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The varieties of sympathy

2015 November 14
by Gordon Reid

I write just after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, because I have been struck by the wonderful outpouring of sympathy and support from many  sources, including, I am happy to say, a great many of my friends on Facebook. But I have also been saddened by the sometimes bitter response of  some who say that it is all very well to be outraged and standing in solidarity with the people of Paris, but what about the people of Beirut or Baghdad? They say: “When did we see an Iraqi flag or a Lebanese flag cover our Facebook profile, when  dozens of their  people died in the virtual war that is raging there”? They ask: “Is it only white victims’ deaths that matter?”

This is, I believe, to misunderstand the very nature of sympathy. If it had been one’s mother or brother who was killed yesterday in Paris, would we not now be bowed down with a grief that is sharp and personal? And if it had been a close friend or even an acquaintance, would we not be grieving more than for the strangers who were killed? So it is natural that we should be feeling sadness and sympathy with those who lost loved ones in Paris, more than we have ever felt for the  tens of millions murdered by Stalin in Russia.

It is not prejudice or racist politics which makes us feel more strongly for the people who died in Paris yesterday and their grieving friends and families, but proximity. We feel love and affection more naturally for those who are close to us or whom we have known than we do to perfect strangers. And this is true even if it is only for people in places we have visited or know well, rather than in places we have hardly heard of.

Yet we are commanded by Jesus the Christ to love our neighbors, and when a cynic asked him who was his neighbor, Jesus told a story that pointed to the most hated of foreigners as his real neighbor, because he loved much. So my conclusion is that we have an absolute command to love everyone, but the intensity of our love varying according to our relationships, and therefore the way we love people must vary too. It is surely infinitely more merciful and loving to shoot a man who is about to machine-gun a playground full of children than to refuse to kill directly. It is surely right to pursue and imprison or kill the fanatical Muslim terrorists who are menacing the whole world now in a way reminiscent of Hitler. How this is done must be the concern of our politicians, but that it must be done is now surely clear.

And no one should feel guilty about feeling more sympathy and sorrow for those killed in the lovely city of Paris yesterday than for the many more killed yesterday all over the world. We still have to love the world God made and teach human beings to be more like the Blessed Trinity, persons living in perfect love and co-operation together, but we love various people we know  - and places we know – with a special love, and therefore a special sorrow when they are killed or violated.

One Response leave one →
  1. Martin Brynildsen permalink
    November 16, 2015

    A very thoughtful response to ongoing inquiries about the intensity of our sympathies amid the ongoing outrage over what are seen as dirty, covert attacks and senseless killing. I thought immediately of the fairly recent attacks in Britain, and our ‘incredulous,’ but rather passive response at that point. After the Paris slaughter, your response to these questions is most appropriate and truthful.
    There is a world war going on here, and, with the scope of the Paris attacks, greater recognition and resolve is building among possible alliances. Let us pray that, over the long run, greater understanding and honesty will develop among honorable nations and their leaders.

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