When people meet, they often present gifts to each other as a sign of greeting and good will. The image at the head of this posting is striking for a number of reasons. It shows Sri Lankan Hindu priest Kurakkal Somasundaram, with Pope Francis during an inter-religious meeting in Colombo. That such a meeting took place at all is to be applauded.
But look further at the detail. One man, clean shaven, evidently elderly, faces another, also advanced in years but with a full grey- white beard. Francis is wearing his white zucchetto matching his white cassock, the Hindu priest has his head covered by a pagri, the Indian form of turban worn by Hindu priests, in the same saffron tone as his robes. He is presenting Francis with a brilliant yellow shawl, a gift of welcome. It is an image of a man from the Western culture of Argentina meeting a man from the East, from Sri Lanka, a simple statement in a blaze of colour.
The over-riding message was for peaceful understanding between peoples, of religious tolerance and of care not to offend. How do we balance that position with the principle of freedom of expression that is such a vital aspect of Western democracy, an argument that has been graphically highlighted through the attack on the journalists working for Charlie Hebdo and discussed endlessly in the media since then?
Where is the edge between freedom of speech and gratuitous insult? How do we recognize the sensibilities of others, those with whom we disagree? What are our responsibilities when it comes to satirical humor, where a captioned cartoon image can be stronger than many hundreds of sharp words?
Those who might be offended can of course always turn away and ignore any particular situation, but that action, laudable though it might be, may contain an inner hurt which is hard to live with, especially if it is a matter of fundamental belief.
The papal plea for reconciliation in Sri Lanka, a place where there has been violent inter-community conflict over many years, as well as his request for social justice in the Philippines, later in his visit, show us a fellow human being willing to speak his mind in a courageous manner.
In conclusion to the excellent Tablet Editorial last week, Tom Heneghan wrote that, “One thing is sure – Charlie Hebdo will go on insulting anyone it likes. The French media quickly rallied around it to provide office space, funds and equipment to continue publishing; the Government pledged financial support. Long queues formed outside news stands in France on Wednesday for this week’s edition of the satirical magazine and five million copies were being printed to meet the demand. The cover shows a tearful Prophet Muhammad holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign under the headline, “All is forgiven.”
This is the reality we must live with, always willing to respond to what we perceive as unjust comment, always preserving the right for opinion to be expressed, but always careful that violent reaction is not the outcome of thoughtless words. Remember those oft quoted words of Martin Niemöller, a protestant pastor in the Germany of the Third Reich
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.