Youth fireside on the Paris attacks

I was asked to give a fireside for the youth on Sunday. Believing that the gospel provides a way for us to understand the world around us and help deal with its ills, I decided to discuss the Paris attacks. They had no doubt been discussed at home and at school that week and so I felt it important to have them discussed at church too, for “church” should not be detached from the world.

I had an agenda but did not want to force it. I mostly wanted the youth to think about and discuss various issues. I showed them the following pictures and asked them questions in order to prompt the discussion.


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What is this? What happened in Paris last week? What do people mean when they say “Je suis Charlie”? What about “Je suis Ahmed” or “Je suis juif”? What is free speech? Why is it important? What are its limits?

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Who is this? [No-one knew. Sad.] Why did the Nazis inhibit free speech? Was Helmuth right to share the BBC broadcasts? Why is free speech important?

GoldCalf

What is this? How did Moses react? Which of the ten commandments do Muslims take more seriously than Christians and Jews? What is the danger in having “graven images”? Are Muslims right to be offended by the cartoons?

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[Explain the controversy surrounding The Last Temptation of Christ.] Were Christians right to be offended by the film? Were some Christians right to react violently?

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[Sensitively explain why the Book of Mormon musical may be offensive.] Should Mormons be offended? What do you think about the church’s reaction?

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[Briefly explain the Mountain Meadows Massacre to show that Mormons also can be susceptible to religious violence.] Why do people react violently to religious offence? What can be done to stop it?

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How did Jesus show how we should treat those who are unkind to us?

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Which university publishes this series? What does this say about the church’s relationship with Islam? How should we treat our Muslim friends?

Summary (presented as final discussion points):

  • Free speech is important, even if it is offensive.
  • That doesn’t mean, however, that it is always right to be offensive.
  • Follow the example of Jesus.
  • Learn about the good in other cultures and religions and take a stand against discrimination, especially against Muslims and Jews right now.
  • Despite what we see on the news, Europe has never been more peaceful. There is no need to be afraid!

Comments

  1. Good stuff, Ronan. Like you, I firmly believe that the gospel has to meet us in the particularities of our historical moment–it needs, that is to say, to be incarnated again and again. That makes those who participate in that incarnation liable to charges of politicization, but at the same time treating the gospel as a set of ahistorical absolutes is no less political, albeit unwittingly so, in favor of the status quo (whatever that happens to be, and vague language about “the world” notwithstanding). Sometimes that’s right, and sometimes that’s wrong, but in either case the relevance of the gospel to our situation gets underplayed.

    How did it go?

  2. Thank you for sharing this! What a great way to teach the principles of freedom of speech and tolerance!

  3. Interesting stuff. But if your point is to discuss free speech and, in particular, how free speech belongs in an LDS narrative, I can’t see omitting the Nauvoo Expositor. What could be more relevant that Joseph’s decision to shut down a press that reporting on his polygamy – and act which led directly to his death?

  4. What a fantastic presentation! I wish that more wards and stakes would discuss these sorts of issues in such a thoughtful manner.

  5. Dave K. The Nauvoo Expositor incident has more nuance to it than simply shutting down a press. “The Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor,” Utah Law Review 9 (1965): 862-903.” was written by Dallin H. Oaks, long before he was even President of BYU, let alone an Apostle. It has recently been reprinted as Chapter 18 of “Sustaining the Law”, a collection of articles published by BYU Studies last year. If you’re a subscriber to BYU Studies, you can access it electronically or purchase the article for $1.99. I highly recommend the book. There are a few other articles I might add, but it is incredibly informative about almost all of the legal issues involving Joseph during his life.

  6. PS. It looks like the Introduction to the book is available online for free.

  7. PPS. As I looked at the Introduction again, there will likely be at least one additional volume.

  8. Oh wow! What an awesome fireside! Bless you for doing this. You have some extremely lucky youth in your ward.

  9. I especially like that last bullet point by the way. Very important as a counter balance to the 24 hour news cycle.

  10. I simply didn’t think that sub-16 youth would be ready to think about the Expositor. Mostly I just wanted them to know that Mormons are not immune from religious violence

  11. Good call Ronan and excellent idea for fireside.

  12. Ronan, I can appreciate your decision re the Expositor. In my calling I teach youth and I certainly haven’t had the gumption to raise the issue so far. I’m impressed that you did choose to discuss MMM – an action even more violent than the Expositor, but which can be discussed with less risk of condemning prophets.

  13. “Despite what we see on the news, Europe has never been more peaceful. There is no need to be afraid!” I believe you are mistaken. We have every reason to be afraid—not of Islamic terrorists, but of so-called enlightened Western governments that are circumscribing the free speech rights of their citizens.

    The biggest threat to freedom of expression in France is the french government. Jonathan Turley’s recent opinion piece in the Washington Post powerfully demonstrates how France, and many other European nations, have tried to silence those who would criticize, question, or lampoon any organized religion. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/what-it-means-to-stand-with-charlie-hebdo/2015/01/08/ab416214-96e8-11e4-aabd-d0b93ff613d5_story.html

    Sadly, as Mr. Turley notes, certain elected officials in the U.S. have, in recent years, lent support to these efforts.

    There is no greater threat to Western civilization as we know it than the efforts of governments to silence their citizens. This should frighten us far more than the terrorists.

  14. What I love about this is the idea that kids can think about these kinds of open-ended questions and draw their own conclusions. It is so much more important than giving them the so-called “right” answers. These are questions of degree, not black & white.

  15. We talked about the attacks in Sunday School the week after they occurred. Our teacher has made it a habit to start each lesson with a discussion of happenings in the wider world of religion which I think is helpful in framing our own beliefs while thinking about why others believe what they believe.

  16. Bro. Jones says:

    To be far, I know who Helmuth Huebner was but I wouldn’t recognize a picture of him immediately.

    Cool lesson.

  17. I love the fireside. Do you believe the impending Church discipline involving John Dehlin has any relevance to free speech, or is it impertinent to your discussion? Serious & sincere question.

  18. Jen K, I don’t believe the Dehlin situation raises any free speech questions, at least in a legal sense.

    As a general rule, only governments are limited by the Constitution and by statute from infringing upon the freedom of expression rights of their citizens; private organizations, such as churches, are not similarly constrained. (And, as I noted above, a government change its laws and constitution to limit or abolish those rights, which is what has happened in recent years in Europe.)

    Now, you can debate the wisdom of a church’s policy to discourage or inhibit open discussion of its doctrines and its history, but no member can claim a right to do so. Their only recourse is to withdraw from the organization.

  19. Sounds like a pretty interesting talk.

    Out of curiosity was there any talk about how we should actively respond to immoral or offensive speech, or was the discussion primarily focused on what we ought not do in response?

    From my perspective, a (perhaps the) major difference between Catholic Authority (of old) and LDS authority is that the latter refuses (ideally) to enforce their authority by way of physical or state coercion. But just because we cannot physically coerce “righteous” speech, does not mean that we can’t denounce, condemn and isolate such things from us in other, non-physically coercive or state-sponsored ways.

  20. Nathaniel Hancock says:
  21. Can you summarize in what way it relates to Ronan’s fireside instead of just pasting a link to your dad’s essay?

  22. Jeff, you wrote “But just because we cannot physically coerce “righteous” speech, does not mean that we can’t denounce, condemn and isolate such things from us in other, non-physically coercive or state-sponsored ways”

    How could anyone who supports free speech, freedom of conscience, free exercise of religion, and liberty in general (like Ronan) argue against the freedom of anyone and everyone to take that approach in response to what such a person deems offensive speech (a standard which will differ from person to person)? If you are trying to imply that Ronan is against religious people taking serious issue with insults to their faith, I think you are setting up a straw man.

  23. Nathaniel Hancock says:

    Sorry if I offended you, Jack Welch’s son-in-law. ;) I find the entire article exactly tied to this whole article; please don’t let my relation to its author scare you off.

  24. wreddyornot says:

    Nice, inspiring post, RJH.

    Aside from names and relationships, so if the linked article a couple of comments above can’t be summarized and its entirety exactly ties to this posting, why should one read it? It sounds redundant. Just wondering.

  25. Some good and challenging comments here. Everything was framed by the fact that I was talking to teenagers, two of whom are barely twelve.

  26. Does it support what Ronan is teaching the youth in this fireside or contradict it or cast it as apostasy? What’s the relevance? If you post a link to an article it is only common sense to at least blurb it to say why it is relevant to the present discussion.

  27. “How could anyone who supports free speech, freedom of conscience, free exercise of religion, and liberty in general (like Ronan) argue against the freedom of anyone and everyone to take that approach in response to what such a person deems offensive speech (a standard which will differ from person to person)? If you are trying to imply that Ronan is against religious people taking serious issue with insults to their faith, I think you are setting up a straw man.”

    I’m not implying anything at all about Ronan. It was an honest question.

    All I’m implying is that in the same way that you just pushed back in a non-violent and non-coercive and non-state-sponsored way against me and my free speech, there might be other such ways of doing so. Since you have tacitly accepted argument and criticism as a legitimate means of pushing back against offensive speech, I’m wondering if there are others that Ronan, you and anybody else would endorse or rule out?.

    If you insist on making this political in some sense, I guess my question would be what are the different ways in which conservatives and liberals interpret and draw boundaries around free speech? What means does each side accept as legitimate ways of pushing back against offensive speech? To be sure, both sides (I hope) accept that physical violence is an unacceptable way of doing so. But I don’t think either side thinks that we can’t push back in some other, non-violent ways.

  28. Ronan, as you discussed these things, did you mention Elder Bednar’s suggestion in a conference talk soon after he was ordained an Apostle that each Latter-day Saint (and all people) choose to take offense at things, i.e. if we take offense, then that is a choice we are making (and we could choose otherwise)? He meant this to be an exhortation to all of us not to take offense at things, to forgive, and move on.

  29. Kevin Barney says:

    Fantastic. I love asking the kids open-ended questions and not trying to corral them to preordained answers. Can you comment on how the fireside was received?

  30. I never pushed back against your free speech. How do you see it so?

  31. John,

    I think you misunderstand what I mean by “pushing back against offensive speech.” To be sure, you definitely did not infringe on my free speech by freely responding to it. That would be absurd. However, you did push back against something that you took to be offensive or unacceptable in some way. My question is, where do we draw the line between pushing back against offensive speech and infringing on free speech? Where is the line between tolerance and a kind of passive acceptance?

    When we criticize or argue against something, that is one form of pushing back against offensive speech – a form of pushing back that we say does not violate anybody’s free speech. Protesting would be another form. Going on social media and pointing out how “callous”, “bigoted” “apostate” or “unrighteous” a person is because of a post they wrote, creating a meme to mock the “other side” of a debate or moderating comments would be others. These are all ways that at least some of us have accepted as legitimate for pushing back against speech that we find unacceptable.

    I was simply wondering if any of these things, or something like them, were brought up, or was it more of a “turn the other cheek or simply ignore them while they continue to say what they say” sort of approach?

  32. Two of them — my sons– basically said ‘cool’ and then went back to their tablets.

  33. Jeff, as to practical suggestions, which you seem to be looking for (not sure about the political angle — you might need to ask a culture warrior about that), a Church could give sermons to its members that they should not do things that “offend” other people’s religious obligations out of courtesy, moral conduct, and, at the minimum, a level of comity (hoping that people of other religions and people of no religion will do likewise). That first step of first directing the discussion inward to make sure the Church’s own adherents are acting in the way that they wish society more broadly would act seems essential.

    Then, if that Church finds media produced by members of society who do not adhere to that religion or by people in those free societies who reject religion altogether to be offensive to that Church’s beliefs or religious obligations, the leaders of that Church — or lay members generally — can personally write opinion pieces in major newspapers or other media outlets, preaching why, in such Church leader’s (or lay member’s) view, members of society who do not adhere to a particular religious tenet should nevertheless defer to it and show it respect because it is held sacred by neighbors and other members of society. Ideally, if it is a Church leader writing such a column or news release, he or she would sign his or her own name to such an essay. Such an essay can include every method of forceful condemnation, rhetoric, imploring, exhortation, persuasion, long-suffering at the writer’s disposal. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, wrote an excellent piece modeling this type of response when the Book of Mormon musical first came out.

    Leaders and members of that Church would then also need to be ready for responses delivered by those who are addressed in the essay, in the exercise of their own free speech.

  34. I for one appreciate the link to the DN article because the first comment responding to the article is so excellent. If only all comments attached to newspaper articles could be of such quality.

  35. I appreciate the link but want to know how Nathaniel thinks it applies. Does the DN article dispute Ronan’s stance? Do the two take a similar, mutually reinforcing approach? I want to have some visibility as to the linked content’s application to the issue being discussed, without having to read the whole article to try to guess why it was linked. Does Nathaniel find Ronan’s take deficient and the DN article fills the gap, providing the correct view?

  36. John H., the comment by Irony Guy?

  37. Ahhhh.. I see. You’ve been talking about what Muslims could have done about those drawings without getting us westerners all tee’d off. That makes sense. I was more concerned about what us westerners can do to push back against non-Western ideals and their manifestations (terrorism, etc.) without violating their freedoms. Sorry about the mix up.

  38. john f.,

    Yeah, I thought that Irony Guy did a great job. Not only did he check off my “begs the question” pet peeve box, but he responded clearly to the meat of the piece providing a refutation of it.

    I agree with you that Nathaniel ought to state how he thinks his dad’s “excellent article” engages with the ideas that Ronan brings up here rather than simply linking to it because they both involve the Paris attacks. Sadly it doesn’t appear that he wants to do that analysis. I hope I’m wrong.

  39. Jeff, you’ve really been asking whether we can somehow restrict Muslim’s freedoms of religion, speech, conscience or something else in response to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo as their response to Hebdo’s exercise of its free speech? Or are you being sarcastic. I really can’t tell.

    Anyway, as an answer, I don’t advocate restraining Muslims’ religious freedom, freedom of speech, or freedom of conscience at all, whether in response to that terrorist attack or anything else. It would be illogical and unwise to treat all Muslims like the few extremists who have committed terror attacks. Also, Muslims who are offended by the Hebdo cartoons could have written forceful op-ed pieces denouncing the racism and cultural insensitivity of the cartoons. (I’m sure many did.) And I personally would have agreed with them, preferring and hoping that Hebdo cartoonists would knock it off (at least with regard to needlessly provocative depictions of Mohammed himself) but also maintaining their absolute right to continue publishing that stuff if the Muslim objections did not persuade them to be more polite.

    This is as it must be, I believe.

  40. Hooray for METI!

  41. What is free speech? What is it important? What are it’s limits? These are great questions to pose to the youth, but they are also great questions to ask ourselves, lest we be caught corrupting the youth (and not in the way that Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth). In summary, the Deseret News article simply raises the discussion to a question concerning the basis of the freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is void of content unless there is a common understanding of what “freedom” means. For example, Helmuth Huebner’s exercise of his freedom of speech differs greatly from the Israelites’ golden calf, The Book of Mormon Musical, and Je Suis Charlie. Why is that? The freedom of speech, as the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes clear, is closely intertwined with the first freedom, the freedom of religion. The Deseret News article simply points out that in order to understand freedom of speech, a good first step would be to understand freedom: “Freedom is not free, and it cannot supply its own meaning. Freedom that holds nothing sacred will not be able to hold itself up as a sacred value. To stand up for freedom we must share some sense of what makes it good, even holy.”

  42. Another good snippet from the DN article: “If Charlie Hebdo stands for the boundless contempt of all sacred restraints, and at the same time asks to be taken seriously as a bulwark of human values, then it contradicts itself. We cannot revere freedom if we revere nothing else.”

  43. Charlie Hebdo doesn’t “ask to be taken seriously as a bulwark of human values.” It just insists on its right of speech allowing it to mercilessly lampoon the rampant hypocrisy in politics and religion in society. So it’s a contrived argument.

    Freedom of speech has no content in the abstract? That is also a contrived argument at best.

    I agree that freedom of speech would be silly and empty without freedom of religion — that religious speech is just as much speech as political and anti-religious satire: both are inseparably protected. But how does that have anything to do with Charlie Hebdo? I am sure that Hebdo cartoonists don’t think that they have a right to speak but religious believers do not. I think they would say that religious believers are free to make fun of them back if they wish — or to lambast them in sermons or shun them. If they do think they have free speech while religious people do not, then that’s just stupid and we can all see that.

  44. Dr_Doctorstein says:

    I don’t think it’s really true that “Charlie Hebdo stands for the boundless contempt of all sacred restraints” and “reveres nothing else” but freedom. That’s just Ralph Hancock’s straw-man.

  45. John,

    I wasn’t being sarcastic, although I’m obvious not explaining myself very well. I was concerned that the talk limited itself to “we can’t do such and such.” The question then becomes, what *can* we do in the face of speech that we find totally unacceptable? This question applies to middle easterners and westerners alike and I wasn’t sure if it made its way into the discussion.

  46. “Charlie Hebdo doesn’t ‘ask to be taken seriously as a bulwark of human values.'” It doesn’t have to ask. It simply is taken seriously as a bulwark of human values (as youth firesides such as this attest). In the moral vacuum of the West (something that many Muslims recognize better than we do) anything can rush in to occupy the place of actual values, be it “The Book of Mormon Musical” or Charlie Hebdo. “It just insists on its right of speech allowing it to mercilessly lampoon the rampant hypocrisy in politics and religion in society.” Where does that right of speech come from? Others insist on their right of speech to mercifully lampoon the rampant hypocrisy in institutions that complacently lampoon hypocrisy in politics and religion. Which freedom of speech is freer? “So it’s a contrived argument.” Says who? :) “Freedom of speech has no content in the abstract? That is also a contrived argument at best.” Do you have any evidence to support your claim, or are all arguments other than your own simply “contrived”? :) “I agree that freedom of speech would be silly and empty without freedom of religion.” Excellent. So we agree. This is point worth discussing. “But how does that have anything to do with Charlie Hebdo?” How does it not have anything to do with Charlie Hebdo?

  47. If I am understanding you correctly, you just agreed that “freedom of speech would be silly and empty without freedom of religion,” and yet, in a discussion about freedom of speech somehow freedom of religion is irrelevant? Which is it? Help me out here. By the way, it sounds like the author of the DN article agrees that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist was courageous: “The terrorist murders in Paris were despicable crimes, as no reasonable person disputes. I am inspired by the bravery of the fallen cartoonist/editor, who knew the risks he was taking by continuing his publication, and I am heartened by the rallying of millions of French people and their friends (the “Leader of the Free World” notably absent) to demonstrate Western resolve to preserve our freedom.” So we’re back to the original question. What is freedom? In a discussion about freedom of speech it might be important to have some consensus on what freedom actually means, which is the question raised by the author of the DN article: “But just what is the content of this renewed resolution? What is the meaning of this ‘freedom,’ which a horrendous crime has reminded us to cherish and protect?”

  48. The impression seems to connect violence from church and biblical history and relate in someway to this modern act. The difference being hundreds of thousands didn’t cheer the mountain Meadows perpetrators.

    Curious if back in the 40s you would also be one who equates Nazi atrocities (Goodwin!) with various British atrocities in years gone irrelevant or if you’d instead man up and argue for the opposition and defeat of evil. These scum inspire more isis/aq/rtc types and are inspired by them as well.

    Introspection might be interesting but sadly will not help against an enemy who wants to see your children die.

  49. This is a somewhat strange conversation for me. Important points are certainly being made, but I would like to re-iterate again that this was both a fireside for *kids* and one that was deliberately planned to allow *them* to contribute and offer *their* views. I don’t remember making any explicit points about Hebdo or much else — I simply wanted them to talk in the context of what I thought were fairly uncontroversial points about free speech and its limits and the dangers of fanaticism and the need to be good neighbours.

    That there are suggestions above that I might be “corrupting our youth” is bizarre.

  50. I should also add that the bishop contributed positively to the discussion and was really pleased with the outcome. I wouldn’t normally appeal to authority in such a way, but I know some liberal-slayers tend to be impressed by such appeals.

  51. Amanda in France says:

    I’d like to say how much I appreciate that you did this. It is so strange to me that we haven’t said a word about the attacks (not even in prayers!) here, and the attacks only happened a few miles away. I am so happy that the conversation is happening elsewhere. We should be responding to tragedy as a community and asking ourselves these important questions. I think it is especially important to talk about it with our youth. I’m hoping that the youth here have had the opportunity to discuss, mourn and ask their questions, even if we haven’t discussed it among adults.

    Again, thanks.

  52. Thanks, Amanda. I’d also like to thank Jason for his comment:

    “Like you, I firmly believe that the gospel has to meet us in the particularities of our historical moment–it needs . . . to be incarnated again and again. That makes those who participate in that incarnation liable to charges of politicization, but at the same time treating the gospel as a set of ahistorical absolutes is no less political, albeit unwittingly so, in favor of the status quo.”

    I fully admit that it’s a tricky business but can honestly say that I had no desire to aggressively push any kind of political agenda. The discussion went in several directions and I let it happen. I trust myself to a certain degree here because I’m not even sure what my political agenda is! I have no settled view on this complicated situation. In other words, to borrow Jason’s language, I simply wanted to allow room for the gospel to be incarnated, rather than incarnating it myself.

    **All with the repeated caveat that there are limits to what you can achieve in 30 minutes with kids.**