The Charlie Hebdo cartoons controversy invites us to look at the world in simple black and white terms. You either support free speech, in which case it was an act of bravery to publish more cartoons after the shootings in Paris, or you give in to terrorism and extremism. Unfortunately, in reality, it turns out that the world is painted in shades of grey, rather than black and white.
The backlash from Charlie Hebdo’s defiance, in printing more cartoons, occurred not in Paris but in the predominantly Muslim country of Niger. There mobs targeted a number of churches, both Evangelical and Catholic, burning down church buildings and murdering several Christians – including at least two burned to death inside the church buildings.
Yes, it is brave to defy terrorists and extremists – but is it praiseworthy to do so when you know that your actions will cause the suffering and death of people who are already marginalised and persecuted? Because the events in Niger were all too predictable. Similar actions against Christian minorities in the Muslim world have happened before.
For example, in 2005 a Danish newspaper, Jyllands Posten, published cartoons of Mohammed. At first the response seemed fairly tame with Muslim nations boycotting Danish goods (key Danish exports being beer and bacon – which are prohibited by Islam anyway). Then things turned nasty. In Maiduguri, in northern Nigeria, 11 churches were burned and 15 Christians were killed.
Then, in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a speech at the University of Regensburg in which he made controversial comments about Islam. As a result a Christian was killed in Iraq and a Somali nun was shot dead.
In other words, the magazine editors in Paris knew that, by reprinting the cartoons, Christian minorities would suffer attacks and deaths would almost certainly occur – but they chose to go ahead anyway in the name of ‘freedom of speech’.
True freedom does not mean that you have to exercise that freedom irrespective of the consequences to others. True freedom can mean that you have a right to behave in a certain way, but you refrain from doing so because you don’t want other people to suffer. Self-control can sometimes be more important than freedom of speech. Love and concern for others in vulnerable situations can be better than bravery.
I realise that this leaves us in an unsatisfactory dilemma. Should Islam be exempted from any criticism because murderous thugs on the other side of the world will use any excuse to inflict death and misery on Christian minorities? Yet can we really live with ourselves if our actions, done in the name of freedom, result in suffering and death for others.
A few years ago I was in a Conference of international Pentecostal and Charismatic leaders. The pastor of a large and influential megachurch was urging us to sign a document which, in very belligerent terms indeed, supported the actions of Israel in firing rockets into residential areas of cities where Islamic terrorists were operating, thus causing the deaths of innocent civilians. I pointed out to him that, even if you did think it was a good thing to fire rockets into residential neighbourhoods, signing such a document could have terrible implications for Christians in the Middle East who would be the first to suffer a violent response. This megachurch pastor became quite irate – accusing me of being ‘afraid of Muslim extremists.’ I responded that I was quite happy to die for my faith if necessary, but I wasn’t happy for other people to die for my faith!
We need to stop and think before we speak. For example, when we proclaim that our western countries are ‘Christian countries,’ do we consider that we might be signing the death warrant of Christian believers in other countries?
This is nothing new. Christians had lived in Persia from the very earliest days of the Church. Parthians and Medes were among the crowd that heard Peter preach the Gospel on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:9). For three centuries Syriac churches in Persia prayed and worshipped in the Aramaic language that Jesus and His disciples had spoken. But then, in the Fourth Century, the Roman Empire, which was the sworn enemy of Persia, adopted Christianity and began to style itself as a Christian Empire. Persia’s rulers, the Sassanids, decided that if their enemies were now Christians, then that made the Christians within Persia enemies as well. A fearful persecution of the Persian Church ensued. In a tragic irony the same process is being repeated in our own day in the same part of the world. Those who view Christianity as a western, or even American, religion are persecuting Christians in the Middle East.
I value freedom. I value love and compassion even more. My freedom should not be the cause of another person’s suffering.