Sunday November 22, 2015
LIGHTING A CANDLE AGAINST FANATICS
By Jim Taylor
In all the video since the attacks in Paris, a week ago, the image that sticks most in my mind is the picture of Parisians lighting candles in the darkness.
A friend, talking about the tragedy, burst out, “I feel so helpless! What can we do?”
French president Francois Hollande knew what he would do. “We are going to lead a war which will be pitiless,” he vowed. That weekend alone, a dozen French jet fighters dropped 20 bombs on the city of Raqqa in Syria, considered the headquarters of the Islamic State. The French Defence Ministry said they destroyed a command centre, a recruitment centre, an ammunition storage site, and a training camp.
The western media never give death counts for such attacks. But an independent study calculated that since the Syrian civil war started four years ago, an average of 144 people are killed every day. Some would be militants; most would be civilians.
Put that in context. More people have been killed in the Middle East conflicts — every day for the last four years — than died in the coordinated Paris attacks that so outraged us.
This is surely the wrong way to go about establishing peace.
THE IMITATIONS OF POWER
As Charles Pierce wrote in Esquire, “A 242-ship navy will not stop one motivated murderous fanatic from emptying an AK-47 into a crowded restaurant. An F-35 fighter plane will not stop anyone from detonating bombs at a soccer match. A missile-defense shield in Poland will not stop a platoon of fanatics from opening fire in a jammed concert hall.”
Andrew Bacevich expressed similar misgivings in the Boston Globe: “In this conflict, the West generally enjoys clear-cut military superiority. Our arsenals are bigger, our weapons more sophisticated, our generals better educated in the art of war, our fighters better trained at waging it.
“Yet most of this has proven irrelevant. Time and again the actual employment of that ostensibly superior military might has produced results other than those intended or anticipated… Instead, intervention typically serves to aggravate, inciting further resistance. Rather than putting out the fires of radicalism, we end up feeding them.
“In proposing to pour yet more fuel on that fire, Hollande demonstrates a crippling absence of imagination…”
THE ONLY ALTERNATIVE
During a period of prayer, another friend quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
Her words reminded me of going on a tour of a potash mine in Saskatchewan, years ago. Our group donned heavy coveralls and headlamps. We went more than a kilometre underground.
In a massive cavern, huge excavators scooped up rich phosphate deposits. Our guide flipped a power switch. The floodlights went out. We waited for our eyes to become accustomed to the darkness. They didn’t. They couldn’t. A kilometre underground, there was no light at all.
Then our guide flipped his cigarette lighter. And that single tiny flame illuminated even the farthest corners of the cavern. It drove the darkness back.
Just as the candles on Parisian sidewalk memorials pushed back the darkness people felt.
It’s not fashionable these days to use metaphors of light and darkness as symbols for good and evil. It’s too easy to broaden the metaphor into racism — if dark corresponds to evil, then black people must be evil, right?
But the people of Paris were not thinking about political correctness, or metaphors. Instinctively, they lit candles, to shine light into their caverns of despair, of grief, of anger.
Martin Luther King had a second part to his line about darkness: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Vengeance cannot defeat vengeance; violence cannot counter violence.
The trouble is, of course, that we can’t see how tiny acts of kindness, generosity, or compassion are going to change the mindset of Charles Pierce’s “motivated murderous fanatics.”
In reality, I suggest, we don’t light candles to change the minds of fanatics. We do it to convince ourselves that even small acts matter. That it’s worth helping a wounded person, or welcoming a refugee, or creating a small oasis of peace in an angry world.
Somewhere, deep inside, we recognize that light itself is active, not passive. Even the lonely flame of a candle or cigarette lighter does something. By contrast, darkness is passive. You cannot turn on a dark that will extinguish the light.
We know that darkness takes over only if the light goes out. And so we gather on sidewalks, in churches, in homes, to comfort each other, to provide support, to renew our commitment to lives beyond violence.
To light our own candles. To help drive the darkness back.
Copyright © 2015 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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