The past few weeks have been curiously and terribly sad. First, the horrifying events in Paris, then churches destroyed in Niger, 2000 people killed in Nigeria, and religious communities terrorized in the Middle East. And that was only the beginning. Peaceful Denmark has just seen attacks on free-speech advocates and a synagogue. This week, twenty-one Coptic Christians, guest workers from Egypt living in Libya, were beheaded by what seems a new branch of ISIS, and just yesterday more than forty people were burned alive by ISIS proper in Northern Iraq.
It’s hard to know where to look for answers about what to do about this slaughter. Part of the problem is that we in the West are confused about what we really think. But perhaps the outrages we are witnessing will force us to greater clarity of thought about what we stand for and why.
In an interview on Meet the Press, for instance, the surviving editor of Charlie Hebdo, Gerard Biard, claimed about the latest Mohammed cartoon in the magazine: “It’s the symbol of freedom of speech, of freedom of religion, of democracy, and secularism.”
With all due respect to his grief and suffering, it is striking how much of what he said – and what many in our own country say as well – depends on idiosyncratic definitions of freedom, speech, religion, democracy, and secularism. They are all abstractions, floating in space. Do we mean freedom in law or moral freedom? Freedom in relation to actual persons? What is religion for Biard – and for us?
There is an authoritative benchmark. Vatican II said: “Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man.” (Gaudium et Spes)
These few sentences turn Biard’s words to water. For example, what kind of “freedom” mocks someone else’s religion, not in useful ways that might remedy aberrations, but in crude sexual terms? In many different contexts today, surely, there is a higher good to be aimed at. How low a standard do you have to have to get a job, to find customers, to have fun, to make TV programs?
Then there is the nature of speech itself. The Letter to the Ephesians says quite clearly: “No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)
There is the key to why we need free speech, good speech. Speech that seeks the good contains words of edification. This is freedom as a space for seeking the good, who actually happens to be God. This freedom both expresses the divine image in oneself and recognizes the divine image in the other person.
And in addition, human communities have entitlements, too, not just individuals. Communities need people who actively seek the good – and not just their own good. They need people to see others as the image of God, and so as worthy of a respect that overwhelms all other considerations. Isn’t this the only real basis of democracy? America’s Founding Fathers to a man seem to have thought so.
The fundamental problem with most current versions of freedom is that they are based on a vision of man as non-relational, that is, they have no respect for the fact that every human person exists in relation to others. (And ultimately to God, not just as an optional extra for those who choose to not to be “progressive,” but as the essential part of who we are.) The underlying assumption for many of our contemporaries is that man is a closed, self-sustaining entity instead of a relational subject.
To respect “freedom of speech, of freedom of religion, of democracy, and secularism,” should mean to respect all of the relationships involved in such matters. Not to do so is to do violence, not clearly the brutality of the jihadists, but violence we’ve grown used to because of our blindness. Speech or expression can themselves be a kind of violence, because they violate someone else’s integrity and dignity as the image of the divine.
The essence of an individualistic society is deliberately not having strong and high common values – and ensuring that none ever develop. At best, the abstract words become like trash bags into which elites can stuff their own meanings. They can be arbitrary and contradictory because they do not get down to respecting the rights and duties of relationships.
There are many offenders of differing kinds against human relationships today. Pascal once said that having lost our human nature through sinning, anything can become our nature. But is the individual, restrained by no relationship, the kind of human nature we want to encourage now?