About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Monday, 16 November 2015

After Paris

Terror in Paris is not more of an atrocity than it is in Beirut, Baghdad, Bali or anywhere else in the world. It's simply that it's so near home, so familiar. The massacre of innocents is awful because everyone's death 'diminishes me' as John Donne famously said. It diminishes us all. When anyone is a victim of another person's cruelty, the human family is that bit more broken. At times like this, all we can do to begin with is to be silent, shed our tears for the dead, remember, say our prayers, and if we are in a position to, comfort those who mourn. And allow ourselves to feel what we feel: sadness, compassion, bewilderment, and surely a fierce burning anger.

But after the shock the time comes again to speak, pick up threads, search for words that will help. If nothing else, our attempts to order our thoughts and articulate them may help to stabilise us somewhat. It's important to try to grasp what is ultimately without any sense, or begin to. On this third day of national mourning in France, I'm trying in a piecemeal way to absorb the images from Paris, so many of them beyond words, unbearably poignant. I want to learn from the news coverage and pay attention to the best informed commentary and interpretation that has been offered since Friday night.

Here, for what it's worth, is where I have got to.

1. I believe we need to be emotionally honest about these terrible events. It's no use pretending that I am not profoundly shaken by them, or that I am not afraid of what may follow. Afraid of yet more outrages against innocence, against all that is precious in human life. Afraid for our world, for our European home, for France, and for London my home city where many of my family and friends live and work. And yes, afraid for myself, wondering if it is safe to walk the streets of our cities, travel by bus or train, go to the cinema or the concert hall.... I fervently believe that life must go on, but I don't quite buy the defiant 'as normal' that usually follows that phrase. There is no 'normal' in the aftermath of terror. It is more a case of 'face the fear and do it anyway'. But unacknowledged fear feeds off itself and through its tyranny paralyses us. This is what terrorists want. We need to recognise that we are frightened if we are to keep calm and carry on, if we are to reawaken hope.

2. There are, I think, theological and spiritual consequences of any atrocity that we need to face without unflinching. However simplistic the dogmas promoted by the radicalised religion of these young jihadists, we can't allow our religious response to it to be shaped on their black-and-white terms. 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. It's not a problem for jihadists who shout Allahu Akbar as they slaughter their victims; but it is very much a problem for the adherents of mainstream Islam, Judaism and Christianity. 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 and the Passion Narratives. Perhaps the godforsakenness of Jesus on the cross ('My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?') is the place to start. 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. 

3. Among the pieces I have read since Friday have been some that persuade me that I need to understand radicalised Islam far better than I do. (Indeed, I need to understand Islam itself far better, especially the millennenarian Caliphate aspirations of radical Sunnis.)  What is it that motivates the jihadists of Daesh? What do they want to achieve? The rhetoric of 'death-cult', 'holy war', 'nihilism' and 'psychopathy' is understandable, but it doesn't explain what we're facing. If we are going to tackle Daesh, we need to know our enemy and I'm not persuaded that enough of us do know our foe accurately. I'm particularly worried that western leaders, schooled in liberal secularism, don't have the necessary background to understand the dynamics of degraded religion and its motivation to destructiveness. The strategy has to rest on a proper intellectual consensus, something that has been lacking ever since 9/11 shocked us into facing up to how our world order had changed and we found ourselves precipitated into the ill-conceived 'war on terror'. (I recommend a penetrating and chilling piece by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, 'What ISIS Really Wants' which you can find online at www.theatlantic.com.) 

4. This hardly needs saying, at least to people who are likely to read this blog, but I'll say it anyway if only to remind myself how important it is. We absolutely must not hurry to throw blame around in the aftermath of an act of terror. If we are white Christian Europeans, I'm particularly thinking of those with different ethnicities and faith allegiances from ours. Some of the less responsible media are already linking the jihadists with Syrian refugees recently arrived in Europe. 'It is very important that we do not close our hearts and start equating the issue of refugees with terrorism' Barack Obama has said. Friday's massacres in Paris are bound to fan the flames of hysterical anti-immigrant feeling on the far right (I have real anxiety about the imminent regional elections in France where we have already seen worrying signs of a sharp shift of opinion towards the 'Front National'). If ever there was a time when we needed to care for the stranger in our midst and to love our neighbour as ourselves it is now. As for our own fellow citizens, our Muslim brothers and sisters are feeling especially vulnerable in these times. We must reach out to them in friendship and stand with them to affirm the shared values of our two Abrahamic faiths. 

And of course, we must go on expressing our complete solidarity with the victims themselves, with the people of France, and with all who suffer at the hands of the wicked. I'm touched by the worldwide displays of the Tricolore on public buildings and FaceBook profiles. To see my own Durham Cathedral lit up in this way was especially moving for me. It may be a small enough gesture, but a little is better than nothing. The blue, white and red of Libert√©, Egalit√©, Fraternit√© originated in the days of Enlightenment and Revolution. But at heart they are Christian and humane aspirations the vast majority of us hold dear in our democracies. They are hard won. We must defend them and pray for our enemies who hate us and all who stand for these noble values. 

But we need to do it intelligently. Faith needs to seek understanding. It's how to be wise at times like this that I'm reflecting on in the aftermath of such sickening awfulness and pain. And the Archbishop of Canterbury is right. If we want to change the world, prayer is where it begins.


  1. Thank you for bringing some sense to what is going on. In the Army, the lesson we were taught was to 'know your enemy' because knowing them, would help you to develop the strategy and tactics to overcome them. Put starkly like that, it ignores the understanding that you describe, but assuredly in military circles, such study is ongoing and is deeply advanced and developed. Perhaps some of those who study these things, should share some of their knowledge with Churches and Religious leaders, because there is always room to learn more and to be better informed.

    I'm sure that there are academics outside the circle of the military, who could share their knowledge just as well, but the only voices that I'm hearing are of Bishops, Rabbi Sachs and one of two Islamic leaders, but mainly in sound bites.

    We need informed discussion, widely participated in by and with the public, to get people away from the knee jerk media and into a deeper understanding of the issues faced by Daesh and those opposing them, and the difficulties in overcoming them as an Enemy of almost everyone but their adherents.