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.


9 thoughts on “Remembering Toby While Praying for Paris

  1. More Americans have visited Paris than have visited Beirut. When you can envision the place it makes sense that Paris is the story that would resonate. Perhaps this just speaks to our need to travel more widely and visit places that our beyond our sphere of comfort.

    That said, I didn’t change my profile pic. Not sure why.

  2. Sandy Clayton says:

    I agree, son-in-law. Good point. Paris is one of the well-known “international cities”. It would “naturally” get immediate, world wide attention, which doesn’t negate the other atrocities committed (which I have read about….except for Kenya, which some one recently told me about and that I am checking out). And, for individuals giving much attention to the Paris attack it is normal, as you point out, if, like us, you have lived many years in France and/or have friends and family there. Paying more attention to France at the moment does not mean I am any less horrified, angered, saddened about the other attacks. Thanks for the article.

  3. I love that Facebook has generated so many questions,viewpoints. I love multi-cultural questions. Everyone has more than one cultural affinity. Which one is paramount? I say the one that makes us transcendent with discernment and love. Does your cultural affinity uphold fears and barriers to make you feel safe? Or does it explore and dig out your heart? I say, whichever identity upholds human dignity (your dignity AND the dignity of others) will make you a beacon for humanity, if self-identifying culturally as an American or as a Christian, or a mother, gets you into that tender place, it’s all good news.

  4. Erin Thomas says:

    For Americans, I think there is more connection with France because of the alliance we had with them during WWII and beyond. We have an affinity with them and yes, probably more people have traveled there. But, as others have said, that does not mean that we don’t care about others, but that when it comes closer physically, then it comes closer to our unnamed fears.

  5. Thanks, Rocky…great insight — a reminder that it’s not an either/or. There’s great room for “and.” This also reminded me of Paul’s view of his dual citizenship from Acts 22:

    25 As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”

    26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”

    27 The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”

    “Yes, I am,” he answered.

    28 Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.”

    “But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.

    29 Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.

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