After any tragedy, it is right to let the emotional flood subside a bit before thinking about it rationally. Emotional wounds need to be handled emotionally (not intellectually) , and people need to purge themselves of the emotional pain – through tears or anger, for example – before being able to make sense of things. The attacks in Paris are still fresh in our collective memory and I hope it is not too early for this piece, but I want us to consider my proposal while the will to do something is still fuelled by something more visceral – and thus compelling – than mere intellect.
I am intrigued by the fact that any conflict makes us want to pick sides. The responses by my Facebook friends to the attacks in Paris can be divided fairly neatly into four categories. By far the most popular has been a show of solidarity by displaying the French flag on the profile pic. The second – almost equally popular among my friends – has been outrage that attacks in a Western European city received so much media attention and emotional response when numerically more devastating attacks happen more frequently in Africa, and go unremarked (I say numerically because I don’t believe any one tragedy is any more devastating than another. One person dying is too many). The third is to explore French foreign and domestic policies to understand what could have pushed people so far that they would be prepared to sacrifice their lives to make a point. The last has been silence.
I believe they are all correct responses in some way. The first response is the human one: if we have lost the ability to stand in solidarity with those who are suffering, we have lost connection with our humanity. But I understand my second group of friends too: humanity is not a Western privilege, and Africa (and I would argue, the Middle East, too) has been sidelined for far too long. My third group of friends is brave: when people are hurting, they seldom want to see that conflict always has two guilty parties. I even understand the fourth group: the trouble with globalisation making the world smaller is that we are compelled to see so many more faces of suffering, and just to stay sane it pays to pick what you let affect you. Sometimes you have to choose not to feel.
The problem with picking sides is that it locks you into a simplified version of a very complex picture. And conflict is always complex. Something like Paris never happens out of the blue. Even the fact that this attack was reported while similar attacks in Africa are met with silence is the result of a complicated interplay between economics (will reporting these generate income? Remember, news is a business) and socio-political bias (why report tragedy in Africa when everybody “knows” that Africa is characterised by it anyway? Europe, well, that’s entirely different…). Paris has triggered passionate responses from many of us. And it should. Tragedy always should. But how ought we to respond?
Allow me a diversion, if you will:
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
I don’t think Jesus’ message here is that we have no right to comment on the whether or not another’s actions are morally sound. Rather, he says that our first course of action should not be righteous indignation – there may well be a place for that, but it should not be our primary response to conflict. Rather, we ought first to look inwards.
Consider how different the world would look if our immediate response to what we regard as the deplorable behaviour of others was to ask: how am I different? In what way am I guilty of the same thing? Once we have asked that question with an open heart, once we have subjected our own behaviours, habits, attitudes to the same scrutiny with which we critique others’, we will be in a better position to humbly and graciously speak to the shortcomings of others.
Catastrophe should birth contemplation, it should compel us to reassess our own lives. In the wake of Paris, we should be asking ourselves why we responded the way we did. We should be reflecting on what deep-seated prejudices our responses to Paris reveal, and reflect on how we react to those whose opinions and perspectives differ from our own. We should reflect on the conflicts in our own lives, and try to understand how our own responses perpetuate them. We should be trying to root out in ourselves the very things that anger us about how the Paris tragedy was caused/conducted/handled/ reported/ received. We need to look for the plank in our own eyes so that we can see more clearly to respond to the specks in others’ eyes. Sometimes “me first” is the most loving response.
My favourite author – one of the wisest and noblest minds on the planet – is Jeanette Winterson. I wish to quote from her response to the Twin Towers attacks, an article that impacted me more profoundly than perhaps any other piece of writing has (go here for the full article: http://www.jeanettewinterson.com/journalism/twin-towers/ ):
“[Forgiveness] might mean learning to say our prayers… You need not believe in God to believe in prayer. Which of us should not ask for forgiveness? Which of us should not ask for the strength to forgive others?
All the stories ever written tell us that there are only three possible endings: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness. None of us will forget the tragedy of the American people. It is our tragedy too – because we made this world, because we live in it so badly.”
And yet we find ourselves in this same space, as bewildered, time and time again. It is essential that we learn what it means to respond in love, what it means to forgive. Because responding in hate – in any form – leads only to more hatred, more suffering, escalating the tragedy. Any response that roots itself in pride – and to some extent all the responses I saw from my Facebook friends do so – can only lead to disaster. If we want to prevent events like Paris, if we want the cycle to be broken, then somebody has to start doing what seems unnatural: swallowing pride by – ironically – looking inwards instead of outwards. The only way out of the labyrinth of suffering that is the human experience is through forgiveness.
So we can point fingers. We can blame religion (please see my article on whether or not the world would be better off without religion), we can blame political systems, we can blame colonialism, capitalism, racism, the media. But as long as we are pointing fingers way from ourselves, nothing will ever change.