ISIS arrived in Paris, France, on Friday, November 13, 2015. In a soccer stadium where France was playing the German national team, fans heard loud bangs — mistaking them at first for firecrackers. In reality, they were suicide bombers. Simultaneously, a gunman opened fire on customers and tourists in bars and cafés in the 10th arrondissement.
At the Bataclan concert hall, American band Eagles of Death Metal were performing a sold-out show. Terrorists burst into the building, lobbing grenades into the audience, strafing the crowd and crying “Allahu akbar.” The assailants held hostages for hours, killing 89. Meanwhile, police surrounded the hall, eventually storming and liberating it. Shootings and explosions cropped up all over the city as the evening continued.
Watching from the safety of America, there was a sort of nightmarish, surreal quality to the scene. It was not a crazed, lone gunman or a single suicide bomber, but a major premeditated assault in the heart of a Western city, chilling in its scope and size. It felt like invasion — and was the worst violence Paris has seen since World War II, with 129 dead and 352 wounded, 99 critically. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
President Obama characterized the event as “an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.” However, the attackers’ existence makes it all too clear that our beliefs are neither universal nor shared. At the same time, their target is far more specific than just “humanity.” In a statement, ISIS described their objective as destroying “the lead carrier of the cross in Europe – Paris.” Its inhabitants were “crusaders.”
In this instance, “crusader” is less a religious than a political descriptor, for it’s not just Christian firebrands who draw ISIS’ ire. Friday’s victims did nothing to draw attention to themselves (unlike the victims of the attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo 10 months ago). They were not targets. They were you and me — ordinary people who go to work each morning and shake their head at the odd religious crazies on the TV and wonder what the world’s coming to. They had not declared war on ISIS. But ISIS had declared war on them. Because of this, the jihadists’ motives cannot be rationalized away with bromides about “hate speech” or “Islamophobia.” ISIS cannot be appeased, and everyday Westerners are participants in the battle, whether they want to be or not. There is no neutrality and the front lines are everywhere. It is, as French President Francois Hollande describes it, “an act of war.”
Which brings us to the response. How do we, as Christians, cope with this brave new world? The first, most obvious, and completely correct response is to pray. Pray for Paris, pray for ISIS’ victims, pray for the members of ISIS themselves. But furthermore, we must employ truth and compassion in our response, seeking for opportunities to advance the Gospel.
In evaluating the news (both current and future), we should bear in mind that we serve the truth, not an agenda. After the attack, pundits were quick to cram the bodies into stories shaped to fit their own beliefs. Liberals used the opportunity to lecture “the right …” on “their incessant violent rhetoric.” Conservatives fell prey to clickbait articles using fear to spread lies. This mindless acceptance of all stories as backing our own point of view is neither helpful nor honest.
In addition, our response must be informed by compassion for the suffering. ISIS has many victims, in the West, in the East, and on the refugee roads between. We can’t allow knee-jerk reactions to fuel our decisions on foreign policy and immigration. We serve the truth, and not an agenda: “We refuse to practice cunning … but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience” (2 Cor. 4:2). At the same time, we must remember to “love the sojourner … for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). Compassion and truth can work together to forge a response which is neither foolhardy nor cruel.
This tragedy should also be seen as an opportunity for witness. ISIS’ radical actions can provide a way to speak to the Islamic world. Dr. Dave Cashin describes a Muslim woman who was shocked by ISIS’ bloody propaganda. She said: “I have been a Muslim for 41 years, in all that time have never questioned Islam. But now, I have decided to leave it.” Cashin goes so far as to call the terrorists “proto-evangelists” for Christianity.
Lastly, as in the wake of all atrocities, the Christian response must include an acknowledgment of grief. We should “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Ours is a broken and fallen world. The Gospel is the only solution, uniting compassion, truth, grace, and grief. It is the only response. It is the only answer. And it is our duty, here on the front lines, to carry the cross.