture shuns it. Segregation is illegal, and the government enforces laws requiring equal treatment. But segregation lives, in the culture and in the media, where “racist” is almost the worst thing one person can say about another. The word “racist” has replaced the word “nigger” as a public way of expressing revulsion at the very sight of someone. Segregation of a very vicious sort lives in the hearts and minds of citizens.
This kind of outcome is not exactly the outcome Christians want when they resist an insult like the SNL episode about Christ.
The activist tool of boycott was recently used by Christians in reverse with great effect. When LGBT activists wanted to boycott Chick Fil-A because its owner expressed support for the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, Christians led an action that showed support, not boycott, of the business. Customers of Chick Fil-A created lines that extended out the door and down the street in a show of support for this business and its owner. It was an act that built up instead of tearing down. In the case of the issue with SNL, there is not an obvious way for Christians to support some counter-measure that will build in the same way as “Chick Fil-A Appreciation Day.” Still, despite the reputed “success” of the action, the outcome of that action has not been any reduction in the pressure to call a homosexual union a marriage.
Christians have a mission here on earth, but it may not be best expressed in political activism. If the Bible rightly portrays Christ and his mission, political activism’s tools may not be the right tools for achieving that mission. Those tools did not accomplish the color-blind society Christians thought they were working for in the sixties. In fact, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Christians using the tools of political activism have actually undercut their message while never moving any closer to their real goal. Christians want the fulfillment of the prophetic promise spoken by Habakkuk: “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14) The goal of gaining respectful behavior toward Christ and Christians may not even be a step in the right direction.
The portrayal of Christ as a mass murderer on SNL is an outrage. Anyone who listens to the political/cultural rhetoric knows that SNL would never have presumed to portray Mohammed or Buddha in the same way. Christians are within their rights as citizens to be outraged by such a thing. They have a right to attempt to right this unconscionable wrong. But is that their mission?
As American citizens, Christians have the freedom to speak out against such behavior. As free citizens, they are not obligated to tune it to watch SNL. As Christians who want their behavior to be consistent with their Christian convictions, they have an obligation to choose programming that is not an assault on their values. The First Amendment right of free speech opens the door to them to write letters and make phone calls to NBC expressing their umbrage at the way this episode perverts NBC’s right of free speech and asking NBC to respect the religion of Christianity the same way the company respects Islam, Hinduism and other religions. But is is the mission of Christisnd to stand put a stop to disrespectful behavior without changing hearts?
Christians must, however, be clear in their minds about the outcomes they expect. If Christians engage in political action of any kind, they must expect a political outcome. If thousands of phone calls to NBC results in an apology for SNL and a promise that such a thing will never happen again, that is the best Christians can expect. If Christians are never again faced with such a performance, Christians can feel better about the behavior of NBC. However, none of this will fulfill Habakkuk’s vision. Changing external behavior results in nothing more than a Pharisaical problem Jesus pointed out graphically.
The reason Jesus disputed regularly with Pharisees was that Pharisees were too concerned with appearances. Pharisees regulated behavior. In order to assure people rested on the Sabbath, Pharisees told them exactly how far they could walk on that day. To assure compliant behavior, people developed elaborate behavioral fakery to allow them to walk farther. They obeyed the law, but their hearts were not in it. Jesus said that this sort of behavior was like washing the outside of a dirty cup and then pouring new milk into the cup on top of leftover, curdled, spoiled milk.
This is exactly what has happened with the civil rights activism Christians thought would make America a better place. The federal laws that were written to wipe out segregation have resulted in compliant behavior. However, the behavior is translated culturally into more scorn than was ever part of the culture before Martin Luther King. If he were alive today, it seems highly likely that he would weep as bitterly over the travesty of justice enshrined in civil law as he ever wept over segregation. The attitudes and speech of the culture betray the truth of the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” The civil rights movement led America to integration, but it did not make Americans love one another.
The truth is that Christians don’t actually have the goal of preventing outrageous insulting performances such as SNL’s portrayal of Christ as a mass murderer. The goal of Christians is that the whole world know Christ. Christians want that global knowledge of God that Habakkuk envisioned. Christians want the people of the world to be transformed by the healing and reconciling work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart. It is right and proper that Christians should work in the political and cultural battlefield to promote better behavior and respect for the rights protected by the First Amendment. Nevertheless, Christians must prayerfully evaluate their own actions in the political and cultural realm to assure that achieving the political goal does not prevent the accomplishment of the real goal. A boycott of the sponsors of SNL in reaction to disrespectful behavior toward Christ on SNL may send a powerful message that Christians are “mad as hell and we won’t take it anymore,” but that may not actually be the message they want to send. Maybe the real message is “we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:20) If that is the message, a boycott of SNL’s sponsors may not be the best way to express it.
For this week’s news about the persecuted church and the culture wars in the USA read Living on Tilt the newspaper.