Paris 13.11.15 – more questions, less answers

Here’s one standard greeting that one might be very advised to avoid in Paris for a good while:

Good morning!

I’ve been going through some huge personal challenges in 2015, but as I reflect on how so many lives have been brutally taken away by a relative handful of people who knew that their chances of making it out of the massacre alive were essentially non-existent, I am forced to wonder just how anyone reaches a point where human life becomes something that they can take with impunity – including their own. The dimensional realities at work are almost impossible to overstate. These attackers were bound by a certain type of unity that – when all is said and done – remains emblematic of how some of the best instincts in humanity can become allied to some of the worst. When I was younger, I would often reflect on how massive criminal operations were using gifts and skills of leadership and management that could surely have been used to make a difference for good in the world instead of adding to the detritus of society (examples: drug smuggling; gun running).

Here, once again, we have a situation where people are willing to die for something, but quite what that something is – a lot of words can and will be used, but I am not sure that anyone really has the capacity to explain to anyone WHY this has happened. It’s easy to say that the explanation offered re: Hollande’s decision to involve French troops in Syria is at the heart of the reason. It’s easy to say that the people who do these things are ‘radicalised’ to the point of having been ‘brainwashed’ (a word that is more easily used than it is understood or defined, and one that I suspect might make less sense than many of us assume if we were to pull it apart). And from that starting point, there is all sorts of scope for anti-religious rhetoric, and today, as a religious person, I have never been more sympathetic towards that. But there is all sorts of scope for pro-religious rhetoric, and some of the public statements offered will be exponentially more measured and coherent than others (which is, of course, equally true of the anti-religious rhetoric).

As a practising Seventh-Day Adventist, today (Saturday) I would expect to greet and be greeted with the words “happy Sabbath!” And there is a sense in which this day of the week is a joyful day and I do NOT intend to suggest that anyone should focus more on the aftermath of these unbelievably atrocious acts than on the ongoing work of a benevolent God. But that is just my point: how on earth does anyone sell the idea that God is in any way good on the morning after a night before in which people have gone to eating and drinking establishments to spend time in the company of others only to be shot and killed or injured just because they happened to be on a pre-ordained killing ground for some people who waved goodbye to their essential humanity some time ago?

Yes, there may never have been more reasons to be discouraged at the lack of integrity in professional sporting competition, but surely the folks who go to see a football match do not expect to become targets just because they chose to attend that event. And while rock music in various forms would not be my music of choice, I am a musician and I’m not sure I can handle the idea that I could be in an ensemble that is performing in a venue where eighty people who came to hear the music and support my artistic endeavours would be brutally murdered in cold blood and only leave the venue in body bags. Discriminated against for going to a GIG? No, surely not. But collateral damage in an ideological war that is becoming greater and more toxic on the level of ‘heart and mind’ than anything that happens in the physical world? Sadly, yes.

I have a formidable challenge to my fellow Christians this morning: before we all start talking about how we are going to “pray for Paris” we need to take a moment to think about who we are praying to and why we believe that our prayers will be heard. Surely some of these people would have been covered in a prayer of petition or intercession by a genuine believer. And not only in a Christian sense, either! But coming back to a Christian understanding of ‘prayer,’ why do we have to pray for the people of Paris now that 200 of them are no longer alive, when we would argue that it was God who allowed them to live and therefore also allowed them to die?

We Christians – not just Seventh-Day Adventists by any means – have specialised in cheap and easy answers for so long that if the world’s media were to take a copy of the membership list of any given local church who claimed to be Bible-believing and knock on the door of a random church member and thrust a microphone in their face and ask them to offer their thoughts on why anyone should trust a God who cannot protect the innocent, I shudder to think what kind of answer they would receive.

Some of us are so weak Biblically and theologically that we’d offer a bunch of emotive scattergun epithets and then close the door before any further questions came. Reason: we have learned to talk, but not listen. Result: we cannot think, because the framework is not there.

Others will try so hard to offer defenses of the faith that seem ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ (in a more vernacular sense as opposed to a slightly more academically rigorous sense, depending on the precise nature of your humanities literacy) that it may be that what they offer ceases to be ‘Christian’ in any real sense of the word.

Who would I want to see answering this question on behalf of Christian faith? Am I ready? Are you?

I am going to pray for Paris. But this (happy) Sabbath morning, I have no desire to offer lots of words that defend God. I have no desire to defend God at all. Not because I don’t think this is important, but because this is no time for technical theodicies. THIS is a time to acknowledge that the WHY question is absolutely huge, and that there are people of every race, creed and background who would see this evil for what it is. We don’t need to force the idea that if people are outraged it is because life really is sacred, and if we can invoke the idea of sacredness – of transcending value – then people have already begun to think on a plane that points to something beyond the purely materialistic and rationalistic.

I have never been more grateful that Nadiyah Hussain worked as hard as she did to become one of the best bakers we have seen here in the UK and be recognised for it. Not all Muslims are the same. Not all who call upon Allah refer to the same thing. And that the UK could recognise this lady – headscarf and all – and take her to their hearts does not mean that there are no mean-spirited racists out there. And it is also true that some Muslims are more sympathetic to ISIS than they would ever let on. But in the same way that many Australians recognised that not all Muslims were terrorists when tragedy struck their country earlier this year, we must trust that as the dust settles, a sense of perspective will eventually win.

Those killers may have been decent human beings once upon a time. We have no capacity to judge them. We don’t know what circumstances brought them to this point. But we can and must judge their actions, and this is why I am now saying that for us Christians, it is not about having the right doctrines – it is about being the right people. I can only hope that some of today’s preachers and teachers examine themselves closely enough before standing in the pulpit and recognise that words have limited power. Character – alone – is where it is at.

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