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First Sunday after Epiphany: “Searching for the Light: The Paris Shootings”

 

Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows

Genesis 1:1-5

Mark 1:4-11

 

We are searching for the light this Epiphany in a world dark with violence.  Hundreds of thousands are pouring into the streets of Paris today, shaken by the cruelty of this week’s terrorist attacks, defiant in a show of unity. Where do we stand?

 

As Americans, our values are deeply rooted in the French ideals of equality, liberty, and brotherhood; in the freedoms of press and expression being fortified today. And as Christians, we are part of the lineage of Abrahamic religions, along with Judaism and Islam, that teach forgiveness and compassion.

 

That is our heritage. Those are our ideals. But how are you and I reacting in what we say and do in this dark time? How are we living out our ideals?

 

That is what the reaffirmation of our baptismal vows is all about today. As your deacon, I will ask: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Every human being: not just those we agree with or those who share our values. Every human being.

 

And we will answer, “I will, with God’s help.” Because it takes God’s help to see Christ in all persons when we feel threatened or injured or afraid; when the world is dark with injustice, as it was in Jesus’ lifetime.

 

We are searching for the light: “Let there be light.” Yet Jesus told us, “You are the light of the world.”[1] And I ask you to be that force of light, an agent of clarity in this troubled time, by first listening, as Jesus did, to those unlike you, those on the margins, those whose voices you might be tempted to tune out or reject. This is the way of peace we vow to follow today.

 

Muslim leaders and clerics worldwide are denouncing the crimes committed in the name of their religion, reminding us that those who commit them violate all precepts of Islam and are clearly non-believers.

 

As your interfaith minister, I share with you this morning one of these perspectives from Omid Safi, Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. An American leader of progressive Muslims, Safi offers an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism, and he often speaks on Islam in popular media, such PBS, NPR, and NBC.

 

As people of light, I ask you to listen to an abbreviated version of his article, “9 Points to Ponder on the Paris Shooting and Charlie Hebdo.”[2] Please see me after the service if you’d like the link to the full article to reflect on what you heard and learn more about Omid Safi.

 

What follows in this sermon are Safi’s words. Here I begin to read:

 

“As a person of faith, times like these try my soul. Times like these are precisely when we need to turn to our faith. We turn inward, not because the answers are easy, but because not turning inward is unthinkable in moments of crisis.

 

So let us begin, with the human beings. Let it always be about the human beings:

• Stéphane Charbonnier
• Bernard Maris
• Georges Wolinski
• Jean Cabut
• Bernard Verlhac
• Philippe Honoré
• Elsa Cayat
• Michel Renaud
• Frederic Boisseau
• Franck Brinsolaro
• Moustapha Ourrad, a Muslim copy editor
• Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim police officer who died protecting the cartoonists from Muslim terrorists

 

And brothers Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi—the alleged shooters, with a legacy of crime —and Hamyd Mourad.

 

I try to resist the urge to turn the victims into saintly beings, or the shooters into embodiments of evil. We’re all imperfect beings, walking contradictions of selfishness and beauty. And sometimes, it results in acts of unspeakable atrocity, like the actions of the Kouachi brothers and Mourad.

 

So how do we process this horrific news? Let me suggest nine steps:

 

1. Begin with grief.
We begin where we are, where our hearts are. Let us take the time to bury the dead, to mourn, and to grieve. Let us mourn that we’ve created a world in which such violence seems to be everyday. That our children are growing up in a world where violence is so banal.

 

2. Yes, this is (partially) about freedom of speech.
Satire, especially political satire, is a time-honored tradition. At best, it’s a political tool to invert hierarchies, to disturb and unsettle. This unsettling is necessary for the education of individuals and communities—but it’s never smooth or graceful.

 

Here’s the thing about freedom of speech: There are few red lines left. In an age where almost anyone can get his/her writings published online, censoring anyone has become all but impossible. Yes, freedom of speech includes the right to offend.

 

So how does one counter offensive words or images? Had the shooters in Paris actually bothered opening the Qur’an, they would have known to ‘repel evil with something that is lovelier.’ Had they sought to embody the Qur’an, they wouldn’t have shot down cartoonists but made sure to shoot down prejudice by embodying luminous qualities that would transform the society one person at a time.

 

3. We don’t know the political motivations of the shooters.
The healthy and spiritually sane thing to do is to pause, grieve, and reach out to one another. But we want explanations. Some of the news coverage has been referring to the shooters as ‘Islamists.’ If this means people committed to establishing an Islamic state, there’s no proof of that commitment on the part of the shooters. It seems more prudent to simply call them what we know they were: violent criminals.

 

4. Islam doesn’t tell the whole story. And we may not know for some time how much of the story it does tell.

Here’s how the lawyer of one of the Paris shooters described him in 2005: ‘Kouachi lived his entire life in France and was not particularly religious. . . . He drank, smoked pot, slept with his girlfriend, and delivered pizzas for a living.’

 

We’ve seen this pattern again and again: the Tsarnaev brothers were seen drinking and smoking pot; visiting porn shops and nude bars. Not exactly models of pious, observant Muslims.

 

There is no mythical Islam floating above time and space. Islam is always inhabited by real life human beings. In this case, it might be good to look more at the political grievances of the shooters than into the inspiration of some idealized model of ‘Islam.’

 

5. Let’s avoid the cliché of ‘satire vs. Islam.’
Muslims themselves have a proud legacy of political satire. In Iran, Turkey, and Egypt, there are many journalists and satirists languishing in prisons because they have dared to speak the truth—often against autocratic and dictatorial rulers.

 

6. Let’s not overdo the Muslim objection to images of the Prophet.
Many Muslims today don’t approve of such images, or for that matter images depicting Christ or Moses (also venerated as prophets by Muslims). But South Asia, Iran, Turkey, and Central Asia—centers of Muslim civilization for centuries—had a rich tradition of miniatures that depicted all the prophets. And let’s give Muslims some credit. What many of them object to are not pietistic miniatures, but rather violent cartoons lampooning Muhammad.

 

7. Context is not apology.
This is perhaps the most sensitive of the points. There’s no point apologizing for actions that deserve no defense. The shooting of artists, satirists, journalists, the shooting of any human being, is an atrocity that stands as its own condemnation.

 

To ask for, insist upon, and provide context, however, is part of what we’re called to do. No event, no human being, no action stands alone. And even this vile action in Paris—just like the vile actions of 9/11 or the wars in Middle East— take place in a broader context.

 

French society, like many other European societies, is awash in a wave of anti-immigrant xenophobia. Anti-immigration parties routinely gain about 18 percent of the vote in popular elections, and measures justified under ‘secularism’ target almost exclusively the Muslim minority. A Pew Global poll shows that 27 percent of all French people openly acknowledge disliking Muslims. Numbers in other European countries are even higher: 33 percent in Germany, 64 percent in Italy. Clearly, today’s Europe has a Muslim problem.

 

Yes, this is partially about an ideological appropriation of religion and the issues of free speech, but it is free speech applied disproportionately against a community that is racially, religiously, and socioeconomically on the margins of France—and many other European societies. To purely treat this as a freedom of speech issue without also dealing with the broader issues of xenophobia is missing the mark.

 

Let us defend the best parts of our civilizations, the ideals of freedom and liberty and equality, and let us have the integrity and honesty to also state that many people both inside and outside our borders have often experienced Western powers as more a nightmare than a dream.

 

For African-Americans and Native Americans in the United States, for the colonial subjects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the United States, France, and England have always been experiments that have often fallen short of the lofty ideals we proclaim. This is not to cast aspersions on the beauty of those ideals, but to always hold ourselves in check, to always be aware that the tension between being civilized and savage is not one that divides civilizations and nations, but a tension inside each and every one of us, each and every one of our communities.

 

8. The shooters were not avenging Muhammad’s honor.
They have done more to demean people’s impression of the religion of the Prophet than Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists ever did. If the shooters wanted to do something to bring honor to the Prophet, they could begin by actually embodying the manners and ethics of the Prophet.

They could start by studying his life and teachings, where they would see that Muhammad actually responded to those who had persecuted him through forgiveness and mercy.

 

9. So, how do we respond?
Crises try the souls of women and men, bringing to the surface both the scum and the cream. What will surface in France?

 

Here’s what I hope for: that this crisis will bring out the best in French society, and not the worst. That the values of the French republic—equality, liberty, and brotherhood—will be affirmed for all 66 million citizens, including the 5 million Muslim citizens.

 

That the response will be not merely a full-throated defense of freedom of speech, but also a renewed commitment to a robust and pluralistic democracy, one which encompasses marginalized communities.

 

Let us hope that the French response will be a lot like that of Norway’s prime minister Jens Stoltenberg who said just two days after the shooting during the memorial ceremony: ‘We are still shocked by what has happened, but we will never give up our values. Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity. . . . We will answer hatred with love.’ Yes! More democracy, more openness, more humanity.

 

Let us hope that it is not merely the freedom of speech that we hold sacred, but the freedom to live a meaningful life, though others find it problematic.

 

Let us hope that the freedoms to speak, to pray, to dress as we wish, to have food in our stomach and to have a roof over our head, to live free of the menace of violence, the freedom to be human are seen as intimately intertwined.

 

Yes, let us cherish and stand up for the dignity of the freedom of speech. And let us always remember that speech, like religion, is always embodied by human beings. And in order to honor freedom of speech, we need to honor the dignity of human beings.

 

May we reach out to one another in compassion
May we embrace the full humanity of all of humanity.”

Amen.

 

~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Interfaith Associate for Parish Life

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

January 11, 2015

 

 

 



[1] Matthew 5:14.

[2] http://www.onbeing.org/blog/9-points-to-ponder-on-the-paris-shooting-and-charlie-hebdo/7193