Turning the Other Cheek

The one thing everyone knows about Christianity is that it is a religion of forgiveness. We are professional cheek-turners. Disagree with a non-believer about something and you will often hear ‘As a Christian you should . . .’ Whatever it is that we should be doing usually involves  allowing our interlocutor to say or do the most appalling things without our reacting in any way that he/she does not approve.  Quite often you will hear Christians saying something similar about God: ‘God forgives everything’ — as though the infinite compassion and understanding of God meant that he approves everything we choose to do.  As far as I can see, God doesn’t approve of murder, adultery, lies and so on, and we are doing him an injustice to suggest that he does.

The furore stirred up by an irresponsible and offensive video about Mohammed has led to rioting and death. I do not share the view that freedom of expression is an ultimate value, nor do I have any sympathy with those who have used this as an opportunity to say harsh or dismissive things about Islam. At the same time, murdering innocent people is a sin so heinous it boggles the mind that anyone could think he was doing a good act. Yet that is precisely what many Muslims think they are doing. To them, all westerners are Christian and therefore unbelievers. If we protest in any way that what is being done is wrong, the snap-back answer is that we should forgive.

Given the troubled history of western intervention in the Middle East in recent years, I think we should pray very hard for the politicians who will have to work at reaching some kind of rapprochement — and for the service personnel who are so often involved. It seems to be very difficult for Americans, in particular, to accept that other nations are not always grateful for western involvement in their affairs. It is the downside of that generosity and ‘can do’ spirit we so much admire not to see that others may feel as deeply and passionately about their country as they do. Democracy is not universally admired, and imposing it from outside is not always the best way to win friends abroad.

One of the phrases being tossed around the internet at the moment is ‘global Muslim anger’. If there is such a thing, we need to ask ourselves what we are doing to provoke it. At the same time we need to remember that allowing ourselves to be bullied is not right, either. We have a right to our own beliefs and their expression, though always within the limitations imposed by law and charity.* I have the impression that the video which sparked the latest round of violence was just an excuse. Excuse or not, several people are now dead as a result. Let us pray there may be no more.

In singling out law and charity as two limitations on our freedom of expression, I ought perhaps to explain that to insist on what is allowed by law isn’t always consistent with charity or prudence. We are lucky to have the concept of equity to help us think through situations where insistence on the letter of the law could result in a travesty of the law.

I have written this post as a westerner and a Catholic. I appreciate that British Muslims will have their own take on the subject.