Last weekend, hundreds of thousands of French Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists and supporters from around the world amassed in the streets of Paris, marching together in the name of freedom. I know those streets and I am marching with them.
When I was very young, my family lived in Paris on a shoestring — or, more accurately, the plastic tip thereof — and it is perhaps because of this early history that I have always felt myself to be more of a world citizen than simply American. Were I still living in Paris, however, would I be subscribing to Charlie Hebdo? Maybe. But probably not.
To begin with, I am not instantly drawn to the kind of satire for which the magazine is famous, or infamous, depending on who you are. Indeed, some of the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo make me squirm a tad in my chair, even if I find myself laughing at the same time. Of course, both the squirm and the laughter are testaments to the effectiveness Charlie Hebdo. In many ways, we need such zings to keep ourselves simultaneously in our place and on our toes in a democratic society that is egalitarian in theory, but not yet in practice. Nevertheless, I generally prefer kind (but forceful) argumentation to crass mockery. I worry too that this kind of crude commentary might give a bad name to the values of pluralism (both religious and secular) that I strongly defend. Finally, as a scholar of comparative religion by training, I have a slightly different take on matters of religious identity and conviction. While I will not hesitate to criticize anti-intellectualism, bigotry and violence of any kind deployed in the name of religion, I am often called to speak on behalf of the positive social change that can spring from religiously-grounded moral vision. After all, many of my students are only dimly aware of the extent to which the Civil Rights movement in America was a religious movement, grounded in the theology and practice of the Black Church and a long tradition of “social gospel” Christianity. I am therefore uncomfortable, even concerned, when images appear that religious people of any persuasion might find deeply offensive. Nevertheless, today for me also “Je suis Charlie.” Why is that?
Last week, I embarked on my Winter Term class, “From Social Justice to Environmental Justice,” which begins with an inquiry into the life, thought and practice of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, before going on to examine how India’s agricultural health is threatened by Monsanto and why toxic waste sites are consistently located in poor, African-American neighborhoods. I have studied Gandhi and King intensely at various junctures in my life and each time I have asked myself (as I know my students are asking): “In these same situations, would I have been able to put myself on the line? Would I have been standing there when Hindus and Muslims joined together to boycott the salt-works factory owned by the Raj? Would I have been able to stand with the protestors on the Pettus bridge in Selma, willing to receive the blows of police batons to protect someone else’s right to vote?
I very much would like to think “yes,” but I can also imagine that when faced with the actual challenge I might find reasons to say “no.” These reasons might be sensible, compassionate and equally moral, such as staying unharmed for the sake of my family, and while I have put myself on the line at protests for others’ civil rights, as well as my own, I have never stood directly before a bayonet. Clearly, I am not Gandhi. I’m not sure I am even brave enough to join Charlie Hebdo’s late editor-in-chief, Stéphane Charbonnier, in saying that I would literally “rather die standing than live on my knees,” although I’d like to think that I would be.
But on Wednesday night, as I drove home from a day of teaching about non-violent resistance, I listened with tears streaming down my cheeks to radio reports of Parisians pouring into the streets, many waving pens in the air in solidarity and defiance. It was the image of the pens that got me.
A pen is something that I pick up every day. I feel ill at ease, sometimes even nervous, when I cannot find one. A pen is my rudder. With it, I steer my way into self-knowledge, clarity and conviction. Yes, a pen is something that I pick up every day — to craft an argument, help a student write a better essay, create a poem, write this column. Of course, I will always fight for freedom of speech, but the phrase and the concept are fraught with complexity and so often abstract. A pen is not. With it, I am who I am. Because of it, I have been as brave as it so far gets for me. Holding a pen in the face of oppression is something I know I can do, have done and will continue to do. In this way, I am Charlie, now and always, maintenant et toujours.
Dr. Rebecca Kneale Gould was a tenured Associate Professor in the Religion Department of Middlebury College through 2013 and now serves as Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, where she co-chairs the “Philosophy, Religion and Environment” focus.