Says that God is a good blasphemy from God

blasphemy"Blasphemy works like an identity generator"

"Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall die of death, the whole congregation shall stone him. Whether foreigner or native: Anyone who blasphemes the name shall die."

This is what it says in the biblical book of Leviticus. Blasphemy is the worst crime there, worse than murder. This command to Moses is a primal scene, the beginning of a story that has not yet been told to the end. The historian Gerd Schwerhoff has now written down this story under the title "Cursed Gods". Gerd Schwerhoff is a professor with a focus on the Early Modern Age at the University of Dresden, and he has taken a very close look at who is insulting, reviling, belittling and hurting whom. And who punishes as in God's name - from ancient times to the present.



Christiane Florin: Is blasphemy as old as belief in God?

Gerd Schwerhoff: Yes, definitely. Blasphemy is the other side of the well-known coin of faith, the other side of veneration, of prayer. Presumably people have always cursed and mocked their own god or the gods of others, for whatever motive - out of exuberance, out of skepticism, out of the need to meet the other community or out of the feeling of hopelessness or anger of one's own Towards God.

Faithfulness to one's own God

Florin: Maybe I should have asked: As old as belief in the ONE God? Because you emphasize: the connection between blasphemy and the punishment of blasphemy and the monotheistic religions.

Schwerhoff: That's right. It is not an exclusive feature of the monotheistic religion, I also have examples of cult offenses in the polytheistic context of antiquity. But in fact, blasphemy in the context of monotheistic religions and then classically in the context of ancient Judaism gains its actual shape and sharpness through the unconditional claim to truth and loyalty to the one God. The people of Israel are unconditionally loyal, which means that unconditional loyalty is expressed in the fact that blasphemers should be punished with death and that other gods should not only be rejected, but also belittled and punished, verbally or even by Punishment of their cult images. One could say: It is precisely in these monotheistic contexts that blasphemy acts as an identity generator for one's own religion, in that other religions are degraded by other gods and by being particularly sensitive to the degradation of one's own god by others.

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What to do with problematic images The churches are also concerned with this question. There it is mainly about deprecating representations of Jews from the Middle Ages. How to deal with this is controversial in some cases.

Blasphemy as hate speech: "Don't rush to exoticize"

Florin: This story is not over to this day. Her book is also a story of hate speech, Hatespeech in new German. Is there hatred of God in blasphemy, in belittling the holy?

Schwerhoff: Sometimes maybe. In any case, the affects that are mobilized in this way are violent. The affects that are expressed in the blasphemy itself can have very different motives: on the one hand, hopelessness in one's own existence, where one does not react as patiently and piously as biblical Job to temptations and strokes of fate, but is just angry on one's own fate, on the God who destroyed and killed the children, one's own wife, property. On the other hand, ridicule of other gods or ridicule of religion as a whole in modern times. There are many motifs.

The comparison to hatspeech is important in order not to prematurely exoticize blasphemy. We tend to see hatspeech in the modern age as something very current, while blasphemy has long appeared to us as something pre-modern and worn out. But blasphemy is an aspect or a manifestation of hate speech. Hate speech in the modern context follows similar dynamics. This is why blasphemy is becoming frighteningly topical even in modern times.

"Early Christianity was full of aggression"

Florin: That was the "hatred of God" aspect. But at least as influential, as I gather from your book, is the hatred of those who defend their God against blasphemers. You write, and you also prove it, that early Christianity was full of aggression. Against whom was this Christian aggression directed?

Schwerhoff: Actually against everyone else. It served to first really capture the other, to give it outlines. This is really a method to provide your own right belief, so to speak, with its unique aura. The others, they were the Gentiles who worshiped idols, they were as followers of other religions, they could be the Manichaeans, they could above all be the Jews, from whom one had, so to speak, only separated in one's own history . But that could just as well be the heterodox followers of their own God, that is, precisely within the various currents of the Christian churches in the early days.

But that basically runs like a red thread through the heretic movement of the Middle Ages up to the denominational times of the early modern period: Arians, Monophysites, Nestorians were, so to speak, repeatedly ostracized and reviled or reviled the other party, basically also as pagans. You didn't make that big a difference. Basically, this blasphemous diatribe is a great identity generator for the demarcation and for the individual communities within Christianity.

Laws against oaths of blasphemy, curses, diatribes

Florin: The word blasphemy is younger than the phenomenon it describes. It appears in a legal text of the Emperor Justinian in 542, in novella 77. When was the "crime of blasphemy" invented?

The first law against blasphemy was introduced under Emperor Justinian (imago | imagebrocker)

Schwerhoff: In a narrower sense, this novella 77 is actually very significant by Justinian, because he was against blasphemy, "blasphemare in deum", that is, diatribes against God within one's own religion, above all within one's own city - there it was above all to phenomena in the capital Constantinople - turns. This amendment to criminal law then became the blueprint for legislation in the Middle Ages and early modern times against Christian blasphemers.

It is a peculiarity of this first age of blasphemy, then in the Middle Ages and the early modern period, that there is a very elaborate legislation against blasphemous oaths, curses, blasphemous speeches and blasphemous acts within one's own religion. It is an older tradition that people argue with other religions that allegedly revile their own religion, whether they belong to Islam or Judaism, that they are persecuted. But it is precisely this fixation on blasphemy within Christianity that is justified by this Justinian novella and that is then fully expressed in the Middle Ages and early modern times.

Protect God, ensure public order

Florin: It was not just about reviling God, but also about curses in which Mary, the Mother of God, appeared. It seemed quite common in the Middle Ages to swear or swear falsely. What was actually protected by the ban on blasphemy: God, the holy, public order or the ruler?

Schwerhoff: In the Middle Ages, the definition of blasphemy was actually that one wanted to protect God from humanization or from human defamation. That was very personal. This included Mary, the Mother of God, as well as the saints. Protection was given against the profaning of the sacred, but especially against defamation against God. Only in the course of the early modern period did this aspect of public order come more and more to the fore. When this anthropomorphic idea of ​​God as a being, which also reacts very angrily and with collective punishment to human degradation, became more and more obsolete, this public protection came to the fore, i.e. the idea that with the ban on blasphemy the church and the State to be protected in its foundations. As such, blasphemy has a further history, also beyond the Enlightenment and beyond this anthropomorphic image of God into the 19th and 20th centuries and into the present.

Mohammed cartoons and freedom of expression

Florin: We have to make a very big leap up to the present. We talk less about the Christian God, who is blasphemed and protected, we are more concerned with Mohammed caricatures, the attack on "Charlie Hebdo" and the murder of the teacher Samuel Paty in France.

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Those who express themselves critically about religion still have to expect penalties in many countries, said Michael Bauer from the Humanist Association in the Dlf. In Germany, however, blasphemy hardly causes any excitement because religion no longer plays a major role.

You write: "Insult and counter-insult, indignation and the feeling of hurt, accusation and counter-action. All of this creates a demarcation between the we and the you." The blasphemy discourse produces the reality that it claims to reflect. Some invoke freedom of expression, in which one can say anything, including the sharpest criticism of religion, and others say: You revile what is sacred to us. What should I do?

Intercultural: Criticism of religion is understood differently

Schwerhoff: It is still not that easy to ask the historian about recipes. What follows from my observations? I can express myself as a citizen, as an alert contemporary, so to speak. If in doubt, I would of course defend freedom of expression against taboos. But we can learn from this historical perspective, among other things, that within Christianity we are still in a front line where we understand the abuse of religion primarily as a form of criticism of domination, as a form of abuse from the bottom up, where the simple one Mockers, the writer or the journalist revile the powerful, the Pope, the church superiors who are in league with the state.

Since 1989, since the Salman Rushdie-Ayatollah Khomeini affair, this front line has expanded. Of course, this critical aspect of rule is also and especially important in modern times. But the intercultural dimension is very much in the foreground. First of all we have to understand that many people of different faiths, especially many Muslim communities as a Muslim community, feel struck by this abuse and feel degraded. What consequences we draw from it, whether we are then a little more cautious despite freedom of expression, that is to be discussed. But first we have to realize this new front line.

Gerd Schwerhoff: Cursed gods. The history of blasphemy.
S. Fischer 2021, 528 pages, 29 euros.