The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an assault on Christendom. Magazines that publish sophomoric cartoons mocking religion are, paradoxically, part of the Body of Christ – if perhaps its lower intestine. In a society formed by the profound Christian notion of human dignity, there is also room for bad Christians and non-Christians, just as there are cells for mystical Carmelites. The broadest vision of a real, earthly, Christian society can be found, not in monastic tracts, but in The Canterbury Tales.
Attempts to forcibly “purify” Christian societies of dissent and sin always ended in catastrophe – with “heretics” chained to stakes, Jews labeled with badges and artworks piled on bonfires. Such fitful attempts to truncate the Body of Christ of its “impure” members planted seeds of vengeance – which sprouted in France in 1789, and in Spain in the 1930s. At the Second Vatican Council, the Church fully renounced any aspiration to dominate men’s souls through the sword of the state – recognizing that religious persecution is intrinsically evil, just like adultery or abortion.
So it’s sickening to see some commentators squeeze out excuses for the slaughter of journalists –suggesting that the victims provoked the assault by outraging Muslim sensibilities. As Ross Douthat suggested, any religion that threatens to kill its critics needs and deserves profane mockery – as a means of self-defense on the part of non-believers.
Even believers need the freedom to chafe a little at the limitless demands of religion, to assert the claims of earthly life against those who would cram a purely spiritual meaning into every last square inch of existence. This solemn duty to push back explains deranged eruptions like Mardi Gras, the profane songs written by monks, and anti-clerical jokes among the devout.
The Christian faith does not hold that in a perfect world we would all be monks or nuns – such that marriage, business, and politics are a sad compromise with sin. Many clergymen have taught that over the centuries – and have been rightly mocked by raucous laymen. Let’s give John Henry Newman credit for understanding this. When he was asked by Bishop Ullathorne whether the Church needed the laity, he quipped: “the Church should look foolish without them.”
Christianity can bear mockery and assimilate it. God himself came down to earth to suffer abuse, blows, and spitting. Our piety depicts that very same God-man in little plastic statues, as well as in the most exquisite artworks. Islam, by contrast, centers on someone it admits was merely a man – and then goes on almost to deify him, holding up his every earthly action (from war-making to polygamy) as the model of moral perfection, and claiming that he is too sacred to bear depiction. That was how the Jews, whom the Moslems aped then vilified, treated the Lord –whose image they never drew, whose name they dared not speak.
But for all their fear of the Lord, the Jews have also the model of Abraham who dickered and haggled with God, and Jacob who wrestled with angels. Jewish thinkers have always dared to engage God and ask him difficult questions about his justice and human suffering – and when no satisfying answers were forthcoming, to joke sardonically and shrug. In one sense, Islam is Judaism, minus the sense of humor.
So the Church and the West, in a sense, need Charlie Hebdo. If France must defend that magazine’s offices with squads from the Foreign Legion, it’s well worth the price – instead of surrendering Western freedoms to the bearded thugs of the banlieues.
But Charlie Hebdo is not enough. France needs Villon, Rabelais, Moliere, maybe even Voltaire – but it was not built by such men, nor was it saved again and again by satirists and cynics. The free space where such rascals can ply their trade was populated, made orderly and beautiful, by a different breed: Charles Martel, Louis IX, and Joan of Arc; by the Vendee’s peasants, by the pilgrims at Lourdes, by dutiful poilus at Verdun, and by shameless patriots like Charles de Gaulle.
In 1940, cynical right-wing generals decided to stop defending the corrupt Third Republic, embracing the German victory as a “divine surprise,” and installing their crony Marshal Petain as the nation’s “savior.” Long rejected by voters, the French far right used the victory of the Boche to give their country’s Voltaires a taste of the iron heel. Who rose against them? Not the likes of Sartre – who cheerfully put on his plays to entertain Germans in Paris. Not the Communist cadres, whose master in Moscow was still then Hitler’s ally. It was the humorless, chauvinist patriot Charles de Gaulle who went into exile to carry on the “hopeless” struggle.
Today, when an equally evil ideology threatens France and the West, it will not be courageous cynics who save the day. It will be men and women simmering with rage at this assault on their nation. The bon mots will be mostly turned against them, tossed off by blasé multiculturalists who consider fervor vulgar. The de Gaulles, we predict, will shove the Sartres aside, and France and the West will be saved.
The Europeans who manage this will hate tyranny and its alien values, such as reason-snuffing “submission” to a capricious desert god. But more than that they will love – love their own French, German, Swiss or English people, and their historic ways of life. Such love, which demands self-sacrifice, bubbles up from capacious souls and lively spirits. Only souls with long-standing habits of courage, fortitude, temperance, and prudence have any hope of faith or love.
We pray that these patriots will be restrained from illiberal actions by Christian ethics, that their fight for the West will accord with its highest values – at the center of which is the person, the glimmering image of God.
Buy Mr. Jones’ and Mr. Zmirak’s book, The Race to Save Our Century, at The Catholic Thing‘s online store at Amazon.com.