Galatians 5:1, 13-15
For freedom Christ has set us free...only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence...you shall love your neighbour as yourself.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
A new slogan has been violently born: Je suis Charlie! I am Charlie, an outcome of the murderous attack by militant Jahadists on the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo last week. Within hours Je suis Charlie was adopted around the world by millions of people who came out in solidarity with those who had been killed and in defence of the freedom of speech. Yesterday over five million copies of the newspaper were sold, and it was as defiant and outspoken as ever.
Charlie Hebdo (Hebdo means a weekly magazine.) was founded in 1969 with the name Hara-Kiri Hebdo. In November 1970 it was banned when it joked about the death of former French president Charles de Gaulle. It then published under its present name inspired by Charlie Brown of Peanuts fame, and became Charlie Hebdo. By 1981 Charlie had closed down for lack of support, but ten years later it restarted and began attacking religious fundamentalism, in fact, religion of any kind, and declared itself to be an atheist paper. In 2006 it gained global notoriety when it published images of the Prophet Mohammed drawn by a Danish cartoonist. Muslims in France were deeply offended and took Charlie Hebdo to court but lost the case. Four years later its offices were fire bombed after naming Mohammed their "editor-in-chief" and saying: "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter". Charlie also depicted Pope Benedict XVI in amorous embrace with a Vatican guard; former French President Nicolas Sarkozy looking like a sick vampire; and an Orthodox Jew kissing a Nazi soldier.
Now you might well be asking what has this to do with a meditation at the Eucharist, so let me refer to the gospel passage we read today in which Jesus pours scorn on the hypocrisy of the religious fundamentalists of his day. ”Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves." The whole of chapter 23 in Matthew's gospel has the same message. And on several occasions Jesus pokes fun at religious leaders and practices which dehumanize people and corrupt politicians who line their own purses. No wonder he was attacked in return and accused of blasphemy, a charge which soon led to his death.
Christians have good reason, then, to support those who satirize corrupt rulers or bad religion, and make us cry tears of laughter at human folly. When the comic strip Charlie Brown was at the height of its popularity someone even wrote a book called The Gospel according to Peanuts. In fact, Christ depicted as a clown, as Charlie if you like, is part of Christian tradition precisely because it is through being foolish that he reveals the wisdom of God. In Dostoevsky's great novel The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, the idiot, is a figure of Christ. So we Christians can say with a good conscience "I am Charlie!" and salute cartoonists like Zapiro, and satirists like Pieter Dirk Uys. And we should not take umbrage when Christianity is lampooned if we deserve it. We do well to laugh at our foibles, misdeeds and idiosyncrasies. But even if some caricatures of Christ are blasphemous,as they might well be, we do not kill those who draw them, or stone people who take his name in vain . And we don't do so for Christ's sake who taught us to love even our enemies. How foolish can you get!
Christ has set us free to be Charlies, then, but we are called not to abuse our freedom. The freedom Christ gives us is not to do what we like irrespective of the consequences, but the freedom to act responsibly for the common good. This means that our primary concern is loving our neighbour, building relationships, nurturing community, working for reconciliation and a just peace. After all, even the founding principles of the French Republic are not just liberty, but also equality and fraternity, and fraternity is about love for the neighbour if it means anything. There are, in other words, boundaries and limits to freedom which are determined by love for the other.
So in defending the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, as Christian Charlies we draw the line at what is deemed hate speech, speech which denigrates and dehumanizes others, speech which puts the lives of innocent people at risk. It may be difficult sometimes to draw that line because who is to say when it has been crossed. But as Christians we have to risk making a judgment if we are to be followers of Christ. In the current euphoria of being Charlies, we dare not lose our critical faculties and that means being critical of Charlie Hebdo if necessary. As one of the leaders of AVAAZ, the on-line human rights pressure group that stands for the freedom of the press, has said, some of "the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo are offensive, racist and purposely inflammatory."
While we must applaud the remarkable show of unity amongst the millions who marched in Paris in support of freedom, bringing together Jews, Muslims, Christians and secularists, something that will hopefully lead to better relations in France and elsewhere, we should not be blind to the hypocrisy in evidence. There were some political leaders who led the march who are not defenders of free speech, and are many others who are using the attack on Charlie Hebdo to stir up anti-Islamism in pursuit of their own dubious agendas. And let us not forget that some of those responsible for this awful deed in Paris were of Algerian descendent, and that Algeria was for long a colony of France often ruled by violent force. The French Foreign Legion, the shock troops in the region, were mostly criminals and by no means paragons of virtue. In fact, the Algerian war of not so long ago, was brutal, and we are now witnessing some of its consequences. This does not justify in any way what the Jihadist criminals did in Paris or elsewhere, nothing can do that, but it reminds us that the cycle of violence that arises out of conquest, resistance and repression lies at the heart of the crisis we face. It is not a conflict between religions, but the abuse of religion in serving other agendas through destructive rhetoric and violent attacks on innocent people. The crisis we face is certainly a clash between fundamentalism and democratic values, but it is also the consequence of the brutalization of a generation of the dispossessed.
We live in sobering times. As Christian we need to defend the freedoms we have and support those who exercise them. But we need to use our freedoms responsibly, seeking to speak the truth in ways that humanize rather than dehumanise, build up and not just break down, reconcile and not alienate. Jesus calls us to break the cycle of violence in the struggle for justice, and the healing of human and social brokenness. We are Charlies, to be sure, but we are Charlies for Christ's sake.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 14 January 2015