January 13, 2015

Proudly Identifying With Charlie Hebdo

As most of you know, within a few minutes of learning of the Charlie Hebdo massacre I had cobbled together an “I am Charlie Hebdo” graphic for my website and had made it my picture on both Facebook and Twitter. It was, I believe, the right thing to do. In the days since, I have steadfastly defended the magazine and the individual victims of the massacre. I have called them martyrs for the liberties that under-gird Western Civilization, and I believe that with my whole heart.

And yet this stand has not set well with everyone. For instance, last night I received a message from a friend – a former elected official in my area whose conservative credentials and support for liberty are beyond question. She began with a condemnation of the terrorist attack in Paris, but raised the question of how much it was appropriate for a Christian to identify with Charlie Hebdo given some of the other images that the magazine had published – images that most Christians would recognize to be sacrilegious, if not blasphemous, by the standards of our faith.

I think my response surprised her. I told her I was proud to identify with Charlie Hebdo despite being well aware of the magazine’s content which offends my faith and that of my Jewish brothers and sisters. I then went on to note that I don’t agree with the content of those drawings, but I agree with knuckling under to the perpetually offended even less. I’m therefore willing to suffer my faith and those things I hold sacred being skewered from time to time in order to defend the freedom to speak and publish freely. I closed by observing that my God is big enough and tough enough to take the mockery – something that clearly cannot be said about the weak and puny deity followed by the murderous swine in Paris.

But my friend had a point. Do statements that some find blasphemous, exposing to ridicule the faith and sacred things of others, merit defense? Do those who speak or publish that which others deem sacrilegious merit a defense or deserve to be held up as heroes? After all, such things are certainly uncivil, and often lack much in the way of value in the eyes of those who are offended. Why not ban such words and images? Why not punish those who utter or publish them? And rather than lionize those who engage in them, why not condemn them?

The Paris murders answer those questions with exclamation points that resonate as sharply as the gunshots that ended the lives of who died at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. They merit defense because we cannot allow the most thin-skinned and violent to define the limits of our liberties. Civility, while a virtue of sorts, is oft overrated and used as an excuse to suppress the even more important virtues of honesty and forthrightness in the face of that which is false and evil. And while the penalties of social ostracism and public derision might be appropriate for incivility, neither incarceration nor death are merited for the “crime” of trampling on the religious feelings of others.

Indeed, the pluralistic nature of our modern society is such that the state is woefully unsuited to inflicting such punishments – after all, to the ears of a Jew, the Christian claim that Christ is the Messiah foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures is an offense. To the faithful Catholic, the Protestant rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation amounts to blasphemy against the body and blood of Christ. Muslims find the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to be blasphemy, while Muslim rejections of Jesus’s divinity is blasphemy in the eyes of a Christian believer. Whose speech should be suppressed? Whose proclamation of faith should be deemed a criminal offense because it trespasses against the religious tenets of others? And more to the point, should the willingness of members of one faith to engage in a relentless campaign of violence and murder in response to religiously offensive speech be rewarded with state enforcement of their censorship demands?

Those who argue that mockery of others’ faith should be rejected as beyond the pale are notoriously inconsistent with their application of that standard. For example, we in Houston are just a week away from opening night of the award-winning musical “The Book of Mormon”, which mocks and belittles the faith of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Madonna is currently on tour, making big dollars for her performances despite a long history of making use of the religious symbols of various faiths in ways which some members of those faiths find sacrilegious. Bill Maher’s shtick revolves around attacks on religion and religious believers. Nobody is suggesting that any of these performances or performers be banned – nor is there any suggestion that they should be banned lest outraged believers engage in acts of violence in response.

Which brings us to this observation by Ross Douhat.

Must all deliberate offense-giving, in any context, be celebrated, honored, praised? I think not. But in the presence of the gun — or, as in the darker chapters of my own faith’s history, the rack or the stake — both liberalism and liberty require that it be welcomed and defended.

I’ll agree with Douhat that deliberately giving offense might, in some situations, be a negative thing. But at other times it is obligatory – and the current situation in which billions of non-Muslims are being told by a subset of Muslims that any depiction of Muhammad will carry with it the penalty of death because such depictions violate the some real or imagined prohibition required by the Islamic faith is one of those times. That’s why I’ve long identified with Charlie Hebdo and republished some of their controversial illustrations – and even created a few of my own. I will continue to do so because it is my right (and the right of every human being) to do so. And if any Muslim believes that their false god and their putative prophet are not able to withstand such an indignity, I’d like to offer them the chance to sit down and talk about a God who is impervious to that sort of assault and does not require the murder of others in response.

And so let me reiterate.


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