Guns, Bibles, and Charlie Hebdo

There’s a gun shop in my town that still has its Christmas message up. “Joy to the world the lord has come.” I’m not an expert on theology, but I’m pretty sure where Jesus would stand on the whole gun rights issue. People criticized Obama for his remarks about people who cling to their guns and bibles. They thought he was being condescending. I think the President was being ironic. Why are so many people who proclaim to be Christian packing 1911s? America has a long history of mixing violence and religion. But maybe it’s time to grow up. Maybe it’s not gay marriage that has God angry. Maybe he’s mad at the inability of his flock to understand and implement the Golden Rule in their daily lives.

Exhibit A is Pope Francis, the leader of the largest and oldest Christian church, who said he’d pop someone in the mouth for ”playin’ the dozens” on his mama. I don’t think that’s what Christ had in mind when he said “turn the other cheek.” Jesus did not, at least according to my bible, say “Love thy enemy unless he insults someone you love.” Or something you love. Like your religion or its icons. It’s worth noting that some of the same people who were appalled by the violence in Gibson’s Passion of the Christ think torturing Muslims is ok.

Upon reflection, it’s not surprising that so many Christians and Muslims share similar views about punishing blasphemers. They already share so many other ideas, such as monotheism, patriarchy, and the primacy of Abraham. People who wander around in the desert sans food and water seeking refuge in caves riddled with petrochemical fumes are bound to share a lot of the same “visions.” True, the Pope condemned the killings in Paris. But he also made it clear that those who mock religion bear some responsibility for the violence directed against them. To some, this might signal hypocrisy. But considering some of the supernatural beliefs of religions in general, it strikes me as symptomatic of a moral relativism instead. Upholding the primacy of Muhammad or Jesus or the FSM is a more important moral imperative than upholding the laws and tenets of a civilized society. This is a dangerous place for religion to put itself.

What the Pope and Muslims fail to grasp is that respect for conflicting ideas in the marketplace of public consciousness is crucial to both sustaining civilization and religion. Fanatical atheism (as practiced in the former Soviet Union) and religious fanatics are cut from the same cloth. Both stifle the progress of mankind. Civilizations like the Romans and the United States flourished in part by being melting pots that allowed the free competition of ideas. Of course it is understandable for people with strong religious feelings to want to lash out at those who mock their beliefs. I remember being a child in a movie theater watching one of Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics. There was a scene where Peter gets slapped by someone who reminds him that Christ told him to turn the other cheek. He does so and the man slapped him again. This time, Peter knocked the guy out. The movie theater erupted in cheers. This situational ethic confused me greatly as a young Catholic. But it is one thing to want to hit someone. It is another issue altogether to use religion to justify striking the blow.

As an adult, I embrace a world view that is more scientific in nature. “Show me the evidence” is my mantra. There are individuals, like Jenny McCarty, Ken Hamm, and Ted Cruz, whose anti-science pontifications can drive a rational thinker to near madness. And Rove, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have plenty to answer for, too, of course. Still, people have the right to be ignorant. And as much as much as many of us despise their ideas, a nation in which those ideas cannot be expressed is not one any of us should want to live in. Nor is it a nation that can thrive.

The Pope is right that there are limits to free speech. As a nation, we cannot tolerate calls for violence against specific groups, for example. It is an irony of a free and just society that intolerance is the one thing we cannot tolerate. And there is always the old saw about yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. But Francis is wrong about what should be censored. Religious believers who find themselves offended by cartoons, speeches, writings, or cinema are being given the opportunity to practice basic tenets of their faith. For Christians, it is a chance repay evil with love. For Muslims, it is submission to God’s will. If God is all powerful, he doesn’t need the help of believers to defend Jesus, Mohamed, or Abraham.

The Pope is also wrong about wanting to be free from being offended. It is the critics, satirists, and skeptics who keep religion true to itself. Those who offend believers create the need for self examination. It is not the sycophants who point out our weaknesses and flaws. It is our enemies. Where would Christianity be if Luther had not disseminated his 95 theses? The Reformation rooted out much that had become stale and corrupt in the Catholic Church. In the process, plenty of people were offended. Much blood was shed. But in the end, Christendom was better off. Islam is facing a similar crisis. Fundamentalists and extremists wish to turn a religion of peace into one of conquest, mass murder, and misery. It is the Charlie Hebdo’s of the world who provide the mirror for religion to “remove the logs from their own eyes.” Freedom of speech and freedom to offend are as inseparable as life and water. It is a wise religious leader who remembers that.