Je ne suis pas Charlie

February 2015 Opinion Bishop Charles Drennan Terrorism and fanaticism can never be justified. But should our reaction to the slaying of staff at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo be…

Je ne suis pas Charlie Archdiocese of WellingtonFebruary 2015


Bishop Charles Drennan

Terrorism and fanaticism can never be justified. But should our reaction to the slaying of staff at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo be limited to abhorrence?
Stamping of feet and shouting of slogans – unity – is a woefully inadequate response. We are not Charlie, and we need to explain why.

Soon after the tragic event in Paris I was reading the coming Sunday’s gospel reading and was struck with how different our Christian understanding of unity is from that of French politics. The passage described the emergence of the first disciples. They stood out from the crowd through their recognition of who Jesus is which they expressed with titles: Lamb of God, Rabbi, Teacher, Messiah, Christ, the anointed one, Son of God (Jn. 1:35-42). The titles are not rewards or achievements. In fact they point beyond Jesus to an external source of authority which lay outside Jesus himself; the Father in heaven (cf. Mt. 28: 18).

Why is this important? It reminds us that unity is not achieved through slogans, policy statements, or decrees. It also reminds us that unity is not primarily about uniformity or conformity let alone assimilation. True unity in fact respects diversity and places within a dynamic of dialogue widely differing values. How? By recognising that the source or principle of unity lies beyond individuals or groups or nations in God the Creator, in whose image and likeness every man and woman is created and endowed with inviolable dignity.

An authentic understanding of unity is of particular importance in an increasingly globalized society. Most migrant communities are ‘welcomed’ because of a perceived economic advantage to the host country. Often the welcome is accompanied by a twist of exploitation, and exaggerated individualism and nationalism emerge as the doomed principles of unity or integration. Think of seasonal workers in New Zealand who are legally paid below the minimum wage and welcome only for certain months of the year. And in Europe Muslim migrant workers and their families are being welcomed as long as they adopt European values (whatever that means) with the implication in France being that freedom of speech is far more important than respect for a religious leader or a religious community’s sensibilities.

The right to freedom of speech is certainly a good to be cherished and protected. And, yes, satire does have a long and even noble tradition in the pursuit of democracy. Think of the conscience and satire characters in 15th and 16th century morality plays, or the role of the Jester in many of Shakespeare’s works. But freedom of speech is not an absolute right. It sits within something beyond itself, something deeper, something truly unifying. What is that? The principle of the common good, which stands at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching.

This it seems French President Monsieur Francois Hollande and the ‘je suis charlie’ campaigners do not understand or certainly do not accept. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, are not in the first instance political achievements or legislators’ milestones (cf. Book of Wisdom chapter 6). Rather, they stem from the inherent God given dignity of every man and women which corresponds in every human being to a duty to respect and desire the common good of society; something which transcends individual, group and even national interests.

The principle of the common good places rights, like the freedom of speech, and goals, like unity, in correlation with duties by which every person is called to assume responsibility for his or her choices made always in relation with others in the community in which we live. What contribution does crass mockery (hardly satire) make to the freedom, equality, and community of everyone? What common good is served by arrogant provocation of the Parisian Muslim community many of whose members are already suffering from sub-standard housing and unemployment? What kind of leaders exploit a tragic and violent event in the community for individual political self- interest? Among others parading on the streets of Paris were political leaders from Egypt, Turkey, Russia, and United Arab Emirates, which according to the organisation ‘Reporters Without Borders’ are ranked (out of 180) 159th, 154th, 148th, and 118th for press freedom of speech.

Tui’s billboard writers might well have something satirical to say about that. And vive our National and Diocesan interreligious faith groups and commissions who drawing on the treasure of our social teaching endeavour to help build authentic unity in our multicultural land.