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.


Jesus said ‘The devil comes only to kill, steal and destroy. I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.’ He said that speaking about himself as the good shepherd, in John’s gospel. Chapter 10, if you’re interested. A full life. Not a life free of difficulties or limitations or stress or fear or pain, but one that is complete. A full life. That’s what I want. And I don’t want mine to be characterised by loss, death and destruction, which seemed to me the alternative to what Jesus represented. The devil, however you want to understand him, doesn’t offer me much worth having even if the secular world seems to offer all sorts of wonderful freedoms and opportunities in contrast to Christianity with its list of prohibitions and sensible shoes. (Okay, not all of us wear sensible shoes.)

I’ve had my periods of wandering off into what looks exciting in the without-God world. I’m not about to tell you any sensational stories because we don’t all need to get to the extremes. For me it was enough to realise that I was unhappy, empty and lost without God, and that living without Him simply wasn’t life.

Since my brother’s recent death I’m experiencing life differently. I am more aware of our connectedness to each other, our ability to feel part of each other. As a family we were surrounded by people who expressed that through their physical presence and through symbols of their shared grief. I can now better imagine the feelings of Jesus’ friends and followers after his death. Their leader, their friend, their teacher, gone. They would have been desolate, empty, despairing. And so are we all, who lose someone. That part of our lives that contained them stops with them. In a sense part of us dies too. Memories of them are also memories of an us that no longer exists. We are not the same after bereavement, we feel diminished. Lessened.

Then along comes Easter morning. And the ridiculous report that Jesus, so publicly despatched, has finished being dead and has been seen hanging around at the burial site. Another time, cooking people breakfast. Another time, letting one touch his wounds. What on earth do you do with a story like that? Do you let yourself hope that it might possibly be true?

I was the first in my family to see my brother’s embalmed body. I sneaked into the funeral home a couple of hours before our planned visit with the vicar. It was my first exposure to a dead body. I was a little freaked out, unsurprisingly. And the body lying there, when I finally gathered my courage to take the big journey across the small room, was a fair impression of someone who looked a bit like a waxwork of my brother. Not him at all. He was very much gone. And though in reality I probably would have had a heart attack, I would have loved him to just sit up and be alive, for all this pain to end. I could have helped him out of the coffin(he’d be a bit stiff by now, after all), got him into Mum’s car and presented him to Mum and Dad, and it would all be okay again. Better than okay, because he’d be back from the worst thing that could ever happen.

And anything could then be possible.