Like pretty much everybody else, I heard the news about Paris last night on the ten o'clock news. It sounded like there was going to be a high death toll and, although nothing had been said about the motives, everyone knew there was a fair chance that some form of Islamic extremism would lie behind it. The retreat that I used to go to every year attracted a fair number of Europeans, several of whom were French, and I was struck today by the range of reactions posted by Christian friends on Facebook from expressions of absolute hatred and anger against Muslims/ immigrants to pleas for hope and peace to overcome hatred and conflict. How differently people who ostensibly share the same faith can react to the same situation.
It is very natural for us to react strongly when we feel or can imagine ourselves or those like us threatened and very easy for us to react with equanimity or indifference to atrocity or injustice affecting others. Paris is not the only place recently subject to violence and atrocity but it is maybe the closest to us, we tut when we hear of ISIS murdering innocents in Syria but we are shocked and angry when in happens closer to home- not to "them" but to "us". Our ability to divide people into them and us and feel a lack of compassion towards the ones we have designated as "them" runs deep. Ironically it lies behind the actions of extremists such as ISIS and behind so many acts of cruelty.
So what do we make of Jesus's advice to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you? It is something I would find very difficult to do if personally affected by a situation but I thought of it only this week when I heard James Foley's parents say that they found "no solace" in the death of "Jihadi John" and read that they have set up an organisation which, as part of its action, works to provide underprivileged youths with access to education. I don't mean to say that we should not take punitive action against terrorism,yet terrorism aims to bring social conflict and instability, and to instill a fear and hatred that then breeds more fear and hatred. Sometimes we have limited power over what others do to us, and no power to change what has already happened. The only thing within our gift is how we react and respond.