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By Stephen Berg

One small perspective on the Paris attacks


We grieve for the families and friends of those murdered in Paris, we feel relief hearing from friends and family who are safe. Too, we are thrown into confusion, and again wonder about our shifting world, suddenly more uncertain, dangerous, threatening, incomprehensible — which, if I’m completely honest, is part of the grief I feel.

And there’s the lure of fear, of hatred, of vengeance, of trying to find meaning in meaningless violence. And while there is no way to prevent any of these thoughts and feelings from washing over us (in fact they should be washing over us and anger is a completely appropriate emotion), there is a way of refusing the bait, the bondage.

I (we) can start by seeing my own inconsistency, that is, my lack of concern for countless other victims in places like Beirut, Tunisia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Gaza, and so on, where acts of terror with collateral murder have gone, and continue to go, mostly unnoticed. Empathy for those in the Paris attacks, yes! Better still to grow empathy for victims across our globe.

I (we) can also look away. I can refuse to be taken in by the sacred fascination (I owe much here to the writings of James Alison) that attends an orchestrated act like this. Consider the chosen location: Paris, a city symbolic of western culture, wealth, success, a city with access to the full power of the media, has quickly become a kind of “sacred centre.” (Not unlike New York and the site that was christened “ground zero.”)

And as all sacred centres do — even amidst (or capitalizing on) the genuine displays of grief and compassion — they begin to generate feelings of unanimity. Gone, our uneasy consciences, our half-conscious lives, replaced, for the moment, by a shared innocence, goodness, and the righteous outrage of being wronged.

In the heat of this new transcendent collective things come clear and the old complexities devolve and harden into a militant “us” and “them.” In this climate/spirit, to reflect on the “why” of the attack is weakness; to question our rightness, to question the closing of borders to Syrian refugees, to question renewed civilian surveillance, militarization and the intensifying of counter strikes, is to risk identification as one of “them.”

I say all of this with utmost care, for my sole intent is to offer, as best I can, a kind of gospel perspective. In effect I’d like to frame the attack like this: Some fellow humans, whose minds and souls have somehow, and at some time, been turned to believe that all those outside of their experience, their creed, their cabal, are corrupt, inhuman and so expendable, have committed a grievous act of suicide and murder, that is creative of nothing, has no meaning except what we give it.

Therefore, to support immediate reprisal without reflection, is to give it meaning and unwittingly believe the ancient “satanic” lie. I’m not referencing some ethereal entity here, just a basic anthropological observation of how scapegoating violence begets pseudo-community, pseudo-solidarity, and forever requires more violence, more scapegoats, for its maintenance.

But now, even as I write this I feel as though I’m sinking. How naive it all sounds. Violence “works,” doesn’t it? And yet, and yet, nothing changes, more is needed to defeat more . . . and how do we keep from becoming mirror images of what we call inhuman? So as naive as it appears, I throw in with the one who refused the seduction and exposed the lie of redemptive violence by allowing himself to be its public victim. I reference Jesus — not the Jesus hijacked by fundamentalists, or the escapist Jesus held by certain evangelical enclaves, but the Jesus who, as far as I can tell, was not managed or manipulated by fear, or ruled by death, or controlled by religion, or would be impressed by the accoutrements of corporate Christianity — but the Jesus pointed to by the likes of Baca Khan, Gandhi, Tolstoy, King . . . who by following and modelling threw some mercy and love into the mix, and by that move kept open the possibility of a different reality.

Berg works for Hope Mission, a social care facility for homeless people in Edmonton’s inner city. His poetry and prose have been in staged performances and have appeared in such publications as the Edmonton Journal, Orion, Geez, and Earth Shine. He blogs at