February 2015

Being offensive

The recent shocking events in Paris have opened up a debate about the extent to which freedom of speech should be allowed to go. I would have thought that it is a fairly straightforward issue: one can say what one likes, provided that it is not designed to stir up hatred or fear. Thus it is an abuse of freedom of speech to use it to stir up racial hatred or any other sort of hatred based on gender, sexuality or whatever. It is why bullying of any form is also unacceptable.

Against all that, and with those factors taken into consideration, it must be said that nobody has a right not to be offended. I hope I am fairly thick-skinned, but there are some things I find offensive. On a trivial level, I find Jeremy Clarkson offensive, but then, that appears to be his job: and finding him offensive, I will not subsidise those people who employ him – so I don’t buy The Sun or The Sunday Times and I don’t have a TV Licence (actually,in case you are worried about your Vicar breaking the law, I don’t have a TV either.) On a much more important level, I find the level of inequality between rich and poor in this country and in the world really offensive – and that will affect the way I will vote in the forthcoming election. I certainly do not expect to be protected by others from what I find offensive.  

And that applies to religion quite as much as it applies to anything else. Offensiveness is a powerful weapon and one that Jesus was quite happy to employ. It is difficult to read the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25 - 37) without feeling that Jesus was going out of his way to offend the religious leaders of his day: and to immensely powerful and telling effect. And coupled with offensiveness, Jesus also used mockery, exactly the same tools as those employed by Charlie Hebdo. What is important both with Jesus and, I believe, with Charlie Hebdo is that what was mocked was not religion as such, but its practitioners and, more importantly, its leaders. I cannot speak for Islam, but, as far as Christianity is concerned, it would have to be said that a church, preaching a gospel of loving God and loving one’s neighbour, has on too many occasions over the last two thousand years behaved as if such strictures do not necessarily apply to it. And it is right that when a church demands high standards of others, it should not be spared its blushes when not living up to those same standards itself. And this applies even more when the church appears to be going out of its way to appear ridiculous or hypocritical.

On a simple level, I would be concerned about any religion which did not have the confidence to allow the possibility of mockery - even offensive mockery. I would be heartened by any religion which, when faced with mockery, might just engage in a degree of introspection to see if such mockery was in any way justified. And I would certainly hope that the leaders of any religion when mocked might just ask themselves whether they were in fact the cause of such mockery. It was the religious leaders of Jesus’s day whom he subjected to that mockery, and they failed to ask themselves whether the mockery was in fact justified: I hope that religious leaders today do not fall into the same trap