je suis and Jesus

The je suis Phenomenon

Nearly two months ago, a group of people were killed for some marks on a page, marks that tended to tear down the humanity of other groups of people, or subvert systems of power, depending on who you ask.

Many around the world stood in solidarity with those killed, against those who would attack the fundamental right to say and speak and write without the fear of being killed for it, under the banner je suis Charlie. I am Charlie Hebdo.

Some condemned the ugly, hateful speech of Charlie Hebdo, declaring I am not Charlie Hebdo. Still others pointed out the hypocrisy of world leaders condemning the attacks while simultaneously jailing, torturing and suppressing journalists and other ‘whistleblowers’ who would shed light on these leaders’ complicity in violent atrocities and repression. The idea that the west’s war on radical Islam was limited to the enlightened pencils of Charlie Hebdo, as if bombs and drones over communities in Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan have played no part, was similarly critiqued.

A group of people were killed for marks on a page; protests were held, solidarity was shown, blogs were written, cartoons were drawn, critiques and condemnation were lobbed back and forth. All that has passed and our news cycle has moved on to the next shocking thing.

What lingers in my mind and in memes and tweets and images and signs amidst violence around the world is the short, powerful statement: je suis.

Je suis.

Je suis Charlie.

I am Charlie Hebdo.

I am not Charlie Hebdo.

I am.

It has me wondering: with whom do we identify?

Obviously, the answer is people most like us.

That’s why when mostly white, western people were killed by Islamic extremists for embracing to a fault a fundamental value of white, western society, je suis Charlie was plastered on Facebook walls and buttoned celebrities, but little was heard about blogger Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, facing floggings for his words formed on a keyboard.

photo credit: _MG_9898.jpg via photopin (license) //photo credit: je suis raif via photopin (license)

photo credit: _MG_9898.jpg via photopin (license)
//photo credit: je suis raif via photopin (license)

That’s why Muslims – and others – responded with I’m not Charlie, I’m Ahmed – identifying with the Muslim police officer killed trying to defend the staff at Charlie Hebdo.

WeAreNThat’s why Christians were mostly unconcerned with the massacres of ISIS until they started killing Christians. In another form of je suis, Christians around the world made the Arabic letter nuun their profile picture (short for ‘Nazarene’, as in Jesus of Nazareth; a letter used to mark the houses of Christians the way Jewish stores were marked by the Star of David in Germany in the 1930s). In fact, the promoter of the #WeAreN campaign, Jeremy Courtney, felt compelled to explain to Christians that it was intended to identify with all victims of ISIS – Yazidis, Kurds, Muslims, and yes, Christians: “If one group is marked, we’re all marked.”

That’s why many Americans proceeded to grow mostly unconcerned with ISIS until months later when two U.S. citizens were brutally beheaded for the world to see. Then ISIS mattered again. Similarly, Jordanians didn’t seem particularly concerned with the victims of ISIS (only it’s potential growing threat to their own country), until a Jordanian pilot was burned alive, again, for the world to see. Then, and not for other victims, outrage brought masses to the streets in Jordan.

That’s why when an airplane disappears in an ocean, the world that can afford airplane rides watches in shock with the devotion of the 24-hour news cycle, while a group of poor people in central Africa get killed with machetes and you have to go searching for a news source that will mention it.

This is normal. Christians identify with Christians, Muslims with Muslims, Jordanians with Jordanians, Americans with Americans, journalists with journalists, white people with white people, mothers with mothers, people who fly on airplanes with people who die in airplanes, etc. This is normal, and to an extent necessary and important. Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind that group identity is an evolutionary necessity for survival in a harsh world. And strong group identity (including religious and ethnic identities), Robert Putnam argues in Bowling Alone, contributes to the flourishing of society, building communities of mutuality and trust.

Like I said, this identification with people like us is normal, the most natural reaction to people who are a part of groups (that is, everyone). But I suggest that the beautiful, subversive, compelling message and way of Jesus interrupts that narrow group identification and demands more of us.

Je suis and Jesus

In the life of Jesus, we see an identification that is both universal and particular (but the particular identification is not the particular way we typically identify). The remarkableness of the Christian faith is the idea that God became flesh and dwelt among us. That the great I AM broke into the world from the womb of a teenage girl, gasping for breath like the rest of us. That God took the way of identifying with the ‘other’ to the extreme – becoming human and accepting all that goes with it – from joy and celebration and wine and friendship to sadness, anger, pain, loss, suffering and abandonment.

Throughout his life and teaching Jesus continually challenged the tribalistic othering of his own people. His praises of some Roman soldiers, his suggestion that a Samaritan who loved his neighbor is living in greater alignment with God’s intentions than religious leaders from his own tribe, his command to ‘love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you,’ all serve to universalize this identifying with the ‘other,’ to change one’s posture toward other groups from hatred or suspicion to love.

And yet we see also a particularity about Jesus’ identification. The gospels claim that God became human, and it is noteworthy that he was not born a Roman, he did not grow up to be Caesar Jesus. Instead God allegedly became a Jew, an oppressed, impoverished Jew who fled the violence of the state, only to return to that state and confront its brutal inhumanity.

He became a Jew and he became a Jew who suffered and died. He became a victim. And hanging from a tree Jesus the Christ pointed all of humanity to see that God identifies with the victim – so much that God became the victim, unmasking the systems of the world that ruthlessly dispose of its victims, and often without a word of protest. God, in the person of Jesus identified with humanity. Jesus, as the embodiment of the living God identified with the victim.

So, with whom do we identify?

Are you with Nigerian victims of Boko Haram?  

Are you with transgender victims of bullying?

Are you with those who commit hate crimes and then get swallowed by criminal justice systems that make no way for restoration?

Are you with all victims of the war between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian Army in Eastern Ukraine?

Are you with victims of Islamic extremists?

Are you with Muslim victims of hate? 

Are you with victims of US drone strikes?

Are you with women enslaved in red light areas or abused on college campuses?

Are you with victims of police brutality?

Are you Trayvon Martin?

Are you Troy Davis?

photo credit:  via photopin (license)

photo credit: via photopin (license)

Can you breathe?

Are you with victims of natural disaster in Haiti or the Philippines?

Are you with Palestinian victims of Israeli occupation?

Are you with Israeli victims of terror?

Are you with the Egyptian Coptic Christians killed for their faith?

Are you with the inmates of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, tortured by a nation which affirms so-called Christian values?

Are you with the slaves, the outcasts, the marginalized, the despised, the sick, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the tortured, the murdered, and the hungry? Are you with the victims of this world?

I suspect Jesus’ answer to all of these would be, I am. Je suis.


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