Charlie Hebdo: Why Pope Francis’s friendly ‘punch’ needs a counter
Pope Francis, widely acknowledged as one of the most progressive popes in recent times, appears to have joined the “condemn, but” brigade in the context of the Charlie Hebdo killings by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris.
He seemed to suggest three things: that those offended have the right to respond, with violence, if need be, that freedom of speech has limits, and that religion or faith must not be attacked or insulted. According to BBC, this is the statement attributed to him. “If my good friend Doctor (Alberto) Gasparri (who organises the Pope’s trips and was standing beside him) speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to get punched. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit.”So the worldwide head of the Catholic faith landed three papal punches in a few lines: one on freedom of speech, one (implicitly) justifying violence if provoked, and the third against those who harm faith.
One would like to ignore the first two punches. The Pope’s reference to punches was probably intended as a joke and not an exhortation to retaliatory violence. As for his view that freedom of speech has limits, this is hardly a unique position to adopt in today’s world. But since he believes in limits, maybe he should also define the limits to religious conversions, which also logically should have limits.
It is the third point – giving religious faith immunity from strong critiques, attacks, insults and ridicule – that I propose to counter aggressively. I believe this is his real argumentative position, since he leads the world’s largest faith himself.
One needs to contradict the idea that faith cannot be attacked with two questions: one, why should faith and religion alone enjoy this immunity, when it is a man-made institution and not free from blemishes? After all, totalitarian governments argue that they cannot be criticised either, so why not given them immunity as well? Two, why should an established faith seek immunity from its critics? In fact, as I will suggest later, if faith of all kinds is privileged, it would amount to a rejection of his own faith. The atheist faith (they call it reason) says there is no god, but the church still attacks and ridicules godless atheists. It makes fun of their lack of faith.
The Pope should think back to the early years when his own religion was beginning to question the established faith of the Jews. What was Jesus doing in the Temple of the Jews if not ridiculing, challenging or critiquing the existing faith? He called the Temple as it existed then a “den of robbers” (Matthew 21:12-13) when it should have been about prayer.
One can argue that Jesus was cleansing the temple of bad ideas and practices, but if faith itself is sacrosanct, would Christianity exist today? The very logic of protecting faith, if applied to Jesus’s actions, would have denied him and his followers the right to reform and/or create a new faith or challenge the old order. It’s like supporting competition when you are the challenger, but supporting monopoly when you have established yourself.
The Pope could also ask himself: can he think of a single faith existing today which did not challenge or attack or ridicule an earlier one?
Did Mohammed not destroy the faith and idols of the Meccans when he returned after consolidating his brand of the new faith? Does the church even now not ridicule the faiths of Hindus or other so-called “pagan” religions? Did the Buddha not attack the faith of ancient Hindus when it had become exploitative and excessively ritualised? Did Jains and Buddhists not attack each other in the formative years of their faiths? Was Ambedkar wrong to ridicule Hinduism and Manu Smriti when caste-based prejudice was a part of faith?
The point I would like to make is that ridicule and criticism is often vital for change. Respect for all ideas – good or bad – means no one is under any pressure to introspect or change with the times or adopt more sensible and humanist practices. In other words, attacking someone’s faith is often important to ensuring reform and change.
For example, it is no secret that early Hindu reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy or the Arya Samajists were change agents precisely because Christian evangelists ridiculed their social and religious practices – including the absence or a holy book and the presence of thousands of gods. The critics attacked Hinduism for the wrong reasons, but it did bring change.
A faith that is not challenged externally or internally is bound to atrophy and die even if it has the power to destroy and kill its critics. Long after Islamic fundamentalists kill or silence all their critics, they will find that they have won an empty victory. They will then be left with no one to vent their spleen on barring their own people. An uncritiqued religion will finally turn on its own people. Power will have no accountability.
One is not saying that people should be randomly trying to irritate people of faith and conviction, just that there can be no immunity from it either.
The Pope’s friendly punch seeking immunity for faith deserves a counter-punch.