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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Slaughter on the Beach: in whose name?

I'm reticent about adding to the torrent of comment and opinion following the massacre on the Tunisian beach at Sousse. When we're faced with terrible events that affect others rather than ourselves, our instinctive response is to start talking. So the first thing to do before we open our mouths is to be silent in solidarity with its victims. This atrocity is beyond words. When Job was afflicted with terrible pains, the best thing his comforters could do was to sit silently with him for a week. It was when they began to speak that his suffering got a lot worse.

So this is a time for tears and for prayer. We weep with and for the victims. We pray for those who have been murdered and injured and bereaved. It's a time for us all to try to enter into the grief so many across the world will be feeling. It's a time when people of good will who follow the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, must stand together in supplication, protest and witness. This outrage, with every other act of terror in our young but bloody century is another step in the mindless assault of brutal savagery upon human civilisation. No one of integrity condones it, whether they have faith or not. If you don't read any further, at least please endorse that sentiment if you can.

However, we have to speak about terror in relation to faith. After Sousse, many said things like: the jihadists weren't acting in the name of Islam, but in pursuit of some crazy ideology. I've heard a number of commentators say that this was not about religion but politics. Yet that doesn't sound quite right. Those beach murderers, and those who perpetrated similar outrages including the 7/7 bombings in London can't be insulated from the religion they espoused.

We all do it. I've defended Islam by saying that the great majority are a noble witness to their faith; only a tiny minority embrace its perversions that utterly discredit it. We know we speak for virtually the whole of the Muslim community that condemns violence and seeks peaceable co-existence in a world of many faiths. I've been privileged to know a fair few Muslims in two cities I've lived in. They have all been fine people. I've learned a lot about Islam from them and admired the disciplined way it shapes its adherents. You only have to watch Muslims keeping Ramadan this summer to see this. It puts my Lent to shame.

You'll remember the sense of panic and fear not far below the surface following the attacks of 9/11. I wanted the church to hear the voice of Islam amid the cries for retribution and a war on terror. I persuaded a local Sunni leader to address the Diocesan Synod. In a powerful speech he begged for understanding and partnership with us as a church. and with all the faiths represented in the city. He began by turning to the Bishop and saying, rather to his surprise, 'You, Sir, are a Bishop to us Muslims too'.

How should we speak about the perversions of faith when actions like terror discredit it? Perhaps something like: whatever they say, these jihadists are not acting in the true spirit of Islam. Take our Christian history. Islam still hurts in the aftermath of the crusades. Jihadists look back to them as a reason for wreaking vengeance on 'infidels', among whom Christians (or perceived Christians) are prominent for their reckless adventurism, slaughter and cruelty centuries ago. When I travelled the pilgrim road to Compostela in Spain and saw medieval images and paintings of St James the Great, called Matamoros, 'Slayer of the Moors', I realised how the spirit of the crusades had permeated medieval Christendom. It took centuries to learn co-existence and toleration, one of the gifts of the Enlightenment to religious faith (pace those who see only bad in that movement to which the modern world owes so much).

It's no use Christians saying: those who inspired, preached and led the crusades, princes, popes, bishops and even saints like the great St Bernard, were somehow 'not acting in the name of Christianity.' They clearly thought they were doing precisely what their faith required. Very few questioned it. Only with hindsight have the churches recognised the monumental error they committed in the name of Christ. We should be deeply ashamed that our Christian history is stained with massacre and bloodshed on this colossal scale. Of so many collective sins the church has committed down the centuries, the crusades are among the very worst. Of course Muslims too were implicated in these centuries of violence. It was largely the unquestioned way in the pre-modern world. But that shouldn't make us feel any better about it. as we look back to those terrible times.

I'm saying that a faith has to grow in self-understanding and maturity in each generation. If it doesn't, all religion is brought into disrepute, not only your own particular faith. But the faithful move at different speeds. Christians don't now defend the crusades (do they? - the evangelical Bible class I attended as a teenager, the 'Crusaders', changed its name for this reason, a wise move). But we still see believers today who bring discredit on the good name of Christianity just as jihadists do on the good name of Islam. Woodenly literal readings of the Bible leads some Christians to commit acts of violence at abortion clinics, stir up racial hatred and endorse institutional homophobia in their churches. They are acting 'in the name of' Christianity, whatever we more liberal types say about the complexities of Christian history and hermeneutics. That's also true of Islam. Radical fundamentalists in all religious traditions claim to represent faith in its pristine ur-purity, free of corruption and compromise. They read their sacred texts, come to simplistic black-and-white conclusions and consign the rest of us to burn as heretics (which is how Isis-inspired Sunni extremists justify their attacks on Shia mosques).

Clearly there are many different 'Islams' and many different 'Christianitys'. We want to think that our version of our faith tries to be close to its central vision and values. Who is to say that it isn't, however imperfectly we live it out? We eschew religious craziness in all its forms, whether expressed violently or not because we have seen the huge damage it causes. People are killed and injured through clashes of religious civilisations and ideologies. Millions more are cowed with fear. Bad religion is poisoning the world.

It takes religious literacy to gain intelligent purchase on all this and allow good religion to see off the bad. We, the millions who are lit up by our faith, for whom it is the very centre of our path to wisdom and goodness cannot allow religion to be hi-jacked by the madness of the few. In an era when secularised leaders often have little clue about the rudiments of world faiths, we have to ask if they are up to (or even up for) this tricky conversation. All the more need for them to take the best theological advice on offer so as to speak with clear heads into this babble of religious claim and counterclaim. We have to understand the complexities of what we are handling when we speak about faith at all, let alone at a time of crisis. 'Islam' and 'Christianity' won't be pinned down. So we need some sense of the long and difficult histories that lie behind those words.  

So it's safer to say something like these religious perversions are not in the spirit of how a great world faith understands itself today rather than just not in the name of. It's part of the need to foster a vital debate about what good religion brings to the modern world and how the world faiths talk to one another. I don't sense that our leaders always grasp how urgent this is in relation to religious-inspired terror. How we frame the discourse is all-important. To speak wisely and well is only the beginning. But it will lay a firm foundation.

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