Over the last couple of weeks, individuals and organisations all over the world have been responding to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France. Now, people and organisations are responding to the responses. And those responses to the responses demonstrate a lot about people’s preconceptions about the nature of their religion.
Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic political party dedicated to the re-establishment of the international Islamic Caliphate. An article on their Australian website, among other things, interprets the international outcry about Charlie Hebdo as “Islamophobic”, celebrates the massacre as part of the Islamic “refusal to succumb” to “Western neo-colonialism”, and declares that the only hope for world peace is the “establishment of a just Caliphate”. If you think I’m exaggerating or quoting them out of context, please have a read of the article yourself.
In a much more moderate tone, Randa Abdel-Fattah distances herself from militant Islam, warns against a simplistic dichotomising of the world into the “freedom-loving West” against the “freedom-hating Muslims”, and criticises Western restrictions on religious expression.
The “je suis charlie” – “I am Charlie” – online movement represents a noble desire to stand sympathetically alongside the immediate victims of the Charlie Hebdo shootings – their family, the media industry generally, the nation of France. But, the statement is not strictly correct. The magazine Charlie Hebdo stands in a characteristically French tradition of social commentary through vigorous, explicit, crude sarcasm. It is characteristically ‘French’ in going beyond the journalistic tradition – common in the USA, UK and Australia – of using sarcasm to mock political positions. We are not actually Charlie [Hebdo]. Their humour, their sarcasm, is different. It’s anarchistic, intended to deflate the dignity of authority figures by reducing them to objects of mockery. So, I’m not Charlie – I don’t actually approve of the kind of humour, the kind of sarcasm, they engage in. And, I suspect, neither are you.
But, this kind of journalistic satire has one advantage: it is marvellously egalitarian and democratic. It reminds us that these authority figures are not God – they are only humans like us.
The problem, of course, is: what happens when they mock someone who has made divine claims? Like Mohammed, who claimed to be God’s prophet; Buddha, who claimed ultimate enlightenment concerning the reality of the universe; or Jesus Christ, who claimed to be God incarnate?
All religions claim that their God is worthy to be worshiped. That’s part of what makes a religion to be a religion – those who adhere to it are convinced that their God is “good”, “holy”, “true”, and therefore he/she/it deserves our ultimate loyalty – they deserve to be worshiped.
All religions have offshoots which claim that in order to be a faithful adherent of that religion, you must use violence to protect the dignity of your God. The War on Terror, IS, the Lindt café siege, and now Charlie Hebdo, has made militant Islam internationally familiar. Christianity has the Lord’s Resistance Army, with its supposedly Spirit-led prophetic leader Joseph Kony, made famous through the “Kony 2012” hashtag activism. Australian readers will be less familiar with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (“National Patriotic Organisation”), a Hindu nationalist movement in India, which tried to organise mass “reconversions” of Christians last month, and had to be warned off by the Indian police. And in my native land Sri Lanka, Bodu Bala Sena (“Buddhist Power Force”) has been putting increasing pressure on Muslims and Christians as they seek to make Sri Lanka a Buddhist holy land.
I am a committed Christian. I worship Jesus as my God. I am also a minister of the Presbyterian Church. My job is to encourage people to worship Jesus as God – it’s what I get paid to do. But, as a minister of the church – more importantly, as a converted, ‘born again’ Christian – I feel compelled to protect the freedom of magazines like Charlie Hebdo to poke fun at religion – even my religion, my God, Jesus Christ, and my church.
Here are the reasons why.
First: the Bible uses sarcasm – and it’s sometimes rather crude. The prophet Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal by saying, among other things, that their god Baal has wandered off on a toilet break. Isaiah ridicules idolaters for using the same wood to build a home, a fire, and a god. Sarcasm and mockery can be legitimately used to demonstrate the unexpected powerlessness of the apparently powerful.
Second: Jesus was mocked, precisely because he didn’t look like God, he looked like an ordinary man – and a weak, defeated, lonely man at that. The message of Christianity is that a Jewish man who lived in the first century, who apparently did some weird and wonderful miracles, and wound up being executed by the Romans as a political dissident, is actually the God of the universe, who came back from the dead and will one day judge all of us. Oh and this first-century crucified and (it is claimed) risen Jew has the ability to forgive us for turning away from the God of the universe. That – sounds – stupid! It sounded stupid in the first century; and it still does today. We Christians don’t try to be misunderstood – we’re not masochists. But we’re ready to be misunderstood and mocked. Because our God was; and he warned us that we would be too.
Third: non-retaliation is an essential Christian virtue. Jesus famously commanded us to “love our enemies”. The Apostle Paul instructs us not to take revenge, because vengeance is God’s business, not ours. If we revenge, it’s as if we’re muscling in on God’s territory. The Apostle Peter similarly says that we should, like Christ, forgo self-protection and entrust ourselves to God. Christian non-retaliation precisely reverses the logic of militant religion. Militant religion assumes that God is incapable of defending himself except through the fists and weapons of the faithful. Christianity assumes that God is perfectly capable of vindicating not just himself but us. So we can – indeed, we must – relax, and leave him to it.
Fourth: the church often does stupid things, in the name of God, that deserve to be mocked. Anti-Christian ridicule will often contain genuine insight into attitudes and behaviours that displease God and hinder our witness to Christ.
Fifth: Christians can use sarcasm to expose the idiocies and inconsistencies of non-Christian beliefs – like Tim Hawkins’ mockery of atheism and atheist ‘churches’.
Sixth – and, for me, most importantly – the challenge for us Christians is to explain the Christian message clearly enough, and live such exemplary lives, that the mockery itself becomes mockable. Basically, the Christian message is that even though we’ve turned against God, God loves us so much that he’d rather die than be without us. Yeah, that’s just so ridiculous… isn’t it? Makes you want to point and laugh… right?
Charlie Hebdo, and magazines like them, attack all authority figures, human and divine. They were attacked by people who believe that faithful adherence to their religion requires them to use violence to defend the dignity of their God. Biblical Christianity must defend the freedom of the media to caricature and mock authority – even religious authority – because such mockery is actually an opportunity to demonstrate what we really believe about our God. The response to the response is what matters.