Stand with Paris?

Mike PagetToday in Sydney the Daily Telegraph reported that the ‘merciless’ response promised by President Francois Hollande of France had begun with revenge bombings of cities in Syria. There should be no doubt that non-combatants will suffer in these attacks.

I write this with a profound sense of anxiety and personal misgiving. But I feel like I cannot not write when, as I’ll explain below, it looks to some observers as if the church I love has publicly merged its identity with that of Western capitalist democracy. Almost overnight, we have shucked off the theological practice of over a 1000 years. At its best, the church has kept a clear distinction between itself and the state; suddenly, we have begun using words like solidarity and phrases ‘standing with Paris’. And I think that somewhere in our Spirit-led rush to the kind of compassion that has marked the church through the ages, we have forgotten that to be pastoral is also always to be theological.

‘Stand with Paris’

Let me explain by asking this question: what is the problem with the language of ‘stand with Paris’?

Well, firstly, we should ask what this slogan means.

Some Christians say that ‘standing with Paris’ means “compassion… fellow frailty and in-need-of-Jesus-ness” or “blowing up innocent people as an act of terror is wrong and if we can help you we will,” or even, “a promise to pray.”

It seems to me that Christians seem to be the only people in the world who are in any doubt as to the meaning of ‘stand by Paris.’ The Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, had no such confusion: ‘your fight is our fight,’ he declared.

To ‘stand with’ someone is not to empathise with them, walk alongside them, pray with them or simply love them. To ‘stand with’ someone is to join them in their particular struggle and fight. It means to take their side. Ed Stetzer recently wrote, in Christianity Today, a US-based, globally distributed magazine for evangelical Christians: “We are, it is hard to disagree, in what will be a decades-long struggle with radical Islamists.” And when Christians declare that they are on the side of Paris, whilst having offered no similar identification with Beirut or Mosul, we have an enormous problem.

People like us

Now, I know that there will be counter-arguments. Some will say that ‘stand by Paris’ simply means to identify with the individual innocent non-combatants and their families against the horrific and senseless violence of Daesh. If this were true, however, then Facebook would have been decorated with flags of all the world (especially African flags) long before this past weekend, and would now be festooned with the colours of Lebanon (or Syria, as we mourn the innocent lives senselessly lost to French bombing).

No, this is about standing with people like us. As Ruby Hadad wrote,

To see the colours of the French flag on the Opera House and other landmarks across the world, while the green of Lebanon’s cedar tree is conspicuously missing, to hear world leaders condemn what happened in Paris as a crime on “all of humanity” while sweeping Lebanon’s grief under the carpet, is to be told over and over again: You are not one of us.

It isn’t that we cannot grieve in solidarity with a friend without naming all other griefs; to grieve well means to enter into the specificity of this particular sadness. However, taking someone’s side, as any counsellor knows, has nothing to do with grief.

Democracy vs terrorism

Some might argue that ‘standing with Paris’ is to take the side of peaceful secular democracy against the undemocratic horror of terrorism. But Christian support of the modern Western nation-state should be, at best, highly equivocal.

Every freedom and privilege the residents of the developed world enjoy is won through the oppression, enslavement and exploitation of the vast global population excluded from our pleasures. Unsurprisingly, present-day terrorism has its origins in the prisons of the imperial powers; Daesh itself, I understand, was born in a US prison in Iraq.

I understand that it is in the interest of Westerners to seek to maintain this status quo; it is the only thing that shores up their standards of living in the face of increasing global uncertainty. But Christians ought to have no interest in preserving such inequalities, or of acting as as apologists for the historical dispositions of wealth and poverty:

2 Cor 8:13    Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 15 as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”

Christian residents of Australia, who have inherited the wealth of one of the world’s great empires, should be especially circumspect about affirming France’s current policies of military intervention and violent retaliation that seek to preserve a citadel of security in a sea of human suffering.

Christians – even Christians in Sydney – are not Westerners. For Christians to take the side of Paris (or, for that matter, New York, or Stuttgart) is to misplace our identity entirely. Show compassion, love, care; offer help, certainly. We could even ‘stand with Parisians‘ in mercy, common grief and empathy. But we have words for all these things. Words which mean what they say, and everyone knows what they mean.

But ‘standing with Paris’ is much more than these things. Paris is the capital of an imperial state. You will not find a single exhortation to ‘stand with Rome’ in the Scriptures, and Rome is just down the road. Mike Baird, Premier of NSW, made a terrible mistake on Facebook when he juxtaposed the Tricolore (projected onto the Opera House) with these words from John’s gospel, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ The flag is symbolic of the nation, not of its people; and the state is not the Word. The state is emphatically not the light.

Western or Christian?

Already, Christians in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are speaking into these present circumstances to express their anxiety that the church in the West is more Western than Christian; that our citizenship and loyalties are firmly grounded where our wealth and comfort and safety is found, rather than in the Kingdom of God. They are concerned that taking the side of Paris will make us blind to the Western oppression that both props up our pleasures and creates the fertile soil for terrorism.  They are fearful that we will be unable to empathise with the downtrodden and therefore unable to engage the justified resentment and bitterness that feeds the unjustified and violent acts we have seen.

I suspect, too, that by collapsing compassion into solidarity, we will lose the ability to love those that we ought to simultaneously oppose. And by this, I mean not only Islamic fundamentalism, but also aggressively secular democratic capitalism, as in France, the UK and Australia.

This may seem like cold-hearted theological precision in the face of grave tragedy. On the contrary, because gospel hope is essential in crises such is this, it is also essential that we take care that our language is able to be the vehicle for this gospel. Theologians from our local Phillip Jensen to Stanley Hauerwas in the United States have rightly argued that because all theology is pastoral, language matters.

Being the church for the world

The world needs the church to be the church right now – bearers of the gospel in word and life. But the church cannot live Christianly or think Christianly unless, as Hauerwas puts it, we first learn to ‘speak Christian.’ And to ‘speak Christian’ is not the same as to ‘speak world’. It should greatly concern us if the response of Christians to the attacks in Paris by-and-large mirrors the response of our neighbours. It should lead us to ask: “are we really being salt and light?”

The answer may be ‘yes’; but it is also possible that the answer is ‘no’, and that the church has sunk beneath the surface of society, or camouflaged itself with the colours of its surroundings, and is nowhere to be seen.

Instead, in a time such as this, the church ought to be highly visible, and not only visible hand-in-hand with Paris (or the West, in general). This is particularly the case since theology (and political discourse is a form of theology) is often formed in crisis. Extreme circumstances tend to ‘bake into us’ the convictions we held at the time. How the church speaks will shape who the church is; and who the church is today will influence who the church is for a very long time. It will be hard to undo.

What might this look like? How could we ‘speak Christian’ in the present circumstances?

  • Remember that all people are made in the image of God. Speak even of terrorists this way; they, too, are in the image of God, and they, too, are fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, neighbours and friends. Don’t dehumanise. Empathise, even if you do not sympathise. No one is all bad; no one is all good, save God alone. Talk to your Muslim friends; if you don’t have any, make some; and not just ‘moderate’ Muslims. Listen uncritically at least once, that you might learn to see just a little how the world looks like through their eyes. Whatever you do, don’t buy into the lie that Islamic fundamentalism is a form of insanity. Recognising that the media tell us what will sell rather than what is important, take the time to read the ‘world’ sections of newspapers and websites from a range of political viewpoints. This will help you pray with empathy.
  • Remember that all people are sinful. Read history. We are where we come from and, chances are, most people reading this are from highly privileged backgrounds and have no comprehension of the power asymmetries in the world today. Islam, without doubt, has shaped the expression of the underlying anger behind these attacks; the anger itself, however, has far more prosaic origins. Nehemiah repented for the sins of his ancestors; even as we call radical Islam to repentance, perhaps there is room for us to do the same.
  • Remember that Jesus died for people, not states. States have no real theological substance (and not much of a social identity). So pray for individuals and communities, even if you don’t know their names. Pray:
    • for the families and friends of those killed;
    • for those being treated for massive physical and mental trauma;
    • for the heavy metal community and young adults affected by the events at the Bataclan concert hall;
    • for public gatherings everywhere weathering the shock of the bombing at the Stade de France;
    • for Muslim women in the streets of Paris in their hijabs, niqabs and burkas, and Muslim children in local schools; and,
    • for the government, police and security services.
  • Remember that Jesus gave you a greater identity than ‘left’ or ‘right.’ If you are a Christian, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to support the full range of policies of any particular political party or movement. That’s OK – politics is compromise. But being Christian isn’t. You can still vote for one party even while you speak publicly in support of a policy of their opponents. Honour our political leaders, even if you are totally against their policies.
  • Remember that God promises an inheritance, and so know what belongs to you. This isn’t a call to just be stewards, holding lightly to the things of this world. This is a call to know yourself as an heir of creation. All things in Christ are yours – why would you try to seize hold of this little corner today? The whole world belongs to God’s people; why worry about keeping that house to yourself, when you could share it with others? That piddly little income you receive is nothing to the treasures of heaven. Think what it could do, though, in foreign aid!
  • Remember that you are a citizen of heaven, and think hard about what you mean by the word ‘we’. I quoted Ed Stetzer earlier: “We are, it is hard to disagree, in what will be a decades-long struggle with radical Islamists.” Who is this ‘we’? Are ‘we’ really at war? In what ways am ‘I’ part of the ‘we’ that is Australia, and in what ways am ‘I’ a citizen of another country?
  • Remember that the New Testament speaks into a paradigm that has both continuity and discontinuity with the present. We still live in the last days, when the church is a city within the city for the good of the city. However, it’s not clear that Paul or Peter ever imagined that the church might find itself wanting to identify with the rich and powerful against the poor and dispossessed. In relation to the attacks in Paris, someone posted: ‘The LORD is a God who avenges. O God who avenges, shine forth’ (Ps 94:1). But, of course, the Psalmist anticipated a world where the people of God were in solidarity with the weak: ‘They slay the widow and the foreigner; they murder the fatherless’ (Ps 94:6). What this means is that we need to take care how we use Scripture; or rather, take care that we allow Scripture to use us.
  • Remember that it is the gospel that saves, even if the gospel is sometimes hard to hear. Speak graciously and truthfully. Empty words help and heal no one. No one in Paris deserved what happened to them in any human sense (or, perhaps as Jesus put it in Luke 13, all of us deserve it and it’s simply a miracle that we don’t get what we deserve). But Paris, like Sydney, is both an extraordinary and wonderful centre of creativity and culture, and also a corrupted and corrupting community. Celebrate the former; don’t lose hold of the latter. Most Parisians, like most Australians, are deeply opposed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and therefore the only message that can bring hope in the midst of terror; most Parisians, like most Australians, are deeply implicated in an economy of oppression. Give generously, not only to those missionaries who take the gospel to the ‘East’, but also those who seek to replant it in the post-Christian ‘West’. For, be assured, there are no security operations that can secure us from the threat of death. And vote wisely, not just for knee-jerk militarism, but for policies that may actually address terrorism where it is born, even at great financial cost to our lifestyles; not out of fear, but for justice.
  • Remember that the church is the sign of the kingdom. The church is called to be a visible, alternative, prophetic community. Is your church an Anglo-Saxon ghetto in an increasingly international suburb? Is it an enclave of middle-class comfort adjacent to single mothers and the unemployed? If so, it’s time for your church to change, and to change whatever is necessary – save the gospel itself. Set yourselves the goal of having the same demographics as your mission area within 5 years. And if your church is rich, donate a substantial, costly percentage to a church in a poor, ethnically different area, and arrange for regular exchanges and shared events.