The recent attacks in France by Islamic extremists killing 17 people (12 at the publishing office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, 4 at a Jewish Supermarket and a police woman) have shocked the world, and have quite rightly been roundly condemned by world leaders and all those who believe in civil liberties and free speech. The very real sense of being attacked, hurt and terrorised by extremist elements has consequently galvanised the people of France to boldly stand up for their French way of life and the values they believe in. This was abundantly demonstrated by the huge crowds that came out in unity upon the streets the following weekend, many holding aloft a journalist’s pencil as a symbol of their way of life and freedom of expression. They also expressed their solidarity with the publisher by loudly proclaiming “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) – because as they perceived the paper to be representative of the French people, they quite naturally wished to identify themselves with it. This sense of solidarity was heightened when the next edition of Charlie Hebdo (called ‘the survivors edition’) saw a print run of 5 million copies (far in excess of the usual 60,000) sold out within hours. However, since this issue depicted a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad upon its cover it wasn’t without controversy! Was it wise to offend Muslims when such previously drawn cartoons were said to be the provocation for such a deadly and vicious attack? Shouldn’t the French show some form of moderation or restraint given the circumstances or would it have been seen as capitulating to outside forces and giving a propaganda victory to the extremists? All of these are valid questions and no doubt people will ponder them for years to come.
Strangely, whereas today many Muslims tend to see the drawing of the Prophet Muhammad as an attack upon their religious faith and culture, historically, this wasn’t so – indeed some religious paintings of the prophet were actually revered in the past. However today, it seems that the physical ‘drawing’ of the prophet is so contentious that it overshadows the message the cartoon is trying to convey. Yet, if Islam is really a peaceful religion as many moderate Muslims would like to maintain – is it really such a bad thing to see the prophet crying over the violence carried out in his name?
Ironically, the Christian perspective is very different! Imagine that the cartoon depicted Jesus with a placard saying ‘Je suis Charlie’. Would Christians get upset or see it as an attack upon their religion? Not a bit! For the Christian understands that each and every person is made in ‘the image of God’ and that we are therefore very special to him. When God steps into the world in the person of Jesus he literally takes upon himself our flesh, our likeness, our humanity. This is crucially important for us to understand – because when Jesus died upon the cross, he did so for us, he carried our sin and represented us upon the cross. He took upon his own shoulders and bore in his own body the most extreme and violent torment possible, compounded by the fact that carrying the sins of the world inevitably cuts him off from his loving but Holy Father. So to see a cartoon where a weeping Jesus cries for the sins of the world, and yet so boldly identifies himself with it (“Je suis Charlie”, “Je suis Mary”, “Je suis Peter”) underneath a banner that proclaims “All is forgiven!” in my view pretty neatly sums up the Christian faith! Christ identifies with us so much that he is prepared not only to represent us but to stand in for us upon the cross. The only thing that remains is for us to claim the forgiveness that he offers, and ask ourselves the question: are we prepared to do so, and are we prepared to identify ourselves with him?
“I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you”