Fifteen years on

Sermon preached at St James, Colwall, Trinity 16, 2016

Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15: 1-10

To hear the sermon as you read:

“But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, ‘O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people…?” (Exodus 32:11)

Today is one of those strange and special days. The chances are that, if today you were to ask a hundred people “do you remember what you were doing fifteen years ago today?” more than ninety would be able to tell you where they were and what they were doing that afternoon. If you haven’t yet recognised the date and its worldwide significance, let me remind you that September 11th is what the Americans call 9/11, “a date which will live in infamy” to use the words that President Roosevelt used 60 years earlier to refer to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The enormity of the assaults by Islamist terrorists on New York City and Washington DC is remembered because, arguably, it marked a turning point in world history. Most of us will remember earlier attacks by people with extremist views – attacks on buildings, on ships, on civilian aircraft. But many of them seemed to have political aims.

9/11 was something new, both in scale and type. It was an act of war by something other than a state, though, as we have discovered, its successors have sought in various ways to promote themselves as though they are a state. There is a line from 9/11 that leads to the situation we have today. Our security services in the UK tell us that terrorist attacks on the UK are not only possible but to be expected. We have seen appalling acts of terror carried out in a number of European countries including our own.

As Christians who believe in a loving God and in a good creation, as people committed to loving our enemies, we believe in the triumph of love over hate. But, in the present situation we have to face some stark questions. For me, one of the big questions is: does our Christian faith offer any resources with which to confront this dreadful threat to our civilisation? Or are we to live like an unfortunate rabbit in our car’s headlights, frozen in fear and unable to act?

Before I go any further, I want to make clear two things. First, I want you to understand that nothing I say should be taken as suggesting that I can find any justification for terrorist attacks. Second, I confess that I am not a pacifist. As a child born in wartime, I believe our country did what had to be done by going to war against a truly evil empire. More than that, I thank God that we have increased our national budgets to support the work of our security services, and that MI5, MI6 and GCHQ are openly recruiting some of our best young people into their ranks. It seems to me right and proper that we take all steps morally allowable, to defend ourselves and our neighbours from violent and malevolent assault. Like many of you, I am even ready to trade some of my rights to privacy, if that is truly necessary to ensure the safety of the people I care for.

I also think that, as Christians, we have to try to understand where those impulses arise that lead to such ugly phenomena as Daesh, the self-styled Islamic State. How is it that, typically, young people are attracted to such an organisation, controlled, of course, by people much older than themselves, people who must carry the greater burden of guilt for their wickedness? What leads young people who, in their teens, were regular students or workmates to join an organisation dedicated to murder, death and destruction? These are questions we have to ask, because, if we only condemn and do not try to understand, we will reinforce the cycle of death and destruction and the organisers of terror will have won the day. Only with a clear-sighted understanding, of how the process of grooming and radicalising works, will we be able to put in place effective safeguards. Only in this way can we make a more secure future for ourselves and for the youngsters we save from becoming murderers.

Here, I think, we find some resource in the Christian gospel. As believers living in a scientific age, we know that the individual is a fiction that comes to us from some of the excesses of our so-called Enlightenment. We should rather follow St Paul, whose model of flourishing humanity is that we are all one body. All different, of course – who could live in a body made up mainly of kidneys or fingers? No, we are different, but we only thrive because our differences are necessary for everyone else. We belong to each other or we die. These insights were good enough for St Paul, but we also have strong scientific evidence, giving us another language. Experimental, developmental and social psychology, and the findings of genetic research and sociological studies describe how our individuality, our attitudes, our views and our behaviour are all shaped by our connectedness with everyone else.

When a part of a body turns to attack the rest, we speak of autoimmune disease – or we speak of cancer – in other words, this is sickness, pathology, and we strive to defend, to rectify, to make the body whole again. Medical research looks to see how such terrible things come about and to restore the integration of our bodies, finding both internal and external causes which we try to remedy.

In every Eucharist celebrated in this church, we proclaim that we are one body because we all share in one bread. Of course, our Eucharist is peculiarly Christian, but have you stopped to think why we gather to do this? It is to act out the belief which we have from Jesus and then from Paul, that we are all conjoined – linked to the divine body of God and linked to each other. Without each other we are not the body of Christ, we are cut off from the divine. Together, we act out one-ness with God and with each other and, in doing that, we offer a model, a demonstration to the rest of the world. We are a community and, more than that, a community of resistance. We resist the dehumanising model of the alienated individual slumped in front of a screen. We resist being the capitalist consumer, the everlasting customer. We resist being the agent with lots of rights but no responsibilities. We show to the world that – though we are many and different from each other – we belong to each other and to God, and we invite the world to see how this way of being human can work. Of course, we’re not perfect at it, but what we offer knocks the socks off its rivals.

Muslims too have their model which corresponds quite closely to ours. They belong to the Ummah, to the body of believers. They’re also not perfect at it – witness for example the murderous enmity between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq. But, before we focus on the negatives in Islam, let’s just think “Northern Ireland, 1980s” and get back to the positives. There are parts of the world where Muslims and Christians have lived as loving neighbours for centuries, often joining in each others’ festivals. Each community in its own way is living out the vision of one humanity. After the murder of Fr Jacques Hamel a few weeks ago, the imam and many of his congregation attended Mass at the church in Rouvray St Etienne to live out their common humanity with their Christian neighbours.

So, when we hear of parents in Belgium, France, Holland and Germany, Birmingham, Luton and London trying to keep track of their teenage children who’ve been seduced into travelling to Syria, we must do whatever we can to support them and, at the least, honour their pain and their attempts to bring back their young before they are trapped in the murder machine. It is not enough to leave it to our security services – they have their necessary and right job to do. But the parents and families deserve our sympathy and our prayers. And we can do something practical to help them. Every time we hear slurs against Islam as a religion, every time we hear Muslims defamed, we have a duty to witness that theirs too is a religion of love, that there can indeed be only one God. Islam has many ugly aspects: the teachings on jihad for example refer to spiritual warfare, to our struggles against sin in ourselves and in the wider world. And yet there are terrible passages in the Qur’an that invoke and glorify slaughter as jihad. We must be careful, however, to remember that there are plenty of passages in our Bible that actually recommend murder on an almost genocidal scale as a duty to God. It’s just that, of course, we don’t bother with them and we focus instead on what we know to be true and just. Our Muslim brothers and sisters – unsurprisingly – do exactly the same in their lives. They are, however, faced with a perversion of their religion which is ugly, murderous and terrifying, and they are trying to find ways to counter the wicked men and women who peddle that perversion as true religion. They need us to stand by them in their resistance to this appalling attack on their religion and their families. We must hold out the hope that we can all say “though we are many, we are one body” and be ready to share our bread with them.