Am I or am I not Charlie?

The attack on the personnel of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris evoked a strong response from proponents of free speech in many democratic countries. Thousands of people took to the streets and held placards which stated unequivocally “Je suis Charlie” or “I am Charlie.” In my imagination I saw myself holding such a sign. But after some reflection, I asked myself “Am I really Charlie?”

“Yes,” I thought, “I can definitely say, ‘I am Charlie.’” I am Charlie because I strongly believe in freedom of speech. I have always thought that humour plays an important role in keeping ourselves from feeling too self-important. Effective cartoons are needed to take especially people in power down a step or two, lest they, or we, take them too seriously. Even though the instruments of satire often comprise scorn, ridicule and caricature, the intent may be to shame people into improvement.

A satirical magazine like Charlie Hebdo is useful, for example, in that it exposes those who believe that “right behaviour” has to be forced down people’s throat, the way Islamists practise their brand of religion through dictatorial rule. In that sense Islamists belong to the same category of nasty people that comprised Nazis and Communists a half century ago. Dictators cannot abide people who poke fun at them.

To be a skillful cartoonist is to be a true artist. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an ingeniously conceived and executed cartoon can light up a whole book of words. Yes, I do think that I am Charlie.

The end result
In an ironic way what happened in Paris on January 7 this year demonstrates that the pen is mightier than the sword. The deadly effect of AK-47 automatic weapons did not silence the eloquent voice of non-violent protest. In the end, the terrorists reveal themselves as powerless pseudo-heroes of the moment.

On the other hand, I can also definitely say that I am not Charlie. In an ultimate sense I do not believe in the power of satire. Satire is effective in pulling down pretentious systems and people, but satire does not put anything in its place. It does not build or edify in the long run. One almost has to be a total cynic to lose oneself in satire. Satire is a biting form of humour that offers no salvation, no redemption.

Jesus could be biting in his critique of hypocritical religious leaders of his time, but he did not use satire. He did not poke fun at the Pharisees for its own sake. He attacked their behaviour in order to warn people: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6). Jesus’ main concern was telling us what the Kingdom of God is like. His main message was a positive one of healing and comfort. The purpose of his critique was never to make others the laughing stock. Nor was the critique over the top, as satire can be.

I guess my yes and no answer to the question of whether I am Charlie reflects the dilemma we as Christians constantly face, as we find ourselves in the world but not of it. As followers of Jesus we are constantly tested to see whether we are guided by Kingdom laws while the drama of human responses plays itself out in front of us. All these human responses call out for our loyalty or our rejection. But many of them do not deserve our ultimate loyalty.

  • Bert Witvoet is a former educator and editor of various magazines, including the Christian Courier, who lives with his wife, Alice, in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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