In recent days we have seen the slogan, ‘Je Suis Charlie” (French for ‘I am Charlie’) everywhere. It is a slogan adopted by supporters of free speech and freedom of expression after the massacre on the 7th January 2015 in which twelve people were killed at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris by Islamic extremists. The slogan was first used on Twitter and spread to the Internet at large. Within a couple of days the slogan had become one of the most popular news hashtags in Twitter history. ‘Je Suis Charlie’ was embraced worldwide, used in music, displayed in print and animated cartoons (including The Simpsons), and even became the new name of a town square in France.
Now I am totally opposed to violence, and have no truck for extremist fundamentalist fanaticism of any kind – religious or secular. The terrorist attack on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine is another shocking example of the impact of Islamic fundamentalism on today’s world. Whether it is New York, Bali, Nairobi, London, Mumbai, Boston, Sydney, Paris or any other location where such attacks have taken place – nothing justifies the murder of innocent people. In fairness, it should be pointed out that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not ‘people of violence’ and simply want to live in peace with their neighbours. Many Muslims may have a zeal to see others convert to Islam – but this is no different to Christians wanting to see the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) fulfilled. Being zealous for your faith, however, does not necessarily equate with violence. Fundamentalist violence is not the sole remit of Muslims either. In recent years, for example, there have been several examples of Hindu extremism against both Muslims and Christians. And we Christians have to confess that historically we too have been guilty of gross acts of violence in the name of Christ – the Crusades and the Inquisition both being prime examples. Neither has gross genocide been simply the product of religious extremism. Secularists such as Adolph Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and others can also be thrown into the mix as examples of people prepared to use genocide to advance their own political ideals?
As a Baptist-Christian I also want to firmly identify with freedom of speech. One of our distinctive tenets as Baptists is that we stand for ‘the principle of liberty’ which incorporates freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world, including the freedom of every person to worship their God (or ‘gods’) in his or her own way wherever they may be. I may not share the beliefs of a Muslim or Hindu, for example, but I will defend their right to worship (as long as it does not hurt or harm another human being) to the hilt. I would enshrine in this ‘freedom’ the right of an atheist or secularist, for example, not to worship any god, and, of course, the freedom of the press to publish what they wish (within reason). Freedom of speech, however, needs to be used responsibly. It has its limits. Some of this is enshrined in law – we don’t have the right to be hateful, racist, sexist, libellous, homophobic or disclose State secrets – but the majority of our self-limitation is left to our own commonsense and self-discipline. There is an old, but true saying, that before we say (or publish for that matter) anything, it should pass through three sieves: is it true; is it kind; is it necessary?
Thus, whilst I would want to defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to exist and publish, I have to confess that I do not like the magazine itself. For me, it has repeatedly over-stepped the bounds of common decency. As a self-confessed atheistic publication it has, over the years, repeatedly published material that has been inflammatory and offensive to millions of Muslims, Jews, Catholics and Christians. Nothing, but nothing, justifies murder, but freedom of speech has its limits. Apart from the legal limitations, there have to be self-imposed limitations. David Kerrigan, the General Director of BMS World Mission, has written an excellent blog on this subject recently. I quote: ‘I can’t speak offensively to my next door neighbour and expect them to remain friends, to be there when I need help, or for them to greet me cheerfully the following morning. If I deliberately provoke my neighbour in ways that may not be illegal but are deeply offensive, and eventually they snap, is it not permissible to ask whether my actions were right? Further, what kind of neighbour does that make me? Am I a shining example of someone building up my community?’
‘It has been said that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were aimed at satirising radical Islam. This may be so, but the simple fact of the matter is that they offended millions of ordinary Muslims as well – many of whom cannot now say they are offensive because first they have to line up and be heard to condemn the killers. If they even attempt to ask whether there are limits to free speech they risk being branded as the enemy within. Muslims are caught in no-mans land between allegiance to their faith, and their desire to live in Western society. Of course they need to make accommodations for that, and the vast majority do. But is it not part of what it means to be a civilised society to do what we can to help them live here in peace.’
The question posed in the wake of the Paris murders, is whether the freedom of speech that we claim to value, is best honoured simply by being offensive? Equally, does this kind of approach actually achieve anything worth while? Jesus himself was not against saying some pretty blunt things. He told the religious bigots of his day that for all their outward profession of being ‘godly’ they were just like ‘whitened sepulchres’ (Matthew 27:23) – clean on the outside but full of death and corruption on the inside! He warned the greedy, self-centred wealthy that none of them could expect to get to heaven unless they were prepared to make good use of their wealth in the service of the poor and needy (Matthew 19:24). Quite often, however, Jesus used humour to get his point across – as in the picture he drew of a camel attempting to squeeze through the eye of a needle, used to illustrate the point just referred to. Along with David Kerrigan, ‘I would rather we use our freedom of speech to challenge the tyranny of all that condemns millions to poverty, that constructs systems embodying injustice that blight the lives of whole generations, that prevents multitudes of people from accessing medical care and education and the freedom to live in peace. But too often we in the West are complicit in these injustices and so we look elsewhere for easier targets.’
My personal preference is for the kind of cartoons such as Charlie Brown, the central protagonist in the long-running comic strip Peanuts, syndicated in daily and Sunday newspapers in numerous countries all over the world. He is a very round, multi-dimensional, well-received, and well-known cartoon character, pictured as a person who is both pessimistic and optimistic in turn. On some days, he is reluctant to go out because his day might just be spoiled, but on others, he hopes for the best and tries as much as he can to accomplish things. Charlie Brown is the creation of Charles M. Schulz, who uses him to get across a whole series of ‘messages’ that both manage to ‘put a finger on something’ and yet also challenge and encourage us to positive change on the other.
Schulz was raised as a Lutheran, was active in the Church of God as a young adult, and then later taught Sunday school at a United Methodist Church. Although he has been described as a ‘secular humanist’ (a term which he disputed) Schulz appears to have retained some kind of allegiance to things he learned in his formative years. A few years after his death Schulz’s wife said of him, ‘I think that he was a deeply thoughtful and spiritual man. [He] was not the sort of person who would say “Oh that’s God’s will” or “God will take care of it.” I think, to him, that was an easy statement, and he thought that God was much more complicated … he had read the Bible through several times and taught Sunday school. He was always looking for what those passages really might have meant. Some of his discussions with priests and ministers were so interesting because he wanted to find out what these people (who he thought were more educated than he) thought. When he taught Sunday school, he would never tell people what to believe. God was very important to him, but in a very deep way, in a very mysterious way.’
It seems to me that Schulz saw, in the life and teaching of Jesus, all sorts of good stuff that the whole of society needed to hear … and his way of communicating it was through the lips of Charlie Brown. For me, Charlie Brown is a proper Charlie. Je suis Charlie Brown!