April 19, 2016

In memory of § 142 of the Norwegian General Civil Penal Code (1902)

Cover of Jesus Kristus & Co, published by the Heathen Society of Norway.

Cover of Jesus Kristus & Co, published by the Heathen Society of Norway.

Late in the evening on the 23rd of March 1738, Anders Suhm, a teenage resident of Kristiansand, decided to set the local church on fire. Anders, the troubled son of the local harbourmaster, had indulged in free living and worldly pleasures, but had fallen on hard times, accumulating a considerable gambling debt. To resolve his financial troubles, he drafted a contract in 17 points to sell his soul to the Devil so he could reimburse his creditors. Having failed to raise the attention of the Evil One, Anders retorted to more drastic measures, and set out to light up the local church. Asking numerous passers-by if they could provide him with a light, he soon ended up in prison, charged with the denigration of ‘God, his name, words and sacraments’. 

At the time of his conviction, the penalty for the crime under Christian Vs Norske Lov (1687) was that transgressors would have their tongue cut out and their head cut off, later to be displayed together on a pole. If anyone used their hands to complete the act, these would also be chopped off and added to the display. Suhm was unanimously found guilty on all accounts, but managed to escape with no trace after deceiving the prison guards with hard drink, crude lies, and most likely more than a little assistance from helpers on the outside.   


The identification of blasphemy has always represented a thorny definitional challenge. In the Christian tradition, available scriptural passages commenting the concept range from the declaration of St. Paul of his own acts of ‘blasphemy’ during his time as persecutor of Christians, to numerous passages on blasphemy from the Old Testament referring in general to all insults or wrongs against God, and to the declaration of Jesus that all sins were forgivable, except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Searching for a common denominator across these fairly dispersed examples, canonical jurists settled for a determination of blasphemy that encompassed ‘either as ascribing to God properties he did not possess, or as denying to God properties that he did possess’.

The problem with punishing all acts of blasphemy under this definition, according to the 16th century canonist Prosper Farinacius, was that if blasphemous offenses were punished as they should have been, ‘too few men would be left’. This striking combination of rigorous dogmatism (all instances of blasphemy should be punished) and common-sense pragmatism (blasphemy is too widespread to be sustainably prosecuted) underpinned the legal prohibition of blasphemy in Norway up to the final abolition of section 142 of the 1902 Penal Code in 2015: Despite the longevity of the Norwegian ban on blasphemy, convictions were always few and far between. The case of Anders Suhm is the only known conviction to the full extent of the law, even during the most aggressively conformist rule during the period of absolutism in Denmark-Norway (1661-1814), during which the ban was only one among a host of restrictions on any form of expression threatening the authority of the King.


From 1842, when the Criminal Act was adopted, and to the introduction of the 1902 Penal Code, convictions for blasphemy flourished briefly, as the incipient Norwegian state applied the prohibition liberally to strike down a variety of troublemakers. The 1842 law only prescribed fines, imprisonment or hard labour, turning the ban into a convenient tool to bring nonconformists of various stripes in line.

The handful of convictions from this period span from fines handed out to a disgruntled father who scribbled ‘screw that!’ next to the heading on ‘Religion’ in his son’s report card, and to the far more serious convictions of several of the key participants in the 1852 Kautokeino rebellion to hard labour for their disturbance of the church peace. Fines issued to the bohemian writer Hans Jæger for his publication of Til Kristiania-bohemen in 1886/1887 combined charges of blasphemy and immorality, as the book set out to undermine three pillars upholding the spiritual corruption of society, namely morality, Christianity and the bourgeoisie conception of justice.


The introduction of the 1902 Penal Code spelled the slow, but inevitable decline of the Norwegian ban on blasphemy. Punishments for blasphemy under the new law were reduced further, to fines and a maximum of 6 months imprisonment. The only conviction under the 1902 ban was a small fine meted out to Arnefred Olesen in 1912, for an article ridiculing the Christmas celebration.

When the National Theatre in 1932 set out to stage The Green Pastures, a play depicting episodes from the Old Testament through the eyes of young African-American children,a heated campaign to stop the production and legally prohibit ‘portrayals of God on stage’ quickly developed. Before the issue reached parliament, the author Arnulf Øverland gave a lecture entitled Christianity: the tenth plague, in which he set out to test the limits of the ban by ridiculing Christianity to the fullest extent.

Øverland was promptly charged, tried and acquitted by the narrowest possible margin by a jury, a decision later described by the trial judge as manifestly wrong. Following Øverland’s acquittal, the ban on blasphemy was expanded by parliament, lowering the threshold for punishable offenses while also encompassing all religions legally operating in Norway.

In the post-war years, scattered attempts to apply the ban on blasphemy ranged from opposition against Georg Johannesen’s play Kassandra (1967), which featured the portrayal of a fat, misbehaving God, via the (in)famous decision of the Film Board of Norway to prohibit the screening of The Life of Brian (1980), and to the charges made against the publication of the satirical magazine Jesus Kristus og co (1982) by the Norwegian Heathen Society.


Judging from its scant application and lax enforcement up to the 1980s, the Norwegian prohibition on blasphemy seemed destined to be forgotten and finally abolished in silence, without much public debate or contestation.

Then, in 1988, the Indian-born, British author Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, and everything changed. On the 18th of February 1989, four days after the fatwa proclaiming the death sentence for Rushdie was issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ‘Supreme Leader’ of Iran, the Islamic Defence Council, an ad hoc umbrella organization set up by a variety of Norwegian Muslim organizations, suggested that any import, distribution or translation of the book should be prohibited under the Norwegian ban on blasphemy.

Only a few weeks later, Carl I. Hagen, MEP and leader of the Progress Party, issued a draft bill to parliament on the removal of the ban on blasphemy, arguing that the ban, having remained unapplied despite numerous contemptuous attacks on Christianity, risked offering better protections for ‘other religions’ than the Christian faith, in what amounted to a thinly veiled reference to the charges launched by the Council. Following hot on the heels of this proposal, a drawn out debate on the blasphemy ban and the role of the freedom of expression more generally simmered throughout the 1990s, featuring recommendations to scrap the ban from two government-appointed commissions (1993-1994 and 1996-1999) on the freedom of expression, and one on reform of the penal code (1994-2002).


Despite clear and unequivocal recommendations, the ban stayed on the books until the 28th of May, 2015, when it was finally abolished. By that time, most major political parties had voted on both sides of the issue, citing everything from the preservation of the climate for debate and the concern for religious minorities to pure political expediency as rationale for their positions.

As Yvonne Sherwood has observed, blasphemy – like comedy – is all about timing and direction.  When acts of blasphemy carried the sentence of beheading in the 17th century, it was because they were perceived as attacks directed at the very foundations of the political order, reminiscent of the motivations behind contemporary prohibitions against blasphemy in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As the nature of the Norwegian political order and its relation to divine sanction has changed dramatically over the following centuries, blasphemous expressions have been robbed of their primary sense of direction and purpose. With the expansion of the concept of prohibited blasphemy to cover all religions, the determination and recognition of punishable offenses became radically context-dependent – no longer serving the interests of state power and the majority religion, the ban was no longer practically applicable.

Although the expansion of the ban technically offered protection for all religions from 1934, reform efforts to remove the ban were immediately opened at the first signs of any religious tradition outside mainstream Christianity seeking protection under the ban, indicating the inextricable connection between bans on blasphemy and the dominant role of majority religions.