Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the Pauline Mission

For the record, I am not Charlie.

Like everyone else, I was horrified by the events of these past several days. I don’t know how many times I’ve prayed for those who lost their lives, for their loved ones, and for those whose values, so different from mine, led them to kill in the name of God.

In its aftermath, I’ve also prayed about two phenomena—Charlie Hebdo’s hubris, that goads the targets of its satire to strike back, and the massive global outpouring of support for the magazine, mutating the tragedy into a cause that licenses media professionals to communicate, unfettered, whatever they will.

The international reading of the event: Someone directed me to a blog last week that suggested, in Charlie Hebdo’s defense, that the magazine should not be turned into an icon of journalistic freedom. In reality, the article stated, the company is not keen on championing the rights of media professionals. Charlie Hebdo is interested only in Charlie Hebdo. Could it be that the dark side of the media culture is exploiting this on its own behalf?

The hubris: Nothing could ever justify such a massacre of human beings. From his eternal vantage point, the prophet Muhammad needs no one to defend his honor. Doing so was and is nothing more than a smokescreen for small egos. Still, I marvel at the magazine’s indignation, especially since key players there were protected by armed guards. Violence begets violence, and Charlie’s journalistic bullying was in every sense violent.

Nevertheless, allow me to submit a caveat here: I do not advocate censorship. Our Pauline Center for Media Studies puts it this way: “Control is for the moment; communication is for a lifetime.” Bl. James Alberione’s own thought on this developed over the years. Initially a book burner, after St. Paul’s example in Ephesus (Acts 19:17-19), he later recommended “turning on the light” instead of  running around wailing about the dark. “We need to put down the scissors of censorship, and pick up the camera and microphone. We need to speak in the language of our own time, because God is so beautiful.”

There’s another perspective, perhaps more fundamental, that bypasses arbitrary judgments about what’s appropriate, who gets to decide, and even the role of religion in that process: what makes activity art, indeed what makes it human.

The tasks of any living being are directed toward its preservation and propagation, that is, its own survival and the continuation of its species. For us human beings, the habitual activities needed for these tasks, the arts, involve more than biology. Human art is more than technical execution or skill. A bird building a nest can do as much. We humans engage all our powers to achieve our aims. That is, we understand, desire, and will what we’re doing, and then organize our activities. When this activity serves what is truly human and becomes a habit, or virtue in the broadest sense of the word—physical, material, intellectual, or moral—it becomes art.

Our actions are genuinely human when they’re infused with meaning consistent with the ultimate meaning of human existence. In short, they make us more of who we already are—human beings within human society. For an action—in this case, communication—to be truly human, or art, it must contribute to the primary task of making us what we are: rational, willing, and loving beings in relationship.

We human beings reject bullying in the media, because it destroys the purpose of communication, which is more than just to convey thoughts and feelings. Thanks perhaps to social media this purpose is clear: to build relationships. Vitriol precludes that possibility. If I ridicule you and all that you hold dear, you’re not likely to say, “Thank you very much for enlightening me.” When satire is inclusive, when the satirist says in effect, “We’re all in the same boat,” it can make us ask important questions of ourselves. Stephen Colbert’s “Report” persona poked fun at his own real-life foibles even as it playfully skewered others, and with all its bawdy humor, plenty of people, guests and viewers alike, loved him for it. On the other hand, when satire makes a caricature of us or our societies, when it derides us and does not respect the integrity even of satirists, but strokes their egos, it does not build relationships. It ceases to be human.

The most authentic limits on communication are not imposed from the outside. Communication, because of its purpose of building truly human relationships, imposes such limits upon itself.

We decry verbal or “artistic” abuse not because it’s offensive. “Nice” varies from culture to culture, age to age. Fear of offending others never stopped Jesus from saying what people needed for their salvation. But he said it with respect for the person and in mercy, because he sought not his own glory, but that of the Father. If people still chose to take offense, that was their doing.

All of nature, including the human person and human activity, glorifies God by being and doing what God created it to be and do. When we say, “Glory to God, peace to humanity” (the Pauline motto), we are praying to be what God wants us to be: truly human. We Christians know that this “project” is directed to the fullness of eternal life, and as such, tells us something about our freedom and responsibility. John Paul II said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” This is the glory of God. Whose glory is Charlie Hebdo after? Whose glory do I seek?

Photo: LeJC, Wikimedia Commons, January 7, 2015
Sr. Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP, originally from San Francisco, has been a Pauline evangelizer since 1973 and has worked in various phases of the mission of the Daughters of St. Paul. Since attending the nine-month Charism Course in Rome in 2012-2013, she is now based in Boston, where she serves on the provincial Cooperator Team in the area of ongoing formation.

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