Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Friends Don't Insult - An Interfaith Reflection on Free Speech and Compassion

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade

Keywords:  Charlie Hebdo, interfaith dialogue, peace, free speech

When the news of the attacks on the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris erupted earlier this month, one of the reporters from the local paper, The Daily Item (Sunbury, PA), called me for my reaction.  I expressed prayers for the families of the victims.  And then I was very clear that we should not respond with violence against Muslims because the vast majority do not perpetrate such crimes. He also asked me what I thought the Muslim response should be. I said that it was important for faith leaders to come together to model healthy conversations about the questions that are coming up about the incident - why some Muslims responded to the caricatures the way they did.  I suggested that he talk with someone from the local Muslim community, and that it was important that we be able to deal with these questions in an open and honest way.

My friend and pastoral colleague in interfaith work, The Rev. Ann Keeler Evans, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Susquehanna Valley, reminded me that one of the best ways to respond to these kinds of violent acts is to engage in the simple things with those whom many would consider our “enemies.”  “Have a picnic,” she said.  “Hold a potluck where people bring their different dishes and share a meal.  Show up together at arts festivals and public events and let people see us doing ordinary things together.”  In other words, be a self-deprecating embodiment of the old jokes, “A Christian, a Jew and a Muslim walk into a bar . . .” and just share a beverage and conversation.  Doing ordinary things can speak volumes in these extraordinary times.

Since then I have grappled in my own mind and heart about the tension between the right to free speech as exercised by the cartoonists and editors of Charlie Hebdo (and any other satirical medium) and the revulsion I felt upon seeing the caricatures in the paper.  I gained some clarity after reading the Gospel assigned for Jan. 25 for those churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary.  We read in Mark 1:15 these words:  Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’"

Because the time is fulfilled, and because the Kingdom of God has already come near, this has immediate effects on our world, our lives, and, yes, our churches and houses of worship.  The key is in the verbs: μετανοέω (repent) and πιστεύω (believe).  The verb forms in Greek are in the present active imperative.  They are expressing commands to the hearer to perform a certain action by the order and authority of the one commanding.
μετανοέω means to turn – to turn away from what has been destructive and harmful, and turn towards that which is healing and restorative.  In our time, it means not only turning away from violence to respond to those who anger you when your religious beliefs have been insulted.  It also means turning away from the continuing rancorous religious rhetoric uttered by so many in our own country and around the world.

Yes, we want to defend the freedom to express our thoughts and opinions, and to critique hypocrisy and protest abuse, and even to laugh at ourselves.  But in the kind of kingdom envisioned by Jesus and those of us committed to interfaith peace and dialogue, we would not dream of insulting people of other faiths with our words, or cartoons, or ads on city buses, or bumper stickers on cars, or memes on our Facebook pages.  Why?  Simply because they are our friends.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t do those kinds of things to my friends. And in their mercy they refrain from doing those things to me as well.

This does not mean that we do not disagree, even sharply, with each other and our respective beliefs and practices.  It does not mean that we refrain from asking the difficult questions in an effort to reach greater understanding.  It does not mean that we don’t, in good fun, tease each other when we are feeling playful.  We do all of these things.  But we do them with care and respect, not wanting to hurt each other or jeopardize our friendships for the sake of a thin appeal to “rights.”

For me, those friendships are built on Jesus’ other key word, key command, really – believe.  Or, better, have faith.  Trust.  Have confidence.  In whom?  In your friends, especially the ones with whom we are willing to cross lines and break bread, join hands and step into zones of difference in order to find common ground.  And we have faith and trust in the God who calls each of us to the path of peace, finding as many willing partners to join us along the way.


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