Cultural Blindspots

I have noticed how people on social media, including friends of mine, are questioning why we are talking more about the attacks in Paris, than those in Beirut, Baghdad and Nigeria.

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Mentone in France (courtesy of the Telegraph UK)

There seems to be a sense of frustration, and even anger that we are somehow more concerned for Paris than we are for these other cities which have also witnessed terrifying atrocities in recent days.

To be fair, our focus is partly shaped by the media and what the media choose to bring to our attention. Twitter and social media have to some extent eroded our dependence upon established media, but their influence remains significant. Having said that, the major news outlets have reported these other terrorist attacks, but not to the degree of the coverage in Paris.

I think the criticism holds some weight, and it is also probably a little unfair.

I do not believe that the lives of French people are more important than the lives of Syrians, Iraqis and Nigerians. The Bible makes it clear that every human being has intrinsic value and are equally God’s image-bearers. And yet, the value we attribute to people is evident not by our words alone, but our actions. Are we more concerned for wellbeing of white European citizens? Is the life of a Nigerian worth less to us? Is the security of Beirut less important to us?

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This graphic is being sent around social media; it is certainly cynical. It is communicating something true (and sad), but I think it fails to appreciate laws of proximity. The closer we are aligned to a group culturally, the more affinity we feel with them when tragedy strikes.

To use an analogy, the way I am affected by the death in a family will be more intense than grief I feel in the death of a friend, and it will be certainly greater than my reaction to the death of a stranger. The closer the relationship, the more acute my reaction.

As an example, I admit that I personally have more cultural affinity with France than I do with Middle Eastern and African cultures:

  • My favourite cuisine has always been French (seriously, nothing surpasses truffles)
  • Susan and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary in Paris
  • My favourite art has always been French Impressionism
  • As a pianist I loved performing Debussy, and I still regularly listen to his piano and orchestral works. My favourite orchestral work is Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.
  • My favourite fashion label is also French, although a Pastor’s salary doesn’t permit shopping at Hermes! Those were the days of music.
  • I live in Mentone and my church is Mentone Baptist Church.

These ‘likes’ and affinities are not saying that, for example, Lebanon’s Shia population are therefore less important. Not at all. 

What can we do? Cultural proximity is fact of life, but it is not an excuse for neglecting people who are often more at risk and in need.

Find ways to acknowledge the suffering of people in other parts of the world.

  • We should pray for these other nations.
  • We should investigate what kind of assistance they need. A reality is that France is in a better financial place to assist its citizens in need.
  • In our conversations don’t forget the Non-Western world.

The reality is, our concerns and griefs will always be partial and limited. We don’t have exhaustive emotional energy, and it’s not only cultural leanings, but our sinful inclinations also impact our preferences more than we appreciate. Which is why I thank God that he is God. There exists a good and sovereign God who understands all things and who is able to embrace all of the world’s ills, who is sufficiently righteous not to neglect any injustice, and  who merciful enough to forgive the unjust, even me.

Take a moment to read these words from Isaiah ch.40.

A voice of one calling:

“In the wilderness prepare

    the way for the Lord;

make straight in the desert

    a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be raised up,

    every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

    the rugged places a plain.

5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

    and all people will see it together.

For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

6 A voice says, “Cry out.”

    And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass,

    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.

7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,

    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.

    Surely the people are grass.

8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,

    but the word of our God endures forever.”

9 You who bring good news to Zion,

    go up on a high mountain.

You who bring good news to Jerusalem,

    lift up your voice with a shout,

lift it up, do not be afraid;

    say to the towns of Judah,

    “Here is your God!”

10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,

    and he rules with a mighty arm.

See, his reward is with him,

    and his recompense accompanies him.

11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:

    He gathers the lambs in his arms

and carries them close to his heart;

    he gently leads those that have young.

12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,

    or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?

Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket,

    or weighed the mountains on the scales

    and the hills in a balance?

13 Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord,

    or instruct the Lord as his counselor?

14 Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him,

    and who taught him the right way?

Who was it that taught him knowledge,

    or showed him the path of understanding?

15 Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;

    they are regarded as dust on the scales;

    he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.

16 Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires,

    nor its animals enough for burnt offerings.

17 Before him all the nations are as nothing;

    they are regarded by him as worthless

    and less than nothing.

18 With whom, then, will you compare God?

    To what image will you liken him?

19 As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,

    and a goldsmith overlays it with gold

    and fashions silver chains for it.

20 A person too poor to present such an offering

    selects wood that will not rot;

they look for a skilled worker

    to set up an idol that will not topple.

21 Do you not know?

    Have you not heard?

Has it not been told you from the beginning?

    Have you not understood since the earth was founded?

22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,

    and its people are like grasshoppers.

He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,

    and spreads them out like a tent to live in.

23 He brings princes to naught

    and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.

24 No sooner are they planted,

    no sooner are they sown,

    no sooner do they take root in the ground,

than he blows on them and they wither,

    and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

25 “To whom will you compare me?

    Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.

26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:

    Who created all these?

He who brings out the starry host one by one

    and calls forth each of them by name.

Because of his great power and mighty strength,

    not one of them is missing.

27 Why do you complain, Jacob?

    Why do you say, Israel,

“My way is hidden from the Lord;

    my cause is disregarded by my God”?

28 Do you not know?

    Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

    the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary,

    and his understanding no one can fathom.

29 He gives strength to the weary

    and increases the power of the weak.

30 Even youths grow tired and weary,

    and young men stumble and fall;

31 but those who hope in the Lord

    will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

    they will run and not grow weary,

    they will walk and not be faint.

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