“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”
Murder of any human being is an unacceptable criminal act. When, in addition, the victim is an individual in whom the authority of the State is vested, the offense assumes an additional degree of gravity. Furthermore, when the motivation of the aggressor is based on a unilateral rejection of the values of the Republic, incarnated by a professor performing his duties, in the name of superior values “attributed” to God, the act – as expressed by the decapitation – can only be described as pure barbarism which cannot find the slightest justification.
The understandable emotions expressed have led to a plethora of reactions, most of which reflect the justified indignation of citizens and authorities alike, alongside appropriate manifestations of support and solidarity. They have also been accompanied by appeals to public authorities – but also to the citizenry at large – to act decisively against a trend that puts into jeopardy life in a society regulated by the laws and the values of the nation.
This drama, commented endlessly by the media – in particular the 24 hour news broadcasters – underscores the weaknesses of a model of communication which – in good faith most of the time – allows (nearly) all opinions to be expressed in the name of free speech and becomes trapped in the competition with – and excesses of – the social media.
Thus these debates, which should aim at fostering unity, allow political parties to exploit these particular circumstances, to promote their programs and to bring forward superficially related questions such as the maintenance of public freedoms, relations between the police, the courts, the sentencing of delinquents, immigration, border surveillance and Europe, etc., under the guise of a shared indignation of unacceptable occurrences.
The undeniable failure of the State, over several decades, to address squarely these questions is risking – within an international context in which similar trends are developing – to polarize public opinion; this could lead, in turn, to authoritarian movements recalling the worst experiences of the 20th century. The prevailing mood is all the more conducive to such developments that Covid19 and the fight against global warming have encouraged citizens to obey injunctions that are considered justified in view of the urgency by some and decried by others as infringing on our individual liberties.
But it is also necessary to point the finger at the debates among intellectuals who – in the name of their superior knowledge – shower upon us their insights which are often both partisan and steeped in ideology. Thus, the debate surrounding the preeminence of “God’s law” over the “law of the Republic” (or vice versa) seems to me basically flawed. (Before proceeding let me declare that I am both a practicing catholic and a fierce defender of “free thought”, refusing to see therein the slightest contradiction).
By pure coincidence, the Gospel on this Sunday relates the response of Christ when asked if paying taxes was lawful (to the romans who were occupying Judea). His answer was totally unambiguous: “Give unto Cesar what is owed to Cesar and to God what is owed to God”. He distinguishes between precepts that relate to two different orders and should, consequentially, never be evaluated in terms of a relationship of equality or subordination.
When confronted to the situation under review, Cesar (the Republic) demands that justice be carried out and God – for those who believe and obviously for those who don’t – has no place whatsoever in any argumentation purporting to justify or even explain the actions of the perpetrator. On the other hand, if I decide to pray – alone or within my religious community – for God’s mercy for the souls of the victim and/or the aggressor, Cesar has no standing either in authorizing or forbidding me to do so.
Completely different is the necessary discussion on the causes that might have induced this deliberate act in defiance of existing laws as well as on measures (legislative, regulatory or societal) that should be promulgated and implemented to avoid – as far as possible – the reoccurrence of such acts. This is a debate that must be held without taboos and must take into account the fact that our individual liberties are necessarily, by construction, limited by those of our fellow citizens or more broadly to those of the entire human community in the name of basic “human rights”. It should also recognize that no legal or regulatory measure will provide an adequate response if its purpose and modalities is not owned by the citizens at large.
It is in recognition of this inescapable reality that an unflinching support must be given to education and to those charged with its dissemination as this constitutes the indispensable bond to provide life within a harmonious society.