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Grace Helps

Here it is, the Tuesday after the Paris attacks and I almost feel obligated to say something about it. To say nothing might imply that it isn’t important, that it isn’t tragic. But what to say among the tidal wave of words?

Seventy-two hours out and it feels like everything has already been said. We’re drowning in opinions, agendas, controversies, and pleas not to politicize this. As President Obama said, “Folks just wanna pop off!”

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” Nope, probably not that.

Silence seems like the best response. Zechariah before the birth of his son. Heaven after the seventh seal is opened. Don’t be Peter at the Transfiguration, yammering and yapping and needing to “do something.” But silence is misconstrued as being unconcerned, uninformed. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (sic) to do nothing.” And even if my mouth is silent, my mind and soul are churning.

No, I won’t change my Facebook profile picture to bleu, blanc, et rouge to express solidarity with the French people—though it is fine if you do. (I don’t re-post stories about angel sightings or pass on requests from school teachers to see how many “likes” their classroom can get, either.) Maybe it feels a bit trifling to me. Even more, I think it is read—wrongly, no doubt—as tacit endorsement of whatever France plans to do next. We know that politicians now must sabre rattle and spout about “mercilessly hunting down.” That is leadership, after all. Of course, it was this sort of reckless action after 9/11 that is still at the root of much of this. I am no military strategist, but I call it “World War II thinking.” I recall after 9/11, an old World War II vet pronouncing confidently, “Our troops are marching on Kabul” as if it were Hitler’s Berlin. Capturing Kabul would end it all. Now France can bomb Raqqa, “ISIS’s capital”—as if it has one.

By writing about Paris, am I being culturally insensitive, maybe imperialistic toward Beirut and Baghdad and …? Why does breast cancer get a whole month of attention from the NFL? What about pancreatic and ovarian cancer? There is no end to trouble and tragedy. But maybe there is an end to people’s compassion and attention. That isn’t commendable, it just is. The house fire down the block will always receive more buzz than the typhoon across the globe. Not an excuse, but an explanation. Many Americans have been to Paris. They have family photos in front of the Eiffel Tower. As a college student, they spent a semester there. It makes for affinity.

Do I, in the paragraph above, sound even a bit like Donald Trump and his buffoons railing against “political correctness”? Please, tell me not. We all can see that really they just want to continue to be the privileged oafs they are, rather than welcome new voices to the conversation. I don’t think that’s what I’m saying.

Can be people be stretched and better informed and more compassionate? Let us hope so. But probably not by shaming and scolding and an attitude “I am cooler than you because I was concerned about fill-in-the-blank before you.” That the people of Beirut might feel angry and hurt, slighted and indignant—I get that. That my colleague from Colorado feels that way seems a bit strident.

I think of my transgender friends. They’re used to people using the wrong pronouns, feeling a bit tongue-tied around them. But they are so gracious and patient. As long as they sense the person is making a good-faith effort, they understand the unintentional clumsiness and occasional mistake. I am so grateful for their humble spirit.

A friend wrote this, “When someone says something kinda dumb and offensive, we have a choice whether to offer the snappy retort or to respond with empathy. I remember the first time a feminist made a point of stopping at the door I was holding open for her. It hurt, but she gently explained the point, and I gladly took it to heart. The journey from when, where, and how I grew up to here has seen lots of those kinds of lessons: on race, gender, sexuality, religion, you name it. The simple fact is, I’m not where I should be, but in many respects I don’t even know where that would be. Grace helps.” Yes, indeed. Grace helps.

Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


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