Freedom and Protest

Carl Trueman Articles

The last few weeks of international news have carried multiple reports of the rioting that has broken out across great swathes of the world as a response to the publication of apparently offensive cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. I say `apparently' because none of the news media in the US - a nation with a First Amendment which separates religious and political institutions, and which guarantees freedom of the press - none of the news media, I say, seems to have had the courage to show these cartoons. This is distressing, not because I have a burning desire to become complicit in offending the religious sensibilities of decent Islamic folk, but because I would like to see the offending cartoons for myself, so as to make an informed judgment upon them. But it is not to be: TV channels that brag about their risk-taking and courage in standing for freedom of speech get all coy when there is a chance of being caught in the Islamic crossfire. Of course, we shouldn't worry - these same channels courageously allow Howard Stern to continue pushing his perverted trivia; so freedom of the media is safe and sound, however many threats from extremist Mennonite Sunday School teachers and elderly Baptist spinsters these channels may receive.

The debacle is interesting for a host of reasons. First, as subtly hinted above, it exposes the hypocrisy of those champions of free speech whose commitment to such freedom is only as strong as their profit margins. Both Rupert Murdoch and Google, in their relations with China, have shown just how weak the commitment of certain big businesses to basic democratic freedoms can be. And those freedoms are crucial. The First Amendment may well cover the Howard Sterns of this world; but that is simply a necessary, albeit unfortunate, by-product of the fact that it covers the larger, more important issues, such as those highlighted by the cartoon debacle - the very sort of thing for which it was designed. I don't like the fact that Stern can push his filth; but then I have the right to switch off my television or, as in my own case, not have cable; apparently, however, I don't have the right to know what all the fuss is about relative to the Islamic hoo-hah over these cartoons - a hoo-hah which could have profound effects on my own life. And the embarrassing failure of governments, from Washington to Rome, to offer robust support of press freedom in this case speaks for itself. When there are Iranian politicians who deny the Holocaust, and when there are Arab media who republish The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Western politicians should have priorities other than pandering to those enraged by a few satirical cartoons.

Second, we see once again the hypocrisy of a media which promotes images and ideas that are profoundly offensive to Christians, yet which pussyfoots around other powerful lobby groups and political groupings. Now, I do not have a lot of time for Christians who spend their time mewling and puking about this. Being mocked and marginalized is, after all, exactly what happened to Christ himself; it was what he told his followers to expect; and I therefore don't think we should be surprised at this. But it is useful and sobering to be reminded once again that, in a fallen world, the rules of the game apply to some more than they do to others. Yet this difference is a good thing, as I have noted in this column before, in that it allows Christianity to be what it is: a revolutionary protest movement against the self-righteousness of the fallen world. And the day when material offensive to Christians is removed from the media because of Christian threats and violence will be a sad day for the church indeed.

There are, however, a number of other points of interest to Christians in this sorry mess. First, I do not think we should take the religious fervour apparently reflected in these riots entirely at face value. As with the Rushdie affair, it is quite clear that there has been significant political manipulation of the situation and that this is far from spontaneous; further, any student of the history of the Arab world will know that these riots are the tip of the iceberg and that the cartoon incident is merely a pretext for venting generalized anti-Western feeling for wrongs, real and imagined, which the West has inflicted in the past. More importantly, however, I would suggest that riots are fun. The majority of rioters appear to be young men; and, as any young man will tell you, smashing things up and `sticking it to the man' is fun; it gives a buzz. In a fallen world, what appeals to a young man more than breaking the rules, violently if at all possible? We should also remember that, for all of the thousands of Moslems who have participated in these riots, there are millions who have not done so.

Second, it reminds us that, for all of the reassuring talk we hear of anti-Western and anti-Christian sentiment in the wider world being the result of envy of our freedoms, that is patently not the case. It might well make us feel better to think that this bile comes our way because of the inherent and obvious superiority of our systems of government and social organization, but I suspect the average Islamic militant envies our democratic freedoms about as much as they envy our right to watch Howard Stern on the TV and our opportunities to listen to William Shatner's rendition of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds on the radio (whether the latter comment will spark violent anti-Reformation21 riots among militant Canadians across the world remains to be seen). Those taking to the streets in anti-Western riots do not do so because they want to be like us; I suspect they do it because they want us to be like them.

Third, it offers a challenge to Christians to reflect on how we should go about living in what is a fallen world. After all, if these cartoons trample on Islamic sensibilities, it is surely the case that Christian sensibilities are trampled on routinely every day in Western societies. Should we therefore take to the streets in violent rioting? Emphatically not. I am often struck in chatting to my non-Christian friends how much of their problem with Christianity stems not so much from theological difficulties - very few of them know enough theology to have any `difficulties' of this sort - but from problems in Christian public behaviour. All they know about are televangelists calling for the CIA to assassinate foreign leaders, or individuals bombing abortion clinics, or screaming blue murder at some politician at some rally or other. I know that such are unrepresentative of the majority of Christians in the world; but my non-Christian friends do not; and, not to put too fine a point on it, they are scared of us all as a result.

So how should Christians be a force for good within their societies and their communities? Well, first, we should be a positive part of our communities. The tendency to develop a Christian parallel culture, which replaces the institutions of the world with parallel Christian organizations, from Little League to local schools, is at least worth critical reflection. These things may be good and necessary in some circumstances; but they may also be ways of isolating ourselves from our neighbours, a way of opting out of social life. If we do these things, if we abandon our communities, then we should not be surprised if we have no hearing in those same communites; and we should not console ourselves with the thought that we are ignored for righteousness sake; we may be ignored because nobody knows who we are.

Second, and piggy-backing on the first, the way we make an impact is not by throwing a petrol bomb, or burning a flag; it should be modeled on the way Christ himself made an impact - by self-sacrificial service of our neighbours in need. If we do this, and then the time comes to speak up as Christians and these same neighbours ignore us, then perhaps we can claim to be marginalized for righteousness sake. In the modern Western world, as I have noted before, we all have the right to speak; but we have to earn the right to be heard; and that takes time and effort and personal cost.

Third, let us rejoice in the West that we do have democratic freedoms. Yes, the downside is that the weird and the whackos have the right to speak; but these freedoms also protect our right to speak the truth in love to our neighbours - including the weird and the whacky - without fear of imprisonment or worse. It would be a great shame if we did not use this privilege while we have it, or if we wasted that privilege by screaming and shouting so loudly from the sidelines that no-one could hear what we are saying.