Paris attacks call us to deep reflection

What happened in the French capital was the world's affair. And one must ask why

Paris attacks call us to deep reflection

By Ken Letts

December 3 2015The Revd Ken Letts, who recently retired to Melbourne after serving for 20 years in France, first as a parish priest, then as Archdeacon of France, for which the French Government awarded him the title Chevalier (Knight) of the National Order of Merit, reflects on why Paris has been the target of recent terrorist attacks.

When I was asked to write a reflection on the events that happened in Paris on 13 November, I was walking past the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road. I could see the Gallery itself reflected in the water that surrounds the building, although from another perspective, as it were; and should I have taken a few steps closer to that water, I would have seen myself in that reflection as well. And so this small piece began.

In the days following that dreadful Friday, there have been many articles in the electronic media – some good, some simply silly – about the events that happened a world away from us. There have also been some commentaries and analyses – some of which have been helpful, others less so. But the thing that came through most clearly was that what happened in the French capital was the world’s affair. And one must ask why.

Many have said that similar – or worse – events have taken place recently in Africa or in the Lebanon or in other places, atrocities which received neither the coverage nor the response as did the murders in Paris. Why? Simply because France, and more specifically, Paris, has become for us an icon of the high-points of human civilisation, and of the human spirit: her place in the world of architecture – the cathedral of Notre Dame, the windows of Chartres, the chapel of Matisse; in the world of art – Watteau, Fragonard, the Impressionists, Chagall, Bonnard: in the world of literature – Racine, Molière, Hugo, Verne, Yourcenar, Camus; in the world of philosophy; in the world of political thought; in the world of food, fashion or film. And so one could go on. The point is this: that these things have delighted and extended human thought and experience – be that thought believing or agnostic or atheist – and that which seeks to diminish France diminishes us. The world of the late 19th century heard with horror of the Prussians surrounding Paris, almost starving her citizens to death; the post-world war world of the 1940s and ’50s shivered with dismay at Hitler’s (thank God, not obeyed) order to destroy the city completely, out of jealousy and spite; and now our world of the young 21st century hears with abhorrence of Friday 13th, 2015.

Why should places like a stadium or a theatre or restaurants – places of human enjoyment – be the targets for such violence? Because there are those within Islam who find in the Quran warrant for their puritanism and violence. Clearly such things do not appear in the daily life of the majority of Muslims throughout our world, but they should be recognised to be there as realities. We should not forget that the remarkably swift spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries was by conquest; nor that the destruction of Cordoba – that epitome of Islamic culture and learning – with its great library and scholars was carried out by Islamic puritans well before the Granada Caliphate was politically taken over by the Catholic Kings.

But the forces of IS do more: they appear not only to hate us, but to despise us. And I would think that this is where our own reflection might appear in the pool.

IS and its adherents look at our society, and see, not the beauty and the patrimony that is there, but social banality and a moral vacuum, judging them to be destructive of social cohesion and the common good. It is this on which they focus, and it is this they approach in the same way (unwittingly) as Voltaire approached the aridness he perceived in 18th century Christianity: Ecrasez l’infame! Stamp it out! Yet, effectively, we have said the same thing. We have taken our patrimony and simply ceased to love it – or even recognise it. We have taken the idea of tradition and, rather than see it as the vehicle by which essential things are passed on from generation to generation, have imposed upon it our own inadequate definition to make it refer only to that which is seen to be ‘old-fashioned’ and should be got rid of. The idea of communal good has been sacrificed upon the altar of individual satisfaction.

The Liturgy of the Christian Church has, from its very inception, been the means by which disparate people are gathered together to form one community, the place in which words, which are more than human wisdom, can be heard, the assembly from which we are sent out to live a New Life. Yet too often, in our gatherings for worship, we are subject to no more than quasi-entertainment, or to vacuity, or to over-weaning individualism. But surely this is not how it should be; and if it is like that, who could blame people wanting to stamp it out. Perversely, we seem determined to refuse to acknowledge that our society is built upon a Judaeo-Christian foundation, a tradition which is not moribund but which still has the power to transform the world through the hearts and minds of those who believe.

We are on the cusp of the new Liturgical Year, and in those weeks leading up to the celebration of the Incarnation of God, we will hear how an ordinary woman became, through love and faith, the Theotokos, the God-Bearer, and of how her Child was received with joy by those of good will. How is it that we have allowed that joy and goodwill to become boredom and bonhomie?

Many have been the suggestions on how to avoid the conflict and warfare that seem to be looming. The Son of Mary, when grown up, once looked with love and tears upon the city of God’s Dwelling Place and commented that if only she had known the things that belong to her peace. Later on, he said to his followers that such things are only achieved through prayer and fasting.

We should never forget that the words of the Word are eternal, and have something to do with the foundation of the world.