It’s been seven days since the horrific murders of 12 Charlie Hebdo employees by militant Islamist gunmen. In that week we’ve seen potent and emotional shows of support for the organization and for the right to free speech, and an emphatic refusal around the world to be silenced by intimidation or violence.
As we begin to step back and take a breath, though, other questions emerge. For instance, what’s the proper place for taunting and mockery in civil society? Certainly it has a place at times. The Emperor has no clothes. Human society remains unjust. Humor helps bring such truths to the surface.
Still, if a Muslim man and woman were walking down a street in Paris or Melbourne or Milwaukee and people along the way spit on images of Mohammad or mocked the burka, we would condemn their actions as wrong and offensive. But put the same kinds of things in a cartoon or a movie and it’s above reproach. It’s free speech. It’s even courageous.
Yet for those who have been humiliated by their portrayal in the media, the only difference is that their attack happens out of sight, while sitting around the kitchen tables or gathered in their temples. As throughout history, so now human society always tries to keep its victims hidden.
If it were Muslims drawing cartoons in the Chicago Tribune or L.A. Magazine of a 13 year old Virgin Mary being gang raped by the Trinity, or someone urinating on the Eucharist, would we say that Catholics shouldn’t be furious? I doubt it.
Or if a Catholic comedian were to do a routine about how “the Jews” just got what they deserved for killing Jesus, would we tell our Jewish friends to “chill”? If “The Interview” were a comedy about successfully killing President Obama, would we insist it’s just a movie?
The fact is, no matter how “modern” and “civilized” we see ourselves, we all have sacred cows. Some are unjust and need to be challenged, no doubt. But others hurt no one; they’re just sacred. And what exactly is gained in demeaning them?
Alongside our embrace of free speech (which I wholeheartedly support), at some point the question has to be asked, what about being kind? About enhancing the web of relationships that is community? About building one another up?
Offering a bold example of what is possible, Charlie Hebdo this week has on its cover Muhammad standing by himself, a tear in his eye. In his hands he holds a sign: “Je Suis Charlie.”
The caption above says it all: “Tout Est Pardonnné.”
“All is forgiven.”