I’ve been following the news over the past few days. I’m sure you all have. Twelve cartoonists have been murdered in Paris just because they were doing their job, publishing cartoons. The terrorists said they were taking revenge for cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. So they walked in there and killed everyone. And they killed more people as they tried to escape.
These senseless massacres have rattled the world. The internet is buzzing with reactions that show people are deeply affected. Particularly Europeans. Some even say this is Europe’s September 11.
Which is a little odd, for there have been far worse terrorist attacks in Europe, but none of them had such an impact.
So I’ve been reading up on this. And the more I read about it, the more I think that this is not actually about religion. Nor is it about free speech. It’s about identity. It’s about asserting who we are, sometimes at the expense of others.
You see, French society is quite different from American society. America is a place where people with different cultures and faiths could find space to settle and live according to their traditions. That’s why persecuted religious minorities came here. And this is still how America functions today.
France, by contrast, is based on one culture. The French culture. So if you come to France, you are expected to adapt. And French culture has very concrete demands on you. For example, France is very secular. This is not the same as separation of religion and state. In France, secularism is almost a state religion. You’re expected to keep your religion to yourself.
France has a big Muslim population. The largest in Europe. A legacy of their colonial past. They had colonized much of the Arab world. And now the children of that legacy grow up in bleak suburban ghettoes. And they are expected to fit in to French culture. And as you can imagine, it’s not going very well. Muslims are required by their faith to live in accordance with it. French culture doesn’t like that idea. The results are mutual suspicion and disrespect. France has a racism and segregation problem that’s at least as bad as ours here.
Another aspect of French culture is freedom of speech. In France, that explicitly includes the freedom to offend. The slaughtered cartoonists were part of that culture, a culture that insists on its right to ridicule anybody and anything. You know, after the attacks, millions of people have claimed, “Je suis Charlie”, or I am Charlie, using the name of the magazine, Charlie Hebdo. But very few people actually read it. Its circulation was small, and it was struggling financially. I saw many of their cartoons, and most were rather crude, very offensive, and not particularly funny. In fact, many were overtly racist. Many people have pointed out their work could not have been published in the US because it was so crude and offensive.
So you have this tension. On the one hand a minority of outsiders who struggles to fit in while maintaining their identity. On the other hand people within the majority culture who make full use of their rights of expression, including the right to offend. Both assert their identity. That is the context in which two young men chose the path of evil to end that tension. And ended it has, for they are now dead.
Identities are complex. They are so important for us. They show us who we are in this confusing world, they provide us with shared meanings and feelings and give us guidelines on how to live our lives. But they can also imprison us. When we feel that our identity is attacked, and we are not able to reach out to the attacker in love, a downward spiral happens. We feel that the world is out to get us, we feel we must defend ourselves, and ultimately, we resort to violence. That’s a universal pattern.
So for us, who claim an identity as Christians, what would be the proper response? How are we asked to relate to these things as disciples of Jesus?
First, of course, our faith proclaims love, even to our enemies. And part of that is not to judge or hurt them. We can choose to abstain from hurtful speech. This is a powerful spiritual practice that has helped me a lot.
The problem is, loving our enemies is incredibly hard. Drawing lines in the sand between “us” and “them”, feeling righteous about ourselves and judging those who do wrong, those are primal human instincts. They come right from our evolutionary past. So how do we get past this past? How do we find this larger love that can hold even those that are alien to us?
The answer is, by grace. We cannot fabricate this love, it can only be given to us. But grace doesn’t just happen. It is given, but it must be received, or it will wither and dry like a packet left outside. And in order to receive it, we must practice seeing the world in a graceful way.
And this is where our readings today come in. Sometimes, when all the confusion of the world overwhelms me, I remind myself of the majestic first verses of Genesis. No matter how much confusion there is, it is always possible to direct our minds back to that very beginning. When the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And everything that is, all the abundance of life, was created out of these deep, dark beginnings, and all has retained the sacredness of that first moment. As it says in the Psalm, the voice of God is over the waters, and it moves all that is on the land. No matter how terrible things may be, we can always remind ourselves that the voice of God, his sacred presence, can be found in all of life, rejoicing or suffering with us.
This practice of reminding ourselves is a form of repentance. To repent is to change course, to do something in a different way. But repentance alone does not gift us this larger vision. Only grace can do that. That is why those disciples whom Paul met had to be baptized once more. We need to be moved beyond our own efforts and shown a greater love. Only then will we be able to hold it all, both right and wrong, in the all-encompassing love of Christ by the Spirit.
In a twist of tragic and moving irony, the one person in the events in Paris who acted by this Spirit was a Muslim. Ahmed Merabet was an officer in the French police force. He responded to a call to intervention and was gunned down at point blank range as he tried to stop the terrorists from escaping. As someone has put it, he died defending the right of others to ridicule his faith. He was 42 years old.
This is what we mean by sacrifice. This is what we mean by denying ourselves and taking up our cross.
In these days, when so many are looking for strife and confrontation, let us remember that as disciples, we are called to be the leaven and the salt. To quietly foster peace: by showing others grace where the world asks for judgment. By standing up for others no matter how they treat us, just like Ahmed Merabet did.
May God, who sits enthroned as ruler, who governs the flood and the wilderness, the plains and the mighty mountains, give us the strength to do so—and may He bless us with His peace.