Freedom of Speech and Blasphemy: Lior Shlein and Jesus Christ

Israel’s Channel 10 talk show mocks Christianity

Lior Shlein, the comedian and host of Israeli TV Channel 10’s late night talk show, kicked up a storm last week when he mocked the Virgin Mary and Lord Jesus Christ. In two separate shows aired on February 15th and 16th Shlein suggested Mary was a promiscuous teenager and became pregnant at 15 through a school friend. Shlein also jokingly claimed that Jesus died at 40 because he was obese. He could never have walked on water apparently because he too ashamed to leave his house, let alone go to the Sea of Galilee in a swimming costume.

The clip, originally on YouTube here was withdrawn by Channel 10 allegedly for copyright reasons. However it has been discussed and reported extensively on Arabic TV channels. Some of these are viewable on YouTube such as on Al Manar and Al Jazeera and here with English subtitles, although the images are themselves self explanatory.

The Transcript

The website of the Latin Patriarch has gone one step further and transcribed the text of the programme:

Scene from 16/2

Announcer: We will talk about the “Vatican” the Christian church. It’s annoying really annoying……..Every time, new one denies the holocaust, cardinals, archbishops, priests, monks, or choir-boy who has been rapped by the others…….. (Laughs) Audience…… laughing

Announcer: He laughs less than the audience. They are denying the Holocaust and instead of getting angry, I decided to hit back. ……to deny the Christianity…….. I am not laughing, that’s true, and I am not laughing. Some one have to teach them a lesson and that is what we will do. Now, every night we denies different things, the Christian Church telling you remember yesterday, we denied the fact that Jesus walked on water, an now here is the movie…….

(Start the video movie) The Christians tell you that Maria, Jesus mother was virgin, but this is not true, and the evidence is simple. When John the Baptist was sticking his fingers surprisingly in her waist, she wasn’t jumping. Beside if she was virgin, she wouldn’t present new sex toys at the night program of “Yoseefos Flavious” (means Saint Joseph)

The truth is when she was 15 years old; she got pregnant from a boyfriend in the class. Her parents wanted to deliver her to a monastery. However since it was before Jesus was born, before Christianity, there wasn’t monastery found, her parents left her in a football field. Mary had tough night in the hotel with the Canaan team. Who really was virgin in that time is David Bowie, and that is explains the confusion found…..  The Christian church…..doesn’t believe to them.

Announcer: Believe me, really believe me that if they didn’t deny the Holocaust I wouldn’t say anything, and I wouldn’t tell them the truth because I don’t care about them.

Scene from 15/2

Announcer: That is really annoying, and you heard about that for sure, that in the Christian Church, every week there is a Cardinal, archbishops, priests, monks or one choir-boy being rapped from all mentioned above. Audience…….laughs….

Announcer: They are denying the Holocaust and I decided that instead of being upset, to hit them back, to deny the Christianity. I am not joking, someone have to teach them a lesson, and that is what we gonna do now. Every evening, we deny different fact the Christian Church tell you. Here is the first movie:

Watching the movie…… “Christians tell you that Jesus walked on water in Sea of Galilee. This is a lie. Jesus was too fat, and he was feeling ashamed of going out of the house, and of course wearing swimsuit at the beach of sea of Galilee was imbaracing for him. The Christians draw Jesus like this, (paint of Jesus walking on water), but these paints are far away from reality… Because of Jesus was addicted to the holy bread in the age of three he was in a weigh safe program.  If he was reached to the age of 40, he would be looking like this…. (An over weight man with beard). All of his life time. Jesus passed through diets, for him, every feast was the “Last Feast”. His serious enemy was Atkins Iscariot. Jesus always said the Sunday he will start the diet, this is the reason why Sunday is holy day for the Christians. The man who really walked on the water is David Bowie. This can explain the confusion.

The Christian Church….. Don’t believe to. If they didn’t deny the holocaust, I wouldn’t say anything, and leave them believe in these lies…. But there is limits, believe me there is…..”

The Justification

Shlein justified his outburst as retaliation against a statement by Richard Williamson of the Society of St Pius X who denied that Jews had died in Nazi gas chambers during the Second World War.  Shlein said that since Christians “deny the Holocaust, then I want to deny Christianity” in order “to teach a lesson”.

Shlein was perfectly entitled to express his justifiable anger at the appalling statements made by Bishop Williamson. Holocaust denial and historical revisionism of this kind has no place in modern discourse. However Shlein went too far and he knows it. Retaliation is always destructive and merely perpetuates and exacerbates the grievances.

The Reaction

The programme has evoked strong reactions from many quarters. A Press Release of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops in the Holy Land condemned the “repulsive attacks” on Jesus Christ and his mother Mary:

“We, the members of the “Assembly of the Catholic Bishops in the Holy Land” deplore and condemn with utter dismay the repulsive attacks on our Lord Jesus Christ and on His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary…Channel 10 was used to desecrate the holiest figures of Christianity…”

Their statement went on to say, “While condemning this and all other intolerant acts, we call on all concerned parties to investigate the matter and to take the necessary actions in order to put an end to such horrible desecration of our faith. It is unconceivable that such incidents have to occur in Israel which hosts some of the holiest shrines of Christianity and which rely to a great extent on pilgrimage from Christian Countries. Therefore, we ask the Israeli people and its Authorities to take the appropriate measures against such unacceptable offense and its perpetrators. At the same time, we urge Channel 10 to acknowledge its responsibility and to officially and publicly apologise for this incident and never to allow its repetition.”

According to the BBC, a Vatican statement said “the show had ridiculed Mary and Jesus “with blasphemous words and images” that amounted to a “vulgar and offensive act of intolerance”.

Jack Khoury, writing in Haaretz linked the episode to “the Vatican’s rehabilitation of Bishop Richard Williamson, who said in an interview broadcast on Swedish state TV that no Jews were gassed during the Holocaust and that only 200,000 or 300,000 Jews were killed. The Vatican’s rehabilitation of Williamson sparked outrage that only abated after Pope Benedict XVI met with Jewish leaders at the Vatican last week. During his audience, the German-born pope issued a strong denunciation of anti-Semitism and said it was unacceptable for anyone – particularly a clergyman – to deny or minimize the Holocaust.”

The Apologies

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has subsequently issued an official apology and Shlein himself apologized saying “he didn’t mean to offend anyone.” However, Judith Sudilovsky reports that Hana Sweid, the only Christian member of the Israeli parliament has filed a complaint with the legal advisor of the government claiming “Shlein violated the law by offending religious sensitivities.”

And Nazareth lawyer Salim Kubti, said Shlein’s apology for his television remarks was weak and was not acceptable. Referring to the planned visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Israel in May, Kubti said “The Pope should not come to a nation that does not respect Christianity.”

Similarly, Williamson has offered an apology. According to CNN, he said, “I regret having made such remarks,” Bishop Richard Williamson said in a statement on a Catholic Web site where he has posted in the past. “If I had known beforehand the full harm and hurt to which they would give rise, especially to the Church, but also to survivors and relatives of victims of injustice under the Third Reich, I would not have made them.” CNN notes however, that “He did not retract the comments or say he had changed his mind about the Holocaust.”

The chief Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi also said Williamson’s statement “does not seem to respect the conditions” set forth by the Vatican on February 4, when it ordered Williamson to “in an absolutely unequivocal and public way distance himself from his positions” regarding the Holocaust.

Damien Thompson, writing in the Telegraph, reports that Bishop Bernard Fellay, who is head of the Lefebvrist Society of St Pius X has so far failed to disassociate from Williamson’s views. Ruth Gledhill, writing in the Times,  also highlights the tensions within the Roman Catholic hierarchy over the controversy.

The Wider Issue

Shlein’s outburst is not the first time Zionists have ridiculed Jesus. See here for another example on Youtube.  This may however, be the first time that a church leader has questioned the facts surrounding the Holocaust. Which is more serious? Clearly the latter.

The Catholic Bishops said in their statement that this incident needed to be viewed “in the larger context of continuous attacks against Christians throughout Israel over the years.” They cite, for example, an incident when “copies of the New Testament were publicly burnt in the yard of a synagogue in Or Yehuda.”

Equally Jewish groups report a anti-Semitic attacks are now the worst on record. Mark Townsend, writing in the Guardian notes,

“Police patrols have been stepped up in Jewish neighbourhoods following the most intense period of antisemitic incidents to have been recorded in Britain in decades… Around 270 cases have been reported in 2009, according to figures compiled by the Community Security Trust (CST), the body that monitors anti-Jewish racism, with most blamed on anti-Israeli sentiment in reaction to hostilities in Gaza. Attacks recorded during the first Palestinian intifida of the late 1980s averaged 16 a month.”

Chris Greenwood, writing in the Independent records similar concerns about a rise in anti-Semitic attacks following the conflict in Gaza.

The question is, would Shlein have got away with his parody in Britain? Probably. Has the response of Christians been muted compared to that of Muslims who also revere Mary and Jesus? Certainly. What would the effect have been if Shlein had made similar comments about the family of the Prophet Mohammed? Unthinkable. The incident therefore raises vital questions about the relevancy of blasphemy laws and the offence of incitement to religious or racial hatred.

The Christian Institute has a helpful summary of the state of the law of blasphemy in the UK here, incitement to religious hatred here and Christian Freedoms and Heritage here.

The Jewish Scriptures

In the Hebrew Scriptures, blasphemy is defined as speaking against the Lord’s name. The name of the Lord is sacred. The third commandment states:

“You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (Exodus 20:7)

And “Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people.” (Exodus 22:28)

Consequently, this injunction is given in Leviticus:

“anyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:16)

The Christian Scriptures

The Apostle Paul says of Jesus: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name…” (Philippians 2:9)

The name of the Lord Jesus is central to Christian confession. Citing Joel 2:32, the Apostle Peter insists, “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Acts 2:21). The Apostle Paul quotes the same verse from Joel and applies it  to Jesus in Romans 10:13.

Peter concludes his Pentecost sermon with these words, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:36-38).

From a Christian perspective therefore, to take the name of Jesus in vain is to repudiate the name of the only person through whom reconciliation with God is possible. So has Shlein committed the unforgivable sin? Jesus own words recorded by the Apostle Matthew offer both comfort as well as a sober warning.

“And so I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy. But blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:31-32)

Ironically, the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was stoned because the Jewish authorities considered him guilty of blasphemy.

“Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God… At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,  dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of their killing him.” (Acts 6:11, 7:57-8:1)

This had a profound impact on Saul who eventually was converted and renamed Paul. In his first letter to Timothy he confesses his own refusal to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” (1 Timothy 1:13)

It is here then that we find hope for those who genuinely repent of their blasphemy. While Lior Shlein has apologized for offending people through his TV programme, his actions were intentional and culpable, therefore his response, as Salim Kubti observes, appears so far to fall significantly short of genuine (and forgivable) repentance.

What should a Christian response be?

1.    We should leave judgement to God.

“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19). We must not take the law into our own hands.

2.    We should love our enemies.

Jesus commanded his followers, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)

The Apostle Paul insists, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone-  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

3.    We should focus on reconciliation.

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9)

We must therefore show solidarity with those who are persecuted for their faith. We must empathize with those denigrated because of their faith. Without giving up or diluting our religious convictions, we must engage in common cause with people of other faiths to banish intolerance and racism and work for peace and reconciliation through non-violent means.

Based on a discussion on Press TV (Sky Channel 515), Middle East Today programme, aired on Saturday 28 February, 2009. Also appearing on the programme was Dr Jane Clements, Director of The Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine (FODIP) and Revd Zahi Nassir, Anglican vicar of Christ Church, Nazareth.