On the morning of January 7, 2015, Islamic terrorists walked into the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper with a circulation of perhaps 15,000. Because of the cartoons that they had published mocking the prophet Muhammad, twelve writers and cartoonists were gunned down and murdered.
More recently, on the afternoon of May 3, 2015 Islamic terrorists attacked a cartoon exhibit in Garland, Texas. In that case, only the terrorists died.
I once received a death threat (several years ago) for something I wrote. And I occasionally get nasty emails and even nasty tweets on Twitter. I’ve suffered one star reviews on Amazon.com. Criticism goes with being a writer and if you don’t develop a thick skin, you won’t survive. But in the western world, criticism is all you really expect. What happened at Charlie Hebdo or in Garland, Texas is not. That so many have criticized them for demeaning a religion, that so many newspapers, magazines, and networks have refused to show images of the pictures that were used as an excuse for the murders or attempted murders troubles me greatly. That some have attempted to blame the victims I find unconscionable. I understand fear; but freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion: these are absolutes. Freedom means being able to say and write anything, no matter how much it might upset someone. Sometimes, people need to be made uncomfortable.
Many, many years ago I taught at a small liberal arts Christian college. When I first began working there it was denominationally associated—specifically, it was a Baptist college. It was the same college that I had attended as an undergraduate and I had known its faculty and administrators for years, both as a student and as a member of the same local church that most of them attended.
For the first two years that I taught there, I was part time. Only in my third and last year was I finally brought on as a full time instructor when the Old Testament professor left and the academic dean asked me to take his place.
Not long after I accepted the fulltime position I learned that the New Testament professor and the Theology professor were also leaving. The outgoing New Testament professor took me aside and told me in confidence, “You’ll be lucky to last here another year.” He was quite right in that prediction.
What was going on? The college’s old president was retiring and the board of trustees had selected a new one, a relatively well-known pastor from a megachurch. He was not a Baptist and the school would no longer be associated with any Baptist denomination.
I knew what the New Testament professor had told me was correct within the first three weeks of the new school year. My secretary was dismissed and not replaced, even though I was—by default—the new acting head of the Bible department. As the year went by, I was ignored by the administration, never consulted about anything, and excluded from meetings. By the end of the year, the administration had decided to eliminate all the upper division Bible courses, and all the Hebrew language courses from the curriculum. Since those were the courses I taught, they no longer needed me and so my contract was not renewed.
There were other issues with the new regime: the new president’s son had transferred to the college. Transfer students have to wait a semester before they are eligible to play sports. But they had played him anyway—resulting in the school being placed on probation.
One of the members of the board of trustees went to jail for fraud—but we didn’t find out about it until after it was reported on the ABC news program 20/20. Then the administration issued a letter to the students and faculty explaining that he’d resigned in order to “pursue personal interests.”
They demoted the basketball coach, who had been the basketball coach for twenty years—and offered him a janitorial position. To make it up to him they also renamed the baseball field after him—two years after it had been named for the now deceased former maintenance man of forty years who had been beloved at the school.
The new coach had been hired from a large southern university. He enjoyed referring to the African American students with the “N” word. One of them tried complaining to the new president but not only was she not allowed to make an appointment with him but was rebuffed when she approached him as he was walking down the sidewalk.
An underground satirical newspaper appeared on campus near the end of the year; I was its faculty adviser. Ultimately my wife and I were made to pay for our involvement when our pastor found out. We were forced to resign from all our positions at the church and were subjected to church discipline because we had used “sarcasm” and “satire.” We were not repentant and soon moved away. And I would do it all again.
I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of the press. And I have had some small and insignificant experience with getting into trouble for what I wrote or approved of being written. It is nothing compared to what the cartoonists and writers at Charlie Hebdoe or elsewhere have endured. But I’m happy to identify with them. Je suis Charlie.
Regarding religion, Thomas Jefferson wrote “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” There is no justification for violence against words or drawings and it is wrong to blame the victims. And if you argue “I believe in freedom of speech, but…” then you are not Charlie.