06/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Outrage Over South Park 's Muhammad: Not Just a Muslim Thing

The creators of the cartoon South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have been all over the news this week. On the show's 200th episode, they sort of depicted the Prophet Muhammad thus attracting the attention of a radical website called Revolutionmuslim (since taken down) that, in return, sort of threatened to kill them.

As pointed out by Hussein Rashid on Religion Dispatches, the media has reacted with dangerous ignorance and predictable stereotypes -- even beyond Bill O'Reilly on FOX news. In all the commentary, even the more traditionally moderate CNN treated viewers to this comment: "No other religion threatens violence over how they are portrayed in the media."

Since media depictions of Muhammad appear in the western media, and incidents of violence regarding such depictions have been directed toward secular or Christian writers and artists, one can detect a sort of religious-moral superiority here. Western culture, with its Christian heritage, isn't roiled by such theological narrowness. After all, who would get so worked up over religious pictures as to try to kill someone?

I can't and won't defend the Revolutionmuslim website. But violence against those who depict the Divine is not just an Islamic problem. It is worth pointing out that Christianity has a long history of violence against visual depictions of Jesus, the saints, and God. In 1987, Serrano's Piss Christ provoked death threats and violence from Christian fundamentalists and conservative Catholics across the U.S. and Europe and caused political outrage on two continents. In the 19th century, American Catholics were regularly targeted by Protestant mobs for "worshiping" statues while Protestant ministers lost their positions if they placed visual depictions of the crucifixion, Mary, or the saints in their churches. Two hundred years before that, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan army smashed religious artwork in English parish churches. During the 16th century Protestant Reformation, followers of Luther and Calvin looted cathedrals and convents carting off valuable paintings and statues to burn them in public squares. And so it has been for most of Christian history. Indeed, as early as 600, Bishop Serenus of Marseilles destroyed all the pictures in every church in his city worried that "images somehow cheapened the sacred words of Scripture."

The worst outbreak of violence against visual depictions of Jesus occurred in the 700s. In 726, Emperor Leo III outlawed the use of icons and ordered their destruction. Upon the decree, mass rioting broke out across the Byzantine Empire demanding the return of visual art to worship. At the same time, Islam had emerged as a rival religion to Christianity, with even stricter prohibitions against images.

Ironically, John of Damascus (655-750), the great Christian defender of artistic depictions of God, lived in the Muslim city of Damascus where he served as chief councilor to the Caliph. The Caliph, despite his own spiritual distaste for representative art, protected John against several attempts by Christian partisans to have him murdered.

John addressed the issue of art rather simply: What is an image? "An image is an likeness and representation of someone containing in itself the person who is imaged. The image is not wont to be an exact reproduction of the original. The image is one thing, the person represented another." There is a distinction between the image and the thing, thus depicting God or Jesus (or perhaps even Muhammad) should be allowed, if reverently executed.

Although I doubt that John of Damascus would approve of South Park, he nevertheless opened the way for Christian artists to explore the territory of depicting divine things. Not every believer has approved of such artistic attempts to image God -- and they have often objected by resorting to violence against property and persons. Christianity, like Islam, has a very mixed historical record when it comes to the tension between "no graven images" and the freedom of religious -- or even the irreligious -- imagination of the artist.

Whatever the case, western commentators -- especially those who happen to be Christians -- cannot claim any theological superiority regarding art and God and should not think of this as a "Muslim thing." A little less outrage and more history might help. As Jesus once said, "Let the one without sin cast the first stone."