The attack on Charlie Hebdo, including the murder of two police officers, was both a horrible crime and a reprehensible assault on the most basic of freedoms – free speech. However offensive Charlie Hebdo's publications might have been (and were intended to be) there could never be any basis for such wickedness and violence. The incident has been the subject of wide-ranging debate covering political, security and religious issues. Many of the problems are longstanding, complex and seemingly intractable – in other words way beyond the capacity of a blog to deal with. There are, however, a number of observations that can be made in reflecting on Charlie Hebdo from a Christian vantage point.
1. Freedom of speech is a declaration of Christian faith
Historically Western freedom of expression has often been summed up in the famous maxim attributed to Voltaire: "I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." It is a principle that allows for disagreement, debate and objection, but rejects censorship and repression. Such a premise is really only morally permissible, however, because of the Christian confidence that good ideas will prevail over bad ideas. It is why Christians, although claiming custody of truth, can tolerate other points of view – because ultimately they believe God Himself will vindicate that which is right and expose that which is false.
It is thus a hallmark of biblical faith to leave the final verdict on such matters in the hands of God. Insecurity in faith, on the other hand, is typically marked out by the need to attack and coerce opponents into agreement now. As one radio journalist starkly expressed it when interviewing a militant Islamic leader some years ago, "Surely the eternal fires of hell are punishment enough for infidels: why do you need to kill them now?" It was a question that went to the heart of what real faith convictions look like. Muslim violence towards faith opponents, or indeed Christian expressions of vilification, simply suggest that those perpetrating such acts fear, deep down, that they might not be proved to be right in the end.
So Christians can uphold the freedom of Charlie Hebdo to ridicule and mock religion, not because such actions are commendable, nor because it is the price to be paid to ensure freedom of speech for all – but because defending Charlie Hebdo is a profound declaration that they actually believe in the God they profess.
2. Secular media hypocrisy
The inconsistency extends to our politicians – the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, which refused to include a respect clause for those with religious and conscience-based reservations on the issue of Same Sex Marriage, has no doubt sent its message of condemnation about this attack on freedom of speech to the French people. Much of the secular media, on the other hand, have demonstrated a deep hypocrisy in this matter. The reaction of journalists has been shock and outrage at this attack on freedom of speech – feelings heightened of course by being the victim in this instance.
The many media expressions of protest against this attempt to intimidate and suppress free speech, are of course quite right, but would have more moral authority if it were not for their own inconsistency in this area. That is, our ostensibly liberal media have a track record of not defending the right of free speech for those out of step with their own approved viewpoints. We live a country where people have lost their jobs, been demoted and generally bullied for expressing non-violent and moderate opposition to Same Sex Marriage – but we hear of no media consternation at such practices. Indeed it is the fear of negative media comment that often drives and encourages such draconian reactions.
It would be heartening to believe that the media might become champions not just of their own freedom to question and dissent but also of the freedom of those with non-PC views. The likelihood of course is that Charlie Hebdo will quickly become yesterday's news – and the media will revert back to its previous partiality.
3. The hellishness of twisted religion
During the Rochdale child sex scandal one silhouetted girl described her experiences being trafficked around by the gang using her for sex. She mentioned in the passing that the men gave her crisps, but only cheese and onion, as meat flavoured crisps might be non-halal. It was a detail that revealed the hellishness of twisted religion. The very idea that there might be a god in heaven who would be more concerned about the flavouring in your crisps than about trafficking under-age girls for sex is beyond damnable.
Such perversions can happen in any religion, of course – and sadly Christianity has not been immune from its own distortions. Too often the trappings of Christianity have become more precious to its proponents than its message – its religious robes elevated above righteousness.
Such things point to the sinfulness endemic in humanity: a world in which good things are frequently misused for evil purposes (whether medicines, the internet, or indeed free speech). Some will seek to use Charlie Hebdo as the proof that all religions and expressions of faith are dangerous and nasty; a position no more credible than suggesting the Labour party will inevitability result in Stalinism, or that the RSPCA is just a breeding ground for anti-vivisectionist criminals. The answer of course to all such misuse and extremism is not non-use but correction and right use.
4. The contrast of the Cross
The Bible is such a challenging book because it relentlessly confronts such misuses, starting at home. Israel was fiercely held to account by the prophets for its misuse of faith, its hypocrisy, its neglect of the poor and its tendency to substitute outward religious observance for loving God and their neighbours. Jesus explicitly banned His followers from using violence in order to defend or promote Him (Matthew 26:52). Those who follow Jesus are to be those who love their enemies and who bless those who curse them. The New Testament makes it painfully clear that Christianity is not a faith for those seeking worldly power, advancement or status: rather it is a faith most fully expressed in weakness, turning the other cheek and putting others first.
The glory of Christianity is that at its centre is one whose response to His enemies – to those who abused him, mocked him, slandered him – was not retaliation but to lay his life down for them. Even on the Cross, his response to his executioners was to pray that they might be forgiven. Despite His innocence, and even his divinity, he was content to entrust himself to the one who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:23).
The final word on all the issues surrounding Charlie Hebdo is still to be pronounced and it will be God's – who knows all hearts, all truth, and judges with absolute justice. For now it stands as a warning against insecure faith, double standards and twisted religion. But it also points us to the astonishing grace and wonder of the Gospel – a man dying for his foes that they might be blessed.
Andy Hunter is the FIEC's Scotland Director