Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the motto of France stands this weekend as a reminder of what is under threat when atrocity strikes. Freedom, the equality of all people – whoever they are or whatever their views, and a profound sense of being united as brothers and sisters in humanity, these are noble ideals to hold to. They were born out of violence and struggle from the French Revolution and have sometimes been honoured in the breach as in the keeping, but they have been inspirational for many movements in democracy, not least in the United States, where a Statue of Liberty welcomes all who enter New York Harbour. It was to these words that Barak Obama called our minds on Friday when he responded to the atrocities of mass murder in Paris that night.
There is much in our Bible that affirms liberty as children of God, as people set free from the bonds of sin and death, from the chains that can bind us in ways that are destructive and destroy peace, the hold that evil can have on us. There is much in these that is shared by people of different faiths. Democracy does not always get it right and the people can become a mob, but it does have the advantage over any other system of being accountable and open to change from the bottom up. In the end it is less oppressive than other systems of government.
The fundamental equality of all people is foundational in the Bible. There is no distinction between the value of one human life and that of another. All are cherished and God calls all to follow him, all are created in his image, and all are redeemed by and through Jesus Christ. We are adopted as God’s children and made heirs of his grace – we are children of the gift that is life, hope and salvation.
If we are all God’s children then we are related. The metaphor of Adam and Eve affirms a common root for all life, all of our family trees meet, probably somewhere in Africa. And later in the tradition, in Abraham, we have a common spiritual ancestry which Jews, Christians and Muslims affirm and honour. We are therefore drawn together in Christ and the bonds of our common humanity are to be strengthened. I am grateful for the statement issued yesterday by the Faizan e Madinah mosque unreservedly condemning the atrocity in Paris and expressing their shock at it. We stand together against such hatred and violence, longing for peace and unity as brothers and sisters in humanity under God.
There are some horrendous passages in the Bible, which delight in mass murder and slaughter, which express deep anger and hatred. They make me wince whenever I read them and I am left with a profound sense of unease at them. I wish they were not there. But they are. And respond to them we must, because they are honest. They express how we can all feel at times. The dark passages of the Bible have a cathartic effect. They enable us to be honest about how we might feel and own up to the darkness within. While they are markers on the human journey, they are not the final destination. The final destination is a gathering together of all people into a unity, the image is of a banquet where all have a place and join in the celebration.
Acknowledging these dark passages for what they are is important because by doing that we make it clear that they are not instructions for how to behave. And it is incumbent on all religious leaders to make this clear. When passions run high and fear takes hold, liberté, égalité and fraternité easily become casualties, ideals lost when they are precisely the values to guide us through the darkness.
I find the words that I wrote in the current newsletter, now available at the back of the church, has more poignancy than I realized when I put pen to paper. There does seem to be a lot of fear about at the moment and the events on Friday do disturb and frighten us. That is why they are called acts of terror. It is what they are designed to do. There have been many plots on the scale of 9/11 this year which have been foiled. And there is always the risk one will get through the net. Friends and foes can be indistinguishable on the surface. As we have seen with the wars of the past that we commemorated last week, former foes can become our friends and partners – we’ve had our battles with the French over the centuries and yet today we recognize the other tradition that of close allies and friends. The same can be true of whoever we are in conflict with today.
The Collect for this week is apt. It prays that the works of the devil be destroyed so that we are made children of God and heirs of eternal life, and that purified we may become like Christ. The devil is a concept I find too simplistic and shifts the blame too easily from where it rests. But people can become possessed or taken over by an orientation that is not focused on love and unity, on flourishing in the gift, but is rather filled with hatred and a desire to destroy. It is evil in intent and needs to be filled with the light of hope and love; to be filled with blessing, which is always life giving and life affirming. The devil is a metaphor of a life orientated towards evil intent and set on a destructive path of hatred.
I wrote a prayer yesterday in response to the atrocity in Paris on Friday, based on the French ideals of Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité. I end with it joining our prayers with all who long for peace, whatever tradition they follow.
God of liberty,
your Spirit sets us free
to flourish and delight in your love and goodness.
God of equality,
you adopt us as your children
to be heirs of your grace.
God of fraternity,
you draw us together in your Son
and strengthen the bonds
that unite us in a common humanity.
Shine your light of hope into the darkness
of oppression, division and hatred,
that we may be set free from these chains
as equal brothers and sisters,
and the world rejoice in your peace.
Wipe away the tears of grief and sorrow
and deliver us from evil;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 15th November 2015