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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Je Suis Charlie: thinking and praying in the shadow of a massacre

As I write this, a vast crowd is gathering in Paris in a defiant cry for freedom and unity following last week's terrible massacres. Many world leaders are joining them, among them David Cameron. I wish I could be there too. Yet I am there, wholeheartedly, in spirit, in imagination, in sympathy, in everything except body.

Much has been written about these events and their aftermath. The Twitter hashtag #jesuischarlie has trended beyond all expectation. I have added to the volume of tweets expressing sorrow, prayers, outrage, and condemnation. Above all I have wanted to join the worldwide chorus of Non!, the refusal to cave in before the fear violence is meant to evoke. Bombs and guns will never, ever, intimidate the pen. Not in any society that treasures democracy and is pledged to live by it. 

What have been my thoughts in the past few days? They have swung this way and that, I admit it: when events are so wicked, it can take time for our initial responses to stabilise. At first I entertained the notion that when religion is mocked or insulted, as in the long tradition of satire in which Charlie Hebdo stands, we should not be surprised if its committed practitioners react violently. But that's the first step on the dangerous path where understanding an evil can veer into subtly shifting responsibility for it. We can start to think that when people say certain things or draw certain pictures, they should expect a retaliation. So while we are appalled, we toy with the thought that they partly brought it on themselves: whether through malice, unwisdom or just carelessness, they were responsible. But this is absolutely how not to see it. Responsibility for this atrocity lies with those who pulled the trigger - with them alone. 

What they did was an act of hatred of the freedoms our democracy stands for. We need to calibrate those freedoms. In any society, rights are not absolute. They have to be negotiated and consented to. Freedom of speech, precisely because of the power it gives, has to be handled responsibly. Paddy Ashdown tweeted last week: 'Some say that because you can say something, it doesn't mean you should. But free speech means that because you shouldn't say something, it doesn't mean you can't.' To put it that way round is clarifying. There are things I shouldn't say or write; if possible, I shouldn't even entertain the thought behind them. Not because I am not free to, or am afraid to, but because it erodes the value of another human being, damages people, or is exploitative or hurtful or just plain rude. That is a judgment everyone must make. And within the boundaries of what is lawful, we should expect a huge range of opinion as to what is or is not responsible in an environment where so many freedoms are given us. Charlie Hebdo is not everyone's cup of tea. But however people use these freedoms, and even if they abuse them, violence is never the answer. 

Voltaire has predictably been much quoted: 'I disagree with what you say, but shall defend to the death your right to say it'. It's hard to improve on that. I guess that saying that makes me what I have realised in a new way I am: a citizen of modernity, a child of the Enlightenment. The assault on Charlie Hebdo was a clear attack on the values of the Enlightenment at the very heart of its French homeland. Freedom to speak, equality before the law, toleration of dissent, all this was in the sights of the Islamists as they named their victims and gunned them down. They did what they did not out of reverence for truth and justice on behalf of the Prophet. It was an act of naked fear. 

To be a post-Enlightenment society means standing for the belief that the tyranny of ideas, any ideas, even the best, can never belong in a civilised society, let alone the distorted and debased doctrines of radical Islam or other extreme fundamentalisms. The principle of laïcité lies at the heart of the secular French Republic. That clear separation of the state from religious belief and practice is the direct heir of Enlightenment thinking. It's not that religion is to be repressed, but that everyone should be allowed to practise it according to their conviction in an environment of toleration. Or not, as the case may be. It's important for people of faith to understand that liberal secularism, so hated by some strands of Christianity, is not the tyrannous proscription of faith but the guarantor of a space in which it can find its free expression. At its best, it is the ally of good religion, not its enemy.

This much has become clearer to me in the past few days: that we must speak and act not out of fear or hatred but out of the love of truth. Yes, the Enlightenment itself did not always live up to its own best vision of a civilised society: witness the Terror that followed the French Revolution. But just as in Christianity and Islam, we need to rise to the highest aspiration of a noble movement, not the corrupted versions certain periods of history bear witness to. And the Enlightenment has given us gifts we should celebrate and be profoundly thankful for. It's arguable that it could only have happened in a Christian environment with its respect for the individual, for personal freedom and for the pursuit of truth. 

The preacher in the Cathedral today got it right. He said that he certainly did not like it when his Lord was maligned or mocked or his name used as a swear word. It is hurtful and grievous. Yet nothing anyone can say or do to Jesus Christ today can go beyond what he has already suffered in his passion and crucifixion. He stands before us as the Lord of truth and love. And, as the New Testament tells us, he did not resort to retaliation when he was ridiculed and insulted. 'When he was abused, he did not abuse in return.' 

Islam honours the same God of Abraham as Christians and Jews. He is not a coercive tyrant; on the contrary, as the Qur'an insists, he is 'Allah the compassionate and merciful'. We do not confuse those who follow the noble path of Islam with the crazed extremists who have so violently twisted its meaning and practice, and by wreaking havoc on the streets of France brought the name of a great world faith into disrepute. Jesus prayed from the cross for those who did not know what they were doing. These atrocities are beyond comprehension to us, beyond our capacity as mortals to forgive. We burn with anger on behalf of victims who can no longer cry out for themselves. Yet is it not precisely in the heat of our rage that we must pray that hardest of all prayers that Jesus uttered at the darkest moment of his passion: 'Father, forgive'? Or try to?

1 comment:

  1. I have been struggling with this all week, thinking about how although Jesus was not above satirising the worst pomposity of the Pharisees (and don't we love him for it?) I feel uncomfortable about satire for satire's sake, and the notion that all religious people are, in the eyes of Charlie Hebdo, fools to be laughed at...?