Talaag Elbayomy, a recent Muslim immigrant to the United States, was watching a Halloween parade in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania with his nine-year-old son. Suddenly he saw a person dressed as Mohammed, but as a zombie. Since depictions of Mohammed are against the law in his country, he believed it was his duty to stop this blaspheme, and to show his son that he was a devout man. So he confronted that man, ripping the sign “Zombie Mohammad” off him and pulling off his beard. When Ernest Perce called the police to report an attack, Elbayomy readily agreed, thinking that Perce would be arrested for portraying Mohammed, but was shocked to find out he was being charged with assault.
At trial, we learn that Perce is active in the American Atheist Society, and his chapter was in the parade to express their negative views on religion. Next to him was another man posing as “Zombie Pope” (who was not attacked since Rick Santorum was campaigning in Iowa at the time.) Judge Mark Martin has ignited a religious freedom controversy by ruling that the evidence does not reveal an assault, then lectured Mr. Perce for his conduct:
Having had the benefit of having spent over 2 and a half years in predominantly Muslim countries I think I know a little bit about the faith of Islam…. Before you start mocking someone else’s religion you may want to find out a little bit more about it. It makes you look like a doofus… In many Arabic speaking countries something like this is definitely against the law there. In their society in fact it can be punishable by death and it frequently is in their society.”
Atheists are upset at the ruling because Mr. Perce was expressing his freedom to portray his views about the nature of all religion, not just Islam, and has now had thousands of death threats from Muslims around the world. Many Muslims see the incident as further proof that Americans hate Islam, and the verdict comes during a time that Afghans are protesting US soldiers burning four copies of the Koran (ironically and tragically, protests include suicide bombing that destroys lives.) Christian conservatives view the ruling as evidence that Muslim Sharia law is coming to America and that we will be overrun and become an Islamic State (governed by Barrack Hussein Obama, who is still not a Muslim.)
I wonder if all sides are becoming zombies regarding the freedom of religion. We are much removed from the historical reasons that gave birth to this religious freedom, but our nation’s founders were more familiar with the devastation of the 30 Year War, which wiped out half the male population of Germany. The Spanish Inquisition, Cromwell, repression of Anabaptists and Puritans is what motivated many people to come to America. This is why the freedom to practice your own religion without threat was enshrined as a Constitutional right.
While the law may protect our rights, it is our character that truly preserves religious freedom. Without mutual respect, a willingness to understand, and ongoing dialog; religious freedom is devalued. Indeed, all freedom requires corresponding responsibilities. Just as the freedom of speech does not give us the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, religious freedom that only leads to shouting matches is equally dangerous. Given the current public religious acrimony and intolerance, why would a new Muslim immigrant be expected to understand the freedom of religion?
Martin Luther, who could be quite bombastic himself at times, did set forth some important ideals that we would do well to remember today. In a letter to Pope Leo X, “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther wrote on the nature of religious freedom on the eve of his expulsion from the Roman Catholic Church. Luther said that each person is by office at once a free lord who is subject to no one, and a dutiful servant who is subject to everyone. Only through these twin paradoxes, Luther insisted, can we "comprehend the lofty dignity of the Christian." Luther believed that the point of having freedom was to use it well, being freed from the bondage of sin to serve one another in love.
Luther’s admonition to use our freedom well in the service of others is a valuable reflection for Lent. We are truly free to love much in Christ’s name. Religious freedom not only protects us to believe as we chose, it gives us space to love as we are called. If our freedom to worship only gives reign to speaking intolerance, then true freedom is lost.