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Of Courage, Love, and Freedom

We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

The tragic murder of the 12 staff members at Charlie Hebdo in Paris has created an undeniable focal point for global anxiety. Like any good narrative black hole, it has drawn an indiscriminate swath of people, issues, and opinions into its inescapable gravitational pull. It is deeply challenging to step back, sort it out, and take a more objective view of the events, so perfectly captivating of the international zeitgeist was this catastrophe. At the epicenter of this unconscionable act of pointless cowardice is the issue of freedom, of course. Or perhaps, to be only a little less vague, it is the conflict between the freedom to do something and the freedom from that something. It is the inalienable right to the satire of absolutely anything versus the right to live in a world where your cultural assumptions and your most sacred symbols are at least left alone.

The murders were a childish and unwarranted overreaction to this clash of ideals. I find it fascinating though, the way these events have been parsed. Here at home, where we hold the freedom of expression to be entirely sacred (unless of course you happen to be expressing an idea I find troubling) the murders at Charlie Hebdo have become a truncheon with which too many of our politicians and pundits are willing to beat any and all Muslims. For a great many world leaders this has become an opportunity to stand in solidarity with the victims, yet the presence of leaders whose own regimes are repressive and violent has made it feel a bit cynical and hypocritical on the political front. To many in the Arab world, this has become an occasion to note that cynicism and hypocrisy that extends such grief to French cartoonists, but cares little for the oppression and murder of Muslims in other countries.

Yet for me, the aspect of all this that keeps pushing, insistently, at the edges of my awareness, is the notion that even an unfettered freedom to express an idea does not mean an inalienable freedom from the consequences of that expression. Rightly or wrongly, as Charlie Hebdo yanked on the whiskers of Islamic fundamentalists, they did so knowing that there might be consequences and those consequences might be deadly. I dare say that anyone who intentionally enters the public arena with an unpopular perspective knows the same thing. We are a reactionary lot, and not especially given to rational discourse around sensitive and challenging ideals.

As we approach the January 15th birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am reminded of such a man, one who knew full well that the ideas he was espousing, as reasonable and rational as they were, would be met with profound resistance. Yet he persevered. He did not walk blindly into the fight for freedom, and equality, he knew what might happen to him, yet he remained steadfast and faithful. He would not back down. Though he knew the tactics of those who opposed the Civil Rights movement, he would not back down with so much at stake. He also understood that you can’t meet the violent repression of an ideal with a similar violence, without joining in a pointless spiral of vengeance and finger-pointing. He understood the long-term power of love, and forgiveness, as he stood unprotected at the forefront of the cultural battle lines.

I suspect that were Dr. King able to look out across the almost 4 million people who gathered around France during the recent anti-terrorism rallies, he might have been encouraged to see Muslims and non-Muslims alike in the crowd. People of every religious, cultural, and ethnic background standing together in defiance of the efforts to curtail freedom and isolate communities from one another. It is a pity that the courage to cross boundaries and stand up for each other seems to be in such short supply. It is so much easier to distance ourselves, and point to something that justifies our separation and enmity. True freedom is won in its exercise and in its compassionate expansion across arbitrary human divisions. It is always an act of courage to love, or to be free.

 

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.

Martin Luther King, Jr.