The recent terror attacks in Paris ignited a fresh debate among many western nations, including the United States, about how we should relate to one another, and more particularly, how do we balance civil liberties with national security?
For followers of Jesus, our questions must go deeper, and the questions we need to ask are impossible to answer without a comprehensive understanding of what transpired in France. Some weeks ago, my office was contacted by Gilles Lisimaque, a brother in Christ who attends Upper Seneca Baptist Church in our Network.
Born and raised just outside of Paris, Gilles has lived in the United States for the past 25 years and has been a US citizen for more than 17 years. Professionally, Gilles is a security expert, partner with ID Technology, and has been involved for more than 28 years in developing smart cards which are now used in Bank cards and Government Identification Systems. Gilles has been involved in setting technical standards for identification and finance security nationally, and has been one of the world's leading experts in smart card specifications and applications. Additionally, he has advised multiple US government agencies on matters of national security relative to the country's individual identification systems.
Gilles is a father of two, and grandfather of six, and is the proud patriarch of a multicultural family that now spans three generations. He maintains close relationships in Paris with his family and contacted our office wanting to offer his perspective to American Christians--feeling that there is much that is misunderstood about what transpired in his home country that is fueling necessary fear in the United States. Most importantly, he is concerned about the efficacy of Christian witness in America.
In short, Gilles' background involves striking the appropriate balance between security concerns relative to the preservation of liberty, and the Christian mandate to lovingly engage the world Jesus died for. I was delighted through this interview to get to know a man who believes these concerns are not mutually exclusive, and my hope is that readers will gain a fresh perspective on what transpired in his country that will help Christians here better respond to the world in which we find ourselves. An edited transcript of our conversation is below: Please note that the San Bernadino terrorist attack was not mentioned in this interview. This is because the interview took place just a few days prior to those events. That event and others will be discussed at a subsequent event this coming spring called "Loving Neighbor in an Age of Terrorism." More information on that conference is below.
JR: Let's jump right to the point of this conversation. What is the biggest misconception Americans have about what happened in Paris?
GL: Since you and I spoke first, this has changed, because much more information has come out since then, nevertheless it does seem that the American perception hasn't really changed. The biggest misconception is that the Paris terrorists were foreigners--that they were not Europeans but instead immigrants, when the facts are that they were French or Belgian citizens. They were born in Europe, and were citizens by birth.. All these people had probably been helped by the social welfare of the state, but for some reason they did not integrate. It seems they were raised in what we could call in the US a "ghetto", with people of the same origin and the same poverty level. As I understand, similar things happen here in black neighborhoods, where there is little work, little help, little hope and a feeling of rejection, where hate and resentment is every day’s feeling, ending up in crime and use of weapons to kill each other.
JR: So you are saying that in that situation, a radical ideology gives them an identity?
GL: Yes. When I was young, I had an experience similar to this. France, as you may know, is mainly a Catholic country. I was raised in a Protestant family. Devout Catholics in my neighborhood would not allow their children to play with me. When that happens, you don't feel like you are integrated, acknowledged, and loved but ostracized. And that was between Christians! It’s probably because of that experience that growing up 20 Km from Paris I never felt I truly felt at ease in such a culture. I must say not all French people are this way, it was more an exception than the rule, and it has changed for the better since I was young, but nevertheless it is an emotional scar you keep as a child.
I've been here in America for 25 years now, and I've never felt that kind of rejection. But again, I'm Protestant who now live in a predominantly Protestant country. So I can understand why those of a different faith than me might feel rejected, and as a result be hesitant to integrate into the larger society. People won't seek to integrate if they feel no one wants them.
JR: So the result is that they created their own community that replicate their culture of origin because they feel as though they don't belong in French community at large?
GL: Well, they stay together. But the "ghetto" isn't something they always wanted to create. Outside people create a wall around them because they don't want to go into it--in much the same way that a wall was built to separate the Jews from the rest of society in Europe decades ago. People think "these people don't dress like me. They don't think like me. So they should stay there and I will stay over here."
JR: That's surprising to me, because when I think of France as an American, I think of a very tolerant nation that's open to anyone and anything.
GL: On one hand, that's true. But on the other hand, we've had lots of immigrants, for example, from North Africa, and these movements created a cultural shock that decades later, we have not completely overcome. Many (but not the majority yet) French people put up walls between themselves and immigrants to their country, and this fuels the isolation.
JR: Are there any parallels that you see between what happened in France and what you are experiencing in America now?
GL: When I came to America, I was very surprised by the racial divide. The "black/white" divide that has been there since I moved here 25 years ago was very similar to the "French/North African" divide I had experienced in France. Some had horrible attitudes toward black Americans; "they aren't civilized. All they do is kill each other." That sort of thing. We allowed differences in culture, music, and other things to justify keep us isolated from each other. The difference of course, between these scenarios, is that Black Americans by majority are Christian, so we share the same faith. As a consequence, many leaders on both sides were able to appeal to that commonality to diffuse the situation.
JR: You are speaking of Martin Luther King and others?
GL: Precisely. Christianity was the common faith that called us all together and helped quell the fights between black and white. So in America it was about race, and in France it is about culture and faith, but this is just a "different difference." Both are rooted in cultural differences. And to me, that's the parallel. When I was fulfilling my French military service, I was a police officer. At that time, we were seeing numerous immigrants from North Africa, and a number of jokes arose among the police about them. This was because we would get many complaint calls from residents whose North African neighbors were keeping goats on their balconies, or storing coal for heating in their bathtubs. It was a different way of living. Not right or wrong, just different cultures, in different places. But because we never tried to understand or befriend, only isolate and make fun that widened the divide. This was fifty years ago and would not happen today. By then that stereotype was given to stigmatize the whole community.
And that was what I learned from my experience as a French police officer. Ghettos are too often created by people on the outside of it that form a wall and inside the wall, it feels safer for those stigmatized as “different.” As I said before, it has created a posture that says "I don't know these people. They don't look like me. They don't dress like me. They should just stay over there."
JR: That's actually a pretty devastating thought; that we "created" the ghetto.
GL: Yes, but I think that's really our problem as Christians. We are unwilling to listen to differences because it could offend us, make us ask questions. I don't know who they are, but why don't we listen? Of course we have different beliefs, languages, and cultures, but we need to try to learn about each other. When I came here, it was a challenge to learn about American culture and society, and try to figure things out. I was able to do so because I was not rejected right away for being different. I had to listen a lot in order to do that, and I am still learning.
JR: I'm sure, and we are a pretty loud bunch.
GL: (laughter) Yes, that is the case with some, but I've learned that sometimes we make assumptions about how people behave because we simply don't know them. For example, there is a stereotype I've heard that many Americans have, that says the French are rude. This isn't as widely accepted an assumption as it was 10 years ago. Often this opinion is formed because of the experiences Americans they had 20 years ago while traveling to Paris and visiting the various merchants. This is because they don't understand a fundamental difference in our cultures. In America, you browse from the inside of a store. In France, you do it from the outside, and when you enter the store, you enter to buy. And so if you enter the shop and don't buy anything, especially in a small one, you have taken the time of the retailer for nothing.
When Jesus met with the Samaritan woman, He talked about commonalities, and only after he listened to her he said "one day you will see worship happen everywhere, not just in Jerusalem." Proving an opening, hope, understanding, I think that's the way we should interact with people.
JR: What are some practical ways to overcome the isolation that you would suggest?
GL: First, information should always come from multiple sources, and those sources should be compared and contrasted. We live in a world where we have access to American, British and European, Asian and Middle Eastern news sources. If you only listen always to what you want to hear you can never form an intelligent, informed opinion. You just believe to only one voice which may not be as open as they say they are. We need all those sources of information (different point of views) to form a....what is the English word I am looking for?
GL: No, I am thinking about......when you have two mountains and a valley in between there is a...
GL: Yes, we need to understand the full depth of these issues.
JR: Our English metaphors can be difficult.
GL: (laughter) yes. Well, this depth is important, because if we don't have it we will want to put whole groups of people in a silo, and then anyone identified in that way gets the same kind of treatment. For example, there are in the US religious groups in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and or Ohio who decided, as a community, to live in with each other in a certain way. It doesn't violate the law, so this is fine, this is not what I call a ghetto. Here in Maryland, parts of Montgomery County were "dry" for years, because people there said "we want to live in community in a certain way." It didn't mean you couldn't drink alcohol, only that you couldn't buy it in that community. We should respect local communities and their identities, and we can do that if we govern by abiding by the majority. The majority is what a democracy should be. My freedom stops where the liberty of the other person starts. That's not easy, and it’s impossible to do if we don't know each other, if we do not listen to the other person with respect. Otherwise, we violate the liberty of others without even knowing it.
JR: And in a working democracy, the fleshing out of that is far more difficult than we admit.
GL: Oh it is difficult, because my liberty has to do with what I think I can do, and the other person has another way of thinking about the same right, and so where it starts and stops, has to do with respect, understanding, and knowledge of others become so important if we want to live in a democratic society.
JR: So, should Americans traveling to Paris be afraid?
GL: Of who? The French people?
JR: (laughter) I know it’s a bit of a softball question, but when there is fear, you have to understand people will be asking questions like this.
GL: Yes I understand, and I would say it’s no more dangerous than here in Washington, D.C. I mean, come on! You could be the victim of violence anywhere. When you get on a plane, it might go down, you drive a car, and you may have an accident. The probability is low, but it could happen. We are Christians. We use wisdom and assess risk, and know that we are ready to go if our time has come
Note: This spring, we are following up this interview with a conference entitled "Loving Neighbor in an Age of Terrorism," in partnership with the Montgomery Baptist Association. The conference will involve a panel discussion led by churches in that Association, which boasts the second most diverse ZIP code in the United States. Details are forthcoming.