Charlie Hebdo: Freedom out of Bounds?

The U.S. media described the more than three million marchers in Paris and other cities of France as a right of free expression. However, in the rest of the world the march was described for what it was: No to terrorism. The whole world came together in solidarity to give a response to terrorism, in an expression of outrage and of a firm stand against extremism.

Ironically, Charlie Hebdo, the satirical weekly magazine, has itself maintained an extreme form of free expression, lashing in an offensive way against whatever and whoever stands to the right of its extreme left-wing radicalism. Called “irreverent” by the Washington Post, it inveighs against religion and established values. No wonder it was banned three times when even the liberal French society could not tolerate such extreme forms of “free expression.”

Unbridled freedom without bounds is anarchy.

Publication of offensive caricatures of prophet Muhammad caused uproar among the Muslim population back in 2006 and again in 2011. This is not an exercise of free expression, but an abuse of freedom, which was rightly condemned for inflaming passions. “Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided,” French President Jacques Chirac had stated. Still, in the end, the paper was exonerated of racism.

To joke, mock, caricature and satirize religious figures has boundaries of decency, respect and the rights of the personalities it lambasts. Unbridled freedom without bounds is anarchy, and it should not be and is not totally tolerated in any society, if that society is to be and remain healthy. One’s rights may infringe upon the rights of another. Rights without accountability, obligations and responsibilities will clash with the rights of others and will create chaos.

Have you looked at the cartoons of the publication? They are shameful, graphic, obscene, lurid, defamatory and sick. The caricatures of the most sacred images of the Christian faith and of other faiths are appalling, particularly of Christ and of the Holy Trinity. There is no justification for them. If society tolerates this kind of “free expression” it only reveals how deeply sick and degenerate it has become.

In expressing our disapproval of the obnoxious form of satire by this publication we obviously do not condone in any way the acts of terrorism taken by those who felt offended by it. We lament the loss of life and abhor any form of violence, but we also deplore the irreverent, incendiary, intentionally harmful and provocative publication.

Complete freedom, along with true love and joy that accompany it, exists only where one’s individual rights are willingly and knowingly surrendered in voluntary obedience to an agreed upon wise and benevolent authority.

0 thoughts on “Charlie Hebdo: Freedom out of Bounds?”

  1. So what you are saying, Charlie Ward, is that Charlie Hebdo has the right to mock everything, but Fr. Emmanuel has no right to express an opinion about it?

    The problem with Charlie Hebdo was not that the contents of the magazine were not fit for reading, the problem was that Charlie Hebdo were made into martyrs of free speech. There are some problems with this approach and Fr. Emmanuel has pointed some of them out. More than that, at the time it was virtually impossible not to come in contact with some Charlie Hebdo contents as the media were mulling the subject over and over for weeks.

  2. Fr. Emmanuel, forgive me if I am misunderstanding you, but you seem to be doing more than merely expressing your opinion when you state: “If society tolerates this kind of “free expression” it only reveals how deeply sick and degenerate it has become.”

    How does society Not “tolerate” something? Why, by prohibiting it, of course. The above quote makes it clear to me that it is not merely criticizing Charlie Hebdo, but is calling for some sort of censorship or prohibition.

    While I also find most (if not all) of Charlie Hebdo’s content distasteful and offensive, a free society tolerates all such speech. It saddens me that I have to remind fellow Americans that freedom of speech does not apply only to that speech to which we approve or agree. Free speech is not contingent upon whose ox is being gored. I can disapprove of a statement and argue against the content of a statement and even despise a statement, but I would not call for it’s prohibition. Who’s to say that, in 20 years or so, the mere recitation of the Nicene Creed in public might be regarded as offensive and, thus, worthy of prohibition?

    I am also troubled by this quote: “Complete freedom, along with true love and joy that accompany it, exists only where one’s individual rights are willingly and knowingly surrendered in voluntary obedience to an agreed upon wise and benevolent authority.” Completely surrendering oneself to an authority works in a monastic setting, but does Not work in a Secular setting. Why would any sane person surrender his God-given rights to, at best, a heterodox politician, or, at worst, a militantly anti-theist one? Which “wise and benevolent” secular political authority are you willing to surrender your individual rights to, and how is that any different than being in a prison?

    • Dear John,

      True freedom is to always choose, and then do, what is good and right. Our fallen human state does not give us a natural and spontaneous inclination to always do that. Only one was born totally free of sin and its consequences: our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, who, as St. Maximos teaches us, did always what was right naturally, without deliberation.

      Although God gave man dominion “over all the earth” and also gave him for food “every plant yielding seed, which is upon the face of the earth,” He limited his freedom: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” (Gen. 1:26, 2:17) Even in paradise man was limited.

      In the fallen world we live, our freedom is and will remain limited. Yet, we willingly submit ourselves to temporal power, as Christ Himself did. Christians “obey the prescribed laws, and yet by the way they live they surpass the laws.” (Letter to Diognetus 5:10) The martyrs and confessors of the faith exercised their freedom opposing abuses of power.

      To expect a secular authority to be wise and benevolent is utopian. We don’t live in an ideal society and the legislators and the laws they pass are imperfect. We nevertheless must “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him” (1 Pet. 2:13-17), and “give Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Lk. 20:25), unless it conflicts with our Christian faith and morals, in which case “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

      “Censorship” and “prohibition” are objectionable when the freedoms of a country’s citizens to express themselves are restricted beyond the bounds established by civilized societies. An example is the crackdown exerted in authoritarian regimes, like North Korea and Saudi Arabia, or even in “democratic” countries like Turkey, whose president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently arrested journalists, writers and publishers because they criticized his military action in Kurdish populated areas, or Israel, that treats Palestinians as second class citizens.

      On the other side of the coin we find the seemingly no-bounds freedoms enjoyed in various northwestern European countries. However, the same liberal western governments have begun taking measures to restrict the free flow of refugees, and limit the freedoms enjoyed by those who want to apply the Sharia Law. A healthy organism repels anything that attacks it. If not, it will die.

      Ultimately, the celebrated, precious freedom of speech hailed as the summum bonum, needs to be tested if it serves the common good. Who would want to live in a society where its citizens cannot live peacefully, where civility, decency, and respect for others are trodden? Unbridled freedom is not in the best interests of the society, because it ends in anarchy and chaos. Therefore, even in the most democratic and liberal states, laws are passed restricting the freedoms of their citizens for the benefit of the society as a whole.

      So, what is our position as Christians towards secular authority? We have our “moral principles,” but we don’t try to impose them on our society. As Christians we have our own modus vivendi. We are enjoined to be obedient to our spiritual leaders and submit to them (Heb. 13:17). Christians are models of citizens: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Pet. 2:13). We obey the authorities freely, however we should not use our freedom “as a pretext for evil” (1 Pet. 2:16). Monasticism exemplifies Christian living, and in that capacity constitutes a “practical dynamic protest” (Father Metallinos).

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