Myanmar’s military toppled the civilian government. Now the country’s diverse population is banding together in protest
If I were to suggest that most of the residents of an inner city neighborhood were poor, partly at least because they were unmarried high-school dropouts with lots of kids who either got by on welfare or worked only long enough to pay this month’s rent, someone within hearing would accuse me of blaming the victim.
If I observed that a victim of rape acted unwisely when she wore short shorts and a halter top to a pool hall frequented by drunken deadbeats after midnight, I would be pounced upon with cries of Blaming the Victim.
And if I offered an opinion that the publishers of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo had crossed the line of decency many times in their satirical cartoons of religious figures, and it may have contributed to their brutal slaying by radical Muslims, what would be the response?
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, did just that with a piece posted on the League’s website, provocatively titled “Muslims Are Right to Be Angry.” He described some of the work published by Charlie Hebdo—deeply offensive not just to Muslims but to Christians and Jews as well (the cartoons republished by certain Western news outlets were much tamer)—and made a case for justified religious outrage. He concluded with a quote from James Madison: “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as the abuses of power.”
Charlie was apparently free to publish crude pornographic cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad. Does it follow that they should have?
Donohue had bashed in a hornet’s nest. The internet buzzed with outraged rebuttals and gravelly condemnation. The next day, Bill’s radio interview with constitutional lawyer and talk show host Hugh Hewitt turned into a verbal brawl, with accusations of cowardice and ignorance flying wildly.
As an American, I grieve along with the French. They are devastated: one commentator noted it was equivalent to terrorists slaughtering the entire cast of Saturday Night Live. As a Christian, I think Bill Donohue has a point, though he might have waited a week before making it. Charlie Hebdo was unquestionably brave, continuing to offend in the face of threats and firebombs. Was it the courage of folly? Sometimes we have to make distinctions between civil rights and moral wisdom. Charlie was apparently free to publish crude pornographic cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad. Does it follow that they should have? We are governed by statute but also by conscience. Those whose consciences are surrendered to Christ are not necessarily called, at this moment, to take a stand on the right to offend. That’s probably not what James Madison had in mind when he proposed the First Amendment. Before taking any stands Christians need to ask themselves what God thinks—about everything.
Is God an advocate of free speech? Blasphemy laws in the Muslim world are arbitrary and excessive, but ancient Israel had its own blasphemy laws (see Leviticus 24:10-16), and so have Christian societies in the modern era—in 17th-century New England you could be put in stocks for taking the Lord’s name in vain. Of course that doesn’t mean blasphemy should be reinstituted as a criminal offense, because God’s law and civil law are two separate things ever since around 5 B.C. Also, when the church governs secular society, she often goes off-message. But the church should influence secular society, and while there is a place for intelligent satire, we should always give reasons for our hope—“yet do it with gentleness and respect” (2 Peter 3:15).
While Western pundits praised the dead, tweeting and retweeting “Je suis Charlie,” Boko Haram carried out a bigger atrocity in Nigeria for the goal of establishing a caliphate in central Africa. The victims had done nothing to “offend” the murderers except exist. Like Boko Haram, the Paris assassins were motivated by hate, not hurt feelings. They must be stopped, but crude satire is a poor weapon.
Christians are called to pray for their enemies: murderers and blasphemers as well as the vast majority of Muslims who don’t carry AK-47s or machetes. We don’t have to insult their prophet, or venerate those who do. We can show them a better One.