On Sunday morning in Fitzroy we prayed for the families of those murdered, in what has become known as the Charlie Hebdo Shootings, and the people of Paris and France as they came to terms with those very frightening days and for the world leaders for wisdom as they respond to what was an attack on our western freedoms. I have been surmising a few things in the aftermath of a week that shook Europe and beyond.
Almost immediately after the shootings the world wanted to empathise with the victims. Je Suis Charlie went viral. Free speech was what we felt had been violated. For sure, nobody should be targeted and shot dead for drawing a few satirical cartoons. Yet, I was uneasy about writing "Je Suis Charlie" on my Facebook status. I was moved to pray for the victims’ families but who is Charlie? What does Charlie stand for? Why are they selling millions of copies of the first edition after the attack? What is free speech?
I have grown continually uneasy. Free speech is indeed a precious thing but that free speech, like all our freedoms, comes with responsibility. We cannot just say things or print things or cartoon things because we want to have the right to do whatever we want. We need to ask why we are speaking and what will be the consequences of our speaking for the common good of all. The Bible is all about the common good. The love of neighbour and even enemy. The welcome of stranger. The gifting of grace to the marginalised. The hope for shalom.
I am not Charlie because Charlie and I might well disagree over what is free speech and what is disrepectful to others. We do not need to misuse our freedom of speech to alienate groups, to caricature them or incite within those we are speaking for or debating against with a fear or hatred. The African poet and novelist Ben Okri warns us, “To poison a nation, poison its stories… Beware of the storytellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art …”
I was also struck by contradictions about freedom of speech. At the same time in history when Christians in the UK are being discriminated against because they wear a cross at work or put a Christian badge on the back of their van, or are publicly ridiculed and laughed at for believing in Jesus at all, we are raging about freedom of speech. Forgive me if I get a little confused!
Last Sunday’s rally in the centre of Paris as a response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings was an extraordinary stand of solidarity with so many world leaders holding hands in the midst of two million people wanting to somehow speak back to the terrorists. Whatever needs done to stop this terror threat from militant Islam it will need to be done by a uniting of the world.
Yet, in my joy at such a response I was again more than a little uneasy. We have been hearing news reports of mass murders across Africa for some months without such a public outcry. We have been hearing of the massacres of Christians in Syria and Iraq and this week the Archbishop of Nigeria has asked for the same spirit if support as was seen in Paris for the 2000 massacred by Boko Haram just two days after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. I totally support the Paris rally. Twelve lives lost should cause such a stirring of emotion and resolve. My question is why doesn’t 2000 in Africa cause the same response? Je Suis Christian anybody? Je Suis Nigerian?
I was also left surmising what was happening beneath the cosmetic photographs of world leaders holding hands or people standing in a city centre. To deal with the deeper symptoms of terrorism will need much more than a Rally or a joining of hands. We will need a new desire and commitment to love our neighbour and to love our enemy. We will need to imagine and create a world where the first are happy to become last for the last to become first. We will need to be prepared for personal self denial and a sacrificing of rights for the salvation of the world. Yet, how many in the impressive media footage have actually dismissed those spiritual attributes of Jesus that are so evidently needed.
So to my last unease. God forgive us as your Church for having lost the ear of the world when the world so needs to hear your word and see it become flesh and move into our troubled, divided, bloodied neighbourhoods.