By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
A friend of mine who is a poet has characterized modernity as a “bridge of dreams,” that is, the dream of technological and social progress that in the 20th century became a “bridge of nightmares.” The events of the past week, the murderous assault on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the horrific massacres in the Nigerian city of Baga and sixteen nearby towns by radical Islamist groups are a discouraging reminder that sadly, as this year of grace 2015 begins, we still remain trapped on that bridge of nightmares.
Throughout France and around the world, the slogan “Je suis Charlie” [I am Charlie] was adopted last week as a show of solidarity with the magazine and its murdered staff. It is intended to demonstrate support of freedom of expression and defiance of the Islamists whose motive was to shut down this publication by killing its editors, writers and artists.
The gunmen affiliated with Al-Qaida and the Islamic State who attacked Charlie Hebdo and its staff in Paris did so in retaliation for the magazine’s oftentimes obscene and blasphemous caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed and Muslims on its covers and in its pages. (For the record, Charlie Hebdo’s artists have also regularly published similarly obscene and blasphemous depictions of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus and Mary, Popes past and present as well as French and European public figures and celebrities.)
Like the overwhelming majority of the people of France and in the Western world, I am saddened and outraged by the assassinations of these journalists and artists. Before the terrorists responsible were killed in shootouts with the police, one of their accomplices seized a kosher market in Paris and killed four Jewish hostages before he, too, was killed by police. None of the victims deserved their fate: not the staff and others at Charlie Hebdo, not the slain hostages, not the three police officers who were gunned down.
I agree with those who have characterized these terrorist attacks as a direct assault on freedom of expression. The attempt of the killers to destroy a publication by killing its editorial staff and artists must be denounced and resisted. World leaders and an estimated three million people marched in Paris last Sunday with the slogan, “Je suis Charlie” to honor those who were slain and declare their determination to protect freedom of thought and expression. For those reasons, “Je suis Charlie” is my slogan too. No drawing (however disagreeable, puerile, shamelessly provocative and ill-advised) ever justifies cold-blooded murder.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident, but another episode in the decades long conflict between Western nations and radical Islamist groups. Innocent civilians in America, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East have suffered the most. Trapped on this “bridge of nightmares” it is the innocents that have been and continue to be the targets of intentional or inadvertent attack by each side. As this conflict between societies and nations has dragged on, our mutual suspicion, fear and hatred have only intensified. The temptation is to blame the other side while holding one’s own side blameless.
We rightly remember and condemn the unspeakable attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the thousands who perished in the attacks of 9/11, the kidnapping and murder of Americans and others by the so-called Islamic State, and the depredations of Muslim insurgents such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabab in Nigeria, Somalia and Kenya.
But Muslims have their own bitter and fearful memories too. They are haunted by the massacres twenty years ago of over 5000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica by (ostensibly Christian) Serbian nationalists. They remember the deaths of an estimated 100,000 Iraqis and thousands of Afghans in the aftermath of invasions by American and NATO forces during the past decade. Mass imprisonment and subsequent programs of torture and mistreatment of suspected and actual radical Muslim terrorists at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other secret prisons has only deepened the divide of suspicion and hatred between our nations and societies.
As in so many wars the recourse to armed violence has embittered and radicalized the combatants and the innocents whose suffering and death is the intended or unintended “collateral damage” of the Islamist jihad and the “war on terror.”
So as I ponder the events of the past week, I wonder how we as Christians might contribute to helping find a way forward so that the Western world and the Muslim world can end this terrible war and live together in peace.
A starting place is to renew our commitment to be the living presence of Christ in the world. He had no enemies (although many considered him their enemy). For Jesus and his disciples, all people — including those who would be our enemies — are brothers and sisters. He enjoins us to pray especially for those who threaten us and harm us, to do good to them and to love them. We must do no less.
Jesus forgave those who put him to death on the cross. Who, if not us, as his disciples, can show the world how to forgive, how to reconcile, how to change their hearts?
Jesus said again and again, “Do not be afraid.” We are committed to taking His reassuring words to heart and not allowing our decisions and attitudes to be driven by fear (or terror).
We are committed to peace. Violence and war is not the solution to the crisis we find ourselves in, even in those circumstances when our societies are justified in defending themselves.
Jesus taught us, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We must strive to be peacemakers — God’s peace in the world.
As Christians, our call is to serve in these turbulent and difficult times as courageous witnesses to God’s mercy, compassion, forgiveness and above all, His transforming love. As disciples of Jesus, our call is to work daily, relying on God’s grace, to build with others, not a bridge of dreams but a bridge of hope that will reach across the divisions, hatred, contempt and ignorance that sadly divide us from each other.
Je suis un Chrétien.
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23.