In The Face Of Violence

[We live in the face of violence. Wise, reasoned, thoughtful speech of faith and reason is sorely needed. This personal statement, was sent by Harry Gilmer to his church class after completing a 10-week series on World Religions prior to the attacks in Paris on November 13th. ]

I have learned that in the face of violence we can choose either fear or death. For Americans, it was September 11, 2001. For the French, it was November 13, 2015. These are just two of a long list of violent events that are causing us to begin to think differently about the future. Can we still hope for a better life for all people? Will our grandchildren and their children inherit a world without hope? God forbid! The words of the prophet Isaiah are among the most noble sentiments expressed by man “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more [Isa. 2:4].” These words are full of hope. They look forward to a new era when peoples shall live together in peace. They express the almost universal desire that peace might prevail. For the people of Israel, that was a continual hope more than a reality because they were constantly being invaded. But they also added their own part to the woes of the ancient Middle East. The beat goes on.

I have found hope in two moments of grace witnessed in Paris, one when a reporter interviewed a father and his small son at one of the places where flowers were piled high. It was obvious that the young boy was frightened. Concern was written on his face. He said that the bad guys had guns, and he was afraid that he and his family would have to move. His father explained that the flowers were there to help them remember the people who died. Seeing that his son was not yet comforted, his father said, “They have guns, but we have flowers.” “Will the flowers protect us?” the boy asked. “Yes,” his father answered, “the flowers will protect us.” I think what he was saying is that those thousands who brought flowers expressing love are greater than those eight or nine who brought guns expressing hate. The reporter asked the little boy if he felt better. “Yes,” he said, “I feel better.” This moment of grace helped Paris and the rest of us deal with grief. Not often is there such a mixture of the ordinary grace of flowers and the extraordinary grace communicated in the words of a father.

Antoine Leiris lost his wife Helene Muyal in the November 2015 violence that shook Paris, taking the lies of at least 130 and injuring hundreds more. He penned a poignant tribute to his wife on his Facebook page. He said, “You took away the life of an exceptional human being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred.” Of his son, he said, “He is just 17-months old. He will eat his snack like he does every day, then we will play like we do every day and every day of his life this little boy will affront you by being happy and free. Because you will not have his hatred either.”

Fear is the opposite of faith. When we allow the vicissitudes of life to overcome us, to rob us of our hope and joy, faith is replaced by fear. When we allow our reason to take a vacation, we allow an easy opening for fear. Certainly, there are times when fear is justified, and we should take action to ameliorate the conditions that brought it about. But to simply live in a state of fear is to live without hope. Fear is what drives the Sunni-Shia divide. It is what drives the Wahhabi fundamentalists. It is what drives Christian and Jewish fundamentalism. It is what drives xenophobia whether in America or Europe or the Middle East.

When we give in to fear, we lose our faith, and we fall into hatred. This is the trap that haters have set for the faithful from time immemorial. I will not fall into it and let them make a hater of me. They will not win. I choose a balance of faith and reason. I choose a hope over fear, love over hatred.

Leonardo da Vinci said, “You can never have a greater or a lesser dominion than that over yourself.” Psalms 96 and 98 began with the words, “O sing to the Lord a new song.” And the writer of the Book of Revelation wrote, “And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold I make all things new.’” (Rev. 21:5) My struggle every day is to live out my best self. And I am always up against the rubric, “Does it look and sound like Jesus?” At this point in my life, I know that I will always be a pilgrim, especially when it comes to the most vexing problems of bringing together the life of faith and the life of reasoned inquiry. But there will always be that song on my lips. Because attitude is ours to control. It is the essence of a mature, responsible life. To refuse to take responsibility for one’s own attitude is to deny that life has meaning.