I imagine every Western politician woke up this morning wondering what to do about Russia and the Crimea. Last month it may have been Syria or North Korea. Before that, Egypt. We tend to deal with difficulties and problems sequentially, dropping one when another looms into view. It is not that Iraq and Afghanistan have been ‘dealt with’, but we are collectively great believers in ‘moving on’. We have other countries in our sights now. The trail of death and destruction is one we prefer to ignore because ultimately it is traceable back to those who gave the order to mobilise the troops or clamoured for something to be done. That qualification is important because it reminds us that in a democracy we all bear a measure of responsibility, whether active or passive. We can’t distance ourselves from it simply by saying ‘not in my name’.

I mentioned a few days ago that I had been thinking about the Crimean War of the nineteenth century. I have also been thinking about the symbolic importance of Ukraine to the Russian people, about gas pipes and oil lines, and the way in which Western politicians tend very easily to assume that an uprising or protest movement will usher in something better than before. If it doesn’t, it can be forgotten, or at least allowed to slip from the headlines, e.g. Libya. Unlike many political commentators, I have no suggestions to make regarding the dilemma we face. I have only one constructive tool to offer: prayer. To some, that will seem laughable; to others, an admission of failure; but I think myself it is the most powerful thing those of us who are not movers and shakers in the accepted sense can do. Indeed, prayer has a way of upsetting the usual order of things. It can bring hope and peace out of the darkest situation. Let us pray that it does so now.


Hatred is a Killer

A man dresses his little sister in a suicide vest and we throw up our hands in horror; another chases someone, sets fire to him, then devours his leg, and we react with revulsion. We know the situation in Afghanistan is complex but we look at the end result: a brutalisation so complete that a child is merely an instrument of war and revenge. We know the situation in the Central African Republic is also complex, but again we look only at the end result: a man is so inflamed by the murder of his pregnant wife that he not only kills the person responsible but shows utter contempt for him. In both cases, our Western susceptibilities are outraged: we believe children should be afforded special protection; cannibalism is off-limits; the perpetrators of these acts are vile.

It is no good blaming religion as such for either of these atrocities. It was not Islam which made that man force his sister to wear a suicide vest; nor was it Christianity which made that man kill his neighbour and devour his leg. We are very much mistaken, though, if we don’t acknowledge that religion, however much misunderstood or perversely interpreted, has played a part in allowing such things to happen because it has become a convenient peg on which to hang visceral hatreds and rivalries. That is dangerous, because it affects public perception of the religion in question, not merely of the individuals who (mis)use it as justification for their actions.

Increasingly in the West, we are seeing Islam and Christianity pitted against one another in the popular imagination. Polarisation between the two has become an explanation, we might say the explanation, of every violent or aggressive act that involves adherents of either religion. The trouble is, that kind of ‘explanation’ merely stops us examining other motives or causes and, incidentally, does a great disservice to those who genuinely try to live good and peaceable lives according to their religious beliefs. Perhaps it is time to take stock and admit that even the most loving and merciful of us are capable of ugly acts.

We may think of ourselves as kind, compassionate people, always eager to do good to others and without a mean bone in our bodies. That may be how we are born, but we quickly learn behaviours that are not so pure or generous. It is only grace that keeps us in check, and it is a grace we must earnestly desire and pray for, not presume upon.

It is easy to condemn someone who makes a walking bomb of his sister or eats his neighbour, but the intense hatred that inspired such acts didn’t begin like that. Its origins may lie in mere dislike or minor antipathy, a half-remembered grudge from ancestral times or a sense of grievance never satisfied; but it was allowed to grow until it stifled every better feeling. One of the lessons to be learned from these tragedies is that hatred is a killer — and just as likely to be found in our own heart as in the heart of another.


The First Frost

We have just had our first real frost of winter. Everything crunches underfoot and there is a mist rising with the sun and shrouding familiar shapes and forms with an ethereal winding-sheet. Odd, isn’t it, how frost and cold turn our thoughts (my thoughts, anyway) to a half-remembered past, peopled by warriors, kings and thegns, with their bright armour and their strange and wonderful poetry. It would never surprise me to see Beowulf emerging from the mist or some dark Celt moving silently from tree to tree. An over-lively imagination, my mother called it, but for me it is just the necessary mental equipment of the (now lapsed) historian. Without the ability, or at least the desire, to enter into the lives of others remote from us in time and place, I think understanding both past and present is much more difficult.

Today there is much that requires a huge imaginative leap to understand, if we ever can. The allegations against Jimmy Savile have propelled us into the dark world of the abuser; the never-ending violence in Syria and Afghanistan haunts us; Malala Yousafzai struggling for life in Pakistan and the continuing search for the body of little April Jones, they weigh heavy on the spirit. As a Christian I believe that evil does not have the ultimate victory, but to live according to that belief requires more than mere acquiescence. It is never an easy way out. We are called to live our faith in the Resurrection; to do battle with all that is opposed to the goodness of God. This morning the first frost reminds us that some of the most powerful enemies we face come not from the world around us but from within, from our own imaginative failures, from imperfectly accepted personal histories. We all have our own inner demons to overcome.


The Price of Education

When, in 1869, Emily Davies founded the College for Women at Hitchin, later Girton College, Cambridge, her avowed aim was equality of educational opportunity for women. It was not until 1947, however, that Cambridge women were admitted to degrees. Until then their degrees were merely titular, even though women had shown remarkable ability. In 1890 Philippa Fawcett of Newnham was ranked ‘above the Senior Wrangler’, with a score 13% higher than the next closest, but she was not allowed the traditional title. That was reserved to men only. Nowadays we smile over such follies. Although inequalities and prejudices remain, in the west the right of women to education is taken for granted — even if it has taken a long time to achieve.

Compare and contrast the situation in the Swat Valley. Yesterday we learned that Malala Yousafzai was shot for daring to go to school. She is just 14. Some will remember the diary she produced for the BBC in 2009, which gave a glimpse of what it was like to live in Taliban-dominated society. I have commented before on young Afghan girls having acid flung in their face because they want an eduction. This is not a ‘women’s issue’ or a ‘cultural matter’, somehow secondary to the political process. It is a human rights issue, fundamental to the political process because it has to do with both justice and the rule of law. While we pray for Malala’s recovery, I can’t help recalling that her name means, literally, ‘Grief Stricken’. I think we too should be grief stricken that in 2012 there are still areas of the world where women and girls are not thought worthy of education and those that do dare to go to school risk paying the price with their blood.


Love, Respect and Afghanistan

Benedictines are currently reading chapter 63 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Community Order. Its emphasis on the mutual love and respect which should mark relations between old and young, the small courtesies of the cloister and the etiquette of community life are a world away from the situation in Afghanistan where men seem to make all the rules, women count for little and young girls continue to be attacked for their ‘presumption’ in attending school.

One may question whether the West’s determination to impose democracy in the Middle East is justifiable or simply another form of outmoded colonialism. One may question whether the West’s eagerness to share its values is altruistic or merely a thinly-disguised piece of self-interest. But acid flung in the face or poison poured into the water test to the uttermost one’s belief in ‘cultural accommodation’. The story of the attack on 150 Afghani girls didn’t even make the front page of the BBC web site yesterday but was buried pages deep in ‘world news’.

As a woman whose family prized education, who was encouraged at school to develop and follow as many interests as possible, who benefited enormously from the blue-stocking feminism of ‘That Infidel place’ (Girton College), I find the hostility to women’s education in Afghanistan deeply troubling. I did a Google search for ‘how to help women’s education in Afghanistan’ and came up with some interesting results. May I  suggest you do the same? Love and respect are not passive qualities, nor are Benedict’s thoughts on how to create a fair and happy environment for people to live in limited to monasteries only.