Last night, our monthly Buddhist-Christian dialogue took a sudden turn in view of the deeply disturbing news reaching us from Paris. We decided to change the focus of conversation after dinner to share how we process such violent tragedies as humans and as adherents of our particular faith traditions (For more on our dialogue project, refer here).
There was almost a mystical bond that formed around the table. Perhaps we all sensed more than most times our need for connection as humans given our world’s vulnerability. They say there are no atheists in foxholes. Whether that statement is true or not, it is hard to philosophize or theologize in the abstract in a foxhole, especially about our humanity.
The first person to share after dinner last night was my Zen Buddhist friend and French native, François. As one Evangelical Christian friend noted later, François’s comments left no room for us to posture in the attempt to impress others with self-important talk. François did not speak in the abstract, but shared openly about his emotional state, and how he could not afford to allow his anger to seize control of him, nor to distance himself from anyone, even the perpetrators of this unjustified horror. All that counted around the table was making connections that lifted us beyond self to bond with one another, and with those bound up with the tragedy in Paris and beyond.
President Obama spoke of France as the United States’ oldest ally, and of our commitment as Americans to stand with France (Refer here for his comments). A friend of mine wrote on Facebook of how Parisians had saved his daughter’s life several years ago, and how he now prayed for the doctors and staff in caring for the severely injured. My friendship with a French national also drew me closer to the evolving tragedy across the ocean. While I have a sliver of French ancestry in me, the human connection to my friend François at the table made the sliver grow to a chunk. The law of relational gravity is at work in each of these instances. We are drawn closer to one another in good and bad, to rejoice or mourn, depending on the situation, based on how much we sense a relational connection.
Do I sense the same kind of connection to Iraqis, Turkish and other victims of terrorist acts? President Obama stated that the attack(s) in Paris was “an attack on all humanity” (Refer here to an article on the subject). Indeed, it was, and so are the other terrorist attacks that have occurred in non-Western states and regions. To the extent I don’t sense the urgency of addressing each of these ordeals, to that extent I don’t sense the relational connection.
We tend to blame this or that group or ideology when such tragedies occur. While no doubt there are responsible parties who have acted most irresponsibility and need to be brought to justice, we must not point the finger and absolve ourselves of any connection. Christians, Muslims, Deists, Secularists, even Buddhists, have all been known to carry out gross acts of inhumanity against our fellows. France’s own history includes periods of excessive negative influence and heavy handedness on the part of the Monarchy and State Church. The French Revolution did away with the old order, but more oppression ensued at its onset through the Reign of Terror (Refer here to this article on the topic). The Religious Wars of Europe involving Catholics and Protestants prior to that period, the Crusades involving Christian and Muslim warfare in medieval times, and atheistic socialist regimes in the USSR, China and Cambodia since that time, reveal that ideologies of various kinds, no matter how grand the ideals, can get the better of humans for worse.
In the current situation, many people are very quick to condemn Islam, or religion, or even secularism, depending on one’s own ideological stripe. This would be a gross mistake. To build on François’s point above, we cannot afford to make sweeping judgments in a state of anger. All we do is end up sweeping others away, and ourselves in the process. We need to make the French connection, the human connection, the connection with all people, not simply the victims, but also the victimizers. Such a connection should not be taken to mean some shallow form of sentimentality that discounts the terrorists’ responsibility for their heinous acts of terror. Yes, they must be brought to justice, whatever that might entail. But we must all take a deep look within ourselves and ask how far we are willing to go to build a relational connection with those outside our orbits of relational gravity. We must do everything in our human power and graced by transcendence to make immanent the humane connection with those who are disillusioned, who feel left out, and who can be easily pulled down by ideological extremes that would destroy us all. We cannot afford the isolation.