Sweet Jesus: is the Canadian ice cream brand blasphemous, irrelevant...or an opportunity?

The Christian faith is under attack again. In the first century it was pursued by the brutal and bloodthirsty Roman Empire; throughout two millennia it has been persecuted by every murderous dictator who ever felt its subversive threat to the powerful. In 2018, the perpetrators of Christian persecution are a Canadian ice cream chain. Same story, different day.

Protests have swelled in the US and Canada against Sweet Jesus, an ice cream chain which has chosen to use a bit of mild blasphemy as their brand name. The company, which launched in 2016, apparently named their stores after an employee's reaction to tasting some of their product. And while their website insists that 'our aim is not to offer commentary on anyone's religion or belief systems,' Christians are both outraged and convinced that this nothing less than a full-scale cultural attack on the Son of God and his followers.

Leading the defensive charge was a blog post on conservative website Activist Mommy, which first drew attention to alleged attempts by the company to mock the Christian faith. In a somewhat unboundaried piece of writing (which ends with a hugely offensive joke about Islam), the unnamed author argues that 'the entire marketing concept of their company is to mock the name of the Lord Jesus Christ'. They point out that the company's logo includes an SS-style S (popular, they say, 'among equally blasphemous and Satanic metal bands of the 70s and 80s'), and an upside down cross. And they take issue with the advertising campaign for the chain, which features children in arresting poses and make-up. At one point, the writer thoughtfully and sensitively describes a young boy in one such advert as 'covered in tattoos and wearing an outfit reminiscent of the sailor in the homosexual music group The Village People. He also has a pink teacup like something a little girl would play with to top off the suggestion of gender-bending'.

The initial post, shared over 5,000 times on social media, then spawned an online petition on the campaigning website CitizenGo. The petition, which has so far attracted over 10,000 signatures, takes issue with both the firm's marketing materials and its menu. Sweet Jesus offers religious-themed flavours with titles like Red Rapture, Hella Nutella and Sweet Baby Jesus, and campaigners are calling for their removal from the menu, alongside a demand that the chain changes its name.

Despite co-founder Andrew Richmond's subsequent statement that the company would hold firm with its branding which is, he says 'an honest reflection of our experiences and that of our customers and how they react when they try our product', there's no denying that the name does make light of the name of Jesus, and subverts religious imagery in order to sell products. It is, in the purest sense, blasphemous, in that it refers to someone using Jesus as a kind of gentle swear word.

Here's the really tricky question though: does it matter? Does a secular company, naming itself after a semi-blasphemous exclamation, really make any impact on the status of the Christian faith in modern Canada, or more importantly on God himself?

In Exodus 20 v 7, when Moses first receives the Ten Commandments and they include a directive not to take the Lord's name in vain, God is giving him a set of instructions that will set the Israelites apart from the rest of the world. He doesn't tell them to force the rest of the world to bend to these rules; they're for God's people. 'You shall have no other Gods before me' doesn't really have a lot of relevance to people who don't recognise him as God. Now, God might be grieved by the fact that many people choose not to acknowledge or have a relationship with him, but is the creator who formed galaxies really fazed by the marketing materials of a dessert company in Canada?

'Sweet Jesus' ice creamFacebook

What definitely does make an impact on the status of the Christian faith, right across the connected world, is a story about Christians angrily – and in the case of the initial blog, offensively – protesting against things which seem microscopically small in the context of the world's more pressing problems. When these kinds of stories break, we become known as petty and defensive people, unable to take a joke and more worried about the idea that someone might be making fun of us than the idea that the world might be going to hell. This is the typical behaviour of a wounded power, trying to defend what's left of our beleaguered Kingdom, and it is absolutely recognised as such by the onlooking world. Yet perhaps it doesn't need to be this way.

Most people had never heard of Sweet Jesus before the story broke; now their name is known all around the world. From a marketing perspective that's a master-stroke, and it's little wonder that Richmond is refusing to change the name of his company. Yet in a post-Christian culture, the phrase isn't neutral; another way of looking at it would be to realise the positive aspects of 'Sweet Jesus'. So many young people – the firm's key target demographic – barely know anything about Jesus, so the coupling of his name with a positive adjective and a delicious lifestyle brand is actually helpful to our mission. One of the most popular songs of the modern church has us singing 'what a beautiful name it is, the name of Jesus Christ my King'. While the brand is light-hearted, it's not aggressive to that 'beautiful name', but actually quite complimentary.

Even if you don't buy the idea that this is contributing something positive to our mission, it's hard to see how the name amounts to either religious persecution or a big problem for God, who is presumably not enormously bothered, given that he hasn't yet turned the chain to dust. The danger of protesting such a thing is that it quietly deflects our attention from real blasphemy – when we put ourselves in God's place – and real persecution, as faced by our brothers and sisters in countries like North Korea. Again and again, we Christians seem to get upset at all the wrong things, and keep ourselves busy enough not to have to confront things like injustice, the pressing need for evangelism, and of course our own sin. I wonder if we need to chill out about issues like this. Perhaps an ice cream would help.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.