To every action there is an opposing reaction, though not necessarily an equal one. After ‘Je suis Charlie,’ ‘nous sommes Charlie,’ and ‘Paris est Charlie,’ we have now seen a queue of people stating why they are not Charlie – and why, in their opinion, those who have said Je suis Charlie are misguided and un-thinking.
When I write ‘Je suis Charlie,’ I am not condoning everything about the publication Charlie Hebdo, much of which may be vile. But I have no right to call myself a follower of Jesus if I am unwilling to identify myself with the unlovely, with the offensive. However much they offend me. However much they - and I – need to change. Moreover, if by saying, ‘Je suis Charlie,’ I am saying, my attitudes include ugly attitudes, my words include hurtful words, then that is far more honest than if I were to claim not to be ‘Charlie.’
When presented with a woman whose actions were so offensive that her accusers believed her to be worthy of death, he ruled in favour of the verdict on the condition that whoever was without offence should carry out her execution. When no one was found to condemn her on those terms, Jesus identified himself both with the woman and with her accusers, condemning neither and condoning neither, but challenging all to live differently.
When I write ‘Je suis Charlie,’ I am not claiming that my experience of these events is in any way that of those who have lost loved ones. That would, indeed, be deeply insensitive; but it simply isn’t necessary. As a priest, I stand in solidarity with people (some of whom are not likeable or commendable) who must bury their parents, their spouse, their children, even though I have never experienced that loss myself. That does not make me a fake. If we can only identify with those with whom we have common experience, then we are in very deep trouble indeed.
When I write ‘Je suis Charlie,’ I am not deceiving myself that this act in itself is enough, that in itself it changes the world. It is a token gesture; but that does not make it meaningless, and does not necessarily inoculate us from taking other small acts of reaching out to our neighbour. Big changes come through the accumulation of small gestures, whether multitudes giving pennies to cancer research, or people standing with a city. And yes, it might have unforeseen negative impact as well as positive impact; and yes, we might need to identify with other places and people and causes, too. But these qualifying things do not negate the thing – though they can easily become an excuse to do nothing.
When I write ‘Je suis Charlie,’ I am not condoning Islamophobia or attacks on mosques. Multiplying wrongs never undoes wrong. Both in our multi-cultural communities and in our multi-cultural world, those who attack mosques harm the safety of their own tribe as much as those who attack others in the name of Islam. The signifier ‘Charlie’ has shifted from Charlie Hebdo to Paris, France, beyond, to a multi-cultural city, nation, continent, world; and anyone who harms Parisian Muslims harms ‘Charlie’ and is not ‘Charlie.’ And yes, that calls Charlie Hebdo itself to account [see Jesus, and identification with others without either condemning or condoning, but instead extending the challenge to live differently, above].
Yes, I recognise that it is possible to condemn the murders without identifying with those murdered; but it is also possible to identify with people without pretending that they are innocent. The reality that we do not live in a black-and-white world works both ways.
When I write ‘Je suis Charlie,’ I am choosing to express solidarity with the people of Paris – Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, and more besides – as they are faced with the difficult challenge of living alongside one another.
I am choosing to express some humanity.
I hope that in all our great wisdom, we do not lose sight of that. However we choose to respond.
I am, still, despite all the arguments against it, Charlie.