Thursday, January 22, 2015

Starving for Secular Saints

(this essay is a companion piece to my latest New Evangelizers Article: "Philanthropy vs. Sainthood.")

Secular Starving for Saints.

I remember a number of years ago both Mother Teresa and Princess Diana died around the same time.  I was a member of prayer group at which someone commented on the contrast between the two women and their lives.  Another member of the group became angry, believing that Princess Diana was being unfairly maligned in the comparison.

I pray that this article does not have the same effect, though I fear it might.  So please from the outset, know that I am not here to criticize the good works or moral courage of anyone.  If I come off as belligerent, it is a failure of my skills as a writer and not a matter of intention.

I have been thinking a lot about the men and women of the magazine Charlie Hebdo who were murdered by Muslim terrorists in recent weeks.  They were assassinated because they mocked Islam.  This horrible act of savagery has been condemned by millions around the world.  But the part of the response to this murder that I have not been able to understand is the unifying cry of “Je Suis Charlie,” meaning “I am Charlie.”

I believe that any rational person would agree that those killed at Charlie Hebdo are victims of a great injustice.  No one deserves to be the target of violence because they use free speech to express ideas that offend you.  Every human person has dignity and has the right to live free from the fear of losing their lives over self-expression.

But the cry of “Je Suis Charlie” sounds less like an act of empathy with a victim and more like an elevation and embrace of the magazine and its values.  Forgive me if I am misinterpreting this, but it is a world of difference to say “Justice for Charlie” and “I am Charlie.”  The former means conforming society to make sure justice is served.  The latter implies that Charlie Hebdo is good.

But Charlie Hebdo is a magazine that attacks people of faith.  In a recent Christmas issue, they published a disgusting cartoon that mocked Christ’s virgin birth on Christmas.  They published a cartoon that depicted the Holy Trinity as an incestual orgy.  I could go on, but you get the idea. 
Does this mean that Charlie Hebdo’s staff deserved to be the victim of violence?  Of course not!

But being the victim of injustice does not make you a hero or a saint, someone that inspires you to say “I am” him.  But why make this cry at all?  Why not say, “Down with terrorism,” or “We remember Charlie,” instead of the hagiographic “I am Charlie?”

I think this stems from the human need for heroes.  We need people to admire.  We need role models.  And in this world, that is truer than ever.

The problem, I think, we conflate good works and sanctity.

I recently reviewed the movie St. Vincent, starring Bill Murray.  It was a fairly raunchy movie with a fairly nice theme: you can find the good even the seemingly worst people.  This is a truth that we must embrace.  Christ always called us to see the good in others, especially those marginalized by society. 

But my biggest problem with the movie is that it warped the definition of “saint.”  In the film, Murray’s character has many vices (drinking, adultery, gambling), but he also does great works of charity and kindness.  And it is because of these virtues, he is called a modern day saint.

But saints are not saints only because they do the good. 

They are saints because they have radically devoted themselves to God.

Yet in the modern world I think many of us are looking for a compromise; we want some kind of secular saint that inspires us to virtue but does not challenge us too much.

Was the magazine Charlie Hebdo brave for making fun of religion?  I suppose some could see that.  But they are not saintly.  I’m sure the publishers would not claim to be saints either, but that only furthers the point that “I am Charlie” maybe is not the best sign of support.

The media gives glowing coverage to the philanthropy of Hollywood celebrities like George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, and Sean Penn.  And of course every good work should be praised.  But philanthropy is not sainthood.  Should we model their generosity?  Yes.  But we might not want to model their lives.  Clooney has famously had several lovers, Jolie broke up a marriage, and Penn was once arrested for horribly beating his ex-wife.

Forgive me for once again repeating my caveat: I mean no disrespect to the good work done by those like Clooney, Jolie, and Penn.  I am not attacking them for their good work.  Nor am I saying that you have to be perfect to give to charity.  Heaven knows that should my life be put under the microscope, I would be found wanting.

But look at it this way: if the current accusations against Bill Cosby are true, no amount of good works could balance out the moral scales in his favor. 

No amount of good, by itself makes you a saint.  But as I said, I think our society wants charity and philanthropy alone to be enough.  We live our lives on our own terms, forgiving and excusing our own vices.  And we think acts of outward kindness will undo the bad.  And while this is consistent with the Hindu idea of Karma, it is not reality.

Saints do not wink at their own sins.  They remove them by the grace of God and with great moral effort.  We are all called to be saints and so we must be about the business of living virtue and avoiding vice so as to be radically committed to Christ.

Coming back to my original point, saying “I am Charlie” creates a false sense of goodness and admiration.  It sounds like the admiration we level on the great moral heroes we call the saints.

Words matter.  If you tell me that we should stand united against terrorists who attack those who engage in freedom of speech, then I agree with you.  But I am not Charlie.  I want to be something better.  I want to be a saint.

No comments:

Post a Comment