How Much Do We Really Care?

The recent row about Shamima Begum and her baby has highlighted a growing difficulty in our public discourse: the tendency to allow emotion and political opportunism to cloud our thinking. We saw something similar at work in the sad case of Alfie Evans. It is as though we are unable to think through the possible consequences of an action and then make a decision, acknowledging that it is imperfect but that it is also as just and fair as we can make it, taking into account not only the principals but all who are affected by what is decided. In the case of Shamima Begum and her son, the safety of the British public as a whole had to be weighed against her desire to be allowed back into Britain. In the case of little Alfie, the wishes of the parents had to be weighed against differing medical opinions and the resources, both human and technical, of Alder Hey Hospital, with the needs of Alfie himself paramount. Those of us who have never had to make such a decision can only speculate what they must cost those who do. Unfortunately, that does not stop us arguing about what should be done, and sometimes, as I said, we do not bother with any real fact-finding or reflection before we burst into print or its online equivalent, issuing little sound-bytes of opinion that play on people’s emotions rather than serving any useful purpose. How much do we really care if that is how we tackle such morally-complex matters?

Tonight’s vote in the House of Commons will have consequences that last at least a generation, but anyone who has followed the Brexit debate in this country must have doubts about the process as well as its ultimate outcome. Is this truly democracy at work or a mutant variety of it? I myself have been disappointed by the way in which some of our politicians have conducted themselves and have often cringed at assertions/wishes being presented as facts when they are nothing of the sort. We have seen manoeuvering for personal/political advantage, half-truths and an unwillingness to face up to some unpleasant realities that has proved extremely divisive. Whatever is decided tonight is unlikely to end the squabbling or lead to more unity. So, again I ask, do we really care?

It doesn’t matter which ‘side’ we are on. We all have a responsibility to ensure, as far as we are able, that Parliament’s decisions are in the best interests of everyone — which includes the wider world beyond these shores. Some will argue that Britain has no responsibility towards mainland Europe, still less to countries further away, but is that true? We have already seen how what is done in one part of the world affects others, even down to the way in which our rubbish pollutes or our love of cheap fashion exploits. Can we really argue that whatever circle of self-interest we choose to define, be it tribe or nation, that is the limit of our responsibility? Some may, but I can’t; and I would hope anyone reading this would be of the same mind, however much we may differ in our view of other matters.

That leaves us with an almost-dilemma. What can we do about it? I would suggest that when we have thought and prayed and done everything we can by way of action, we are cast back onto prayer again because we know that God can do what we cannot. He sees the whole picture. He writes straight with crooked lines. Trusting God when we are doubtful is hard, but none of us can question either the fact that he cares or the extent to which he is willing to go for our sakes. We have only to look at a crucifix to know that. In the uncertainties of the present, I find that an encouraging as well as challenging thought, don’t you?

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9 thoughts on “How Much Do We Really Care?”

  1. Indeed. The strife that the ‘Brexit’ issues has sparked is deep and wide. I find friends and those I love very dearly quite hostile to thoughts I share which resonate with your writing. I know it is in God’s wiser gift to steer and I have faith that will happen. There are moments when I feel very hurt by humans. Thank you for your great example of strength and faith.

  2. This situation has put me into a well deserved crisis.
    During a recent discussion at church I voiced strong views that Shamima Begum should stay where she is, politically I still do believe that, but I have now prayed and thought about it a lot and my views firmly condemn me to the same fate as the servant who had had all his debts cancelled but who showed no mercy to those who owed him.
    God has saved me from myself so many times and delivered me to safety, sometimes even when I most certainly haven’t deserved it.
    I feel like I am at a cross roads where I have to forget about current affairs and my own self righteous views and concentrate more on what God is saying directly to my soul when I read the Bible. I am scared of the direction change but I trust God…..

    • Thank you. Your comment demonstrates just how difficult it is to decide what should be done in a case like that of Shamima Begum, especially if one is thoughtful and full of goodwill, as you obviously are. I think my own answer would come down on the side of thinking about the needs of the group rather than that of the individual. I am a bit wary about relying on what God says to me directly in my meditation on the scriptures — I am a great believer in submitting what I think he is saying to the judgement of another (that’s my monastic training at work), but I certainly agree that it is easy to become infected with self-righteousness, alas.

  3. My own complex reactions to Shamima Begum’s case are mediated through my experience of being a mother to four adult children, and now a grandmother to four very young children – as well as a theologian! I am conscious of how complex, opaque and multi-facetted interpretation is when seeking to follow the mysterious path that God opens up, and for me it’s only when I am well along it and looking back that I recognise it for what it is, if I ever do! So I find myself in a quagmire of uncertainty, but let me risk sharing some thoughts.

    I was shocked to hear a BBC radio interviewer recently discussing Shamima Begum’s fate with her family’s lawyer – before her baby was born. The lawyer confirmed that her parents could raise the child if she returned to the UK to face the justice system, and the interviewer asked if they would be fit to raise the child, given what happened with their own fifteen year old daughter.

    I know what it’s like to mother adolescent children, and just how challenging and painful those years are for loving parents. We do not own or control our children, and at that age they are pushing hard against all our boundaries, standards and values – at least, if we have raised them to believe that freedom and personal responsibility are important. They are testing what freedom means, and not yet responsible enough to use that freedom wisely. To suggest that her parents are unfit to raise a child because of their daughter’s teenage rebellion would condemn many of us as unfit to be parents.

    I ache for the parents of Shamima Begum and for her, even though she defiantly defended her decision in her ill-advised interviews. I wonder if she was trying to ensure her own safety and that of the child she was carrying. I wonder what might have happened to her if she had spoken in outright condemnation of IS and regret for her time with them while she was in a refugee camp, which she had to leave for her own safety after the interviews. Either way, she was a bereaved and traumatised teenager who had lost two infants and has now lost a third, living in a refugee camp far from those who might have helped her to rediscover her bearings and her sense of belonging. I wonder if any of us can truly imagine the trauma and darkness of her soul.

    But there’s something else. The UN repeatedly condemns the British military for its age of recruitment being 16, and we all know that none of Britain’s recent military escapades come close to meeting the just war criteria. Many of our young people are signing up for ambivalent causes, and there is substantial evidence that those recruiting for the military often target schools in poor areas where unemployment is high. When we encourage young people to see war and violence as legitimate forms of conflict resolution, should we really be surprised that some will be seduced by the wrong causes and the wrong kinds of violence?

    War and violence have always been seductive, particularly for young people craving adventure, and our culture is deeply inconsistent in its condemnation of some forms of violence and its romanticisation of others. Byron is celebrated as a swashbuckling hero for going off to join the Greek War of Independence. The Romantic poets were all seduced by the French Revolution. Many celebrated writers and artists joined the Spanish Civil War. And in any violent struggle, atrocities are committed on both sides and those who take part become blood-drenched creatures.

    To understand is not to justify, and to reach out in justice but also in mercy is not to endorse or affirm. If Shamima Begum truly has become radicalised, I cannot imagine what she might now go on to do – stripped of citizenship, bereft of her children, she has nothing to lose and everything to rage against. As James Baldwin once wrote, ‘The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose’.

    How much better it would have been to offer remedial justice, to show her that the values we claim to live by truly are values worth defending – human dignity, respect for the law and the rights of the citizen, due process in matters of justice, etc. She might have become a model and an example for other young people tempted by violent causes. Now, we may have abandoned her to those causes.

    So in this case, I think the interests of the group are the same as those of the individual – rehabilitation and restoration to society, not banishment and exclusion. (I cannot recommend too highly Kamila Shamsie’s prescient novel, ‘Home Fires’, as a way of exploring some of these complex issues).

    Sorry to take up space here – and thank you for helping us to reflect on these issues.

    • Thank you for taking the time and trouble to write this. You have helped us all by highlighting the many complexities of the situation. I wonder how many people, however, have simply gone along with the idea of ‘the bereaved mum’ and not considered the question of remedial justice or the very ambivalent role of Britain in many of the armed conflicts of the past twenty years. I don’t have any answers, only questions; but we must ask those questions. I shall look out Kamila Shamsie’s novel, thank you. (PS Impossible to think of you as a grandmother now!)

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