French Attacks about more than Freedom of Speech

I believe in the right to free speech and my right to express my opinions on this blog and elsewhere. I realize that free speech will also allow some people to express themselves in ways that I or others might find offensive.

I also believe that people have the right to freedom of religion and the right not to be discriminated against. Those last two points have been trampled on by some in France in recent years. For example, in December 2014 three armed men broke into a flat occupied by a Jewish couple. The men tied them up, robbed them, and raped the woman.

These incidents do not get much news coverage. In contrast, I can turn on any news station and see pictures of the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Some called them artists, but it is not artistic to belittle other religions through cartoons or any other medium. Regardless, murdering people for drawing tasteless cartoons is wrong.

Charlie Hebdo Shooting Press Coverage Photo by Remi Mathis

Charlie Hebdo Shooting Press Coverage Photo by Remi Mathis

In a country where fear and dislike of people who are different is increasingly common, the killers have only succeeded in making a bad situation worse. Innocent, God-fearing Muslims are much more likely to be mistreated because people will say, “See, Muslims do evil things.”

Some light has been thrown on anti-Semitism in France since the attacks on the kosher supermarket. France’s Prime Minister and others have expressed their shock. But how long will it take before French citizens again turned a blind eye to the less dramatic acts of hatred against Jews and other religious groups?

How Religion Shaped American History

Religion in America has been used to justify unforgivable actions against others. The treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government is one example. In the nineteenth-century, Americans believed that it was their manifest destiny, or God-given duty, to spread their society across the continent. Americans’ godly mission, however, did not require them to care about the Native Americans who were displaced from their lands as whites moved closer. When President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act with the approval of Congress in 1830, Native Americans were forced to move to land west of the Mississippi. In 1838, the Cherokee Indians journeyed west. Baptist missionary Evan Jones traveled with the Cherokee and described the experience: “The Cherokees are nearly all prisoners…In Georgia, especially, multitudes were allowed no time to take anything with them, except the clothes they had on. Well-furnished houses were left a prey to plunderers, who, like hungry wolves, follow in the train of the captors.” Although the U.S. believed that manifest destiny justified the seizing of land, this action led to the unjust treatment of Native Americans.

Despite the negative consequences of manifest destiny, religion in American has also served as a motivation for reform. Throughout our nation’s history, churches promoted various social reforms. In the mid-twentieth century, for example, African Americans found leaders for the civil rights movement in their congregations. Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott during which African Americans refused to ride buses after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person. He also organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to protest the treatment of blacks in white society. Today African American church leaders continue to fight for social justice. Reverend Jesse Jackson consistently brings media attention to issues of civil rights and other causes like welfare reform. Both King and Jackson demonstrate that religion can be a positive force when it is used to uproot injustices in society.