Where Angels Fear To Tread

Three terrorist attacks in as many months, and those who like to shout are shouting loudly. ‘It has nothing to do with Islam’ cry some. ‘It has everything to do with Islam’ yell others. The only point on which they agree is the need to apportion blame for the perceived failures of our politicians and policy-makers to keep us all safe. It is understandable that such extreme positions should be adopted, but I wonder whether we are confusing a number of things, and in so doing missing a central point.

I don’t subscribe to the view that what is regularly dubbed Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with religion. On the contrary, I think it has everything to do with religion, but not religion as we in the West usually understand it. Ask the average (non-Muslim) Englishman or Englishwoman the difference between Islam as practised by the majority of Muslims in this country and Wahhabism and they will be stumped. Some will have read the Quran but no commentaries, and so will apply to the text a literal interpretation they would not dream of applying to the Christian scriptures. Islam does not have the clear hierarchical structure of Catholicism, nor are some of the ways it deals with matters such as marriage and family easily understood by those whose norms of belief and behaviour rest on whatever remains in our laws and customs of the Christian tradition. Terrorism does, however, have the fervour of religion even if it does not have our Western sense of religious structure. That is why, it seems to me, all the various initiatives to try to prevent radicalisation have limited efficacy. Yes, the Prevent programm has had its undoubted successes; yes, our intelligence services have foiled many terrorist plots; and yes, the bravery of our police and emergency services cannot be faulted. But unless we meet religious fervour with religious fervour, I do not see how we can expect to end the threat to human life that terrorism poses.

By religious fervour, I do not mean what a Wahhabist terrorist seems to mean. I do not believe that God is glorified by killing anyone, nor do I believe that music and dancing are inherently sinful or that the education of women and girls is offensive to God. I do not believe that to kill someone who does not believe as I do is a virtuous act. However, I do believe that I must try to live by the precepts of the gospel in all their fullness, not the shrunken, for-an-hour-on-the-occasional-Sunday version that many of us actually adopt. I believe that I must take seriously the injunction to love my neighbour, to forgive, do good to them that hate me, and I cannot be selective in how I apply that. That is why I realise that prayer is of the essence. Left to myself, and I’d be just as brutal and vengeful as anyone who has ever lived. Clearly, this kind of response is not going to appeal to society in general. I fear it is not going to appeal to the majority of Christians, either, many of whom have expressed online sentiments that have more of the ‘eye for an eye’ of the Lex Talionis than the much harder teaching of Jesus Christ. However, I myself think it is the only way to combat the ideological attraction of terrorism. ‘British values’ alone cannot do it; Christian values, genuinely lived by Christians, might.

There is one important caveat that may surprise readers. In the course of my lifetime I have seen the Church weaken her hold on the hearts and minds of those who belong to her. The liturgy is often something to be endured rather than rejoiced in; the rhythms of the Christian life, with their fasts and feasts and regular times and ways of prayer, have been almost obliterated; the lack of respect for authority is palpable; where that authority is exercised, it can be authoritarian; and the dreadful tales of abuse and corruption have alienated many and sickened those who remain. We need a renewal of the Church, a new conversion of heart, each and every one of us, if we are to respond to the terrorist threat in our midst. I am reminded of the young Spaniard, a church-goer, who found the difference of Islam attractive. He was drawn by the five-fold daily prayer, the fast of Ramadam, the modest dress code — all things that have their parallel, indeed their origin, in Judaism and Christianity but are largely ignored today. That should make us think, especially as a number of British Jihadis are former Christians.

Whoever wins the General Election will have to make some difficult decisions about how to counter terrorism, and how to prevent a further fragmentation of society. It is, however, not a task for government alone. Our role as individuals is just as important but perhaps even more difficult. We may not have grown up expecting to have to make such a radical choice but now, more than ever, we must rise to the challenge of the gospel, becoming true icons of Jesus Christ. That will seem absurdly naive to some, ridiculously simplistic to others, but it may have just enough of truth in it to make us think. Darkness can only be overcome by light, and Christians are called to be light, to be martyrs in the real sense of the word. The white martyrdom of living witness is as necessary as the red martyrdom of blood. Let us pray we may be equal to whichever we are called to.


7 thoughts on “Where Angels Fear To Tread”

  1. When I’ve been in hospital I’ve often taken out my Breviary when there is a Muslim in the opposite bed and prayed especially during visiting time. I always say to Muslims that I too pray daily and regularly. In our sermon yesterday which didn’t mention Muslims or the atrocities at all, we were urged to share our peace. So I think one thing we could all do, in addition to prayer is to say ‘Peace be with you’ to those we meet. Today and every day, and may His peace remain with us always.

  2. Thank you again for writing so clearly what I too believe to be true & our only way forward as Christians. I pray many read this & are touched by it to reflect & be empowered to live a fervent Christian life. May God Bless you & your ministry richly.

  3. I believe now may be the time to pray the prayer of Blessed Pope John XXIII:

    Divine Spirit, renew your wonders in our time, as though for a new Pentecost, and grant that the holy church, preserving unanimous and continuous prayer, together with Mary the Mother of Jesus, and also under the guidance of St. Peter, may increase the reign of the Divine Savior, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen.
    -Prayer of Pope John XXIII to the Holy Spirit, 1961

    (c) http://cta-usa.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/CTA-Website-John.pdf

  4. I know for a fact that Prayers of Spiritual Warfare will do something and will limit them but Christianity today lacks prayer. It takes more than saying “thoughts and prayers with them” or “God help our Country” ISIS is a stronghold and has to be bound. How dare darkness cause so much kerfuffle in a world where we have Christians. I pray God gives wisdom to the Theresa May / Corbyn, as to how to deal with it and I pray God has Mercy on UK and sends his Archangels down, to every corner.

  5. As always you challenge as well as inform and inspire me. Very hard to acknowledge that without God, I would also be as brutal as anyone else, but having paused and thought – how true. Also a renewal of the Church and a new conversion of heart are vital but incredibly difficult to bring about. The Church moves slowly and seems torn (in this country at least) between trying to welcome back people it has lost (by changing) and not losing the remaining members by not changing. Impossibly conflicting aims I think.

    My local priest told the congregation that we must not fill our hearts with anger or hate after terrorist acts but should turn to prayer – use our secret weapon – the Rosary daily. It will help with my personal change of heart – the renewal of the Church is a bit big for me to sort out for now…

  6. I totally agree with you, dear sister! The ‘antidote’ is spiritual, within christianity certainly but also within islam, which expresses the same Logos through the language of transcendance…
    But the deep meaning of this language happens to be under severe attack, as we see so many souls seduced by darkness, hatred and death.
    So let us refer to Jesus Christ of course, but also to Mohammed who is a great prophet among the prophets sent by the only God!

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