Friday 13 February 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie, mais…

I could never be Charlie. I just don't agree that it can ever be good gratuitously to trash other people. I'm not trying to protect islam from debate - for example, it teaches that Jesus never died on the cross, which is essential to the Christian relationship with God, and incidentally is also a matter of well grounded historical fact. But it is for the very reason that God is the kind of God who gives Himself for others that it can't be right to go around abusing people. He cares about them – enough to die for them, whether they acknowledge it or not.

Nor am I against satire. How can I be when the greatest English satirist, Jonathan Swift, was a clergyman in the Church of England, like me. But his satire had moral purpose. Swift attacked the unconcern with which Englishmen stood by while Irish children starved to death. He attacked the cant* with which hypocrites dressed up their double standards. He attacked the wilful ignorance and fanatical destructive zeal which sadly seem to be coming around again in our own day. But as far as I can tell Charlie's cartoons weren't about any of those things. Petty nastiness is not the same as true satire.

Freedom of expression means people have the right of course to express themselves even if they only have tawdry things to say. Very bad things happen to societies that suppress these freedoms. When freedom goes, sooner or later it will be my own Christian beliefs that are on the line.

Yet we need also to see the big picture. What is freedom of speech there for? Surely so that anyone can freely ask the big questions about life, that we can hold our own convictions and share them with others without fear, that we can poke fun at hypocrisy and evil, that we can take part in the big debates about how our country should be run and how we should live. This is the dignity and responsibility of being human. As humans we need to take part with others in defining our political, moral and spiritual landscapes. The Bible story of the creation of humans shows that God expects us to do this. "You are made in my image, so go into the world and take charge. Look after it for me..."

Having freedom of speech means of course that the less dignified and less responsible are also free to express themselves. In fact we curb that liberty in some instances. The old principle - that my freedom ends where it takes away the freedom of another Рhas been extended to vocal and written expression too. Sanctions are applied when people humiliate others because of their race or gender, or falsely defame them in such a way as to cause real harm to their interests. I'm not saying that Charlie should be suppressed, just that they have shown plenty of liberté but precious little fraternité.

Perhaps the best use for freedom of expression is to ask questions. So here are some.
1.      Which is the worse blasphemy against God? To draw a stupid picture? Or to burn alive someone made in His image? Actions speak louder than words…
2.      What would I.S. do differently if they worshipped Satan rather than God?
3.      How can people who carry out the most appalling acts of violence imagine they are going to heaven rather than to hell?
4.      Why would anyone want to go to heaven anyway if it means living forever with a god of terror?
5.      When you suppress other belief systems by force, isn't it because you are afraid to meet them in open debate?
6.      When you force people to convert at gunpoint, aren't you just demonstrating that nobody in their right mind would do so of their own free will?

I'm sure you can think of a few more questions of your own,

Jonathan Swift - our greatest satirist.

* What a wonderful word cant is. What a pity it is used so little nowadays when there's so much more of it about.