Je suis Charlie, I am Charlie; Je suis Juif, I am a Jew; Je suis Ahmed, I am the Muslim policemen in Paris who was killed by the terrorists. These are some of the signs carried by Parisians in solidarity with the victims of terrorist attacks recently at the Charlie Hebdo magazine and in a Kosher grocery store in Paris. And posted on Facebook by empathetic supporters of the victims.
At first I was comforted by the strong showing of solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims, and with the magazine staff’s rights of freedom of speech and of the press… the right to publish satire and cartoons which were not universally appreciated.
The French gave a wonderful demonstration of commitment to liberty, equality and fraternity at a rally attended by more than a million Parisians after the terrorist attacks. Their carrying signs supporting those who had been targeted for violence because of cartoons they had published, was bold and unequivocal. “Regular” French people were empathetic and supportive, and like many others, I was pleased by the size and vehemence of their demonstrations. Clearly the French condemn terrorism, and hold defiantly to the freedoms we love, even in the face of fear of reprisal.
But on further reflection… in fact I am not Charlie, I am not a Jew, I am not a Moslem policeman in Paris named Ahmed, who was killed in the line of duty by the terrorists. I don’t personally believe in satirizing other people’s religions, and probably would never have subscribed to Charlie Hebdo, even if I had heard of it, which I hadn’t.
But my point is: Tolerance is not about all being ALIKE; it’s about respecting differences. God made many varieties of people (not to mention animals and plants!) and loves us all in our various shapes and sizes and abilities and interests, and asks us to love each other, also in our differences.
When I was a child I remember my grandmother rhapsodizing about God’s having made giraffes with long necks for browsing tall trees in the savannah, with beautiful spotted skins for camouflage. I still marvel at the gecko with its sticky feet, that could walk upside down on the ceiling of my room in Africa, sneaking up on mosquitos.... Today’s reading told us that God made every kind of creature from birds of the air and beasts of the field, and whales and fish in the sea…. I believe that God loved them all and made them each with distinct gifts. But they were anything but all the same!
I believe that God’s love is greater than any other power, and embraces everyone regardless of race, color, creed, sexual orientation and and and… and everything else in God’s creation. Remembering that God loved the tiny sparrow has gotten me through some dark times.
I have always enjoyed and celebrated diversity, particularly cultural diversity, which to me makes the world infinitely interesting. I have been blessed to work on four continents and to have had many priceless experiences, close up with Japanese clients, African students, haughty European businessmen in double-breasted Navy blue suits, a friendly shopkeeper in Malta, a helpful conductor on a Swiss train… lovely warm Africans and Asians and Europeans and Americans… and Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists, as well as Christians and agnostics and atheists. And I’m omitting many of the other wonderful variety of humans on the planet.
I once had a co-worker on a diversity task force who liked to boast that she never noticed whether someone was “black, white, purple or green,” as evidence that she was unbiased. I thought this was a rather crude claim, first untrue, but also missing both the value of diversity, and the reality that it is differences and attendant fears of “the other” which cause companies to need diversity task forces.
In fact, classic research on bias by Prof. Mazarin Benaji at Harvard has demonstrated that everyone has gender, ethnic, age, and other biases, however unconscious. The best we can do is to make a point of learning more about our human differences and honoring them. Even as we are as varied as fingerprints, we are all human in the same fundamental way, worthy of each other’s respect.
I once taught a course in Senegal/West Africa called “Intercultural Business,” themes of which were how to combat xenophobia and ethnocentrism. Our discussions ranged from Noel Coward’s, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen Lie in the Midday Sun,” tweaking the British for sunbathing in colonial Hong Kong, to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” reminding us of our shared humanity. We discussed kissing, bowing, shaking hands… all over the world, and how attention to the details of cultural traditions facilitate positive interactions, in business as in everyday life.
A more nuanced interpretation of “Je suis Charlie,” would be, “I am NOT Charlie,” but I support the rights of all humans to express themselves freely… within the limits of the applicable law. This would be the civil law in effect in this case in France, including freedom of the press, similar to the First Amendment rights cherished by Americans, and the envy of much of the rest of the world.
Even liberal democracies limit freedom at the point where it might harm others. No one has the right to be a terrorist. But where to draw the line is not always clear. Germany, for example, has banned any representation of the swastika since World War II… maybe a good idea, given its appalling history; or maybe an infringement on free speech?
Recently the French enacted a law banning religious symbols in public, which has prompted considerable suspicion and acrimony. To be “fair” the law prohibits wearing a cross, a yarmulke, or a head covering in public places. But its target is widely understood to be, not Christians and Jews, but the 5-6 million recent Muslim immigrants to France. Is this law necessary, or helpful?
Muslim women and girls wearing head scarves allegedly present a security threat. Maybe so, or maybe they are just a threat to tradition… the new “other” in France, a famously sophisticated western society with a longstanding “real” French culture. The new law seems like a step in the wrong direction.
But that’s a debate for another time. Meanwhile, I wish everybody would embrace the richness of our human dIfferences, to enjoy the whole glorious variety of God’s creation.
In solidarity with Charlie, we might each make a point of some MORE deliberate contact with “the other,” as a positive value, both as people of faith and as privileged citizens of a democracy. Everybody has some fear of the unknown and of the other… xenophobia… but we can fight it, and it is my prayer that we do so, with love. Amen.