On Sunday, January 11, upwards of one million people, including many heads of state, marched in Paris in protest of the terrorist attacks on the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket.
The slogan “Je Suis Charlie”—“I am Charlie”—has become a kind of badge of honor. It has come to signify a commitment to a kind of liberal and tolerant social order over and against the forces of censorship and Islamic extremism.
But is it the kind of thing a Christian can or should say?
Now, let me get the obvious out of the way: What happened in Paris was despicable. No matter how offensive the magazine’s cartoons might have been, nothing justifies murder.
And let’s be clear about one thing: The magazine’s treatment of Christianity has been far more obscene and disrespectful than its treatment of Islam. Yet, as Rod Dreher wrote at the American Conservative, “It would not occur to me that anyone should lay a hand on the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ artists or editors who produced that [anti-Christian] filth.” I talked about this yesterday on BreakPoint, and how it shows an important distinction between Christianity and radical Islam.
I fully agree with Dreher’s words that “I do not want to live in a political order in which cretins like [the cartoonists of ‘Charlie Hebdo’] have to fear for their safety, much less jail.”
But that is a long way from saying “I am Charlie.”
What’s lost in all this “I am Charlie” rhetoric is that, in a truly healthy culture, our choices wouldn’t be limited to Islamic extremism or an anything-goes nihilistic libertinism promoted by that magazine.
Such a culture would understand the difference between true satire and offense for its own sake. As Carl Trueman wrote in First Things recently, satire worthy of the name “challenges human pretension and presumption and reminds us of our limits and our fallibility . . . Whether it is Isaiah the prophet poking fun at those who worship wood and stone . . . [or]Jonathan Swift pillorying the Church in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ . . . the satirist confronts the powerful and calls them to account.”
Most of all, “the best satire is that which fits into a larger moral vision.” When it targets Christianity, or any other religion for that matter, it does so by pointing out “the absurdities, corruptions, and failings of Christian institutions in a way that should provoke thoughtful reflection.”
While there are still examples of this kind of satire out there today, much of what passes as satire, whether it’s Charlie Hebdo, or to a lesser extent, the cartoon South Park here in the U.S., is offense for its own sake. Its goal is not to provoke thoughtful reflection or reflection of any kind. Its goal is to test the limits of what can be said—just to be more “edgy”, vile, and disgusting than the next guy.
As I said yesterday on BreakPoint, that’s in keeping with our current cultural trajectory in which personal freedom, especially in the sexual sphere, is the only thing regarded as sacred.
Because of that, as Dreher put it, “the decadence represented by ‘Charlie Hebdo’ is probably a greater threat to Western civilization than anything the Islamists can dream up.”
Taking it one step further, he added, “except in the cases of Islamic fundamentalists, I would much rather have observant Muslims as my neighbors and my children’s playmates than someone with ‘Charlie Hebdo’s’ worldview.”
While the kind of Islamists who perpetrated the attacks in Paris have never built a thriving society, Dreher notes, “at the same time, the society the West has built and is building without God or any kind of sacred values other than the Self cannot be said to be thriving either.”
It’s evident in many places, not the least of which is our increasing inability to produce satire worthy of the name. And that’s why I say, we are not Charlie.
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