I needed a couple of literary anthologies and found them at The Regulator, my neighborhood bookshop on here in Durham. At the bottom of my receipt was printed, Je suis Charlie. Interesting, right? If you trade in public rhetoric, whether in words or music, painting or theater, whether for livelihood or passion, you’ve got to see yourself in those 10 staff members at Charlie Hebdo, executed by Muslim radicals because of the magazine’s constant critique of Islam. For us Westerners, free speech is sacred. We cherish it with a kind of religious zeal. Censorship burns us, like, say, the thought of Muslims in the Duke Chapel tower burns Franklin Graham or those anonymous ghouls who threatened campus leaders over it. My local booksellers are no different. At a visceral level, I’m no different. The other reason I was at The Regulator was to re-stock copies of my own memoir. If rogue killers can try to silence Charlie, what might I write that could earn me a death sentence?
Yeah, je suis Charlie.
Except, what about Dieudonné, the anti-Zionist French comedian facing hate-speech charges because he expressed solidarity with Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four Jewish hostages in a kosher supermarket on the same day authorities killed the Charlie Hebdo shooters? Disgusting, yes. Scornful of Coulibaly’s victims, to the point of hatred, maybe. But in Islam, depicting Muhammad, period, is blasphemy, let alone depicting him as some kind of sex kitten. If speech is free, so is hearing. Who are we or the French government to decide Dieudonné is hateful but Charlie Hebdo isn’t? Are we in the West saying, “If you’re offended by Charlie, get over it. But if you’re offended by Dieudonné, we’re in your corner”?
Whether we’re talking about Muslims in a Christian chapel or anti-Muslim cartoons, the question has to be “should we?” rather than “can we?” Not, “is it permitted?” But, “is it the course of wisdom?” Of course, we can caricature the Prophet’s naked posterior. Of course, we can preserve and protect Duke Chapel as a Christian edifice. But should we?
As I see it, the question of can vs. should is one of righteousness vs. pragmatism. The secular West invokes the principle of free speech as an axiom, a bedrock truth that can’t be questioned. Hell, you might as well call it a god. Muslims actually do worship Allah as God. We’ve got two totalizing thought systems that can take a beating and keep fighting. “Fundamentalist” can be a nasty word, but they’re at least, let’s say, foundationalist, meaning their conclusions grow from deeply held convictions that won’t easily yield. Either way, it’s an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Something’s gotta give.
But the postmodern turn of the past century and a half should have taught us something by now. We ought to look suspiciously at every claim to truth or righteousness, every invocation of a bedrock principle or universal deity. Such claims might turn out as nothing more than power grabs, attempts to control one’s environment for one’s own comfort, often at the expense of others’ own sense of control and comfort. Asking “should we?” means asking not “what is right or good or fair in the eyes of God or weighed against some universal truth?” It means asking, “How do we manage to get along, to live in peace, despite our competing gods or truth claims?”
New Testament scholar Richard Hays, dean of Duke Divinity School, teetered between can and should in his response to the Chapel’s decision-making. On the one hand, Hays contrasted between Christianity and Islam, particularly with regard to the place of Jesus in each religion. Muslims see Muhammad as Allah’s final messenger, with Jesus as his forerunner. For Hays, this clearly clashes with Trinitarian faith in Jesus as divine. Islam undermines the doctrine of a divine Christ, so goes the logic, and we can at least keep such “heresy” out of the Chapel tower. Another unstoppable force meets an immovable object, what we’ve come to expect from ideological conflict.
More interesting to me, though, is another of Hays’ points: Muslim majorities all around the globe are persecuting Christian minorities, and Duke Chapel needs to stand in solidarity with those Christians under siege. Hays was careful to say that Christians at Duke can hospitably offer the tower to Muslims here, even if Christians don’t receive the same in other places. But, he wrote, using the tower as a minaret for the Muslim adhan “will, in our time, have immediate global repercussions.” Like so many politicians over the years who have urged Charlie Hebdo not to provoke violent reactions in France’s polarized climate, Hays is arguing that even a Christian value like hospitality might need to yield to the cause of global peacekeeping. See, when you start asking “should we?” things get messy. It’s not what’s right? but what’s right in our time?
All of this reminds me of Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman, another ethnic and religious ‘stranger’: “A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. … God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” Spirit and truth are more shifty than the sacred spaces or doctrines that define our ideologies, whether libertine secularism or traditional religion. Duke Chapel’s history, art and architecture do define it as Christian and neither pluralist nor specifically Muslim. Poking fun at Islam might constitute faithful secularism. Taking offense at a cartoon Muhammad might be the devoutly Muslim thing to do. But I suspect, upon inspection, these all turn out to be imperfect human attempts to represent in bricks and mortar, pen and ink, flesh and blood what must remain mystery. If theologian Karl Barth was right, that even for the most religious among us, our lives are “only a parable,” maybe we shouldn’t hold so tightly to some concept of free speech, or Muslim doctrine, or a Christian building. Maybe spirit and truth are still far beyond us.