It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who famously said, ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’. In the wake of the deadly attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the Parisian satirical magazine in and outside whose offices 12 people were killed by masked gunmen this week, FDR’s rhetoric seems particularly pertinent. The 21st century is a global era at least in part characterized by the ability of small numbers of individuals to inflict loss of life with impunity and thus spread a wider sense of danger. It is Roosevelt’s next line in his first inaugural address that completes the picture with regards to the power of fear: ‘nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’
Fear is something we should be afraid of, not simply because terror might be visited upon us but because such fear is paralyzing. When enough terrorist atrocities take place like the one in Paris this week, fear gains such a currency that it incites us to question if peaceable solutions could ever be reached to the problems that lie between Shia and Sunni, western powers and Middle Eastern countries, between rich and poor, between Israel and Palestine, between our need for oil and the climate crisis. Such problems constitute a complex web of strained and often thoroughly broken human relationships played out on a nation to nation, community to community, individual to individual level. And so, the combined effect of fear and political complexity is paralysis. We do nothing. Terrorism doesn’t win, but neither does the hope for peace. And Roosevelt’s vision of neighborliness between the nations of the world where, ‘the neighbor…resolutely respects himself and…respects the rights of others’ is given up as a lost cause.
All that said, this woeful 21st century picture of global terror and paralysis is one side of the whole of our world’s life together. Another side is what has been witnessed again and again this century in the face of what would appear to be overwhelming force: people have gathered. From Kiev to Damascus, Paris to Bahrain, Sydney to Hong Kong, this clearly has not been an era where the people have shrunk back from fearful acts. Instead, even risking their own safety, people have gathered in their thousands, sometimes in their tens of thousands, in public places, often places iconic in the cultural memory of those nations. They have gathered and they have sung and prayed, lit candles and lay down on the street. They have raised fists in the air and umbrellas above their heads. And in doing so they have lived in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 20th century German theologian who was executed for his alleged part in a plot to assassinate Hitler, called in his work Life Together, the midst of their enemies: ‘Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work.’
I wonder if part of that ‘work’ of remaining in the midst of our enemies, of our brothers and sisters, is to remind ourselves that it is possible to laugh with one another. It is striking that over the past few weeks both the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the seeming power struggle between Sony Pictures and a North Korean dictatorship have been because some people took exception to satire. Surely, one the marks of a society that has come to understand what it means to have life together is one wherein people are able to find one another funny. We are funny. We are strange. We are odd. And at times we are hilarious. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s movie, The Interview may not be a cinematic great, it may not even be that funny, but in its own way it reminds us that we are sometimes better off when we can celebrate difference by laughing about it.
As a leader in a religious community of my own, I pray that we may all continue to love the life that celebrates difference. We are odd. We are strange. We are human. We are not afraid. Nous sommes Charlie.