An Advent reflection by way of Paris
I am sitting in a coffee shop with free Wi-Fi. Twitter is at my thumbs.
There is no doubt the photographer has captured the moment in this woman. Inside the Stade de France, in the famed City of Lights, in a bastion of Western civilization, she is leaning desperately into her boyfriend’s shoulder. Shock, horror, uncertainty—they are writ large across her face. She is painfully exposed within her disbelieving eyes.
I ache. My body physically hurts.
Where is the relief? I begin to ask as my Americano grows cold.
Then, as if pulling back, as if spreading out a giant panorama with my arms, I enlarge the question: Is there any relief from this?
The next photo in the Internet’s gallery takes me to a body lying covered on a street, in the 11th Arrondissement.
Humanity has gone still. There is no standing or leaning. The person is completely, now-and-forever helpless. He or she is breathless. Life has been stolen.
At this point, I decide to stop scrolling Twitter. (Modern life has made it far too easy to sit and scroll, I muse.)
For a moment, I even resist the urge to join the Facebook feeding frenzy: the seeming hunger to find a social space to unload all my anger and anxiety.
Instead, I pause to acknowledge what the photographer has shown me. It is the strangest sort of gift. How do I let these images into my humanity? Could I even bear the weight?
For now, all that can be said is: there are two people before me. They are clamoring for my attention above the noisy, showy violence, above the noisy, showy media. Before the answers and reasons, before the solutions and responses, before the important talking points interwoven with religion and culture and politics, there are two people before me.
A thought invades like a cancer: It shouldn’t take severely twisted men (and women) dressed in black masks to un-mask the rest of us.
Yet, despite our best (progressive!) efforts to ignore it, minimize it, avoid it, contain it, or destroy it the face of evil continues to be hell-bent on showing itself every day in our lives. We are left to face it, if we are able.
My heart beats faster now. I check my pulse.
I walk outside the coffee shop, leaving my phone inside. Naturally, it is raining. And, of course, it's that slanting sort of rain.
Without warning, my mind gallops into an open field and in a million disparate directions.
I come face-to-face with the persistent, peculiar questions about Islam-inspired ideologies.
As a persistent, peculiar Christian, I stare at the historical trajectory and contemporary phenomenon known as religious violence.
I gawk at “the weird fertility of violence,” in general, with its crocodile effect.
Looking around, I notice the urgent need for a thoughtful, vigilant, moral leadership from the community of nations. Obviously, this is some form of a “clash of civilizations."
But it mostly concerns the battle between fundamentalism and freedom. For its part, fundamentalism comes to the party wearing any tribal clothes it can find in the closet: race, nationalist zeal, religious belief. Any of them and all of them can be used as cover—as excuse.
With both eyes, just over a ridge, I locate a striking forest of American and democratic values. My heart swells with an appropriate pride.
Even so, the intersection where individual and communal liberties collide with the responsibilities of national security is a wood fraught with tensions.
I look off in the distance. Almost unnoticeable, in some corner, there’s a beautiful assortment of wild flowers—immigrants and refugees, I imagine.
Surely they are more than their ethnicity or religious affiliation, more than their colors? It is their dignity that waits in between the lines of sound public policy and the trending politics of fear. As it turns out, they are people constantly in waiting.
I turn around.
For me, the challenges are personal. For the past eight years, I’ve been energized to practice and inspire small gestures of peacemaking and reconciliation between Christians and Muslims. Hard work has now been made harder.
But diminishing conflict and addressing its roots are only possible when it becomes personal, when it turns relational. Healing social divisions requires the human.
Right about now, I hear a crowd murmuring like an echo: It is the prerogative of governments and nations to use violent force when necessary to counter extremism—to counter ideas which have gone unimaginably violent, brutal, and inhumane.
On the other hand, a gust of wind blows behind me. I am reminded that ideas alone have the power to establish enduring peace between people, because it takes a specific kind of culture to build good societies. And you can’t get there by way of military operations or the positive capabilities of the free market.
There, I said it.
I lie down in the grass, in the tall weeds. My mind is very weary.
The next day, at first light, the photographers’ images come to me again in the grass, in the tall weeds. They wake me, gently and harshly.
In the young woman’s face, isn’t that our humanity that appears visibly shaken? In that lifeless body on the street—covered, with no face visible—isn’t that our life that has become hidden from us?
Part of us, I think, is lost to us in these moments.
We are all in need of recovery—in order to re-face what we are seeing.
I stand up. I begin to feel my face. I touch Paris by way of Advent
How strange, this divine relief from a terrifying experience—from the God-awful brokenness and unsightly-ness.
It is said that the God of life has entered our tragedy and has borne its weight.
He suffered the tragedy and its devastating effects. He went prone and lifeless for a while only to wake up; in order to get up; in order to re-humanize the world.
I take an enormous breath.
I say honestly to myself, Not everyone will believe or cling to this relief with any real hope—including, most notably, many professing Christians or Jesus-followers. Some prefer to believe only in that other world, which is to come. And quite a few cling to havens of apocalypse or shelters of fear as if there is no better face to show this old world.
But genuine Christian hope is like a morning star in the dead of night.
As the story goes, Jesus is the true light. In the face of darkness and desperation, this unique star offers itself time and again—like a mysterious wisdom hovering over the scattered heartache below. “In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus said during his last days. “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
He must have been talking about his soon-to-be prone, breathless, lifeless body—a solidarity with humanity that is unfathomable.
He must have been talking about resurrection, about waking up in order to get up in order to redeem the evil days in every age.
He must have been talking about believing and clinging to a kind of overcoming that comes as an earthly relief.
Jesus overcame what we are left to face in this life—including unrelenting evil and idolatrous violence; including fear and hopelessness—so that we could re-face it—all of it—with at least some measure of relief.
He overcame the world so humanity could mediate his graces in the world, so that we could re-humanize the world he still loves—for the sake of each other.
I take another enormous breath.
I walk back inside the coffee shop to grab my things. It is time for work, and I am ready.
This piece was originally published on December 11, 2015, at Off the Page.