Je Suis? What is ‘Je Suis’? What does it mean to say ‘I am’? I am what?
Those of you who follow social media will have noted the myriad posts saying ‘#JeSuisCharlie’, people identifying with the victims of the terrible violence in Paris this past week. Even our archbishop posted a Tweet, ‘#JeSuisCharlie the response to such demonic violence is love for those who suffer and virtuous action against evil.’
This was followed by people wanting to identify instead with the Muslim police officer who gave his life trying to protect the magazine offices, Ahmed. #JeSuisAhmed became the call.
There have been numerous statements by politicians and religious leaders alike, articles and commentaries written, and myriad interviews. In the midst of this my own very modest role with our diocese has left me rather cautious. And I will share why.
Last Tuesday, before the attacks in Paris, I sat in a session in the House of Commons with the author Arun Kundnani, who has written a set of recommendations for the government on ending radicalisation. One of the more heated subjects touched on was that of free speech, how free are we to say what we believe or feel? And should government be monitoring university students, hospital patients and even nursery schools – in search of possible radicals. It was pointed out that most university students, most people, go through a period of being ‘radical’ as they develop their personalities and find their place in the world. If there is no space for those ideas to be explored in a rigorous and open manner, if people are afraid to express their views, express their fears, express their anger and not have those views challenged – they get bottled up, never addressed, and develop into something even more dangerous.
In reality there is no such thing as true freedom of speech. Along with this freedom comes responsibility. It is against the law to incite others to hatred of others or incite to commit a crime, for example. This being said, the greater part of the Muslims present at this session on Tuesday felt they were not able to speak freely. If they were to complain about the use of drones for example – would they then be considered radicalised and therefore a possible threat to the security of the nation?
And the next day we had the attack in Paris.
Unlike the aftermath of the publication of the Danish cartoons, journalists have been swift to share the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo. Over a million copies of the magazine have now been printed – an unprecedented number for this publication. Now I have seen the Danish cartoons and the Charlie cartoons are infinitely more inflammatory and offensive. Charlie has been an equal opportunity offender, and have published cartoons deeply offensive to Christian, Jew and Muslim alike. When 200 girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, Charlie Hebdo published an extremely racist cartoon implying the girls were benefit scroungers. How that could possibly be comparable is beyond most. This was not clever satire.
In terms of a school playground, the behaviour of Charlie Hebdo could be considered to be that of the school bully – picking on the outcast. Any rhetoric in a nation that prides itself on having a sophisticated culture which then derides or humiliates the minorities living amongst them, must be condemned rather than celebrated. But that is not then cause for the horrendous actions of these murderers. God is big enough to withstand the scribblings of a few cartoonists – as is Jesus, Muhammad and the Pope. But the minorities among us are not.
What I find of more concern is the dissonance between the defence of the right to offend, and the lack of freedom to dress in accordance with beliefs. Between April 2011 and February 2014, French law enforcement fined 594 women for wearing the niqab, or face veil.
On Friday, this same week, Raif Badawi, a young writer whose blog, Free Saudi Liberals, fell foul of the censors in Saudi Arabia, was subject to the first of a series of floggings. Prosecuted and found guilty of criticising Saudi officials, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes – enduring 50 at a time, once a week, every Friday, until the 1,000 are complete. Now if I can Tweet #JeSuisCharlie, in solidarity with those who have been killed in such an attack, I can also certainly help to campaign for the freedom of this young father of three, for his freedom to call for not only freedom of speech within his own country, but also freedom to live with other rights so many of us enjoy but which are absent in Saudi Arabia. And so there are those of us also Tweeting #JeSuisRaif.
More stories are emerging of heroism, of the Muslim worker, Lassana, who escorted customers at the Kosher supermarket into a basement freezer, giving them a safe place to hide while he faced the hostage takers.
For the first time since WWII the synagogue in Paris was closed on the Shabbat, and Jewish shops, museums and centres were advised to close. I was glad to see on the news that a wonderful kosher, vegetarian falafel restaurant in Paris, that is a favourite of my family, decided to stay open in defiance. The owner, Madame Martine, refused to be afraid. For people such as her and for the synagogue, people are Tweeting #JeSuisJuif.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus makes radical statements of identity: I am the bread, I am the Light, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Way, I am the Truth, I am the Life, I am the True Vine – each of these holding theological and spiritual depth of meaning which at the time were considered heretical. Jesus pushed the boundaries of the acceptable and in the end gave his life for the words he spoke.
As we celebrate the Baptism of Christ, the day Jesus ministry to the world was made public; and with a blessing and baptism through water from yet another who lost his life for the words he spoke, John, the voice of one crying in the wilderness. This event is not one of a private spiritual experience for Jesus and John alone. It is a Christological statement, a strong statement identifying Jesus as the Christ, Emmanuel, God among us. This is no gentle descent of a dove, no easy birth – the heavens are torn asunder, suggesting it was witnessed by a much wider audience. God identifies Jesus as his Son, his voice, his hands, his presence, his Love among us. It is God who makes the statement ‘I am,’ ‘Je Suis.’ When we are baptised into the life of Christ, when we partake of the communion bread and wine, we become part of this great ‘I am.’
A wonderfully warm Muslim friend of mine allowed fear to get the better of her the other day. She posted this on Facebook: ‘I think as Muslims in Europe we should get ready for a total surveillance and for life to get even worse than it already is – there is worse to come. I am not feeling positive at all.’
Now the next day, she realised how destructive this fear was and decided to post only positive stories in defiance. But I am also grateful to her for sharing her fears. It gave the opportunity for me, and for many others, to share our support for her and for our Muslim friends and colleagues. What these people with guns, and sadly also some people with pens, are trying to do is to divide us, one from another; to try to make us live in fear. The greatest thing we can do in the face of this is exactly what so many have done – to make the statement ‘I am’ – #JeSuisCharlie #JeSuisAhmed #JeSuisRaif #JeSuisJuif. We are the girls kidnapped and trafficked into slavery. We are the poor of this nation forced to go to food banks to feed their families. We are one people. We stand together. Amen.