Charlie, ce n’est pas moi!

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.


After the carnage of last week, Charlie Hebdo decided to print a cartoon of Mohammed after all. Hmm.

In the media, there are big stories and HUGE stories. This one is HUGE. Why? Re-wind back to 9/11, 2001. Headlines everywhere like this: Attack on America! America under attack! Same thing this time, but with a twist: Freedom Attacked. Attack on Freedom!

What makes this HUGE? These men attacked not simply people, they attacked the most cherished value in Western society: FREEDOM. Free speech is sufficiently valued that when it is threatened, we in the West circle the wagons. To mix my metaphors, this is a hill we are most definitely prepared to die on. Do not question it, do not threaten it – we will take you on. See our pens? We will fight because as everyone knows, the pen is mightier than the sword . . . or Kalashnikov.

But what about some perspective, to quote Anton Ego from Ratatouille. Where does the obsessive need to keep drawing Mohammed come from? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to both affirm the principle of free speech; abhor the horrific violence of last week while also questioning the decisions of the editors of Charlie Hebdo. Surely satirists should invite debate and examination. That is the foundation on which they build their case for satire.

So, first a look at free speech as a principle. My first point is this: Freedom is defined by its limits. Freedom without limits isn’t freedom at all, it’s anarchy. No one possesses absolute freedom, since we’re finite human beings. In society, freedoms are limited by respect for others and their wishes. My freedom to play loud music at 3am is limited by my neighbour’s freedom to get a good night’s sleep.

So how do we set about defining those limits in a ‘tolerant’ society? (I’m using ‘tolerant’ here with its proper meaning – literally ‘putting up with people with whom you disagree.’) If we seek a tolerant society, then surely simply brandishing ‘free speech’ isn’t enough. After all, we already limit free speech. No racism, no sexism, for example. There are a whole bunch of things you can’t print and rightly so. Just ‘I have free speech’ isn’t a sufficiently strong argument to justify reckless or insulting behaviour.

So what’s going on in this case specifically? Now, I’m not much for conspiracy theories, but I’m bound to say that when I heard the words ‘aggressive secularism’ from a commentator’s lips this past week, I could see his point. Did the cartoonists seek to expose the ideas of Islam? Well, just one idea – that Mohammed shouldn’t be depicted. Just like in the Garden of Eden, the one thing ‘forbidden’ was the one thing they wanted to do. They had vast acreage out there to ridicule but they wanted the tree with ‘keep off’ hanging from a branch.

It’s precisely the offensiveness which attracted the cartoonists. They could have exposed all manner of beliefs within Islam itself without actually depicting the prophet, but they weren’t interested in doing that. Not really. Dare I say it, they intended to offend, protected by the principle of free speech. They would never offend black people or gays but religious people, they are apparently fair game. So why do it? Aggressive secularism or bravely exercising their free speech. You decide.

It’s worth remembering what kind of people we’re talking about when we think of those who took and continue to take offense. Let me quote from an excellent article (worth reading later here.) It’s by Bob Ekblad.

Many second generation immigrants, like Chérif Kouachi and his brother (who was orphaned and then raised in France’s foster-care system), experience tremendous alienation growing up in Western European countries as dissaffected minorities, and they find refuge in their identity as Muslims.

Ekblad gives an insightful assessment of why especially young, unemployed, alienated young European Muslims are so upset by the cartoons. And while not all Muslims are offended, the ones who do react are extremely offended. Are they not part of society also? Where’s some tolerance – the real kind – when you need it?

Perhaps it would be advisable at this point to remind ourselves of what freedom really means. Does it mean doing whatever you want? Not in the Christian tradition. Charles Kingsley, the 19C novelist and historian said it best. He wrote, there are two freedoms – the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought.

During this era, constrained by our sinful nature, we possess a certain kind of freedom and with it, we hurt and offend. We’re ‘free’ to do this. But one day, we will live in a world in which we will experience true freedom. Now, we choose badly. Then, we will choose wisely, animated by the Spirit.

And yet . . . even now, we can choose wisely. St. Paul once wrote this about our liberty.

I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. I Corinthians 10.23-24.

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should applies to cartoonists as much as to Christians.

We don’t have to choose to offend people deliberately. We don’t have to belittle and ridicule. Charlie Hebdo was in the process of going bankrupt; now it’s selling millions of copies. France must decide whether its use of free speech is a wise use. It will make that decision when visiting a kiosk each day over the next few months. Is this a publication which is really worth supporting?

Satire has a long tradition, we’re told. For my part, I find satire a vehicle for extreme cynicism and of course it’s always easier to tear down than build up. Always. Jokes at other people’s expense are a dime a dozen. The courage to hold onto firmly held beliefs is much harder.

Everyone last week was horrified by the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Such violence can never be justified. Ever.

But free speech in a tolerant society requires wisdom and strength. The wisdom not to publish is perhaps a greater wisdom than being swept along by calls for satirical self-expression. May free speech never come with such a price ever again. We all mourn for those who have fallen.

The wounds in France will take some time to heal. Let’s hope that Charlie Hebdo helps that process by exercising some wisdom. They might wish to consult the writings of St. Paul. Hmm.

I’m not holding my breath on that one . . .


Conversion Bowl

Not intended to offend, I promise. This piece is simply some light entertainment for your weekend.


“Well, good afternoon and welcome everyone. Thank you for joining us for this year’s Conversion Bowl. We’ve got a capacity crowd for this afternoon’s match-up and it looks as though the weather’s going to hold. You may remember last year’s bowl when a storm came over during the match and lightning produced the highest score in Conversion Bowl history. We’ve got fair skies today so it’s unlikely that there will be many ‘fear of God’ conversions today.

So, in the white jerseys with WWJD splattered across the front, we have the 50 hand-of-God-picked stars of First Baptist of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and quite a team they are. Led by the charismatic Rev. Jedediah Jones, who holds the record for tract delivery, this is a team that’s been tough to beat all season. Their motto is ‘connect, convince, convert’ and it’s been working this season. First Baptist has doubled in size this year, parking lot coverage is up by 40% and the Rev Jones is letting everyone know it. You can see him there on the sidelines, warming up. Just look at that Bible-thumping…tremendous action there.”

“Thanks, Jim, yes, First Baptist has been in heavenly form but they may have met their match in St Mark’s Presbyterian, Pasadena, California. Just a wonderfully gifted team of proselytizers. These guys have been going from strength to strength and finished their last match with a season high of 45. 45! That’s unheard of and although some called for a recount, reports pewside the following Sunday showed converts singing with ‘adequate conviction’, that’s what the rules require. Very impressive.”

“Well, we’re just awaiting the referees’ orders to start the match. For those of you joining us for the first time, both teams are given an hour to convert as many heathen as they can. All kinds, atheists, agnostics, New Agers, Moslems and Jews are out there. Some say they’ll stand firm but we’ve heard that before and seen some notable atheists crack within seconds so you just can’t tell. Strength of unbelief is no guide in this game.”

“That’s right, Jim. Now, teams are allowed the use of Bibles, one commentary and a limit of two Christian books each. Points are awarded for a verifiable conversion; judges are posted around the field. Extra points go for a full baptism and speaking in tongues. Early opinion this season favored Little Rock Pentecostal, Arkansas with that last one but in the semis they span out of control. Half the members began healing each other and had to be led off the field in tears. Just extraordinary scenes. I’ve got a quote here from a spokesman in the Charismatic Quarterly which says: ‘We may have lost the match but’-his words-‘it was a blessing for us’ so we’ll just have to keep an eye out today for anything unusual. Baptists in particular can be very unpredictable. All right now, the referee has his flag up…the heathen are milling around …both team captains are waving their Bibles to signal they’re ready …and we’re off!”

“You’ve got to watch the tactics here, Jim. The Baptists have gone for the three-on-one approach over there near the corner, I can see a prospect backing away .. it’s a tactic that can sometimes work but experience shows it normally produces defensiveness so we’ll have to see if they change their tactics later in the match.”

“Over there near the baptistry, I can see a man go down on his knees. Yes, there’s the bowed heads and the Baptists take an early lead. And they’re finishing up with a Baptism, an extra point for that. You can see the Rev Jones grinning from ear to ear as he wades into the baptistry. He’ll be happy with this start.”

“Yes he will, Jim, an early lead helps a team relax and focus but hold on, The Presbyterians seem to be wrapping up a husband and wife double over there near the center circle. Yes, there they go, they’re saying a prayer and the judges confirm it’s a double for St Mark’s. Nice use of the husband/wife pincer movement.”


“Well, the forty five minute mark has been passed and the Baptists are up by five. St Mark’s are really up against it here. You can see them all huddled in the middle, praying. That’s been known to turn a match around in the past but we’ll just have to see what happens here. There’s a lot of pressure on them right now. The heathen are wearing bored looks, glancing at their watches, they look like a tough crowd to convince.”

“Yes, St Mark’s will be asking for a miracle here, Jim, so it’s just as well they’re Christians and have some knowledge of the field but even so, fifteen minutes is pushing it. In fact, hold on…yes, it looks like the Baptists are letting up. You can see them gathering down in the corner of the field. They’ve dragged over their organ and yes, the hymn books are out. They’ve started singing hymns! This is just extraordinary…I can’t believe this.  There are still fifteen minutes to go and the Baptists think it’s all over! They’ve left the field to St Mark’s and they’re wide open for the evangelistic dunk!”

“You’re absolutely right there, Bill, and it looks as though St Mark’s are going to take advantage. Their pastor, Rev. Wright, is getting up on a chair, they’ve got a crowd around him of about sixty. This is going to get interesting here. He’s starting to preach. If he can make five here, he’ll tie the match. One more and St Mark’s will take it. Let’s see what happens here; just keep an eye on those faces. If you see them listening intently, you know it’s starting to be effective. He’ll talk for ten minutes, then go for the altar call.”

“Well, Jim, I thought he’d go for the fire and brimstone technique but no, he’s using pure apologetics. The crowd looks intrigued but he’ll need more than that. Yes, as I thought, he’s rounding it off with ‘the love of God’ and it looks to me as though there are some who are wavering and here it comes, the altar call. It’s all down to these final seconds. The Baptists have stopped singing hymns and it looks … yes, I’m sure I’m right, it looks as though they’re praying. In fact, the judges too look like they’re praying. We’ve never seen anything like this before. No counter disruptive moves from the Baptists, like stupid questions to the preacher, no… heads are still bowed, they are definitely praying. And now a hush has descended on the crowd and it looks like most of the spectators are also praying. Unbelievable. I guess, Jim, we should probably bow our heads at this point too.” (Pause)

“Well, Bill, they’re coming forward. I can see four, five…another couple. Five more from the back, holding hands, are walking forward. This is incredible. The Baptists have joined the Presbyterians to handle the prayers of commitment. You can see them beginning to mingle. There are still unbelievers out there but they look stunned by what’s happening. Yes, there’s one being led off by a judge. And not surprisingly, he wants a Bible. It’s that kind of afternoon out there.

In all my twenty-five years of covering Conversion matches, I’ve never witnessed anything like this. It looks like Rev. Jones has conceded defeat. Yes, he’s walked over and he’s now hugging Rev Wright. What amazing scenes…this is just unprecedented. And now the crowd has taken up the hymn ‘What a Mighty God We Have’. The whistle has gone but no one seems to care any more. Final score: Baptists 24, Presbyterians 33. Thank you for joining us, everyone ..until next year’s Conversion Bowl, good night!!”