Please stop talking: some reflections on Paris
In the aftermath of the Paris massacres, I was asked to comment. I didn't and couldn't. Indeed, watching the endless 'live news', I was struck by how completely pointless it all felt. Lots of people had died as a result of a coordinated Islamist terrorist attack. All I felt was horror and sorrow. Why would anyone need to know what I felt, given that most right thinking people would surely feel the same? What was the point of the endless news reports? The press releases from all and sundry? Did we need the voyeurism to bring home the horror of the events? Did we need the endless analysis and introspection? Did we need politicians telling us we are at war while simultaneously declaring "never again"? Did we need the interminable Internet arguments about changing your profile picture to a French flag, or asking why we did not recognise the equally horrific deaths in Beirut and Baghdad? I really had nothing to add. Social media was at its worst – infantile, shallow, voyeuristic, and conspiracy theorist abounding. I switched off after five minutes and just prayed.
Anyway, after reflection here are the ten things I wish people wouldn't say after the next Islamist terrorist attack.
1. It's all the fault of Islam. If only life were that simple! There are many factors involved in these attacks, of which Islam is only one. The majority of Muslims deplore the violence, not least because many are themselves the victims of such terrorism. Playing the Islamaphobia card ironically only plays into the hands of the extremists.
2. Islam is a religion of peace. Every leading politician will say this, but I suspect very few of them actually believe it. Reporters will tell us that the ISIS are "a million miles away from mainstream Islam" – as one BBC reporter helpfully informed the world. Really? Have they read the Koran? Do they know anything about Islamic theology or history, or are they just engaging in wishful Western liberal thinking? This is the way we would like things to be, so this is the way they must be. Islam does not mean peace. It means submission. And if you don't submit to the will of Allah as expressed by Mohammed in the Koran, then there is no hope for you. Islam is also not just a religion, it is a political system. There is no church/state divide in Islam. I just simply ask if Islam is the religion of peace and tolerance, can you name one Islamic state where people are free to leave Islam and join another religion? Maybe people should read the Koran or study the life of Mohammed (and contrast it with Christ) before they use the "Islam is a religion of peace" line.
3. It's all the fault of religion.One leading atheist tweeted "You can't decry the attacks of Islamists and pray for Paris at the same time. Two sides of the same coin". Forget the illogicality of the statement; what was disturbing about this was the crass attempt to use this tragedy to promote the anti-religious secularist agenda. As well as seeking to crudely lump all religions together in a twisted version of equality (they are all equally bad and irrational), the blood had hardly dried on the pavements before secular organisations were issuing statements about how secularism was the answer – neatly forgetting that France is supposed to be the ideal secular state. It is doubtful whether atheistic secularism has any answer for Islam.
4. This is an attack on universal human values. President Obama expressed it in his usual eloquent manner: "This is an attack not just on Paris, it is an attack not just on the people of France, but it is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share." It's very nice. But it is demonstrably false, because of two questions. First, what values are we talking about? Liberty? Equality? Fraternity? Do all of humanity share these values? Do the Muslim world? If you are a young unemployed Muslim Algerian living in a Banlieue in Paris, I wonder how 'equal' you feel? And secondly, if all of humanity shares these values, does that mean that those who do not are not human? Classifying your enemy as non-human and identifying your own values as the only truly human ones is for me a radical and chilling step.
5. It's not God's fault. I just don't understand why after every tragedy, some Christians feel the need to apologise for God. Who are we talking to? The people who don't believe in God in the first place? Ourselves? Instead of speaking for God, would it not be better to listen to Him? His word tells us plenty about His character and how in the past, His people have reacted to disaster. I recommend beginning with the Psalms.
6. Let's bomb the xxxx out of them. Some politicians want to do that. President Hollande announced that we are at war; I thought we were already – French planes have been bombing ISIS for months. I'm not sure that retaliatory bombing will result in anything other than more bombs on European soil. Whether it works or not, Christians should not be exulting in bombs being dropped and people being killed. Ironically The Sun ran a headline the day after the attacks which read "Jihad it coming", rejoicing in the death of so-called Jihadi John. The editorial declared, "We richly celebrate his assassination and hope more follow". Donald Trump announced that we should "bomb the xxxx out of ISIS". I am not surprised by Trump or the shouts of approval that greeted him, but I am disgusted that his words have been quoted approvingly in some churches. It is embarrassing when a pastor declares that "bombing the xxxx out of them is a biblical response", and the congregation give a standing ovation.
7. We are all Parisians. No we are not. Some are, and some of us have good friends in Paris. Many of us have visited, and feel this attack a lot more than when they occur in places further afield. I can understand, because I share it, the feeling that somehow the killings in France are more horrific, because they are more like 'us'. But we do need a wider perspective on how many people have died in the world from violence, including the 43 who died on Thursday in Beirut. We can and should empathise with Paris, but Christians have a more important identity than being European; we have brothers and sisters in Christ in every land.
8. Let's all hold hands and sing Imagine. Coldplay at their concert in LA held a minute's silence and then sang John Lennon's Imagine. A video of a pianist playing Imagine at the scene of the crime went viral. "Imagine no religion", we sing, as though religion were the sole cause of violence and terrorism. Strangely no-one seems to think of the hypocrisy of the wealthy singing about imagining "no possessions too". If religion was taken away, I have a sneaking suspicion that people would still have plenty "to kill or die for". Singing Imagine may make one somewhat smug, as though 'we' have the answers and 'they' are the problem.
9. Keep the refugees out. The conspiracy theorists are having a field day. They tell us that ISIS are invading Europe with swarms of refugees. Of course there will be some who intend to cause harm who come under the guise of refugees, but there are many more who are fleeing ISIS and the terror. Can we not welcome them? Especially those of us who are Christians. Muslims are humans too, made in the image of God and needing the good news of Jesus as much as anyone else. Instead of being afraid can we not rejoice that the Lord has brought Mohammed to the mountain? And who knows but that in the providence of God, as Western liberal society rejects its own foundations, Muslims might be used to help us reconsider what we are throwing away.
10. Jesus is the answer. Of course I believe that Jesus is the answer. But just saying it is not really helpful. Again, we have to ask who are we saying it to. The trouble is that we need to get people asking the right questions first. We hold services to express solidarity, help people to think, and to bring us together as a community – although how that works in a secular multi-faith society is a bit of an issue. Is it blasphemous for me to wonder whether this is not much more than therapeutic civic religion window dressing? Can I dare to suggest that a more appropriate Christian response might be to:
a) Pray and repent.
b) Calm down and think, as Peter Hitchens has urged.
c) Welcome and serve Muslims who come to this country.
d) Know our own faith better.
e) Not fear. Jesus is Lord and the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church. Let's look to him and not just our own prejudices, preconceptions and fears.
David Robertson is the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and director of Solas CPC, Dundee.