We were all the victims of the Paris attacks in January. We are Charlie Hebdo and all who were murdered at the Bataclan in November.
Now, we are all those who were the victims of violent racism, from Texas, USA to Birmingham UK. Except that, for the most part, we are none of these people. To identify with someone is not to become that person. Becoming the other person begins with knowing who we are.
It has to do with facing our own particular vulnerability – that soft-core place which we call our ‘selves’, where we most fear being hurt, betrayed or shamed. Knowing who we are is not about self judgment, or self pity. It is about the right kind of self love. We cannot properly love or identify with others until we have learned to love our own humanity.
The acts of violence which have taken place on the streets of Paris, Brussels, Munich and London, and in a small church in northern France, were intended as assaults on the humanity of the person. They were justified, in the minds of the attackers, because they did not perceive their victims to be persons, to be fully human. The gun or knife-crazed individual ravages another’s personhood, as much as their body.
It would be wrong to bring the attackers’ religion into the picture, because they have ravaged that as well. Similarly, the ravaging of the lives of black people, both individually and collectively (the two being of a piece) by the police on both sides of the Atlantic is about the corrupt and hate-crazed individual, who is also part of the human race and possibly part of a corrupt system. It is not about all members of police forces.
All this suggests that the ‘I am’, or ‘je suis’, identification marker ought to apply in equal measure to every person vis a vis all Muslims of good faith and to every person vis a vis all men and women of integrity in police forces, wherever they are, as well as to the victims of the depraved killers in their midst.
‘I am’ pertains to who I belong to, whether in the context of close human relationships, nation and community, or the human race. Most significantly, it pertains to who I am in relation to who, or what, I sense to be God. This is why religion is so powerful, and so easily corrupted. The way in which any individual identifies with the victims of injustice, conflict, or discrimination, comes down to who that person is in relation to who or what they call God – even if they do not believe in the God of religion, and hence do not call him or her anything.
The gospel reading for this Sunday contained the words ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’. (Luke 12:34) It means the same, whichever way round you read it: ‘What makes you who you are is what you will guard most closely’ and ‘what you guard most closely makes you who you are’. So it’s a good idea to take a look from time to time at what it is that we guard most closely, what it is that we really want for ourselves. The gospel suggests that what we think we really want for ourselves is also what we most need to let go of when it comes to loving others, and thereby to being happy. This includes wrong perceptions of God, as well as all things which are inherently life sapping.
Whether or not we have a name for God, the thing which makes for life is about being able to love another person through the ‘forgetting’ of who or what we think we are, and sometimes what we mistakenly think God is, or what our religion, if we have one, is really about. But this begs a further question. What becomes of that ‘person’ once we have forgotten or let go of it? In terms of the gospel, you could say that the person we have lost becomes the treasure. This is because the ‘lost person’ has been found again within the source of all life which is love itself. Once this happens, we are free to ‘identify’ in the deepest sense with the victims of every kind of oppression, and even with their oppressors, as Christ identifies with us when we are at our worst.