A reflection prepared by Ray Anglesea for his congregation at Crook
The sorrow of the massacre in Paris has been shocking as it has been heartbreaking. Parisians, tourists and expats – innocent people of all ages, faiths and backgrounds cut down without mercy. The news is still difficult to absorb – the murder of innocent lives leaves us numb with shock, cold in grief, the senseless slaughter of so many young people from countries around the world. Yesterday in a solemn secular ceremony in the cobbled courtyard of Les Invalides under a grey November sky President Hollande, joined by relatives and political leaders, past and present, led bereaved families in a poignant tribute to the 130 who died on Friday 13th November 2015.
Alas it is not only the victims and their families who have been affected by what has happened two weeks ago. Every one of us who cares about human freedom and dignity is now caught up in the calamity and catastrophe of what took place in the heart of the French capital. The evil of those who planned and perpetrated the Paris atrocities is beyond measure or words. In the courtyard of Les Invalides we weep for the victims and the bereaved families. We fall silent. We feel what we feel: sadness, compassion, bewilderment, and surely a fierce burning anger.
The violence of this evil group brings terror to all, including in the Muslim world where its cowardly acts are opposed by many. Clearly what happened on the streets, in the bars, restaurants and in a concert hall in Paris is a global and generational struggle against an evil cult that chooses death and fear. In solidarity across all faiths and none, and with all human beings there must be a way to defeat the demonic curse of terrorism. Christians are called, like Jesus, to stand with the suffering and broken and to oppose evil and fear with all their strength.
The Archbishop of Canterbury used two words to help focus prayers for the people of Paris in a statement issued by Lambeth Palace shortly after the atrocity. First, he petitioned for deliverance. To be delivered from evil echoes the very prayer of Jesus himself. And in an increasingly hostile and evil world order such a prayer has never seemed more necessary or more apt. And this deliverance is obviously not just only for us. It is for the world in which we live and for all our fellow citizens. The Archbishop also spoke of justice – that those responsible for such heinous acts of evil will be called to account and brought to justice. The security forces have begun and still are looking for the accomplices.
As we look forward tomorrow to Advent, the start of the Christian year, and look back over the last year no one could accuse 2015 of being a slow news year. With the gospel reading for Advent Sunday in mind (Luke 21 v25-36) some of a more radical disposition with end-time thoughts might say it has been a year of disaster, catastrophe, a day of reckoning, a judgement time. There have been plane crashes in Sinai, in the French Alps, in the Ukraine, thousands have lost their lives in the Syrian civil war causing a European humanitarian migrant crises not seen since the second world war. There have been massacres in Nigeria, Kenya and on the beaches of Tunisia, at shrines in Bangkok, Thailand, in Ankara, Turkey. The beheading by ISIS of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians earlier this year on a beach in Libya has led to the claim “Christians are fast disappearing from entire regions – most notably a huge chunk of the Middle East but also whole dioceses in Africa. In large part, this migration is the product of an ethnic cleansing motivated by religious hatred,” says Persecuted and Forgotten? a paper published in October by the Catholic campaign group, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
It’s hard in my own lifetime to recall a period more fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. This cannot surely be the world God intended? Anxiety levels are high. But how does a community live with fear? How do societies respond to terror? How do we respond to the effect it has on us. Fear may generate anything from a low-level unease when stepping on to the London Underground to a much keener sense of fear when some outrage yet again destroys innocent lives. It’s simply that this recent act of terror two weeks ago in one of the most beautiful cities in the world is so near home.
Much has been written in recent week by the nation’s spiritual leaders on this outrage and violence. Some have highlighted the need to be realistic and honest about how these terrible events impact our lives emotionally – I, like my congregation at Crook, are shocked by them. I too am afraid of what may follow. I fear not only for our world and for other European cities but for London our nation’s capital where two of my sons, their families and many of my friends live and work. And yes, I do fear for myself, is it safe to travel by bus or train, attend sporting and theatre events? Of course “life must go on” not to do so would play into the hands of the terrorists. But at the same time I realise, as one commentator stated recently, “unacknowledged fear feeds off itself and through its tyranny paralyses us.” We need to recognise that we are frightened if we are to “keep calm and carry on,” as a modern slogan has it, if we are to reawaken hope.
This year Crook Churches Together started looking at, amongst other bible characters, the life of Mary in their Advent Study and reflections. Last Tuesday the study group reflected on Mary’s trauma as she watched her son die an agonising death. Did she remember the day she took her darling infant son to the temple and heard Simeon’s prophecy that her “heart would be pierced?” What would it must have felt like to hear her son’s words from the cross “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ Perhaps when we think of the theological and spiritual consequences of the Paris atrocity the foot of the cross, as we watch and wait with Mary, is a good place to start. To stand at the foot of Durham Cathedral’s Pieta, to imagine Mary’s grief at the death of her son might be helpful. Suffering is always a big challenge to religious faith, and we wouldn’t be true to the nature of faith if Paris didn’t pose deep questions to us about where God is in all this. The scriptures give us plentiful texts to help us reflect on this baffling fact of human life such as Job, Jeremiah, the Psalms of Lament (beautifully elucidated and enlightened at the recent November’s ministers training day by Revd Dr. Rosalind Selby, Principal of Northern College), and the Passion Narratives. A questioning faith that acknowledges our bafflement and has room for our doubt and our outrage will help us a lot more than the tired formulae and futile easy speeches that rehearse utterly discredited answers.
Following the Paris massacre there is now even more need to care for the stranger and immigrant in our midst, particularly our Muslim brothers and sisters who are feeling especially vulnerable. In these difficult days every attempt to reach out to them in friendship should be welcomed and sustained. The work of Newcastle’s West End Refugee Service (WERS) which seeks to provide valuable support to refugees and immigrants is a particularly important service at this time.
At the start of Advent we remember the people of France, we express our complete solidarity with the Parisian victims and with all who suffer at the hands of the wicked. As we hold dear and defend our democracies that have been hard won we continue to pray for peace. And in our praying for peace we add to our prayers our enemies, those who would wish to destroy our way of life. “If we want to change the world,” quoted the Archbishop of Canterbury recently, “prayer is where it begins.”
Minister, St Andrew’s Dawson Street