This morning we sit in shock, despair, and anger… We are mourning for the lives lost; we are confused at the senselessness of such acts as terrorized the people of Paris. Our minds, our bodies, our spirits, feel numb with grief that we live in a world where people are capable of doing unspeakable acts of violence against one another.
Over the past 36 hours, outpourings of support, thoughts, and prayers for Paris have saturated social media. Our first reaction after an event like this is to think of those who are affected- the victims enduring the horror. For many of us, especially in the Christian community, we are inclined to prayer.
Yet what inevitably follows, especially in the course of nonstop media coverage, is an overwhelming sense of fear. This terrorist group, which profanes the name of Islam, has grown increasingly more powerful and organized, and world leaders and governments appear to be shocked that they were able to carry out such a coordinated series of attacks. We begin to think, “Could it happen here?” The images of bodies draped in white sheets and mobilized military personnel, in combination with grainy videos of terrorist training camps inextricably links those events to the “what if” questions that plague our minds.
And we freeze.
Fear leads to paralysis; despair. It is the same gut dropping feeling Jairus felt upon being told that his daughter, his little girl, had died. Our children represent our greatest hopes, our fondest desires, our loftiest dreams. And his child has died.
The fear is overwhelming.
It is on mornings like today when we need to listen to Jesus’ words the most: “Do not be afraid. Only believe.” We need to actively hear Jesus’ words: “Do not be afraid. Only believe.” God speaks into our fear. God holds our hearts in our despair.
We cannot give in to fear. Not because then “the terrorists win.” Not because “we are stronger than that.” Not even because “it gets better.” We cannot give in to fear because with our hope in Christ, we have nothing to fear. We do not fear, because we believe.
We believe that our God is more powerful than the forces of evil that threaten to undo the world. We believe that Christ’s resurrection put an end to death, and that we will live eternally with Him. We believe that the Spirit that flows through our communities is more enduring and more binding than anything that dares to separate us.
This morning, we pray for Paris. But it is not only Paris that we should be praying for. A meme going around Facebook says, “It is the world. It is a world in which Beirut, reeling from bombings two days before Paris, is not covered in the press. A world in which a bomb goes off at a funeral in Baghdad and not one person’s [Facebook] status update says ‘Baghdad’… [We] pray for [a] world that blames a refugee crisis for a terrorist attack. [For a world] That does not pause to differentiate between the attacker and the person running from the very same thing you are. [We] pray for a world where people walking across countries for months, their only belongings upon their backs, are told they have no place to go. [We] Say a prayer for Paris by all means, but pray more for the world that does not have a prayer, for those who no longer have a home to defend. For a world that is falling apart in all corners, and not simply in the towers and cafes we find so familiar.”
Last month, following the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, President Obama noted that, “our prayers are not enough.” This morning, that simple sentiment is echoing in my heart. Our prayers are important, absolutely. Yet if all we do is pray, then are we not showing a belief that prayer is a magic answer to the world’s problems? Prayer that does not lead to action or change on the part of the pray-er is merely accomplishing the task of making the people on their knees feel better about themselves. Yes, we believe in a God who can intervene, but it seems to be that Christians for centuries have been praying for an end to war and violence, and our world still has war and violence.
A friend of mine wrote on social media yesterday that, “although I am a person of faith, I find myself vaguely bothered by all the expressions of prayers for these situations- even my own. When I say simply that I’m praying, it means I feel helpless to do anything else, but the hatred and violence of this world shows no signs of being solved by divine intervention; only our radically peaceful action helps. Perhaps we should be praying for the courage to do.”
We must be moved to act.
This might be the hardest thing to hear in the wake of such horrific violence; as Jesus commanded, our response to violence, is not to perpetuate more violence. Violence only begets violence which begets violence, and so on. Instead: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.
If our prayers do not also include those who disseminate vicious attacks, then we have failed to follow Christ. If our prayers lift up only the dead, and not the widow, the orphan, and the alien among us, then we have failed to follow Christ.
This morning, it is impossible for us to consider blessing those who have killed the innocent. That is because we are human; but we should strive to. This morning, it is unthinkable that we could love the terrorists; but we are called to. Preacher, you may say, how can you ask me to pray for a murderer as well as the murdered?! Because they are God’s children, too.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the poet and Zen master, wrote in a poem, “Even as they/ strike you down/ with a mountain of hatred and violence;/ even as they step on you and crush you/ like a worm,/ even as they dismember and disembowel you,/ remember, brother,/ remember:/ man is not our enemy” (71).
It is hard for us to not be afraid. It is hard for us not to fear when so much is left unknown. Perhaps that is why we turn to the poets’ and the songwriters and the artists in times like these. Jesus’ exhortation to not be afraid is powerful, but it is also very hard to feel the morning after.
I want to close with words by the poet and Professor Nikki Giovanni, who spoke to students and faculty at a convocation the day after the shooting at Virginia Tech, the same school at which she teaches.
She wrote, “We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning… We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly, we are brave enough to bend to cry, and we are sad enough to know that we must laugh again… We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory, neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father build with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy…” (Giovanni). Amen.
Giovanni, Nikki. “Transcript of Nikki Giovanni’s Convocation Address.” Convocation. Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia. Transcript of Nikki Giovanni’s Convocation Address. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. <http://www.remembrance.vt.edu/2007/archive/giovanni_transcript.html>.
Hạnh, Nhất. Being Peace. Ed. Arnold Kotler. Berkeley, CA: Parallax, 1987. Print.