Public debate best way to handle controversial ‘B.C.’ comic

Sunday, April 29, 2001

It's not often that the funny pages spark a religious conflict.

But Johnny Hart's “B.C.” comic strip published on Easter Sunday has ignited a firestorm of controversy.

Cries of “anti-Semitism” are countered by charges of “censorship” as religious groups, theologians and journalists take sides in the growing debate.

In case you missed it, Hart's Easter strip starts with a fully lighted menorah. One by one the candles burn out following the utterance of each of the seven last “words” of Jesus.

With the final “It is finished,” the last flame dies. At this point the menorah's outer branches drop away, leaving a cross.

The concluding image shows blood flowing from the cross toward an empty tomb in the foreground. Wine and bread sit on a stone slab just inside the tomb's entrance, and the words “Do this in remembrance of me” are printed underneath. (You can view the actual cartoon at

Thanks to the Internet, the fight over the cartoon's message erupted a week before the strip was published. The Jewish Defense League (JDL) posted a copy on its website and called for newspapers to pull “B.C.” from their Sunday editions.

Johnny Hart responded to the JDL attack by calling it “censorship” and “an across-the-board classic violation of the First Amendment.”

Against the backdrop of nearly 2,000 years of complex and often painful Jewish-Christian relations, an emotional debate such as this raises a host of difficult questions.

Let's start with the First Amendment issue. Are Hart's First Amendment rights violated if newspapers refuse to publish “B.C.” because of complaints from readers?

No. The First Amendment prohibits government — not private publications — from interfering with freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Of course, Hart has every right to proclaim his Christian faith in “B.C.” But newspaper editors also have the freedom to choose whether or not to publish the strip, and every citizen or group has the right to support or oppose publication.

Only when government gets involved in suppressing speech can the charge of “censorship” be appropriately invoked under the First Amendment.

More difficult to untangle are the religious issues.

Some critics of the Easter strip see it as proclaiming “replacement theology,” the view that Christianity has replaced Judaism because Jews do not accept Jesus as the messiah. According to the JDL, such a message encourages Christians “to destroy our religion in the name of Jesus.”

Others see the strip as reinforcing anti-Semitic slurs about Jewish implication in the death of Jesus. This is a canard that has been used for centuries to stir up hatred and violence against Jews.

Johnny Hart responds that he rejects replacement theology. His intended message? He says he meant to illustrate that Christianity is rooted in Judaism. As he put it: “I wanted everyone to see the cross in the menorah.”

I take Hart's word for it that he didn't intend to hurt or offend.

But can a meaningful and accurate picture of the delicate relationship between Judaism and Christianity be adequately portrayed in a Sunday comic strip?

A series of images showing a menorah transforming into a cross — especially during Passover and Easter — is bound to be misunderstood and misused.

To this reader, Hart's cartoon is a clumsy attempt to depict the Christian belief that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Obviously, this understanding of scripture represents a fundamental difference between the two traditions that has divided Christians and Jews for centuries.

Precisely because some Christians have used this difference as a rationale for attacking Jews and Judaism, the way in which it is presented is deeply important. Anti-Semitism has been and remains a destructive force in the United States and in many other parts of the world.

In light of this history, should newspapers have published the “B.C.” Easter cartoon? Should they continue to publish future Hart cartoons with religious messages?

As much as I find this cartoon version of Jewish-Christian relations misleading and subject to abuse, I still would answer “yes” to both questions. Newspapers should serve as forums for a wide range of religious and political views, including those that may offend.

This isn't a new debate. From “Pogo” to “Doonesbury,” comic strips sometimes touch nerves and trigger controversies that can lead some papers to cancel them. But dropping a cartoon isn't the answer.

The best course for newspapers is to publish controversial strips while acknowledging the issues they raise via news stories, commentaries and letters from readers.

Some papers have already taken such steps, making a good-faith effort to turn a potentially ugly conflict into a healthy exchange of ideas and viewpoints.

The other solution is for Johnny Hart to be more thoughtful and sensitive about how he conveys religious convictions in his comic strip.

As the world's most widely syndicated cartoonist, Hart has a powerful platform from which to reach millions of adults and children around the globe. He should use it to advance understanding among faiths, not to deepen divisions.

Tags: , , ,