Sunday, January 18, 2015

Our image of God influences our actions

The pen is mightier than the sword
Last week in Paris the sword was temporarily mightier than the pen when militant Islamists attacked the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, and killed twelve people.  This was not the first time that radical Muslims targeted the publication; in 2011, its offices were fire bombed in retaliation for printing irreverent depictions of the prophet Mohammed.

The cold-blooded murder at Charlie Hebdo ignited the determined support of Parisians for the ideals of democracy. Even the deaths of three more people at a hostage taking at a kosher grocery store a few days later could not deter the French from gathering en masse.

“Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) quickly became the rallying cry, and lights projected onto the Arc de Triomphe proclaimed “Paris est Charlie.” Across France, an estimated 3.6 million people gathered to honor the victims and to show their commitment to freedom of expression and the ideals of democracy. Forty world leaders attended the rally in Paris, linking arms in a show of unity and friendship.

In a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the slain cartoonists, many stood in silent witness holding pens and pencils aloft. It was a living cartoon conveying the message, “The pen is mightier than the sword”.  And, as if to drive this message home, a political cartoonist for the Huffington Post drew a cartoon featuring a masked gunman standing in a pool of blood. The gunman is looking up at the end of a pencil as it erases the muzzle of his automatic weapon. The caption reads, “Ideas are bulletproof”.

Ideals of democracy promote the flourishing of human society
While it is relatively easy to kill individuals for expressing their views, as the massacre at Charlie Hebdo tragically illustrates, it is much more difficult to kill the ideals that promote the flourishing of human society.

Following the atrocities of the Second World War, the international community agreed upon the principles that are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights articulates these principles that arise from the inherent dignity and the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”  Freedom of speech and belief are specifically mentioned in the preamble to the Declaration.

Religious extremism gives religion a bad name
There have always been, and there will always be, individuals and groups who are intolerant of differences and who want to silence freedoms.  While Muslim extremists are not the only people guilty of intolerance, the post 9-11 world has become all to familiar with terrorist style attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam. 

Religious extremists of any stripe give religion a bad name and their actions sometimes fuel anti-religious sentiment, which in itself is a form of intolerance. An intolerant view of religion, and particularly of Islam post 9-11, needs to be balanced with the acknowledgement that the majority of people of faith do no harm to others; on the contrary, many of those people are actively doing good for others.  The principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights find a natural home in them because those principles accord with their view of God and of God’s desire for peace among people.

The way a person views God will determine how he acts. An individual who believes in a compassionate, merciful God of love will respond to life in a different way than someone who sees God as a harsh task master requiring strict obedience and exacting punishment for infractions.  An individual’s understanding of the character of God impacts his understanding of the sacred texts and traditions of his religion, and this influences his level of tolerance for others and their views.

Contrasting views of Islam
Last week in Paris, one of the gunmen was heard to shout “Allahu Akbar”  (“God is greater”) and “The prophet is avenged”.   He had a particular view of the character of God and the dictates of Islam. That view stands in stark contrast to this one, expressed in a January 9, 2015 letter published on the website of the Montreal Gazette.  Shafik Bhalloo wrote, “My Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and forgiveness. My Islam teaches love, concord, sympathy and tenderness to one’s fellow men – not killing people for practicing their freedom of expression or speech.”

The actions of radical Muslims who feel it necessary to battle the west, wipe out Jews, Christians or other Muslim groups perpetrate crimes against the dignity of their religion, and against the compassionate God (however one names it) who wills the well-being of all people, including irreverent cartoonists.

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