Monday, 10 October 2016

A Few Comments from a Christian Perspective on the Murders at Charlie Hebdo

Not long ago, two Muslim extremists murdered some people in Paris who worked for the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.  There followed mass demonstrations and support for the magazine, throughout France but also elsewhere, especially using the phrase ‘Je suis Charlie’ – ‘I am Charlie’.  Then the magazine published its first edition since the massacre, and the cover shows Mohammed, believed to be a prophet by Muslims.  Because images of Mohammed are forbidden in Islam, the magazine has again offended Muslims.

I would like to make a few brief comments from a Christian perspective about this issue.

First, the killings that took place at the offices of Charlie Hebdo were undeniably heinous acts.  The two men who did the killing chose to end people’s lives without any permission from God, and the offence caused to Him by their acting in this way is enormous.  The outcry against the evil of these murders is something that Christians can wholeheartedly agree with, even if from a Christian perspective it is the wrong done to God rather than the murdered victims that is the more serious. 

Second, those who demonstrated in France were standing up for the civil right to freedom of expression.  In other words, they were supporting the fact that French law allows people to say what they want to about various religions, ideologies etc.

In my view, the whole issue of civil liberties is rather more complicated than many, including many Christians, seem to realise.  While I am basically very sympathetic to freedom of expression being permitted, I think there may be times when restrictions on this freedom might be helpful.

For example, I think I am right in saying that in Germany it is illegal to speak publicly supporting Nazi ideology, and, if I have understood this rightly, there is surely a lot to be said for the law the Germans have passed in this respect.  On the other hand, however, I do admit that there is a lot to be said too for the viewpoint that banning freedom of expression in anything, even support for something morally evil, might be the start of a slippery slope that leads to restrictions on saying good things too. 

I think as Christians we should be broadly sympathetic to civil rights being given for freedom of expression, although I think there is scope for debate about how far this goes and about particulars.  This is a big issue that is not the main concern of my article here.

Third, and most importantly for my purposes here, those who demonstrated in France were basing their support for the civil right to freedom of expression on their belief that people have a human right to freedom of expression.  The demonstrators believe that human beings, simply because they are human beings, have an authority that allows them to say what they want to say about religion, God, ideologies etc. 

This worldview, which goes right to the heart of what the Je suis Charlie people believe, and which is the mainstream modern Western worldview, is completely at odds with Christianity, and this is the main reason I am writing this article. 

Whether people have human rights to say things that are in line with God’s will is, I think, a difficult question.  Every human being is certainly under obligation to say things that please God, but whether we have rights to say these things seems a complex issue to me.  I think people may well have some sort of rights to say good things, as long as the rights are defined in such a way that human beings are understood to be under the authority of God. 

But to suppose that people have a human right to say things that are opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ is about as perverse as you can get.  Even if we do have some sort of rights to say good things, we certainly do not have a human right to say anything that God counts as sinful.  To say that people have a human right to sin in any way is absurd and evil.

As Christians, we need to be very careful to put everything to the test (1 Thess 5:21), and not to unthinkingly follow the values and worldview of the societies in which we live.  I think I am right in saying that the standard French attitude to human rights – mirrored very closely in other Western countries – stems from the values of the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century.  And, to my knowledge, the revolutionaries were for the most part openly hostile to Christianity.  If people who were against the gospel of Jesus believed strongly in something, that should make us at least pause to ask whether that thing really is good and worthwhile.

What people say should also make us stop and think.  Just before writing this I watched a TV news program in which a mainstream French journalist, who clearly believed that he was speaking for the Je suis Charlie movement, defended the view that people have a human right to blaspheme.  He actually used that word.  And he wasn’t limiting his comments to the magazine depicting Mohammed.  His view was more broadly that people have a human right to blaspheme.

Certainly, people have free will that they can use to blaspheme if they so choose.  But to say that anyone has a human right to blaspheme is pure evil.  We must not be deceived.  No human being has ever had, has or ever will have the tiniest human right to blaspheme, or to do or say anything else that God counts as sinful.  The whole idea that human beings have a human right to say anything, or almost anything, they want to stems from a worldview that involves seeing people and not God as standing in the place of ultimate authority.  This is the standard modern Western worldview and it is completely unchristian. 

We can sympathise with the desire of the demonstrators in France to have freedom of expression, but as Christians we should absolutely reject their basis for that desire.  It is a godless basis.  Freedom of expression is more or less a good thing because, in practical terms, it helps to prevent some problems in our imperfect world.  But to say that it is a good thing because people have a human right to say whatever they want to makes human beings the measure of all things, denies the sovereignty of God, condones evil and is diametrically opposed to Christianity.

Sadly, even many church leaders make this basic error.  For example, I heard Justin Welby, the current archbishop of Canterbury – another hopeless leader of the Anglican church – say that freedom of expression is a human right.  No it isn’t.  It is possible that saying things which please God is a human right.  But saying something that God counts as sin cannot possibly be a human right.  To sin in word or deed is to act entirely contrary to God’s created order, and to say that as human beings we have an authority to do that is nonsensical.  We have no more of a human right to say something that God counts as sinful than we have a human right to take a knife and go and stab someone at random.  Both are evil in God’s sight.

Fourth, the surviving journalists at Charlie Hebdo have published the latest edition of their magazine showing an image of Mohammed on the cover, although they knew that this would offend Muslims.

I think they have made a mistake.  It is true that Islam is a religion based on error.  Jesus Christ alone is Lord.  There is therefore nothing wrong in itself in making an image of Mohammed.

However, we should only cause offence to people when it is really necessary.  Note how in Acts 19:37 the city official in Ephesus states that Paul and his companions have not blasphemed against the Greek goddess Artemis.  It seems that Paul and those with him took great care not to offend worshippers of the false god Artemis unnecessarily.

As Christians, we must get on with doing the will of God no matter what the cost, and this will often involve offending people.  But there is no place for offending if it is unnecessary.  To me, it seems that this is what the editors at Charlie Hebdo have done, and I believe it is a mistake.

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