“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”—Salman Rushdie
Twelve people are dead following what France’s president called a “terror attack”on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Wednesday. Ten journalists were killed, including the editor in chief and at least four cartoonists.
Creativity is Dangerous
A gun may take more lives than a cartoon but a cartoonist will always be more dangerous than a terrorist, because he can change your mind.
As strange as it may seem, it should be no surprise to us why cartoonists are a threat to the violent and the unreasonable. Creativity is a dangerous weapon. It wages a necessary war against unlikable ideas that are precious to unreasonable people.
The terrorist knows something that some people do not know—the artist is a teller of the truth and the truth is a danger to falsehood.
Thoughtless terrorists pick up guns and bombs to injure and kill people who threaten their purpose, but prophetic artists take up pen and paper to resist ideas that threaten our minds—ignorance, irrationality and injustice.
Our hope in this tragedy is that the artist knows something that the terrorist does not know. Though fear may control for a moment, the truth will forever set us free.
Courage is Necessary
History has a habit of killing creative people who tell the truth. The faces of dangerous ideas have always been targeted by the weapons of lesser ideals. Luther, Lincoln and Gandhi yesterday. Ordinary writers and cartoonists today.
Freedom is frightening to people who want to control how people think. It is a threat to the religious fundamentalist, the power-seeking politician and the small-minded moral policeman who will always resist the truth, even more so when it is told creatively.
It takes courage to let people think—to invite debate, start a conversation and engage in an honest exchange of contrasting ideas. It is the mark of a just society but it is frightening to anyone who wants to control the conversation.
It takes courage to tell the truth today. Like justice and love, it is an exclusive idea that makes no room for the unreasonable, the unjust and the unloving, unless they change their minds. But like a spoilt child who takes his football home when he is losing the game, the excluded will attack their enemies rather than change their ways.
All true creativity is a risky act of service to people, born out of love—for truth, beauty, reason and justice. Every artist, cartoonist and writer who tells the truth is taking a risk. They serve the world in love with courage—but not without risk of retaliation and not without fear of consequences.
Freedom is Sacred
Charlie Hebdo’s covers were undeniably offensive to religious sensibilities. They often featured provocative images that undermined many spiritual and religious beliefs—even my own. But freedom is more sacred than sensibilities. It is sacred because it is given by God.
There are many things that God can do but He cannot take away our freedom. It is not that He does not take it away. He cannot take it away. It is naive to think that God can do anything. If He could do anything then He could be loving and evil at the same time. He could be lying and telling the truth at the same time. But He cannot.
God is not free. He is bound by His nature. It is in His nature to be loving and the nature of love is to give its lover the freedom to choose. He did not make a world in which He always gets His way. He has made a world in which we are free to choose our own—even if it goes against Him.
Though He grieves over the distance we keep from Him, He zealously guards the freedom that He has given to us. He is the first offensive artist and the last one to take away our freedom.
Respect is Attractive
If the freedom to offend is permissible, let me say an offensive thing. There is no better way to use our God-given freedom than to be restrained to His liberating ways. Since He is bound to His nature, He binds the freedom He has given us to worthy ideas of justice, beauty, creativity, truth and respect. Any freedom that divorces itself from these ideas becomes a kind of captivity.
I know that God grieves over Charlie Hebdo but I think that He grieves over the way freedom is used in the world today. We are free to offend without restraint and we are free to restrain ourselves to respect. But though they are both freedoms guarded by God, there is perhaps a better freedom between the two.
God is Grieving
Perhaps it is because I am a Christian and I tend to see Jesus in everything, but the popular show of solidarity Je suis Charlie, which translates I am Charlie, looks a lot like Jesus is Charlie.
The prophetic voice is a lonely one. It is often hated, despised and rejected. But it is a life of service. The prophetic servant is a suffering servant. He wears a tiring crown and carries a heavy burden because he tells a story that prefers truth to irrationality, justice to oppression and beauty to fear and control.
Jesus offended the religious establishment with a prophetic voice that led to calls for His crucifixion. He knows our pain today because He has Himself suffered the cost of telling the truth—not as a martyr but as a sacrifice.
While the religious sought to preserve their power and protect their position, He left His privileged position and emptied Himself of power. Because He was secure enough to give people the freedom to crucify Him, we can be hopeful enough to know that love will survive its enemies, truth will survive the terrorist.
There are two times in the Bible that Jesus wept publicly—at the death of a friend and over a city that had lost its way. Every violation of life and freedom is violence against the nature of God. But while he cannot take away our freedom, He does not leave us without the light of His life.
I grieve with Charlie Hebdo because God grieves with them. He grieves like us. He grieves with us. Je suis Charlie. I am Charlie. Jesus is Charlie.
The portion Respect is Attractive was added two weeks after the original post. I wrote this piece to affirm that God grieves with the grieving; not to identify with Charlie Hebdo’s views on religion or politics.
Here are a few pieces that I found useful to read, by Josh Healey (Common Dreams), Vinoth Ramachandra, DeWayne Wickham (USA Today), Patrick Jackson (BBC), Tom Humberstone (The New Statesman) and David Brooks (NY Times)
Image Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra