My title is a Greek word that turns up fairly often – 44 times – in New Testament. As you can guess, it is the source of the words scandal and scandalize, and it means stumbling block, something one trips over, something that causes one to fall. These things happen in life, but no one should be placing the stones so as to cause a fall, as Jesus said. "Woe to the world because of stumbling
blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to
the one by whom the stumbling block comes!" (Matthew 18:7). Paul wrote, in his letter to the Romans, "Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another,
but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance
in the way of another… Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual edification." (Romans 14:13,19)
When two women from the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were tried and sentenced for an activist action in a church (or committing sacrilege in a church, depending on one's point of view), I became involved in an online discussion led by a member of a Christian religious order. I felt that person's position against the women of the band, even in light of the pain and anger the action had caused, was extremely harsh, and I posted a comment questioning that stance. We back and forthed a little bit, chapter-and-versing, but in the end, I was smacked down by Thomas Aquinas. Oof! Serves me right, perhaps, for messing with [a person of unnamed gender who is a member of an unnamed religious order of an unnamed denomination].
About a month has passed, and now a conflagration triggered by insults to the founder of Islam and his followers has caused riots, and killed our ambassador to Libya, along with several members of the embassy staff. These deaths are not justifiable in any way. They are heartbreaking. Information currently suggests that the protests were used by outside agents to cover the murders of the ambassador and embassy personnel. I am trying to separate the killings done by a few from the anger displayed by so many, across several countries.
If Pussy Riot's action was sacrilegious, it seems to me that the film Innocence of Muslims is, too. If we are to accept that churchgoers were hurt and scandalized when the punk band disrupted the sacred service, how can we not see that devout Muslims would be outraged by this film?
Someone – I think it may have been Fran Lebowitz – once wrote, "Your freedom to wear a lime-green polyester pantsuit ends where it meets my eye." There are limits, even for we Americans. I have heard people say that though the film is regrettable, we have freedom of speech. Yes, we do. Here. If we stay within our own borders. But elsewhere, where American law does not apply, we have to abide by the laws and customs of the country we are in. Even at home, we have to be prepared to accept the consequences of that free speech. In Muslim cultures, one does not make a picture of or a joke about the Prophet. I am sorry to have to say this, but really, if a five-year old can figure out that it's unwise to pull the kitty's tail, can't alleged adults predict that riots and violence will be the result of such "free speech"? That may someday change, but we are not the ones to force that change.
There is another definition of skandalon: the movable stick that triggers a trap, the stick that has to be carefully and deliberately set in order for the trap to function.
Someone made a movie defaming the prophet Muhammed. I have read it was intended to be a Christian evangelization tool. Most people smart enough to make a movie are probably too smart to have made such a colossal misjudgement, but it didn't matter much, because only about ten people ever saw the film prior to now. So who really decided it would be a good idea to release such a film, and to post a trailer on YouTube at this particular time? And who funded it? $5,000,000 went into that film. Instead of criticizing the quality of the production, why are we not asking who put up the money? Because it's not that easy to find that kind of money. If five million dollars grew on every tree, I would have planted an orchard, and be having a very different life right now.
Most Christians agree that it is, at the very least, bad manners to show blatant disrespect to Jesus Christ. Responses vary from person to person. Grief. Rage. A shrug. A prayer. But there is always a reaction. So what, then, makes it OK to similarly disrespect Muhammed?
Nothing. It is not OK. And we misrepresent the God of love we profess to follow when we allow it to happen in His name.
I don't know what the religious I conversed with last month might say about what happened and is happening in Libya, Tunisia, Sudan. And Aquinas? I have not studied his work much, so I don't know that, either. But I do know this: three months before his death, Aquinas, while serving at Mass, had a mystical experience that led him to say, "All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has been revealed to me."