In the heat of an Oxfordshire summer, bodies of the British tourists shot dead whilst on holiday on a beach in Sousse, Tunisia have been arriving back in the UK. Coffins have been flown from Tunis to Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, on an RAF C17 and taken off the plane one by one with great respect, dignity and care to waiting, heartbroken and grief-stricken families. Thirty of the 38 people killed on the beach that day are now confirmed to have been British. Their crime: to have been unbelievers.
Two thousand miles to the east of the African beach bloodbath another young man blew himself up in a Kuwait mosque killing at least 25 worshippers at Friday prayers because they happen to belong to an Islamic sect that is not his own. In France a delivery driver decapitates a man, apparently in the name of jihad, and it is a mercy that he fails to blow up an industrial gas plant in the process. From Palmyra to the Valley of the Kings and the beaches of Sousse lone wolf terrorists out of nowhere have turned once-secure tourist attractions into death traps. And these acts of violence, these killings are simply the latest in a litany of horror and destruction. Charlie Hebdo immediately comes to mind.
Enlightened people in Tunisia and here at home are shocked and horrified from the carnage, the abominations of the deed, the wilful slaughter of innocent lives; the government may wish to seek revenge? Our first natural response is to start talking. There has been much television and press coverage. Perhaps silence might be a more appropriate act for the atrocities are beyond words. I am reminded of the Old Testament character Job who 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.
This is a time for tears, for sorrow and for prayer. To remember the dead, the nation fell silent for one minute at noon, yesterday, Friday 3rd July. I was in York Minister at the time; the congregation stood in quiet reflection, and in a passing whim I thought could a drugged up fanatic enter this building? Around the country there were those who wept with and for the victims. Tributes were paid. Prayers were said for those who have been murdered and injured and bereaved. It was time when people of good will who follow the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to stand together in supplication, protest and witness.
However at some point when we are less numb with the shock of it all we will have to speak about terror in relation to faith. How should we speak about this barbarism, these perversions of faith when actions like terror discredit it? The policeman who shot the Tunisian gunman said the killer had stopped shooting and was praying when he himself was shot. And we might rightly ask: to whom was he praying and about what? And what sort of madness is it that makes God in the image of our most depraved imaginings? It’s commonly said “whatever they say, these jihadists are not acting in the true spirit of Islam – people committing such atrocities as these are not real members of the faith that they’re dying for or killing for.” But that is certainly not their own understanding; they’re feeding on certain verses in their sacred scriptures or events in their faith history which encourage them to act in these extreme or even violent ways.
Sadly our own Christian history is not exempt from murderous insanity: in the aftermath of the military campaigns sanctioned by the Latin Roman Catholic Church during the High and Late Middle Ages, Islam still hurts. Not only were Muslims slaughtered during these Crusade operations but Jews too. 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. A friend of mine who recently returned from travelling the pilgrim road to Compostela in Spain with the tour operator Saga tells me of the sight of medieval images and paintings of St James the Great, called Matamoros, “Slayer of the Moors” (Muslims). In a Northumberland Roman Catholic Guest house there is still to this day a graphic wall painting showing Christians slaying Moors. Shakespeare makes much of his great tragedy play Othello, the Moor, where jealousy, intrigue and ambition leads to plots and murders, Othello kills his innocent wife, later himself, Iago wounded kills Emilia.
It’s no use Christians saying: those who inspired, preached and led the crusades, princes, popes, bishops and even saints were somehow ‘not acting in the name of Christianity’. They clearly thought they were doing precisely what their faith required in restoring Christian access to holy places in and near Jerusalem. Very few questioned it. Only with hindsight have the churches recognised the monumental error they committed in the name of Christ. I am 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 perhaps 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 it was the spirit of the crusades that later permeated medieval Christendom. It took centuries to learn co-existence and toleration, one of the gifts of the Enlightenment to religious faith.
Certainly Christians now don’t defend the crusades but alas we still see believers today who bring discredit on the good name of Christianity just as jihadists do on the good name of Islam. As a result of unintelligent literal readings of the Bible some Christians 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. That’s also true of Islam. Radical fundamentalists in all religious traditions claim to represent faith in its pristine-white purity state, 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. Is bad religion poisoning the world?
Perhaps not. Last month, June 2015, President Obama led mourners of a black American church in the singing of Amazing Grace. The South Carolina church had itself been the victim of a murderous gun attack but in its response to this “terrorism” there was no violence or even a hint of hatred, the mourners spoke of forgiveness – “someone should have told that young man if he wanted to start a race war, he came to the wrong place” said a spokesman. The Emmanuel Church, Charleston, South Carolina in its grief and loss begins to embody the true essence of Christianity. Amazing grace indeed.
Minister, St Andrew’s Dawson Street, Crook