Many people have found this a difficult week. The terror attack in Manchester on Monday, which killed 22 people, the youngest of which was just 8 years old, has shocked, appalled and deeply disturbed practically everyone. No one I have spoken to has not been moved in some way by it. And our Coptic brothers and sisters in Egypt have also suffered this week at the hands of violence and hatred with the shooting dead of at least 28 on a bus. This is one of those occasions when we as the Church of England come into our own. We are used to handling public mourning and so know how to hold vigils and moments of public grief. We are used to leading prayers in a public arena and finding a few words to hold the moment, though it was by no means easy to do. I was asked by Paul Stainton on his show on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire on Wednesday just how you find the words to say; many experienced journalists had said to him that they were rendered speechless.
We have a narrative, a story of faith, in which to hold and to be held when life is tough and it is this that we have to connect with in order to find words to say. And in doing this, one of the things I became aware of is that we have something incredibly important to offer the world. We have a gospel of hope. When the darkness closes in and we enter the rawest moments of life, when the horror is truly evil, we have a hope that in Jesus Christ crucified, buried, raised and now ascended, God does not abandon us. There is nothing that can happen that places us beyond the reach of God unless we choose that. And even then there remains a way back, something we see in stories like the Prodigal Son – or more accurately the forgiving father (Luke 15:11-32), the shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7) and the woman who does not rest until she finds the lost coin, so precious it is to her (Luke 15:8-10).
We saw the worst of humanity at work in the evil done and the death brought to what should have been a happy evening of teenagers and younger with their favourite singer at the Manchester Arena. We also saw the best of humanity in the compassion, love and care shown and repeatedly expressed. As a deep wound was cut into our body corporate what bled out was a strong sense that death and hatred, violence and fear are not how we want to live. We love, we want to be free, we want to flourish together. And in these simple acts of gathering and standing together, as we have done either in person or in spirit, we make it clear where we stand.
The darkness at work in the bomber though is very difficult to process and many have been left wondering just what leads someone to be radicalized to a point where normal empathy is lost and consequences not cared about, even justified. We are left with words like evil, which is when someone has dehumanized another in their eyes so much that they don’t care about the consequences for them and death is nothing to them, indeed they think they are doing ‘good’ by destroying those they see as polluting society. It is chilling and poisoned. But there are softer attitudes that lie in the foothills of atrocity. These are the ones that regard views they don’t agree with and certain ways of being as diminishing the worth of those who hold them. Think of some of the extreme political rhetoric we see aimed at those who take a different view, and we’ve seen some of this vehemently and venomously at work around the election, or how those of certain sexualities are seen by some as polluting society. These are ideological and that is broader than just individuals being deluded. When those attitudes meet an ideological system that reinforces their dehumanized attitude, then the poison seeps through the vanes and evil intent becomes evil action. Most people don’t take extreme action of random murder but the difference in attitude is only one of restraint. In the heart there is more common ground than we might like to admit.
This is where the Book of Common Prayer with phrases talking of the ‘evil that we do and the good we do not do’ capture what we need to face. Terrorism was described in The Spectator this week as a conversation with the body politick, that has a different narrative and those who don’t agree with the perpetrators are all seen as legitimate targets. So not so random. They don’t act alone but belong to a community and network where hatred has been systemistised. And religious language can be a toxin in the system, providing a narrative through which to interpret and view the other that becomes dangerous. The Old Testament has some pretty vile rhetoric against unbelievers or those who live differently. The people of Israel used their liberation as justification to annihilate the existing occupants of their ‘promised land’. Reading some of those passages this week has been uncomfortable, even repellent. These are passages to be interpreted carefully in the light and grace of Jesus Christ, who makes all people one in him. We greet with love not hate.
The counter to such hatred and dehumanizing contempt is to reinforce hope, love, joy, compassion and respect each day. A simple version of this can be found in the Lord’s Prayer with its various petitions for God’s kingdom, daily bread, forgiveness for others as we receive it for ourselves, deliverance from evil. We need to be renewed each day in the grace of God. A few years ago I wrote a prayer for the day ahead and it is the last prayer in ‘Prayers for all occasions’.
Give me grace, O Christ,
for this day,
that I may be a person of
praise and thanksgiving,
rejoicing and delight,
compassion and understanding.
May I be blessing to all I meet
and be blessed in them;
for your name’s sake. Amen. (p152)
The problem of international terrorism can seem overwhelming; indeed that is one of its aims. The best response we can make is to live the words of Gandhi:
“Be the change you want to see”.
If you want a world of peace, live it. If you want caring and compassion, love, hope and joy to flourish, be a person who displays them. This should be the light that shines out from this place in this community, standing as it does in the heart of the city. My experience this week is that this is what many people want to see from us and have delighted in hearing being proclaimed. It is the gift we offer as seek to be a transforming presence.
In our first reading, Jesus told his disciples, as he was taken from them, that they were to be witnesses (Acts 1:8). We are to be people of hope, of love, of compassion and blessing. We live by a narrative of hope. This witness is much needed and longed for. It is the precious treasure we have to share in the public square and doing that, living that, makes us people of the gift.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 7, Sunday 28th May 2017