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Je Suis Charlie…

I need to admit that CNN’s new headline format of screaming headlines is even more annoying than it has been in the past. I suspect that a re-format has been in the works for a while, but now it seems that their front page is only one story. Like so many around the world, regardless of one’s religious or national stripe, I was horrified by the attack on the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. My prayers, whether wanted or not, go out to the families and friends of those who were killed.

Conan O’Brien’s comment from last night:
“In this country we take it for granted that it’s our right to poke fun at the untouchable or the sacred, but today’s tragedy in Paris reminds us very viscerally that it’s a right that some people are inexplicably forced to die for.”

Charlie Hebdo is a weekly magazine whose mandate is sticking middle fingers in the eyes of people and institutions who think too highly of themselves. The cartoons could be crude, offensive, and definitely not politically correct. Some would even say they border on being racist, but since I don’t have any experience with that, and having no intention of blaming the victim, I’m not taking that point any further. There is no way that 12 people deserved to die, or 11 others deserved to be injured for scrawled lines on a piece of paper.

Words have power, as they can spur people to do both great and terrible things. Not surprisingly, Charlie Hebdo was often accused of blasphemy, by traditions of all stripes. It’s not just Islam, a quick bit of research shows that the magazine frequently targeted the Vatican at a far greater rate, but no religion seemed to get a free ride from them. Their irreverence is hard to ignore, and I suppose is one of the definitions of the word in question. Yet when I looked up the definition of the word on wiktionary, it had three different entries:

  1. Irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable.
  2. The act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for any religion‘s deity or deities.
  3. The act of claiming the attributes of a deity.

The first two, would be what those who attacked the magazine may have felt that they were punishing. The third, I think, is far more important.

Going back to the Ten Commandments, what is generally considered to be the third commandment “You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.” Most people use this as an injunction against swearing, or saying bad things about God. It would seem that this would be against those first two definitions of blasphemy. The trouble is, it has never been about bad language, but about evoking God to justify one’s own selfish purposes. One of the most blasphemous claims that is out there is “God is on our side” because it makes the presumption that our own opinion matters more than God’s. Evoking God’s name when going to war violates this commandment, not when we let out an expletive when our child accidentally spills some milk.

It’s that third definition, the act of claiming the attributes of a deity that resonates with me as I hold my pen in hand. It is not the victims, but those individuals who took up weapons, choosing who lives or who dies, appointing themselves as messenger of death, who have to answer the real charge of blasphemy.

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