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Charlie Hebdo – history repeats itself

January 14, 2015

Wednesday 14th January 2014

Earlier in the week I mentioned that in his gospel Mark was quite ‘gung ho’ in his use of the word ‘God’; whereas Matthew’s gospel avoids using the word ‘God’ because he did not wish to offend Jewish sensitivities about using the word ‘God’. If you look at the writings of modern rabbis today – [you can find them on the internet. They’re good reading. They apply the Old Testament, (the Hebrew Bible), they interpret it and apply it for modern conditions. You can find some good stuff there.] But in their written works, their homilies, where it says the word God they type ‘G-d’. They still will not utter the name of God. There was a method of writing the name of God without offending those sensitivities (I’m not going to say the word in public, but in begins with Y). Today the Catholic Church avoids using that word. Whenever we come across it in old copies of bibles and things like that, we substitute the word ‘Lord’. We are sensitive to our Jewish cousins; we don’t want to offend them. We deliberately avoid doing something that offends them.

So that brings us to today. A week after the massacre in Paris, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is being published again – a massive print run. Its circulation up to now has been about 30,000, not very big really. It’s quite an aggressive magazine. It certainly wouldn’t be staple reading for Catholics like us. It’s very critical and sometime rude about a lot of people.

Moslems have taken offence at the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed. But this is nothing new. We had those debates in the Christian Church in the Eighth Century – about whether or not we should have images of our Lord depicted in art and in our churches.

If you go into a Catholic church you can usually spot it’s Catholic because it’ll have a crucifix with a figure on it of our Lord. Our wounded Lord. Some Protestants will find that very offensive – they think we are worshipping a ‘graven image’, and you’ll find in very protestant churches that it’s very plain (there’s a whole range across the reformed traditions in the Christian Church) but you’ll find they don’t like any pictures up at all, anywhere.

And then there’s the time of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century. If you go in to a lot of old Church of England churches (and remember, they used to be Catholic churches), a lot of the images have been destroyed, they’ve hacked the faces off the paintings of the saints, and they took exception to devotion to the Virgin Mary. It’s a misunderstanding of what we Catholics are about. It’s a very literal interpretation of the Old Testament,

“You shall not make a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.”         (Deuteronomy 5: 8-9)

Catholic practice is explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church under the heading ‘You shall not make yourself a graven image’.[1] This is about worshipping graven images. An example was when the Jewish people escaping from Egypt melted down their gold and made a Golden Calf to worship.

We are not doing that when we have these images here in church. They are reminders of what has gone before – a reminder of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Our salvation through His Passion, Death and Resurrection. The reformed tradition might have a risen, triumphant Christ depicted on a crucifix (like the one we have over there, over the confessional).

That debate went on in the Church in the Eighth Century. There was heated debate and violence. The Western Church decided that within certain rules images could be depicted. That was at the Council of Nicea. The Eastern Church went in another direction – they didn’t like the images the way the West depicted them. Their tradition continues, with strict rules about the images they have in Orthodox churches, and the product of that is the ‘icon’. (We have an icon over the door as you enter this church, It’s the ‘Black Madonna of Częstochowa’, a classic icon. And icons are very popular nowadays. The rules in the Eastern Church are that you have the faces flat – there’s no suggestion of any image being three dimensional like the one there of Saint Ambrose Barlow, or Our Lady over there, or our Lord over there. Icons are flat and they are nor representations of what the person looked like. They want to avoid any suggestion that people are kneeling down worshipping this picture or that statue. That is clearly wrong, and they want to make it absolutely clear. So icons tend to be flat, they show enlarged ears and small mouths – this represents keeping quiet and listening to the Word of God. Whewn icons are painted they say you ‘pray an icon’ – you don’t paint it, you pray it, it’s a devotional activity.

That’s the Christian tradition. Now, what about the Moslem tradition? They are the same, they object to having any images, ‘graven images’. If you go in a mosque – there are some beautiful mosques around this City – they are decorated with beautifully intricate patterns. These Moslem patterns have influenced our culture down the centuries, but they are not images of human beings. They reject those. And they reject them for the same reason that we would, which is that we do not worship graven images.

Now in the Old Testament there is a tradition of ‘fencing the Torah’. Fencing the Law, keeping yourself at a distance from committing sin. So Jesus ‘fenced the Torah’. The Commandments say ‘Thou shalt not murder’. Jesus says you should ‘love your enemy’. No violence at all. ‘Do not get angry’ because anger leads to violence, and violence leads to killing. He is putting a ring around the Law to keep us well away from transgressing it.

So this reaction by Moslems to the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed is understandable. We can certainly understand it. It can be taken to extremes. The image of the Prophet Mohammed on the front cover of that satirical magazine is in no way ever going to be worshipped. It’s a mockery, and that’s another insult.

People who are ‘secular’ do not understand these ideas. The reason I have raised it is because there was a very wise man who was on the radio yesterday, Prince Hassan of Jordan, and he has been trying to bring communities together for years. One of the things he said was that we should go beyond living in a cosmopolitan society – and Birmingham is very cosmopolitan, but we don’t realise it because we’re here: in other parts of the country there’s not that wealth of people from different parts of the world – and he said we should aim to be cosmopolitan, we should aim to be ‘convivial’. I thought this was fantastic. We should be friends with people. The majority of Moslems, the vast majority of Moslems are obviously good, God-fearing, decent people and have a lot in common with us. Some people go to extremes – not unknown in the Christian Church and to this day – and it is simply zealotry of a mad kind.

In the news yesterday there were reports about the Jews in France feeling that there was anti-Semitism, and a lot are going back to Israel. There was all sorts of analysis on the radio news yesterday about why this should be. Some say ‘it’s the Israeli Government has done this and they’ve done that’, and ‘it goes back to when someone said this last year’. An analysis you won’t hear in the media is that it’s a bit like that ‘evil spirit’ in the synagogue shouting out at Jesus. Evil spirits recognise something special when they see it.[2] Anti-Semitism is ultimately a product of the Jewish people being ‘The Chosen People’. They are a very special people. And Jesus was a Jew. We must not forget this. Throughout history, for evil reasons, people have tried to destroy the Chosen People: enslaved in Egypt[3]; the Persians tried to annihilate them[4]; the Nazis in the last century tried with their evil ‘Final Solution’. This is always something that’s in the background.

We must always work for reconciliation and understanding between different faiths. We will never come to complete agreement in that sense, but we should respect. Because, very often, they have so much in common with us.

And obviously we have to be very careful of the extremists and the people who just get completely the wrong end of the stick and just turn to violence – complete madness.

A few days ago I saw the words ‘Je suis Charlie’ in Arabic script and I put a tweet out showing it followed by ‘(in Arabia)’; ‘Je suis Charlie (in France)’; ‘I am Charlie (in England); and then the final one…. ‘Pray for peace (worldwide)’. And what delighted me this morning just before I came into church I saw somebody had ‘favourited’ my little tweet. I don’t know who or where he is in the world, but he writes in Arabic. He likes my tweet and his name is @Abusulaiman999. He’s probably a Moslem. So I pleased that he has done that. We just reached out to people, and actually we have a lot in common with them.

[1] (CCC, paragraph 2129)

[2] Mark 1: 23-26

[3] Exodus 1: 8-32

[4] Esther, chapters 3-8

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