The Pillars of Paris

Grief in Pere Lachaise cemetery      

      Those of us who’ve been fortunate enough to be to Paris are probably all thinking, today, about that place. A lot of us have memories – often very good memories, of being there. It’s such a wonderful city. But it must have been a very dark, a very frightening place, Friday night. I imagine it still is, with lots of fear and anxiety and grief as Parisiens try to recover from something it’s impossible to recover from. I was there just for four days last February, staying near Pere Lachaise cemetery, very close to where the attacks took place.

The bloody murders of so many innocent people give a new meaning to Jesus’ words: Beware that no one leads you astray. …. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

The news Friday felt so apocalyptic. It feels like the end of everything we count on being stable in a society, when gunmen enter a nightclub for the sole purpose of murdering innocent youth. Yes, I know we’ve been spared what others go through regularly. I know that such violence is tragically the case in too many places in the world. Beirut for instance. That poor suffering city. But not Paris, or London, or New York. Or Montreal, we hope. I was busy texting my daughter on Friday night: “where are you?” “are you okay?” We cannot imagine the fear. We cannot imagine the loss, for those parents and grandparents whose children did not come home that night, who now, because of hate, will never be able to come home.

For nation will rise against nation, Jesus said, and kingdom against kingdom.

The borders of France are now sealed. The army is in the streets. Presumably, soon there will be even more cameras, more checks, more eavesdropping and surveillance. The French, like the Americans after 9/11 and like us last year with the attack at Parliament Hill and Bill C-51, are going to be even more willing to give up freedom in exchange for the promise of security.

It’s that word – SECURITY – where the warnings of Jesus really hit home. Jesus was standing by Herod’s Temple, and his disciples were going on and on about the stones. Yes. They ARE great stones. I’ve been there. The stones in the Temple foundations are, individually, the size of city buses. Can you imagine if our buildings were built on solid pieces of granite the size of a Montreal city bus? Not just one but thousands of them? We’d think ourselves pretty secure. In Jerusalem the stones are beviled and cut so carefully that you would think they’re put together with mortar, the lines are so perfect. It is a feat of engineering and strength. Something you would think would last thousands of years. But in the end, did even such a miracle of engineering offer security to the people of Jerusalem? Not at all.

Do you see these great stones? asked Jesus. Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.

Jesus’ point is about security. Where it exists and where it doesn’t. No matter how hard we try. For one thing, he’s telling us, security DOESN’T exist in or through the state. The Jerusalem Temple was the closest thing that Jesus and other Jews in his day had to a state institution. It was grand. It was permanent. But Jesus points out – it’s NOT going to save you. And it didn’t. All will be thrown down.

When we put our trust, as we will, in cameras and guns on the street, and surveillance, we will be saying at least in part we DON’T put our trust in community, and discussion and peace-building and mutual concern and education. We will become, perhaps marginally safer, but at a cost to ourselves. And that’s always the way it is with our attempts to safeguard ourselves. They injure us. Ultimately, in this changeable and dangerous world, Jesus is saying that all attempts to be secure and safe result in our putting trust where it doesn’t exist – in other words, all such attempts end in idolatry. FALSE security.

It was actually the Temple, and the City, and the State, that eventually put Jesus to death. Because the authority of the state ultimately rests on violence as well, even if that violence is systemic rather than a bomb strapped to some deluded martyr’s chest.

So. Where do we find security? Only one place: the place where, paradoxically, as Jesus showed us, security seems the MOST absent. The foot of the cross. Paul wrote: I decided to know nothing while I was with you, he except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. In other words, I will live with complete insecurity, for the sake of love.

Where do we find our peace? It’s not that complicated. When we depend entirely on Love, especially the love that created and sustains us, that’s Gospel. When we depend on threat and power, that’s NOT Gospel. And so police, insurance policies, borders, weapons, buildings – precisely those things that normally make us feel solid about ourselves, are probably the exact things that put us on shaky ground with our God, and with the community of love we are supposed to be trying to build.

In one sense, it’s always about security – where we try to get it, where it fails, and how THEN, we go out and try to find security elsewhere. Paris is terrible, and right now feels unique. Yet there will ALWAYS be wars and rumours of wars, earthquakes, flood and drought. In other words, we’re chasing a dream. We can do what we can do. No more. Try as we might, security will NEVER actually be “secured”.

Beware that no one leads you astray, said Jesus. Permanence is not something out there, in walls and stone, in guns and fences, but in here, in who and what we belong to. Walls go up – and walls come down. Someday EVERYTHING that we consider permanent, if it’s manmade, will probably be changed. There’s no getting out of life without suffering, or ultimately, without death. That should not make us careless of life, but it should remind us that security comes from reaching OUT rather than walling IN.

Paris has always been known as the ‘City of Light’. That fact reminds of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness.’ Dr King went on to say, and he was speaking from hard experience, ‘only light can do that. And hate cannot drive out hate. Only LOVE can do that.’

When I was in Paris in February, the last day we stopped by Pere Lachaise cemetery, where so many famous people are buried. The cemetery is within a few blocks of many of the attacks Friday. There are beautiful monuments everywhere you look in the cemetery. One of them in particular is a statue of grief, standing beside the dead person, mourning. That’s the photo here.

That will be Paris for some time. Grieving its dead. Inconsolable. We will pray for Paris and its people. And we will also pray for Beirut, and for the thousands of unknown little villages in Syria and Iraq and in so many places where this kind of hate and violence are a fact of life, the kind of hatred that is causing so many to flee.

This must take place, Jesus said, but the end is still to come. It is the PEOPLE who are the real pillars of Paris, and of our shelter, and humanity is the roof that is over our heads. We pray that these are the bricks and mortar that can be strengthened, in love, in Paris and throughout the world in the coming weeks and months.

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