When I first heard about the murder of the cartoonists of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, I was in extreme shock. Friends called me up and asked what I thought. I went instantly to Facebook to see how other cartoonists were reacting to the news, and found a lot of sadness, outrage, and determination to defend the freedom of expression. Those reactions made me proud to be a political cartoonist.
As the weeks past, I reflected on the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by the Muslim extremists. I have to admit that I never received any mail in either the Tri-City Voice or the Philippines Today for my cartoons. I would sometimes get into arguments with friends about my cartoons. But I would’ve gotten into political debates with these people anyways, regardless of whether I was doing editorial cartoons or not. Sometimes I would see in Facebook a cartoonist posting a hostile letter or email to their work. Though I enjoyed reading the reactions to the cartoonist’s work, I would also feel a little envy that the cartoonist was producing good work that provoked reactions from his or her readers.
Though I don’t know much about the kind of reader reaction that a good editorial cartoonist provokes, I do have extensive experience with religious intolerance. Only my experiences are not with extremist Muslims, but with conservative Christians who disagree with my liberal social and political views. Over the past decade and a half, I’ve gotten into painful church conflicts first at an Evangelical Church and later at an Episcopal Church.
During the 1990s, I attended an Asian American Evangelical Church for about 8 years. I asked the pastor if it was o.k. for a liberal Democrat to attend his church and he assured me that political affiliations didn’t matter and that he was a Democrat himself. The first 5 years were actually quite wonderful. I made close friends and for a while felt closer to God. There is a stereotype that all Evangelicals are conservative Republicans, and I found that if you scratch underneath the surface there is a lot more diversity of thought than is originally perceived.
The problem though, is that those with a more conservative religious and political point of view tend to dominate the conversation in the church. There was a heavy emphasis on following the Bible, and that gave them a weapon to intimidate those with different views. Those with dissenting views learned to keep quiet when in the larger group and to express their true opinions in private with close friends. Over time, there was this pressure to conform to a group’s views on what it means to follow a Biblical life. I saw a friend get pressured to do a baptism ceremony because they didn’t consider his baptism as a baby valid. A group tried to get a woman to break off her relationship with her boyfriend because he was Catholic and they didn’t consider Catholics true Christians. A group was telling an ex-roommate of mine to distance himself from his sister because the sister was lesbian. I knew a teenage friend who came out as a lesbian and, though a few Christians tried to shield her from abuse, was looked down upon by many in the church.
I have a fairly passive personality, so I learned to keep quiet about my views so I wouldn’t rock the boat. There was a while where I got caught up in a groupthink mentality, where I just wouldn’t challenge the group. After a while, I started getting sick of a group of people telling me what to think, who to be friends with, who to date. When I started dating the woman who eventually became my wife, a group was trying to get me to break up with her because she is agnostic. I had enough and left the church.
That was around 2002. For about 6 years, I didn’t attend any church. Then I felt some stirring to go back to a church, so I began exploring different types of churches. A few months at a Unitarian Universalist Church. A few visits to a Methodist Church. I eventually settled at an Episcopal Church. The first three years were great. Then in the last year, I got into conflicts with a few individuals that I still don’t fully understand. I tried talking to them privately to resolve things. When that didn’t work, I asked the two pastors if they’d help me out. The pastors did their best, but nothing seemed to work. It seemed like a small group of people were trying to do what they could to make it uncomfortable for me to stay. I had no way of defending myself from the gossip and stuff said behind my back. So I left.
I kept wondering though, “What was going on?” I asked around and found out that one of the individuals whom I had conflicts with (and whom I suspect was the ringleader behind all the things that happened) had also had conflicts with two of the former deacons. He was a part of a small group of Episcopalians who do not like the changes going on in the Episcopal Church these past few decades. I suspect I expressed some opinions that they disagreed with. After my experience at the Evangelical Church, I’m not going to stop expressing my opinions and fall into that groupthink trap again, so it was probably better that I left that church.
The experiences that I had are not comparable to some of the things that ISIS is doing right now like shooting and beheading people. But I think Christian fundamentalists share the same sort of closed mentality that Islamic extremists have. There is the need to impose their rigid religious views on everyone and to view those who do not conform to their religious views as being enemies. There is the need to stifle any viewpoints that do not agree with their own.
I think that is why the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists deserve praise for taking on religious extremists. Some may find their cartoons tasteless, but I admire them for expressing disagreement and for being willing to express unpopular viewpoints. That is something that I admire about all the political cartoonists that I’ve met. A central credo among all the political cartoonists that I’ve heard is their fight for the freedom of expression. Freedom of expression means fighting for the right of people that we disagree with to express their views, as well as fighting for the viewpoints of those we agree with. Left wing cartoonists should be as strong for protecting the free expression of right wing cartoonists as right wing cartoonists should be protecting the free expression of leftist cartoonists.
I still believe in God. I still believe in Jesus. I’m just more wary towards certain types of Christians. I have a feeling most Muslims have the same wariness about Islamic extremists. It’s not in my nature to be brave or especially outspoken. Since I left the Evangelical church over a decade ago, I’ve tried to learn to be more brave and to express my opinions even if it goes against the group. It’s still a work in process. My experience has taught me that religious groups have power over individuals if they make the individual afraid of the consequences of speaking out. That is why I admire the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. In spite of the consequences, they were not afraid.