Praying for Paris—and everywhere else?

More than other comparable events, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris have led to a critical appraisal of our response. In the midst of expressions of prayer and support, there’s been a consistent thread that has said, essentially, Why don’t we care when this happens in the rest of the world? People point to a bomb attack in Beirut a day before Paris that didn’t generate nearly the same level of attention as Paris. Oddly, a BBC story about the attack on Garissa University in Kenya gained considerable social media momentum. It was as if people were saying by sharing it, “See, I do care”—though the point was somewhat undermined by the fact the attack happened in April.

Hard to project a cedar tree on this canvas.

The disjuncture between the attention paid to Paris and the lack of attention paid to other attacks is used then to make arguments about race, the role of media, our rhetoric of mourning, and much else. Somehow, the focus shifts away from the immediate pain and onto ourselves.

But there is a serious question here: in a world of violent outrages, only some of which receive the full-court press from our media, how are we supposed to respond in a way that seems even-handed and, well, fair?

I’ve dwelt on this question many times in the past as I’ve traveled to various parts of the world that experience great suffering but generally do not merit more than passing attention in media outlets. I’m thinking here primarily of northern Nigeria and South Sudan. But there are other places that, for one reason or another, are close to my heart, if not often in our headlines.

Over time, I’ve adopted this strategy: I’ve jettisoned fairness. I cannot pray for the pain of the entire world in all its variety. Instead, I have consciously committed my attention and prayer life to a handful of locales in the world. I actively seek out news about those places, I keep them in prayer, and I try to be in relationship with people from these places. In some cases, like South Sudan, that means I actually e-mail with (and occasionally call) and know people who live there. In other cases, social media proves to be a helpful tool. With a little searching on Twitter and elsewhere, you can easily find firsthand sources from all over the world to follow and learn from. As the conditions in Burundi have deteriorated in recent weeks, for instance, my Twitter feed has been full of material that has been really helpful in educating me about what is going on there. It’s not the whole story, but it is helpful in some way.

A short list of the locales I pay close attention to includes South Sudan, the Great Lakes region of east/central Africa, northeastern Nigeria, the life of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, and the migratory situation in southeast Asia, particularly the Rohingya people of Myanmar. I don’t mean to say these are all equal—there is far less overt violence in the Arctic, for instance, than in parts of South Sudan and each place is a unique and particular context—but for whatever combination of reasons, these places have been put close to my heart.

What this also means is that there are situations in the world I know little about. I wish I knew more about Ukraine or Libya or the opioid addiction crisis in rural America. But my hope is that these places—and any number of others—are close to the heart of other people and that together our prayers can hold the brokenness of the world. I find strength and help in the knowledge that there are Christians in the places I pray for that are praying for where I live.

While I do sometimes wonder if I am narrowing myself unnecessarily, I’ve found that my approach can be empowering. Rather than being overwhelmed by the tide of senseless and seemingly indiscriminate suffering and violence that pops into our news cycles with too little context and too quickly disappears, I am encouraged by the close links I have with particular places that have evolved over time. These close links yield stories not only of pain—which is what the media will cover—but also of hope and new life.

I’ve also found in my own life and that of others that the bonds formed in prayer can often lead to action. Prayer is about a lot more than sitting in silence every so often and sending “good thoughts” someone’s way. In my experience, attentiveness to a particular location can lead to deeper engagement and action.

Christians are called to enter the suffering of the world not simply because it is the “right thing to do.” We are called to enter the suffering of the world because we believe that somewhere, through pain and heartbreak, there is a path to new life. But that path to new life will only begin as it has always begun: in patient, loving attention to the particular circumstances of individual lives around the world.

As the collective body of Christ is attentive to the collective suffering of the world, we may find that we are collectively led into Christ’s new life.

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