Remembering Toby While Praying for Paris

I awoke Saturday hopeful of a news story that would explain away Friday night’s terrorist attacks in Paris. Of course, there was no such explanation. There was only a climbing death toll. But there was also something else, something that first unsettled and then angered me. I spent the remainder of the weekend wrestling with it.

It is the critique of social media-accelerated grieving the attacks in Paris had produced, in light of similar attacks in Beirut and Iraq that produce nothing of the kind. There’s a poem being shared expressing amazement at the response to the attacks and grieving the lack of like responses to attacks in Beirut and Baghdad. There’s a New York Times piece calling Beirut “forgotten.” Rolling Stone has an article saying Beirut is not only forgotten but ignored by the western media.

Journalist Martin Belam is helpfully pushing back against the claim that the media have ignored terrorist attacks outside Paris, writing on Medium, “Search Google News and you will find pages and pages of reports of the attacks in Beirut. Pages and pages and pages. Over 1,286 articles in fact — lots of which pre-date the attacks in Paris.”

But I suspect the perception of a disproportional response has more to do with Facebook than it does CNN. It’s about those bleu, blanc, rouge tinted profile pics (including mine), the safety check feature Facebook employed in Paris, and the #prayforparis hashtag.

I get it. All life is valuable. Murdered Parisians are not inherently more worthy of grief and attention than murdered Syrians or Lebanese. The western media narrative will necessarily dwell overmuch on Paris. I get it.

But I’m recalling a conversation with my friend Toby in seminary. Toby (who is from Michigan) often insisted that his faith was his citizenship, and so he would say, “I’m not an American. I’m a Christian.” To which I would answer, “No. You’re both.” On and on it would go. I’ve replayed that conversation in my mind countless times since Friday.

At stake for me is the contextual nature of our lived experience, including our experience of God, the church, our personal faith, and, in this case, national tragedy. Two things seem true to me at once. A posture of a-contextual religiosity that demands an equal measure of lament for all victims everywhere is distinctly Christian (see the parable of the Good Samaritan). But it strikes me as unhelpful and unhealthy to criticize people for their contextually-conditioned grief and to demand they feel as bad about things outside their context as inside. I think that breeds resentment and a decrease in compassion for all.

Maybe the road to equal appreciation for all life leads through more focused compassion and solidarity, not less. Maybe the only way to pray for the world is to pray for particular places–no, particular people and peoples. And maybe starting with peoples with whom we share bonds of cultural affinity isn’t all wrong.

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