I happened to be in France the week after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. Reactions to the events revealed the rather large gap between the cultural values of “individualism” and “collectivism.” Yet, the incident surrounding Charlie Hebdo reveals not only two distinct cultural systems of thought, but competing views of what it means to be “human.” Let me explain…
Since the Enlightenment, Western civilization has defined “the human being” in profoundly individualistic terms, devoid of any social context. The right for an individual to speak freely and unfettered is perhaps the defining element of what it means to be human. For example, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (1791) is “the right to free speech”—no one can impede or inhibit my ability to express my thoughts.
The right to free speech has a long history in the Western world, including England’s Bill of Rights (1689). France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), affirmed freedom of speech as an inalienable right—an essential element of our humanness. In the Western mind, removing someone’s voice reduces them to the subhuman level of a snail or a donkey. The implied flip side of “I think, therefore I am” is “If I can not think, then I no longer am.”
The violent attack of Charlie Hebdo offices did not just kill 12 people, it held Westerner’s most sacred value and essential humanity at gunpoint. (This is likely why the events elicited mass demonstrations of solidarity, and garnered far more attention than the Boko Haram massacre of over 2,000.)
On the flip side is a view of humanity inextricably link to the notion of honor. One Muslim immigrant in Germany explains, “There is nothing in this entire world that you need to protect more than your honor. Because you’re nothing without your honor. You’d be dirt, just dirt and nothing else. If someone tried to take my honor, then I’d do anything to get it back. Literally anything.” (Bucerius, Unwanted: Muslim Immigrants, Dignity, and Drug Dealing, p. 138).
In this thinking, honor is the unalienable possession of a human being. Take away someone’s honor, and they are no longer human, “just dirt.” The terrorists’ violence were not simply efforts to “restore honor” as commonly stated, but rooted in a deeper desire to defend their “humanness.” If such honor-based thinking seems “strange” to you, remember: 1) the idea of unregulated free speech (aka, “legalized blasphemy of God”) seems even stranger to non-Westerners, and 2) most of the world thinks in terms of honor, so you’re actually a global minority in this regard.
So, which view is correct? “Charlie Hebdo was a free speech martyr!”, or “Charlie Hebdo had it coming to them (for so purposefully humiliating others)!”?
Beyond the cultural analysis, Christians must speak prophetically into such a social conflict, and can offer a third way forward. Paul’s words in Gal 5:13-26—spoken into a context where abused freedoms destroyed community—speak so directly to this issue.
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. ….If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. The acts of the flesh are obvious: … hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy. … But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. … Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”
Biblical freedom is not the right to say what you want, but freedom from the power of sin to love. Instead of “demanding our rights” or “demanding our honor”, Paul demands love. Beyond the polarities of these two cultural extremes, Paul invites us forward into a new vision of what it means to be truly human—to be human (as God intended) is to love.