Gunmen targeted the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris in the late morning of January 7 and shot dead 12 people at the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in an apparent militant Islamist attack.
I want to approach this discussion by remembering when I had cancer in 1990. Many of my friends and colleagues expressed concern and surprise that I, as an otherwise healthy 32 year old at the time, would “get” cancer. Some of the bewilderment was expressed in a vague existential way: “I don’t understand why you, as a faithful Christian, could get cancer?” It was asked as if God had let me down, or as if an injustice had occured.
I was surprised they thought my faith ought to have given me a pass from the common disease of our day, or, that cancer should shake my faith to the core so that I might be justified to shake my fist at an unfair god. I did not have those responses. Don’t get me wrong; cancer was a time-stopping period of my life that was probably harder for my wife than it was for me. But I never saw it as a punishment from God, or as if I were a forgotten life let adrift by an apathetic God, or even as an occasion to make my case before God – as some would argue on my behalf as it were, “But God, he doesn’t deserve this!”
That fascinated me. Did I deserve this? Did I get what I deserved?
It reminds me of when Jesus’ disciples asked Him in John 9:2, when they came upon a man born blind. “Who sinned, this person or his parents?” That is a deficit question; but Jesus responds with an asset answer: “Neither…this is to display the manifest glory of God.”
I would have liked Jesus to be present when some were gleefully calling AIDS the “Gay Plague” back in the 80’s, and wonder how He would have responded to people like Jerry Fawell, who remarked that “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” Is AIDS what we deserve? Or could John 9:2 have reminded him/us that this was the opportunity “to display the manifest glory of God” by Christlike love and care?
This brings me to the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris (The Guardian reports):
Dependably provocative and indiscriminately rude, the magazine had come to embody freedom of expression by targeting Islam with its politically incorrect brand of satire. Moments before the attack, a cartoon depicting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State (Isis), was posted on its Twitter account. The magazine’s cover this week features Michel Houellebecq’s provocative new novel, Submission, which imagines France being ruled by a Muslim president…
Riot police were deployed to the Charlie Hebdo offices to protect it from direct attacks. The foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, publicly criticised the magazine’s actions, asking: “Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour fuel on the fire?” Gérard Biard, the editor-in-chief, rejected the criticism. “We’re a newspaper that respects French law,” he said. “Now, if there’s a law that is different in Kabul or Riyadh, we’re not going to bother ourselves with respecting it.
Some have remarked that if Charlie Hebdo was going to pour fuel on the fire (as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius suggested they were doing), then “they should have been ready for the consequences – they got what they deserved.”
Did they get what they deserved?
Simon Jenkins writes this in his Editorial:
There can be no doubt that the magazine Charlie Hebdo was testing the boundaries of taste and religious tolerance. But that is the burden freedom of speech in a democracy has to bear.
If satire reaches places argument cannot touch, should terrorism now be allowed to do the same?
In one sense, we get exactly what we deserve, and in another sense, we don’t really deserve what we get. I wonder if I actually deserved nothing but cancer. I am grateful that I had it, and that I was not killed by it, but it is not a thing to be deserved, is it?
I don’t think people groups with whom we have disagreements (our enemy?) “deserve” disrespectful satire, any more than I think Hebdo’s satirical provocations deserved this terrorist response. But for the intolerant, terror is the only utensil in their toolkit that reaches places argument cannot; surely terrorism is a hammer continually looking for a nail.
In the end, we do not get what we deserve; we do not get what we think we are entitled to; we get grace.
Grace, not karma; Grace, not terror; Grace not satire. Grace. Pardon the Sunday School acronym, but GRACE is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. Grace is God’s “love freely shown toward guilty sinners, contrary to their merit and indeed in defiance to their demerit. It is God showing goodness to persons who deserve only severity, and who had no reason to expect anything but severity” (Knowing God, J.I.Packer).
Some might argue that they, themselves, deserve better; some think they will be able to “out maneuver” God in a celestial courtroom to prove they deserve to get into heaven; but others will recognize the unfairness of it all; the outrageous unfairness of grace, is the hardest thing about it.
In an interview with Philip Yancey, he was asked, “Can you define Grace?” This was his answer:
I don’t even try. Jesus talked a lot about grace, but mainly through stories. I remember once getting stuck in Los Angeles traffic and arriving 58 minutes late at the Hertz rental desk. I walked up in kind of a bad mood, put the keys down and said, “How much do I owe?” The woman says, “Nothing. You’re all clear.” I said I was late and she smiled, “Yes, but there’s a one-hour grace period.” So I asked, “Oh really, what is grace?” And she said, “I don’t know. [They must not cover that in Hertz training classes.] I guess what it means is that even though you’re supposed to pay, you don’t have to.” That’s a good start to a definition.
Do we get what we deserve?
No. We get something enigmatically better: we get grace (excuse the grammar). Therefore – in the depressive aftermath of the Paris savage shootings, through the incriminations, and past the condemnations – may you receive the undeserved grace of God, and offer this grace to others & yourself.
January 9 Addendum: Joe Sacco On Satire – a response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks
After I posted my article, Joe Sacco produced this Cartoon on the Charlie Hebdo Attacks. He asks a number of poignant questions:
When we draw a line, we are often crossing one too. Because lines on paper are a weapon, and satire is meant to cut to the bone. But whose bone? And what exactly is the target? And why?