Jesus Satire, Stephen Colbert and free speech

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Around the same time the YouTube trailer sparked violence in parts of the Muslim world, Harvard Professor Karen King disclosed an ancient papyrus in which Jesus supposedly said “My wife …”

Christians believe Jesus was never married and the insinuation that it might be otherwise could have seemed sacrilegious to a vast number of Christians.

Given that the whole case rested on one incomplete phrase, “My wife …” most reporters and writers treated the finding lightly, which was further discredited when other evidence surfaced that the papyrus might have been a fake.

What I found interesting was the response from the comedy shows. Perhaps the funniest response was the treatment on the Colbert Report.

Colbert’s video did not go viral on YouTube nor did it incite any violence. In fact, it hardly got any attention. Though the video might be offensive to some, nobody tried to ban the video or shut down Comedy Central.

In the aftermath of the YouTube trailer, many Muslims, including the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and even some of my students, supported limits on free speech in the interest of religious sensitivity. That would never happen in the United States, where free speech is a cherished ideal more than any other. And so it should be.

Over the last two years, approximately 40 students from the Middle East have visited the Murrow College at WSU in Pullman, WA, for training in new media and journalism. These students and I have sparred on various occasions over the importance and challenges of free speech. I am curious whether they would consider this video as offensive to Christians. Does this video cross the line?

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Eric Blauer

What examples could you give of “sparing”, I am curious how the matter is framed from your students angle?

As for me, I think Colbert uses irony and satire brilliantly and though I may think he is crude, over the top or wrong at times…I can turn it off.

That’s power…and freedom.


I wasn’t able to finish, I was afraid lightning might strike. Obviously, to someone who loves and honors the Lord Jesus Christ this is sickening and disgusting. But I agree, Prabu that freedom of speech is to be regarded as one of the highest freedoms and one that we supposedly cherish in this country, and I would fight for his right to do his thing even though it is laying up judgement for him in the future. My concern is that freedom of speech is made to apply more and more in this country to every type of speech except Christian speech and also conservative speech. We need to continue to fight to allow all speech to be freely expressed in any context, as long as it is done in an orderly and non-violent fashion.

Eric Blauer

I think two examples of free speech and hate speech and which is which taking place right now is the issue of abortion and the pro-Israel subway adds in NYC regarding ‘civilized vs uncivilized man”.


Eric, usually we discuss that limits on free speech create a slippery slope, which can be detrimental to democracy. The students from the Middle East, however, are far more pragmatic than idealistic when it comes to free speech. They see its value, but perhaps because of the cultural and political climate where they come from, they are willing to tolerate limits on free speech for expediency.


Dennis, political correctness sometimes leads to self-censorship, which is documented in the literature. is this what you mean when you say free expression is limited for Christian and conservative speech. Which topics do you have in mind?

Ernesto Tinajero


I thought Jon Steward was also very funny about the supposed Jesus’ wife.

I do think that this issue is a bit stickier than we have been giving it credit. In America, we have Freedom of Speech, but this is not universal accepted world wide, in fact we are quit rare in the world in this regard. German prohibits Neo-nazi speech, England has all sorts of restriction to public speech. Most countries do put more restrictions on public speech than does the US. Yes, we value it to the point of allowing, say the Westboro church to picket soldiers funerals, but do we then demand that other nations and cultures follow us? And if they don’t? What then?

Can we say to the world that they should adopt our values? Is that a form colonialism to demand so. Also, it was interesting to note the protest for the French cartoon was not as vocal as with the Youtube video. Lending to idea that many in the Middle East are already angry at the US and are only looking for a reason to express it. The whole issue is not very easy and lives are at stake. I view current crisis as part of two grand tectonic cultural plates colliding. We will see many such clashes in the near future and ones in which miscommunication will play a prominent role.

Finally, it was interesting to see the whole “my wife” being hyped as much as it was. The find is important, but could have little to say about Jesus. The fragment was from the 4 century, and it was incomplete statement. Its importance is in understanding the Coptic early church and not the apostolic period. It is akin of some group claiming Washington was actually a British spy gone rough and scholar finding this piece of paper from 2012 and making the claim that it proves Washington was a British spy.

Mohammed Bash

Dear Dr. Prabu David
We, as Muslims, are as offended by sarcastic videos and comments about the prophet Jesus Christ as we are regarding our prophet Muhammad (peace be upon both of them). The educated, well-informed Muslims did not ask to ban the video and did not, for sure, go to break into an embassy. Let’s not forget what happened in 9/11 when over 70 Muslim Family was oppressed and harassed constantly, including my best friend’s family in Detroit. I don’t believe that the people who have done such a thing were educated or civilized nor the ones who attacked US embassies for such stupid videos that will never offend our prophets whither it’s Jesus, Muses or Muhammad because those people are above all blemish and flaws. Plus, the comedy show was an American program made by Stephen Colbert; a catholic Christian politician I believe, not a Muslim. You might have encountered different response if it was made by a Muslim comedian.


Bash, you make an excellent point about the source. If it came from a Muslim comedian, I concede it would have ruffled some feathers. Further, I agree with you that after 9/11 there was backlash against Muslims in the U.S., much of if based on fear and ignorance. But you cannot compare 9/11 with a YouTube video.


As you rightly point out, free speech is not an absolute. Various shades of gray exist. Even here in American one cannot shout “Fire” in a movie theater.

I wouldn’t advocate that others adopt our culture. But I would argue that limits on free speech impede social, economic, and political progress. If new democracies are keen are progress, the moderate Muslims should stand up for free speech more. Easier for me to say. When my life is in danger, however, I am not sure I would have the courage to follow through.

Eric Blauer

The real danger ones when people cannot shout “fire” when a fire is burning. This is the real issue at the root of the free speech debate in my opinion. Politically correct speech is making cowards out of people. Our love for peace has to be held in tension with love for truth and expression. If people were going to be burned alive, the “law” is overridden by a higher law, the law of love, which would scream at the top of its lungs.

Today we are becoming so timid, thin skinned and skittish in matters of debate.

Here is an excellent but too short, debate on the issue:

Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis vs Pamela Geller on ‘Up Close’ – Debate Anti-Muslim Ads in NYC Subway


Martin Elfert

What a great conversation. As a sidebar, Prabu, I’m not sure I agree with you that Christians believe that Jesus was never married. (I’m a Christian and that’s not something that I would count as integral to my beliefs.) While the tradition within the Christian movement has generally held that Jesus was unmarried, the historical Creeds and scripture alike are silent on the subject. To my mind, therefore, Jesus’ marital status fits in that old category known as adiaphora – it is not something to get too worried about one way or another.


I can’t decide if I’m a Christian or a non-Christian or a post-Christian. I am, however, a former Catholic. Catholics are very invested in the idea that Jesus left his power and authority to Peter, not any children he may have had with a wife. This is doctrinal teaching, and like a lot of doctrinal teaching, it extrapolates information from the source material and rearranges it to suit someone in power.

Personally, I think our beliefs need to be porous enough to allow conversation with historical, geographic, and archeological facts. This papyrus fragment does not shake my faith at all – not in the least. I have no investment in the doctrine. If Jesus existed, if he lived, if he had a wife – these are of no consequence to me.

Americans do believe in free speech, perhaps to the point of harm. It is something we agree on, even if we don’t agree with what people say using their right to free speech.

And, as often, Colbert NAILS IT. LIKE A BOSS. because of his wisdom and insight, as a practicing Catholic, he can claim the mysterious and numinous as well as the absurd. and he can advocate for social justice for farm workers on the House Floor. he’s just awesome like that.

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