To say that 2015 was a painful year for Paris would be a massive understatement.

The year started off with the assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo on January 7, followed by several attacks in the Île-de-France region over the next two days, leaving 17 dead and 22 wounded.

Then ten months later, on November 13, a series of bombings and mass shootings occurred at various locations around the city, including the Stade de France and the Bataclan theatre. The attacks, which left 130 dead and over 350 wounded, were the worst that France had endured since the Second World War.

Back in January, the slogan “Je suis Charlie” became a popular expression of support for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. In like fashion, the November attacks prompted thousands to take to social media and voice their solidarity with the Parisian people by adding “Pray for Paris” to their posts.

Not all Parisians wanted prayer for Paris

As it turned out, however, the sentiment behind the hashtag was not welcomed by everyone in Paris.

The day after the attacks, Joann Sfar, a cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, posted a drawing on Instagram urging people not to pray for his city. The caption on the cartoon read:

“Friends from the whole world, thank you for #PrayforParis, but we don't need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and joy! #ParisIsAboutLife.”

The emotion behind Sfar’s message is understandable, up to a point. The people responsible for the attacks on Paris during 2015 were religious extremists. What’s more, they considered their barbaric assaults on innocent civilians to be acts of holy war. Taking only this into account, it’s small wonder the Charlie Hebdo artist felt less than sanguine about religious sentiments toward his city.

Gross generalizations about religion and irreligion

But having acknowledged that, we must kindly but firmly part ways with Monsieur Sfar. His comments, driven by grief as they are, make a gross generalization that recognizes only two types of people in the world: the religious who deal in pain and death, and the irreligious who celebrate joy and life.

Such a distortion trivializes not only the differences between various religions, but also between those who claim allegiance to the same religion.

Unlike the jihadists who perpetrated the attacks, for example, most Muslims in France were just as appalled as anyone else by the brutality visited on Paris. In fact, many of them feared reprisals in the wake of the November massacre, being blamed for violent acts they neither committed nor condoned.

And whatever the faith of the thousands who wrote “Pray for Paris” on their Twitter or Facebook, it was an unmistakable gesture of compassion and support for the Parisian people. Such an impulse is worlds apart from picking up an assault rifle, strapping on a bomb and slaughtering innocents in the name of jihad.

It should be evident, even in the midst of great grief, that not all religious sentiments are the same.

God is the source of all good things

In his cartoon, Sfar also sought to drive a wedge between religion and the good things in life, as if the two are mutually exclusive. But for Christians, at least, nothing could be further from reality. The Scriptures teach that God is the source of all these good things, and that He lavishes them generously on everyone, both the righteous and the unrighteous.

Food and drink and music and romance and life itself are all gifts from God. Contrary to Sfar’s opinion, they are not the proprietary turf of the irreligious, and they are certainly not to be the objects of faith. They’re to be received with joyful gratitude to the One who gave them, the One whose beauty and goodness they reflect.

Paris has been called the City of Light. It is one of the great cultural centres of the world, indeed of all world history. It’s also a city that suffered a number of grievous wounds over the course of a year, a city in dire need of God’s healing, restorative power.

God cares about great cities such as Paris

And God, in turn, has an abiding concern for cities, especially great ones. Throughout Biblical history and beyond, He has often used such places as focal points to display His grace and advance His kingdom. Through the prophet Jeremiah, He instructed His people to actively seek the welfare of the city, wherever God has called them.

In light of this, “Pray for Paris” remains much more than simply a hashtag on social media. For followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, it’s an injunction to pray for the great city’s healing on every level: physical, emotional, spiritual and societal. It’s an opportunity to mourn with those who mourn, and to pray for the city’s peace, that violence may not lead to more violence. It’s a chance to demonstrate that all religions are not the same by showing love rather than hatred in praying for the city’s enemies.

And with all respect to Monsieur Sfar, it’s an opening to seek the advance of the Gospel among the many unbelieving Parisians who may share his sentiments.

It’s a prayer that they might look beyond the light of their beautiful city, with all its expressions of life and joy, and see the far greater light reflected therein, the light of God’s glory in the face of His Son.

Sources and further reading

The Gospel Coalition published a pair of articles by Christians who are serving “on the ground” in France, offering helpful insights in the wake of the November attacks:

Mike Evans, “How to pray for Paris,” November 15, 2015.

Dominique Angers and Nicolas VanWingerden, “Don’t forget these heroes of Paris,” November 21, 2015.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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