By Leonard Jayawardena –
The self-proclaimed prophet called Jerome Fernando, described as the “Overseer” of the Sri Lanka branch of what is called “Global Church” on the church’s official website, is in hot water after a video of a sermon of his originally delivered to one of his congregations and uploaded to Youtube had been circulated in the social media. The controversial sermon has stirred up a hornets’ nest with accusations leveled against him from all quarters of insulting other religions, offending religious sensibilities and damaging communal and religious harmony. They include clergy of all the religions which were the subject of Jerome’s critical remarks (Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, Muslim), civil groups and politicians. The media in general, abandoning all objectivity, have regularly characterised Jerome’s statements as an “insult” (or an equivalent word) to the four religions involved and Buddhism in particular. Two of the most common words in the journalists’ vocabulary, “alleged” and “allegedly,” were notably absent in all the media reports I have seen in relation to Jerome’s sermon (that is, “alleged insults,” etc.)
As might be expected, politicians of all stripes have been quick to try and make political capital out of Jerome’s issue. Opposition politicians have accused the government of orchestrating such “attacks” against religion to try and divert public attention away from the economic condition of the country. On the other hand, government politicians have accused the opposition of conspiring with the “blasphemer” to sabotage the stability and progress this government has achieved thus far since the worst days of the economic crisis by stirring religious strife in the country. I have also heard a government minister say that groups that “attack” religions have proliferated after the Aragalaya as if the Aragalaya was to be blamed for it. There are even suggestions that foreign countries are behind all this and this particular theory seems to have gained traction especially after the arrest of Natasha Wijesuriya, the stand-up comedienne.This appears to be the second season of conspiracy theories after the Easter Sunday bombings.
Reactions to Jerome’s alleged derogatory statements against the four abovenamed religions have gone beyond condemnations to calls for his punishment under the laws of the land. These calls have come from both clergy and lay people. No less a person than the President himself called for an investigation into the controversial comments made by Jerome with a view to prosecuting him and when a fundamental rights petition filed by the monk Elle Gunawansa (petitioning the Court to order Jerome’s immediate arrest) was called before a Supreme Court judge bench on May 24, the Attorney General informed the Court that a CID probe was underway into Jerome’s statements.
Much has also been written and spoken about Jerome’s known association with his self-professed “spiritual father” Uebert Angel of South Africa, who was shown in an Aljazeera expose to be involved in gold smuggling and money laundering, and there have been calls to investigate into his sources of wealth. But what is really at stake in Jerome’s case is the issue of the freedoms guaranteed by Articles 14. (1) (a) and 14. (1) (e) of the Sri Lankan Constitution, viz., “freedom of speech and expression” and the “freedom … either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observation, practice and teaching.”
The right to freedom of speech and expression is circumscribed by Article 15 (2) of the Constitution, which subjects it to “such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interest of racial and religious harmony or in relation to parliamentary privilege, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”
Jerome’s case also raises other issues such as why so many Lankans, living in the twenty first century in the land of the “Compassionate One,” are so offended and disturbed by his sermon and whether religion should be exempt from criticism.
The “blasphemy” laws of Sri Lanka
Articles 290-292 of the Penal Code set out the offences relating to religion and Articles 291A and 291B place limits on the freedom of speech and expresion as follows:
291A. Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person, or makes any gesture in the sight of that person, or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
291B. Whoever, with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
The section appplicable to Jerome, if at all, is 291B and, as I see it, the key words here are “with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings” and “insult.” And “insult” is a “disrespectful or scornfully abusive remark or act” (Oxford Dictionary). It’s not so much what you say but your attitude and intention that matters. Actually, even words that may be objectively true uttered at an inappropriate place and time with facial expressions and tone of voice that indicate mockery and sarcasm was intended could wound another’s feelings.
Article 3 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act (No. 56 of 2007) reads, “No person shall propagate war or advocate national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”
According to Section 2 (h) of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, any person who
by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise causes or intends to cause commission of acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill-will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups
shall be guilty of an offence under the Act.
In what follows, a summary of Jerome’s sermon in so far it pertains to our concern in this article is given together with my comments, from which the reader, I hope, will be able to judgement for himself whether his statements come within the scope of the relevant laws, followed by my own two cents’ worth.
I searched for the official upload of the video on the web without success and my comments below thereon are based on at least a nearly complete unofficial video upload of his sermon I saw on Youtube.
The video presents a sermon delivered in the first instance by Jerome to his congregation at their “Miracle Dome” in Katunayake. The theme of his sermon is Jesus as the expression of God’s agape, one of the Greek words for love. It is used in the New Testament of both love between humans and God’s love towards humans. It occurs, for example, in I John 4:8: “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love [Greek agape].” Jerome’s central text for his sermon is John 3:16, perhaps the most famous New Testament passage of all: “For God so loved [Gr. agapao] the world that he gave his only begotten son….” agapao is the verbal form of the word agape (rough transliteration used for all Greek words cited in the article).
Jerome compares and contrasts Christianity with other religions in his sermon and repeatedly makes the point that the offer or availability of God’s love as expressed through Jesus in Christianity is what distinguishes it from other religions.
With regard to Buddhism, he says that the Buddhists may know about karma and the “enlightenment” of the Buddha, but they don’t hear “the love of the Buddha.” Their focus is enlightenment, but to be enlightened you need light. The name “Buddha” itself means “enlightened one.” Which is greater, light or enlightened? Jesus claimed to be the light of the world (John 8:12). The Buddha was looking for light; therefore he was looking for Jesus.
Comment: Jerome was not, of course, making a chronological blunder as some think, for he would have been well aware that Siddhartha lived centuries before Jesus. His point is that the Buddha missed the mark as regards the true light that was manifested in Jesus, implying that the former had an inferior light. Jerome doesn’t say how the Buddha could have attained this true light at the time he lived.
With regard to Islam, Jerome says that the Muslims cannot call Allah their father. Muslims have ninety nine names for God but “love” is not one of them. (Comment: Jerome appears to be in error here. In a list of the ninety-nine names of Allah, I saw the words “Al-Wadood, the most loving.” What the list does not have is a name for “father” and the Quran nowhere calls Allah the father of any one.)
With regard to Hinduism, Jerome, citing Romans 1:20, “[God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made…,” says that the Hindus when they worship God’s creation in the form of deities with thousands of hands or in the form of an elephant, etc., they are recognizing and worshipping the true God in an imperfect form and so are not far from the truth. But they need to be told the fuller truth, that is God’s agape in Jesus. God’s true form is manifested in Jesus.
To the Catholics he says wittily, “You can know the Pope and have no hope”! “You can know all the clergy but if you don’t know Jesus, you do not know agape.” (Comment: the context for these statements is the enormous trust that Catholics place on the authority of the Catholic Church, which is a fact.) No point in praying to St. Peter because, because he is in heaven but I (Jerome) am on earth and it is I who can help you, not Peter. (Comment: Here Jerome seems to be exalting himself to almost a blasphemous level.) Alluding to John 3:16, Jerome says that God loved the world and sent not Mary, Jude, etc. (all of whom are venerated in the Catholic Church) but Jesus, God’s agape.
Is the sermon offensive and actionable?
A recording of the sermon had been uploaded to Jerome’s official Youtube channel and was available for viewing by any one who visited the channel. No one was forced to be present at the venue of the sermon or watch the video. On the most unlikely possibility of the Youtube logarithm recommending this sermon to a religious “snowflake” in this blessed country, he/she had the option of immediately clicking or tapping the stop button. The link to this video would have been shared by Jerome’s followers to other likeminded folk and friends. The trouble would have started when a religious bigot saw this video and shared it on the social media with a viewing to creating mischief.
Though Jerome at one point in the sermon urged the audience to take his message to others, he was not involved in converting non-Christians to Christianity. He was preaching, according to his lights, to the converted to strengthen and consolidate their faith by showing how it was superior to all other religions. The Bible would call it “feeding the sheep” (cf. John 21:15) except the sheep in this case were a blind flock led by a false prophet. No one in the congregation was offended. On the contrary, they are seen in the video enraptured by his sermon, hanging on to every word of his and cheering him on.
On countless poya days sermons Buddhist monks would have compared Buddhism with other religions, especially Christianity, to cast the former in a superior light. While passing by a Buddhist temple, I once heard a monk denigrating belief in a Creator God as superstition over the loudspeaker. Polemic Islamic propaganda literature is readily available in local Islamic book shops, in which, for example, the traditional (false) Christian doctrine of the Trinity (accepted by the Catholic Church) is criticised and deprecated. Then there are a great many misinterpretations and distortions of the Bible, too, in such literature. Why this discrimination in Jerome’s case?
If there is any misrepresentation of other religions, it doesn’t make Jerome’s sermon hateful or offensive provided he sincerely believed in the truth of what he said. As a serious student of the Bible, I see the Bible and Christianity misrepresented all the time everywhere—mostly by Christians!—but, while I may be vexed by the ignorance and stupidity displayed, I am consumed not by any ill-will or hostility toward any one but by a desire to correct the error, time and the situation permitting.
The sermon was delivered in what one might call a cocky or flamboyant style but there was decidedly no abusive language or gratuitous insults. No “labba” talk as in Sepal Amarasinghe’s case, where disparaging language was used in remarks about the tooth relic at the Kandy temple. There is absolutely no discernible malice or intention to wound the feelings of adherents of other religions at any one point in the sermon. At one point he even urges his audience to take their “deeper truth” to the Hindus without “persecuting, shaming, disrespecting another’s belief but communicating the truth in love.” The words “communicating the truth in love” allude to the apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:15.
I cannot see how Article 3 (1) of the ICCPR is contravened because clearly Jerome did not advocate “religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”
With respect to Section 2 (h) of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Jerome’s words did not cause or were not intended to cause “commission of acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill-will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups.”
As can be seen in the video Jerome’s audience mostly if not all belonged to the middle class and they were all well dressed, some even in full suits. Jerome himself is seen dressed probably in branded clothes. These are not the sort of people who are likely to harbour feelings of ill-will or hostility towards other groups on religious grounds. The ill-will and hostility we have seen thus far have been from one side only. Further, Jerome’s sermon may have stirred a hornets’ nest but the stinging, if any, will most assuredly come only from hornets of the “offended” variety only.
The media reported Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, MP, as saying that Jerome must be arrested and punished as otherwise the Buddhists of this country would take the law into their own hands. They had not “attained arhathood” yet and their patience would have its limits. He should be made an example. In other words, he urges the punishment of Jerome as a concession to the moral and spiritual weakness of the “offended.” Needless to say, this reveals how low the religion of Sarath Weerakesera and the Buddhists that he referred to is.
The problem is that it is the religious leaders who are at the forefront clamouring for retribution. If the religious leaders set an example by pleading for tolerance from their adherents, urged countering such criticism at an intellectual level (using the ample propaganda organs at their disposal) and even threatened sanctions (even excommunication) to errant members, the possibility of a backlash resulting from such religious criticism as Jerome’s would be virtually nil. (Following Jerome’s case, the Catholic Church announced that Catholics who joined “fundamentalist” Christian sects would be denied burial in Catholic cemeteries or Catholic funeral rites. That is the sort of sanctions I am talking about.)
Jerome has reportedly apologised three times for mental pain caused to any by his sermon but he said that he still stood by its contents as he spoke what he believed to be the truth. But rather than being pacified or placated, some of the offended were even more incensed by this qualified apology. The apologies were a mistake on Jerome’s part, for if he spoke the truth, why apologise for it? If any were offended, it was their problem. This shows that Jerome does not the courage of his convictions, which is further evidence that he is a false prophet.
According to a news report appearing after the arrest of Nathasha Edirisooriya, “Lanka is drafting a new legislation to curb the growing incidents of religious slander and online vitriol, according to the country’s religious affairs minister [Vidura Wickramanayaka].” This appears to be a tacit admission on the part of the Government that the existing laws are insufficient to cover both Jerome’s and Nathasha’s cases.
I would wager a lot of money that this case if it ever came to trial would be dismissed by the court. I think a more likely possibility would be that the AG would withdraw the case before it ever got to that stage, which would be a pity, for I would dearly love the case to be taken up for trial to hear how the courts would decide the issue.
If Jerome is convicted, the Bible should be banned
If any found Jerome offensive, then they would find the Bible, his Holy Book, to be absolutely choc-a-bloc with offensive statements. Jesus, Jerome’s professed master, and his first century followers were manyfold offensive.
I don’t know about the Buddhist and the Hindu scriptures but even a casual aquaintance with the Bible, the Quran and the Hadiths (a collection of traditions containing reports of statements or actions of Muhammad) will reveal many things that would “offend” a non-Christian or a non-Muslim, as the case may be. There are even professed Christians who are offended by some things in the Bible! Since the offensive sermon in question is Christian I will give some examples only from the Bible but you will see a lot of “offensive” stuff in the Islamic holy writings too.
To begin with Jesus was crucified because he “offended” (or “scandalized” to use the New Testament word, from the Greek word scandalizo) the religious authorities of his day, who handed him over to the Roman authorities to kill him. When once Pharisees and Scribes complained to Jesus that his disciples did not observe “the tradition of the elders,” he rebuked them, calling them hypocrites, for setting aside the commandments of God in favour of their tradition, and cited Isaiah 29:13. At this the religious leaders are said to have been “scandalized,” that is, offended (vide Matthew 15: 1-12).
Read Matthew 24 for Jesus’ strong denunciation of the religious leaders of his day for their hypocrisy, which ends with a prediction of a divine judgement to fall upon that generation (fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70).
Before Jesus John the Baptist had called the Jewish religious leaders “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7).
After Jesus his disciples, too, fell afoul of the authorities and some paid the ultimate price by matyrdom.
Jesus and his followers made exclusive claims about their faith. To the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, Jesus said, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know. We worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Can you imagine a Christian today telling a Muslim, “You worship what you do not know because salvation is only through Christianity”? Woudn’t that be considered highly “offensive”?
Jesus said to the Jews, “…[U]nless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves” (John 6:53). A correct exposition of this saying would take us beyond the scope of this article.
The NT book of Acts reports that when the apostles Peter and John had healed a man lame from birth at the Jerusalem temple and preached the good news of salvation through Jesus to the crowd that then gathered, “the priests, the commander of the temple police and the Sadducees [a Jewish sect]” were “provoked” and arrested them and put them in custody (Acts 3-4:1-2). In their defence before the religious leaders the next day, Peter said, among other things, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). That name was Jesus.
In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “[What] the pagans sacrifice they offer [in effect] to demons (to evil spiritual powers) and not to God [at all]. I do not want you to fellowship and be partners with diabolical spirits [by eating at their feasts]” (1 Corinthians 10:20, Amplified Bible). If Paul were on earth today, he would say that when, for example, the Hindus worshipped their gods, they were in effect worshipping demons.
Many more examples can be given but the above should suffice to make the point.
Should religions be above criticism?
Rigorous critiques are fundamental for scientific progress. Ideas are all destined to be questioned, reinterpreted, and potentially discarded. While science is not without its establishment which jealously safeguards its orthodoxy in some cases, criticism is considered essential by the scientific community for the progress of science.
In politics, vigorous debate both in and out of Parliament is indispensable for the health and vitality of the body politic. Politicians, their parties and policies are all subjected to scrutiny and criticism by each other, the media and the people. While this may and often does lead to bad blood and even to violence at times, especially at election seasons, no one on that account suggests that political criticism and debate should be banned in the interest of maintaining “political harmony” or avoiding “wounding the political feelings” of others.
But to some religions are sacrosanct, not open to criticism as science and politics. In my observation, people who hold this view have not deeply studied and/or are not serious about any religion. They don’t have deeply held beliefs about any thing. One often hears the platitude, “One must respect and appreciate others’ beliefs.” Certainly, we should respect others’ right to hold any belief, provided, of course, it is not socially harmful but there is no need to respect their beliefs themselves, for they could be untrue and unscientific.
Such people also usually hold the view “All religions are the same and teach you to do good.” While there are similiarities between religions in the moral sphere, the similarities do not perfectly overlap, and doctrinally religions do differ from one another. It is the differences that make each religion unique.
All religions like science make truth claims. Christianity, for example, affirms the existence of an almighty Creator God, who offers salvation through a man called Jesus, who the New Testament asserts was resurrected after his death and burial. If Jesus’ resurrection is not a historical fact, then Christians have no hope of a resurrection either and their faith is in vain as the apotle Paul stated (1 Corinthians 15:13).
Siddhartha, founder of Buddhism, confidently declared,
“In this fathom long-body, with all its perceptions and thoughts, do I proclaim the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world and the path leading to the cessation of the world.
Is it blasphemous or impious to urge some scepticism when the same man propounded a comology in which innumerable world-systems exist similar to our own floating in an infinite space, with a mountain called Mount Meru at the centre of our own world-system, etc., a cosmology that has been thoroughly discredited by modern science? If Siddhartha’s pronouncements relating to the observable world can be shown to be wrong, how can you have confidence in his teachings pertaining to the metaphysical realm?
Historical errors and scientic absurdities are present in the Quran, the “final revelation” to mankind, and the Hadiths, casting doubts on Mohammed’s claim to be the “last prophet.”
In the West, religion is open to debate and crititicm and deniers of Christian claims often engage in debate with affirmers. But you can imagine a debate, say, on the authenticity of the tooth relic of the Kandy temple happening in this country?
Why are so many offended by religious criticism?
If someone uploaded a video to Youtube trying to prove, say, that the earth was flat, the predictable reactions of the viewers would be mirth, laughter, ridicule, etc. There would undoubtably be those who would respond with abusive language in the comments but more educated and cultured viewers would try to counter this false view with the scientific evidence for the fact that the earth is round. A viewer or two might even take the time to upload another video rebutting the false view. But no one would want to punish the video creator or attack him or his fellow flat earthers physically. Nor would it create such “scientific disharmony” between the two groups as would lead to violence.
But with religion it can be different. In Islam blasphemy laws are a part of the religion so being offended is built into it as it were. But Buddhism (the religion of the majority and of those who make the most noise against Jerome’s alleged defamatory comments) and Christianity contain no such laws and, indeed, the moral precepts of their founders would preclude taking such offence. Hinduism is similar, I believe.
For many religion is not a set of truths to be intellectually grasped and acted upon and order one’s life by but something that is bound up with and defines one’s identity like race. For them the truthfulness of the tenets and doctrines of their religion is a secondary matter. They may have been conditioned to believe that theirs is the true religion, at least the most superior, but when challenged they would evince no desire to study and research with a view to proving or disproving any thing. They are content simply to rely on authority (the pope, priests, monks, etc.). People like these are “born” into a particular religion and also don’t convert to another, for only people serious about religion convert to another religion. When this mentality and attitude is combined with low education and low social class, you have the sort of people who go on religious riots. It is tribalism.
People like this take any perceived insult to their religion like an insult to their kith and kin or race/community or even themselves. They have no intellectual weapons to take up to counter the criticism for they have none. Low spirituality, stupidity, mental immaturity, a deep sense of insecurity about their own religion characterise them.
Their religious leaders may also be motivated by the fear that sects like Jerome’s pose a threat to their power and authority. In the case of Jesus and his disciples, it is reported in the New Testament in some instances that their opponents’ and persecutors’ hostility towards them was due to envy (Matthew 27:18; Acts 13:45).
Those who bothered to listen to Jerome’s sermon or at least some part of it and were offended took umbrage because they felt that some part of it attacked their prejudices. There are even those who have never heard it but are hostile to Jerome because of the uniformly negative media coverage. The sermon being in English, only a minority of Sri Lankans would have access to it anyway.
Two final thoughts before I close.
On the most unlikely possibility of Jerome being convicted under Sri Lanka’s blasphemy laws, religious criticism of any sort and promotion of a religion (including missionary work) leading to conversions to any religion would be a thing of the past since such work necessarily involves comparisons with other religions with a view to disproving beliefs, demonstrating the superiority of one religion over another, etc. Further, in that bleak scenario we are contemplating, in a logical world even religious scriptures would be removed or available only after their “offending” parts had been expunged!
Mention was made above that new legislation was being contemplated to further restrict freedom of speech and expression in relation to religion. Right-minded people should be most alarmed at the prospect of any new such legislation being promulgated and should do their utmost to ensure that Mother Lanka does not step into that dark, orwellian world.