After Paris

It’s over a week now since the attacks in Paris. The national period of mourning has ended. Paris is on the move again, albeit it at a limp. Now Brussels waits in anxious shut-down while the authorities respond to threats of similar attacks against that city.

Some, those few responsible, will mark the Paris attacks up as a success. Those around them who do not share their triumph will be conflicted. Ashamed and terrified. For the innocents who have been violated with such precision. Burdened with knowing at first hand what their family or associates are capable of. We can only imagine the pain, sorrow and anger of the survivors and the bereaved. We are a global village now, united in our pain, in our losses, in our injury, in our questions. There are no victors here, just more victims.

When I was a child and starting to pay attention to current affairs, I remembered my shock at first hearing terrorist groups claim responsibility for bombings. I thought, in my childish way, that they should be ashamed, not boasting about murdering people. I still feel the same way, I think. There is something a bit empty about boasting over murder. Destruction is easy. It’s creating that’s hard. Anyone can be violent. Peace takes real effort.

There are no simple answers. It’s easy to point at politicians, or the system, or religion. Those are big anonymous enemies we can shake our fists at. But doing that doesn’t get us far. Who would really like to be in the hot seat of the world leaders, having to figure out what to do next? They need our prayers as much as anyone else. Events like this affect us as individuals, calling for an individual response. But what? Perhaps we can draw closer to the stranger. Let them hear our heartbeat, know that the same fears assail all of us. Fears of rejection, fears of aggression.

A man who wanted Jesus to affirm his piety asked this question: Who is my neighbour? In response Jesus tells the story of a man mugged and left for dead. Two outwardly religious men, a rabbi and a priest, walk by leaving him where he fell. The one who had pity on the man, who cared for him at his own expense and treated him like a son or a brother, was a foreigner. A Samaritan. A citizen of what is now the West Bank. He belonged to group with whom Jews did not mix. But the Samaritan, Jesus said, was the true neighbour. Because he was the one who had pity on the victim.

Who are our neighbours? The people to whom we show compassion and mercy. The ones we reach out to help. Those whose needs we see and can meet. It is a tiny response, but not without value in the aftermath of events which aim to tear us apart and separate us into warring tribes. Perhaps, to counter the aims of the violent, it’s worth trying, in whatever small way, to reach out without fear and become neighbours to the strangers in our midst.

In the dark if need be

One of my favourite characters in the Old Testament is Gideon. He lived during a time when Israel was ruled by judges rather than kings. Gideon’s natural caution – some might call it cowardice – is seen in the way we meet him, threshing grain in a winepress to hide it from the marauding Midianites, a vicious tribe which has been terrorising Israel for some time. An angel, or perhaps God himself (the text is unclear at this point) appears and addresses him as ‘mighty warrior’, giving him a mission to deal with this enemy. First, Gideon makes excuses ‘…but I’m the youngest member of the weakest tribe…’ and then he checks the credentials of his visitor with a test. (Really. Look it up. Judges 6.)

Clearly, Gideon is not your pick-me type. But once convinced, Gideon accepts his mission, to pull down the Baal altar which Israel has been worshipping, replace it with an altar to God and sacrifice a bull there. Bold action for a man like Gideon. Convinced now that God is doing the asking, Gideon obeys the instructions to the letter. But under cover of darkness. I love seeing his human frailty in this, as he does the scary thing in a slightly less scary way. He is quickly identified as the culprit the following day, but Gideon’s confidence from this point on simply grows and grows. He goes on to greater, bolder things from this scaredy-cat start.

I know I’m not alone in coming up with excuses for why I can’t or won’t act. But, as Jesus himself said a few thousand years later, with God all things are possible. There is nothing He cannot do. And if we are supported and loved by this God of the impossible, then what are our limitations? What stops us from being confident people, untroubled by the opinions or the gaze of others? Gideon had a confidence issue, but God showed him what he was capable of, even accommodating Gideon’s weird requests for reassurance.

We won’t get reassurance if we don’t ask. And once we get it, we can get on with whatever we have to do. Even if we have to start out in the dark.