Monday, January 12, 2015

On free speech, satire and faith

Probably like many people I'd never heard of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and its controversial cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. We all have now since Muslim extremists gunned down twelve people at the magazine's office last Thursday. Editor Stephane Charbonnier, who was one of the victims refused to be cowed by threats of violence against him for publishing the offending cartoons saying, 'I'd prefer to die standing than live on my knees'.  

Fear of such attacks has led to self-censorship in the mainstream media. On Thursday's edition of BBC Question Time it emerged that the national broadcaster's 'policy with regards to representations of Mohammed was to not depict the Prophet in any shape or form.' Presumably no such guideline exists governing the depiction of any other religious figure, whether that depiction be respectful or mocking. Is that simply out of respect for Islamic religious sensibilities, or have fatwas and threats of violence successfully intimidated our media into submission? After all, who wants to be attacked by an axe wielding fanatic as was Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard whose image of Mohammed was published in his newspaper, Jyllands-Posten?

Now, it needs to be said that many Muslims have condemned the killings at Charlie Hebdo and the associated murder of hostages at a Jewish supermarket. Rightly so. But Muslim majority countries aren't exactly renowned for championing free speech. In Saudi Arabia blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison for 'insulting Islam'. He has just received the first of fifty installments under the whip (here). According to Rod Liddle, writing in the Sunday Times, 'An NOP poll in 2006 reported that 68% of our Muslim community thought that British people who insulted the prophet should be prosecuted.' Not killed, Liddle hastens to add, just imprisoned, but still. 

So where does all this leave Christians? Admittedly the church hasn't always had a good track record when it comes to freedom of speech. What with the Inquisition, Roman Catholic persecution of Protestants during the reign of Queen Mary and all that. Protestantism doesn't have an unblemished record on this subject either. But the days of church-sponsored repression are long gone and in any case such acts were carried out because Christians failed to pay proper heed to the teaching of the New Testament. Stuff about Jesus's kingdom not being of this world, and our weaponry not being carnal, but spiritual come to mind. Not to mention the command to love our neighbour  as ourselves. (John 18:36, 2 Corinthians 10:4, Matthew 22:39). It's simply lazy to lump all faiths together and say that Christians are just as likely to launch terror attacks on those who ridicule their beliefs as radicalised Islamists. It just ain't happening that way. 

Christians are willing for their beliefs to be held up to public scrutiny. We invite investigation of the historical claims of our faith such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus. We're up for robust and searching theological discussion with no holds barred. We can cope with our beliefs being satirised and ridiculed. When Jesus faced the charge that he cast out demons by the prince of demons he practiced what he preached and turned the other cheek. His claims to be the Son of God and King of the Jews were mercilessly mocked at when he hung upon the cross. His response? Jesus prayed, 'Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.' Similarly Paul faced ridicule when be preached salvation through the cross of Jesus, a message dismissed as arrant foolishness by cultured Greeks. Some of the clever intellectuals at Mars Hill, Athens laughed openly when the apostle spoke of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. What did Paul do? He steadfastly determined to carry on preaching Christ crucified and risen for he had no other message to proclaim. A message that proved to be the power of God to those who were being saved.

Paul asked that he and the churches he founded be granted freedom from the authorities go about their work, but he did not expect the state to use its powers to clamp down on opponents of the Christian faith. He wanted the church to be granted tolerance, not dominance. That is in keeping with the New Testament's insistence on maintaining separation between church and state. We do not want people who insult our Lord Jesus in cartoons or words to be persecuted, flogged, or imprisoned, but we'd be more than happy to see them converted.  

In any case it would be a bit rich for Christians to be too precious when it comes to our beliefs being satirised, as believers have been known to pour scorn on what they regard as false forms of belief. Witness the prophets of the Old Testament ridiculing the worship of idols, Isaiah 44:9-20, 1 Kings 18:27. Respectful inter-faith dialogue? Er, no. Jesus was not above mocking the rank hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees,  Matthew 23:23-24. Can we not detect just a little hint of sarcasm when Paul rounds on his opponents in Corinth, 1 Corinthians 4:8-13? The biblical injunction to 'speaking the truth in love' means that we won't set out to gratuitously offend those with whom we disagree, but that doesn't indicate that Christian speech should amount to little more than mealy mouthed niceness.  

Christians should welcome the extension to others of the freedom to communicate and practice their beliefs that we ourselves enjoy. That applies even if as is the case with Muslims that the same freedoms are not afforded to Christians in many Muslim majority countries. Tolerance and the rule of law must apply to all citizens, irrespective of their faith or lack of it. Exercise of that freedom may occasionally mean that our dearly held beliefs are scorned and disrespected. So be it. Christians sometimes need to develop thicker skins and be willing to participate in the cut and thrust of religious debate without succumbing to a whingeing persecution complex. 

Beyond that, have we not been commanded to 'go to [Jesus] outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured'? (Hebrews 13:13). In the words of the old hymn we say in defiance of ridicule and scornful laughter, 
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy name!


Ben said...

Well said, Guy. I admit that I hadn't previously heard of Charlie Hebdo (so spelled) but my instinct is to support satire. It doesn't follow, of course that I have to approve of everything that Charlie Hebdo has ever done. But who, who loves Elijah's ridiculing of the prophets of Baal could do other than to approve of satire? And yet the license to demonstrate that the absurd claims of false religion (and what religion is more absurd than Islam?) are rubbish must be tempered by the genuine desire that Muslims should be and can be brought to true faith in Christ.

Tony Garrood said...

Have a look at Frame's review here, if you haven't already done so Guy.