The satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked by young French Islamic radicals in January. The same day, another young fanatic held Jewish hostages in a Parisian kosher market. In the end, seventeen people died. When I heard this, I felt the horror and dread so many of us share. Just days before the shootings, I had learned of protests against the “Islamization of Europe” taking place in Denmark and Germany under the aegis of Pegida, “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.” Then came the assault on journalists and Jews in Paris.
My response was complicated by my delight-and-disgust reaction to satire. When I lived in a monastery, we did some great skits, poking fun at ourselves, privately. Sometimes I performed solo and donned different hats to (mis)represent different people from different countries and cultures, playing with accents and stereotypes. I always hoped that as long as I offended all kinds of people, I’d be ok. I also tried to convey a comic sense of the bigotry that would actually believe the stereotypes. One of our mottos was “Take God so seriously that you take everything else, especially yourself, lightheartedly.” I still try to embrace this notion. It affirms the satirical instinct while rejecting the notion that nothing is sacred.
Rabbi Michael Lerner has helped my understanding. In “Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy,” he notes that we are selective about our outrages. His own publication has received death threats, but he has felt little outrage from law enforcement or from some members of his own religious community. On a larger scale, he raises this question:
… did you ever wonder why there wasn’t an equal outrage at the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed by the American intervention in Iraq or the over a million civilians killed by the U.S. in Vietnam, or why President Obama refused to bring to justice the CIA torturers of mostly Muslim prisoners, thereby de facto giving future torturers the message that they need not even be sorry for their deeds (indeed, former Vice President Cheney boldly asserted he would order that kind of torture again without thinking twice)?
My own answer to this question is that one way or another, enough of us feel threatened enough by weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the domino effect of Communism in Southeast Asia to be willing to tolerate acts that we will not tolerate from anyone else. Are we ready to join Rabbi Lerner in saying “Every form of violence sickens me”? Including our own?
Lerner goes on to note a deeper issue: When does satire become a form of violence? Never? Is it ok as long as every tradition is ridiculed? Here, says Lerner, a new problem arises: “the general cheapening and demeaning of others is destructive to everyone. But of course not equally destructive, because people who are already economically and socially marginalized are in far greater danger of having this demeaning sting rather than feel funny.”
He asserts that “individual human liberties is not our highest value. Our highest value is treating human beings with love, kindness, generosity, respect and [seeing] them as embodiments of the holy, and treating the earth as sacred.”
So something is sacred.
When we use “free speech” as a form of violence and desecration, healthy irreverence slides into disrespect. When that disrespect is aimed at people already suffering a profound sense of marginalization or impotence, a dark abyss opens in some hearts. Powerful and well-funded agents stand ready to arm and thus “empower” these marginalized citizens.
I would never want to outlaw satire. I want to use free speech to resist demeaning humor that is “an assault on the dignity of human beings” and to condemn the murders.
Finally, the Paris attack spurs me to ponder again the question of whether or not religions, and especially the Abrahamic traditions, are inherently violent and responsible for atrocities. I look forward to reading Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood, in which she argues that religion has little to do with inciting violence. In a New York Times interview, she notes that the two World Wars of the twentieth century were prompted by secular nationalism. She doesn’t claim that religion is blameless, but that
it has never been the sole nor even the chief cause of either state or terrorist violence. Other factors — political, economic, social, personal — have always been involved and these must also be taken into account. This is still true today: if we want to change hearts and minds, we must discover what is actually in them and not simply what we think might be there.
Echoing Lerner’s emphasis on demeaning speech, Armstrong claims that
If we speak in order to wound, we will make matters worse: in my research I have found that when a fundamentalist group is attacked, it invariably becomes more extreme. My problem with some current critics of Islam is that their criticism is neither accurate, fair, nor well-informed.
In my own experience, I notice that laughter over human foibles and even the darker humor that develops in reaction to profound injustice and cruelty, is salubrious, not demeaning, as long as it sprouts from a fertile field of grateful participation in the sacred ground on which we walk. This laughter is also nourished by downpours of tears.
As for my Christian faith, I believe that the Spirit of Christ lives without borders, and that the wisdom traditions, while too often taken hostage by cruel ideologies, have a healing power to overcome violence that worldly wisdom cannot match. I hope we Jews, Christians, and Muslims will have the courage and grace to leave ourselves vulnerable to that healing, merciful love. I dream of a world in which we take the sacred so seriously, we will live together lightheartedly.