I am a great admirer of the Pope but when, to make the proper point that we should not insult the faith of others, he said his assistant could “expect a punch” if he cursed his mother, I was aghast.
The problem is that underneath all the outrage at the Charlie Hebdo shootings, and the condemnation of this by Muslim leaders, interviewers picked up many Muslim voices bitterly condemning the magazine’s cartoons. The reference to a punch could easily be taken for a justification of violence in response to insult. It was no surprise that on Friday there were demonstrations across the Muslim world to express hostility to the cartoons.
Those of us in the West who have been soaked in a satirical culture for 50 years find it difficult to enter into a mentality in which people are genuinely shocked and outraged by cartoons or words that lampoon even what may be dear to us. We either laugh or shrug our shoulders and reflect that this is just the world we live in.
I was part of the generation that hugely enjoyed That Was the Week That Was, as well as Private Eye, but I have to ask myself: did some fundamental human capacity to hold some things sacred die in my generation and succeeding ones? Yet it seems clear from the Bible that what outrages the heart of God is human cruelty, and the terrible things that we do to one another, particularly to children – crimes too often committed by those who call themselves religious. The Gospels say Jesus was mocked, but the reason he wept was because Jerusalem at the time did not know “the things that belong to peace”.
There is a strong satirical strand in the teaching of Jesus, and there has been a rich vein of Christian satire ever since. Some writers, such as Evelyn Waugh, concentrated on the ludicrousness of human beings in their self-conceit, the absurdity of their pretension. In the best, such as Jonathan Swift and Sydney Smith, there is a fierce moral invective against the injustice and hypocrisy of the powerful. Not for nothing did Dean Swift have the words Saeva indignatio – “savage indignation” – on his memorial. Smith’s articles against British policy in Ireland still arouse a sense of anger in the reader against the double standards he exposes with such brilliant but never malevolent humour.
Much of what passes for humour today is puerile and vulgar, directed at soft, obvious targets. The purpose of satire, and its justification, is to expose the injustice, blindness and hypocrisy of the powerful, and that can include religious institutions and figures. But there is no justification for deliberately belittling any community that already feels marginalised and vulnerable, as does the Muslim community in France.
Richard Harries is a crossbench peer and former bishop of Oxford. His book 'Faith in Politics? Rediscovering the Christian Roots of Our Political Values' has been updated and republished (Darton, Longman & Todd)