Ballots and Bombs
We live in an uncertain world and, tragically, it always has been. The events of the night of Monday 22nd May 2017, at which 22 mainly young people were killed after watching an Ariane Grande concert, will be fresh in the minds of many. Coming as it did in the middle of a General Election campaign, it is hard not to see such attacks as part of that political process, and to react accordingly. As I write this, our politicians have been gratifyingly apolitical about the attack, and the subsequent one in London, which featured a van and knives as weapon – long may that continue.
I wrote last month about elections, and so I’m not going to do so again here, despite the title of this blog. A new Government in Westminster, or a new President in the White House, will not stop terrorism. Brexit won’t either, nor will the bombing of so-called ‘Islamic State’ strongholds, or the shooting of suspects before they get a chance to plant their barbaric devices. All the intelligence in the world will not prevent extremism, and there will always be ‘soft targets’ for the cowardly, the fanatic, the ruthless to attack. It is not enough for us to wring our hands about the past mistakes which have led us to this position. We could talk about American imperialism destabilising the Middle East, or the interference of the Russians, or anything we like to explain the rise of Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, ISIS, or whoever. We can say ‘if only’ to our hearts’ content, but this will not affect the fundamental problem at the root of it all.
What makes us so uncomfortable with extreme positions is that we hold our own views equally strongly. We may not go to the same lengths to impose them on people, but neither are we willing to change them readily. For most opinions, this is not a major problem. I am a huge Saints fan (that’s Rugby League, for the uninitiated), but I would not physically attack somebody who was, equally passionately, a supporter of another team. During the two World War, those who refused to take the life of another human being, or work to support the mechanisms which killed, for reasons of conscience (conscientious objectors) were routinely imprisoned, as a refusal to fight was equated with cowardice and a lack of appropriate patriotism. And this, again, is human nature. If we believe that something is important enough to fight, even kill for, then we are appalled when others do not share that conviction, to the extent of publicly deriding, imprisoning or even executing them.
This is, of course, exactly the same way of thinking which is employed by the terrorists. Not the sad, deluded human bombs, but the organisers who promise paradise and eternal reward for strapping Semtex onto your back. The generals and ideologues, who talk of crusades or jihad, have a very definite idea about what is right, and they use their influence to achieve it. And people will follow strong leadership, as long as it appears credible, and credibility is a relative term. Ask starving people to follow someone who talks of peace and justice for the world from their luxury palace, or one who offers to take the food from the rich and give it to them, and see what happens. Human nature is to enjoy the big, global ideas with a full belly and a comfortable home, but to set priorities more locally when they are threatened. It is hard to convince someone to give money to help the poor in Africa, for example, if they are unsure how to feed their own children.
That same human nature takes perceived injustice, foreign disrespect and interference, and overlays it with something pure and idealistic. The combination is a sense of righteous indignation, and a willingness to do whatever is needed, whatever the cost. It is an extreme position, but it is arrived at by a series of very human incremental steps.
As a Christian, I am uncomfortably aware of the role my own faith has played in the development of extremism in the world. As a Brit, I likewise understand that my own nation’s role in world history has led to many unresolved problems in many of the world’s trouble spots. Crusades and Empire, such very human endeavours, with no justification in the teachings of Jesus, just as there is no justification for terrorist bomb plots in the tenets of Islam.
By its very nature, terrorism is designed to scare us, and it often succeeds. Yet what is to be our response? If we claim to follow Jesus, how do we react to the seemingly senseless killing of innocent children?
Well, the answer seems to be simple.
Yet that feels wrong, doesn’t it. Surely we must bring to justice the wrongdoer? Make them pay for what they have done?
And yet Jesus does not say this.
Then Peter came to Jesus. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘how many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me? As many as seven times?’ ‘I wouldn’t say seven times,’ replied Jesus. ‘Why not seventy times seven?’
(Matthew 18:21-22, New Testament for Everyone)
Jesus did not suggest forgiveness once the appropriate jail term had been served, or the correct fine paid. He didn’t even talk about the need for an apology or restitution.
The hard fact is, and it is difficult, as it flies in the face of human nature, we are called to forgive and not to judge. All that is God’s business, not ours. However indignant and justified we feel, it is simply not for us to take the role of judge and jury, much less executioner.
Forgiveness in the face of misery and mayhem, terror and despair.
It is a powerful weapon. The stories of South Africa and Northern Ireland give us a small glimpse of what can be achieved when a decision is made to stop pursuing retribution and seek instead peace.
I do not know how forgiveness for the families of the victims in Manchester could look. It would be wrong of me to make any suggestions.
Yet that model of peace through forgiveness is offered not by me, who knows nothing of the shocking loss and tragedy suffered by all those victims of violence. No, but by the one who was prepared to hang on the cross for our forgiveness.
That’s for everyone, everywhere, forever.
If anyone does sin, we have one who pleads our cause before the father â€“ namely, the Righteous One, Jesus the Messiah! He is the sacrifice which atones for our sins â€“ and not ours only, either, but those of the whole world.
(1 John 2:1-2, New Testament for Everyone)
PS – Clearly, since writing this we have had a very interesting election result….more about that next time!