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19 June 2015

On getting nude and being rude

I wonder how Eleanor Hawkins is feeling today. Glad to be home I imagine, and still rather embarrassed about the publicity that her bare bottom received after getting arrested in Malaysia for going au naturel at a sacred spot where the spirits of the local ancestors are believed to reside (Mt. Kinabalu, pictured). 

Disrespect towards religion has been in the headlines a lot this year, not least following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the smashing of statues and shrines by IS in Iraq. This raises several questions for Christians: in what sense should we have respect for other faiths, and is it ever appropriate to be deliberately irreverent towards them?

You will be relieved to know that I have no intention of imitating Miss Hawkins' candour this side of Eden. Yet there are many examples of people in the Bible being seemingly irreverent towards non-Christian religions. Think of all the times the Israelites were told to destroy idols that were in the land. Think of Elijah, who said that Baal was not answering prayers because he was on the loo, or Isaiah, pointing out the irony of using one half of a piece of wood for fire and the other half to make an idol and worship it. What about the Psalmist who says "all the gods of the nations are idols"? Hardly constructive inter-faith dialogue, is it?

It is essential to remember that in almost every case in which idolatry is denounced in scripture, the audience is God's people –the nation of Israel or the Church. The Israelites only went idol-bashing in their own land;they were never sent on mission trips to the surrounding nations, armed with chisels and sledgehammers. When Christians burned religious texts in Acts 19:19 it was their own property, the texts were from their own previous faith and it was entirely voluntary. As for Elijah's teasing, the Baal worshipers were defected Israelites who had been raving and slashing themselves for hours –it was not tea and buns with the local Imam. Paul does denounce idolatry to pagan audiences in the book of Acts, describing idols as "worthless" (Acts 13:15). However, he does not name particular gods, nor does he blaspheme them or mock anyone – the city clerk in Ephesus could say of Paul and his accomplices "they have neither robbed our temples nor blasphemed our goddess" (Acts 19:37).

Like Paul, Christians today should have no qualms about preaching the unique existence and saving power of Christ. They should also be confident in negating claims of the existence and saving power of other so-called gods. Beyond this, the way we speak of other religious beliefs will depend on the context. Chris Wright demonstrates how Paul adapts his approach to idolatry by contrasting Romans – written to Christians – and his sermons in Acts, which were preached to pagans. In Romans Paul says idolatry is rebellion, the source of wickedness, perverted and a lie; in Acts he says idolatry is ignorance, worthless and absurd, yet he stops short of blaspheming Artemis before her worshippers. There is a difference in tone: Romans highlights the wrath of God, while Acts highlights God's kindness, providence and patience. Both, however, insist on God's judgement.

So should we have respect for other faiths? Not in the sense of respecting idolatry in itself. However, we should speak and behave respectfully towards other beliefs when engaging with the people who believe them, for their sake, while insisting on the uniqueness of Christ. Idolatry is far too tragic a thing to be trivialised by naked jollity, crude cartoons or cultural sabotage. It is also far too ingrained in human nature for these things to be effective in dissuading people – the problem is ultimately not stone idols, but stone hearts.Our aim should never be to tease, disrespect or coerce anyone out of their beliefs, but to win them over with the absolute supremacy of Christ's love revealed in the gospel.

Jack O'Grady is a PhD student at King's College London and lay minister at St John the Baptist, Wimbledon