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Blasphemy is an emotionally charged word. But it’s often imprecise.
At its core is religious offense, that something about one’s religious sensibilities was deeply offended. That’s where it begins and that’s where it also ends.
When one probes it, however, one is hard-pressed to identify what exactly was offended and why.
Take, for example, the recent drag performance that featured Christ and the Lord’s Prayer. It went viral on Twitter and was massively discussed, debated, and even critiqued. (For the uninitiated, Twitter is a bardagulan paradise where provocative discussions take place about topics often left untouched in the “real world.”)
So many on Twitter were affected by it and raised valid questions: Was it because of the Ama Namin remix? Was it because someone dared to impersonate Jesus? Was it because of the venue (a bar)? Or was it because a drag queen did the performance?
Not even the legal profession has a standard definition of blasphemy. Around the world, what legally constitutes blasphemy varies, depending, for example, on whether the act was private or public, or if it was meant to be a legitimate critique or a deliberate insult to a religious group.
It’s this imprecision that renders blasphemy an arbitrary concept. Someone, for example, may raise an objection based on a number of reasons.
Reacting to the Jesus drag, a Twitter user, for example, argued that “Prayer is not entertainment. The Mass is not a costume party. The church is not a club.”
These claims are all easily refuted. A sociological eye will readily see that the distinction between personal piety and public performance is often blurred. A religious act done in public, whether one admits it or not, is cognizant of how it wishes to be publicly perceived. After all, a religious service that does not draw people in – what might be called its “entertainment value” – is bound to fail.
And if one still doubts whether a church is in fact a club, just look at its demographics. Whom does it attract? Whom does it retain? And who gets recognized? Let’s not pretend that our congregations are genuinely loving of anyone and everyone.
So to label that act as blasphemous for being entertaining and cliquish is most dishonest. Religion is necessarily entertaining and cliquish.
So, what then makes the Jesus drag offensive to people? The lesson here is that if one is willing to label something as blasphemous, that person must also be prepared to recognize its arbitrariness.
Protecting the majority
And yet there’s an underlying logic to what counts as blasphemous. In this sense the label is not always arbitrary.
Often people invoke it in the name of the majority and their religious sensibilities.
Some of you might remember Mideo Cruz’s poleteismo, a three-wall installation that was part of the 2011 Kulo exhibition at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It juxtaposed both sacred and profane images. Sharing the space with Jesus, Mary, and a cross were penis ashtrays, condoms, a moveable penis, and pictures of political figures. At the center of the cross was a mirror that effectively embedded the viewer’s image in the installation itself. It was meant to be a commentary on the religious, social, and political “deities” in Philippine society, thus the installation’s title.
But that’s not what happened. Instead it was vilified publicly.
Religious leaders called for its boycott and the installation itself was vandalized: “Emedeo Cruz (I.N.C.) Sumpain ka, Bakla.” A prominent reporter, in his column, even insinuated that he deserved all of it: “If you’re an atheist or if you believe in no god, don’t violate the beliefs of others! This is a predominantly Catholic country, my boy…”
There you have it. The public found it offensive not so much because of God as it was but because of the values they felt it violated. But also, in a paradoxical sense, Mideo Cruz’s installation managed to fulfill what it wanted to do: to raise a mirror in front of Filipinos and they did not like what they saw.
The hostile reaction towards the Jesus drag mirrored similar sentiments. To be sure, they called for respect but they did so in the name of conservative Catholic sensibilities. Someone who described himself as “not even a religious person” was also among the first to claim that “there are lines you just don’t cross.”
By way of conclusion I wish to offer a conjecture for the rest of us to reflect on. I think the most blasphemous for many is what was left generally unsaid: That Christ could be queer.
That remains simply unimaginable for every Christian used to seeing Christ as a male figure, whether as an innocent baby boy, a bleeding, crucified man, or a resurrected Messiah.
The controversial Jesus drag complicated that picture.
In recent decades, queer Christian reflections have drawn inspiration on Christ’s transgressive life. From the circumstances surrounding his birth to his deliberate effort to spend time with the marginalized, Christ proved himself to be transgressive of social norms and expectations. If to be queer is to resist structures that oppress people, then Christ, according to theologian Lisha Isherwood, “is certainly queer.”
Explaining their side in a Twitter space, Pura Luka Vega, the drag performer, has referred to Jesus as a “symbol of hope and a voice for the oppressed.” And so to sing “dito sa lupa, para nang sa langit” was meant to “create safe spaces, and that’s exactly what happened.”
This is how blasphemy becomes even more complicated. What’s blasphemous to one is revolutionary to another. From a sociological standpoint, that’s how prophets are prophetic. And that’s how religious movements are moving.
In this sense, to be called blasphemous may not necessarily be unfortunate. If anything, it might even be a sign that something beautiful is revealing itself. – Rappler.com
Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is a sociologist of religion and the Associate Dean for Research and Creative Work at the Ateneo de Manila University. He received the 2017 Outstanding Young Scientist Award from the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and was named among The Outstanding Young Men/People (TOYM) of the Philippines in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.