…after the terrorist attack yesterday (January 7, 2015) on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, the weekly French language satirical magazine. The gunmen, who claimed to be allied with Al Quaeda of Yemen, were enforcing their vigilante version of Sharia law and avenging the dishonor they believed to have been dished out in that magazine upon God, Islam, Muhammed and themselves.
Please keep in mind that the vast, vast majority of our Muslim friends and neighbors came to countries like France and the U.S. to get away from that kind of violence in the name of their faith. And remember that, worldwide, the vast majority of victims of violence perpetrated in the name of a particular understanding of Islam are other Muslims. Many of them have courageously stuck their necks out to condemn terrorist attacks like the one that happened yesterday.. But that does not excuse, nor lessen the heinousness of, yesterday’s savage attack in the name of God and faith.
I can understand how Muslims in the western world, especially in a country that enshrines and celebrates secularism (to the benefit of the religious as well as the non-religious, or even the anti-religious), would feel like aliens in a hostile land, or even exiles, although nothing justifies terrorism. Christians would share in this sense of being fish out of the water, spiritually and morally, if we are doing our jobs, that is. As a Christian, I occasionally wonder if I got off on the wrong planet. Whenever I hear friends and neighbors ooh-ing and aaah-ing over the latest new zombie horror series on Cable TV, or the latest in military technology and tactics in the fight against terror (Am I the only one for whom weaponry and enemy death counts don’t make me feel more secure yet?), I know that feeling of alienation and isolation. Evidently, Charlie Hebdo was an equal opportunity mocker and satirist when it came to Christians.
By exercising the right to freedom of speech, Charlie Hebdo could be strengthening everyone’s freedom of speech. For the flip-side of their freedom to critique or condemn our faith is our freedom to share it. So, we don’t have to react to criticism, satire, lampooning, even ridicule with fear or violence. We can choose to see some value in it, and even turn it to our advantage. If our critics are right in any way, if they have caught us in some inconsistency of thought, or of values and deeds, then we are educated and warned, and can clean up our act. If any of Charlie Hebdo’s satire of the church involved the clergy sex abuse scandal and cover-up, they were doing everyone a favor, not just the victims.
If our critics are just plain wrong, unfair and gratuitously cruel, that shows that our witness is at least being heard, maybe even that God and the gospel are getting under someone’s skin. Experience and history say that active opponents of the Christian faith are in greater danger of becoming Christian than are the indifferent and the disinterested. Much of the New Testament was penned by such a person. Furthermore, such unfair and unmerited critiques and mockery give us the chance to represent and replicate Jesus with Christ-like love and patience. Finally, it is God’s opinion of us that matters most, and God will vindicate the truth and all who live and love by it.
Often, however, the situation is both/and; even when our critics do not mean well and speak unfairly, their criticism may contain an element of truth that we need to hear. Can we disconnect from our feelings of hurt, and our desire for honor, and evaluate critiques of ourselves fairly and without defensiveness? That requires of us a sense of security in God’s unshakable love for us. Can we learn to ask, “What of this criticism is true?” and not just “Is it true?” As often as we may feel out of place, like “strangers in a strange land,” let’s not permit that feeling to drive us toward a sense of superiority, nor of victimhood, certainly not to reactivity nor violence. Let it drive us to God, and toward others in compassion and identification, including our critics and mockers, for this sense of exile and alienation in the world is something we share with all people, Christian or not.