Angry Twitter, Angry World

St Jerome

St Jerome, whose feast we celebrate today, has a not entirely unjustified reputation for being a bit of a curmudgeon, though I think myself it has been unfairly exaggerated. I wonder what he would have made of Social Media? There are days when both Twitter and Facebook, for example, are awash with bile and one has to fight down the urge to say, ‘If you really did have the solution to the world’s problems, we’d all be beating a path to your door; the fact that nobody is should tell you something!’ The problem with Social Media, as we all know, is that it is instant. If we had to sit down and ink our words on parchment or chisel them on stone, we might allow ourselves a moment’s reflection. That is why, in my old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy way, I always urge people to pray before they look at their smartphones or log onto the internet. Being conscious of what we are doing is important if we are not to waste our energy and our opportunity.

As you might expect, St Benedict has a lot to say that is pertinent. His chapter on humility, which we are in the process of reading over the next few days, urges restraint in speech and action so that we are fully conscious of what we are about. We don’t drift into holiness, so to say; we have to make an effort. Anger is one of the passions early monastic writers marked out as being a major barrier to holiness of life. It takes over, controls us, places a red mist before the eyes so that we don’t see or hear clearly. St Jerome’s letters to St Augustine often contain passages in which he acknowledges what a struggle he had to contain his anger and check his tendency to sarcasm. He had, of course, the virtue of his fault: he was courageous. The cowardice that masquerades as charity was never for him! The difficulty for us is discerning when our anger is merely anger, and when it is a necessary and righteous means of achieving a good end — and I have to say, if my own experience is anything to go by, anger is usually just anger, with nothing righteous about it at all.

Today, I’d like to suggest two things: that we pray for Gaza, where Jerome lived some of his life; and we pray for all who use Social Media, that we may build up rather than destroy. Angry Twitter, angry world? The connection is not as distant as we might hope. Perhaps we could ask the prayers of St Jerome to help us.


A Moment of Peace

Yesterday saw an all too brief cessation of hostilities between Gaza and Israel, but was it, as some said, a moment of peace? Technically, I suppose it was; but peace surely means more than the absence of war or civil disorder. I tend to think of peace as being more of a state than a process — what we Christians mean, or should mean, by the Kiss of Peace exchanged, above all, at the Eucharist: a sign of the unity and charity that exists in the assembly. St Benedict was quite keen on the Kiss of Peace, given and received. It was an important part of the ritual of welcome for a guest, but it was not to be shared until prayer had been offered (cf RB 53.4–5). That reminds us that peace is not a matter of mere feeling, of general goodwill; nor is it something we can attain in all its fullness by our own efforts. Peace comes to us as a divine gift, but it is a gift we have to be ready to receive. To be united in peace and the bond of charity requires effort on our part. It often means laying aside our preferences, our prejudices, even making sacrifices of things dear to us. It is no accident that the Benedictine motto ‘pax’ appears within a protective crown of thorns. For the great paradox is that while we may seem to struggle to attain the gift of peace, it is the Lord himself who guards the hearts of those he keeps in peace.


Waging War with Civilians and Other Horrors

It can be very hard to understand why anyone should wish to use bullets, bombs, kidnapping, torture and other horrors to achieve their aims, yet that is precisely what is happening in many parts of the world. Hamas wants to destroy Israel so rains down rocket-fire; Israel wants to destroy Gaza so rains down air-strikes and ground offensives; ISIS wants to eliminate anyone who thinks or believes differently so uses bully-boy tactics on Christians and other religious groups; Boko Haram has its own vision, if one can call it that, for Nigeria and has no scruples about using kidnap and terror against the civilian population. In every case, it is civilians who suffer most; and as far as I can see, the shocking truth is that civilian suffering is what is intended. If enough civilians die, there will be a shift in thinking; existing power-structures will crumble; victory will have been won.

It would naive to believe that waging war with civilians is a novelty. Sadly, it has always been so; but today’s weaponry makes it easier and deadlier than ever. That raises all kinds of moral questions about Just War theory, individual/collective responsibility, the role of Superpowers and so on. I’m not sure what bloggers and others have to contribute to the debate, but perhaps thinking in terms of ‘debate’ itself contributes to the problem. We are not talking about something abstract and ultimately harmless but about human lives. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and remember that what is done, or not done, today affects not only the present generation but generations to come. Wars are rarely born of sudden misunderstandings or power-grabs. They tend to come from long-simmering feuds and resentments, from the memory of hurts, real or imagined, that we all carry within us. Perhaps there is something there for us all to think about today.


Death from the Skies

Yesterday afternoon, at about the time that a Malaysia Airlines jet was being blown apart in the skies above Ukraine and the brief ceasefire between Hamas and Israel ended with renewed rocket fire and air strikes, I looked up into the peaceful blue skies above Herefordshire and thought, not for the first time, that there is something peculiarly dreadful about death coming suddenly and unexpectedly from the skies. We half-expect danger on the ground or in the water. We have thousands of years of collective experience of predators, human enemies and sea-storms taking us by surprise; but missiles, rockets and bombs dropped from the air, these are somehow different. They come so swiftly and the destruction they wreak is, despite what the perpetrators say, essentially indiscriminate.

As the death toll in Gaza rises and the likelihood that the Malaysia Airlines jet was hit by a missile sourced from Russia increases, international tensions also rise. The West focuses upon the Middle East and Russia, but many in Asia are asking what China intends. The world looks as fragile and volatile as it ever has. The Christian response — trust, prayer, loving surrender — probably looks ‘inadequate’ to those who believe that all the world’s problems can be solved by action; but there are times when human action seems only to complicate and confuse. As we pray for peace, we need to remember that peace has to start somewhere, in the individual human resolve to forgive and, what is perhaps still harder, accept forgiveness. It is no good lamenting what a terrible state the world is in if we do not look into our own hearts and see what needs to be changed there. The choice before us is always, as Deuteronomy says, between life and death. Let us choose life.


Gaza, Israel and the Inadequacy of Human Responses

I have always believed in the value of brevity. The fine phrase, the purple passage, the adjectives rattling along in quick succession: they should all be deleted. Every word should count, even if that means some readers worry that I have not ‘covered the ground’ as I ought. Sometimes, there simply are no words at all. What is happening in Gaza now is unspeakable; so too is Hamas’s continuing rocket-fire into Israel. We can pray, we can fast, but most of the time all we can do is watch the tragedy unfolding. I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of that. What is happening is not an Arab crisis or a Middle Eastern crisis, it is a humanitarian crisis — one in which we are all involved. Our helplessness, our inability to end the misery, is a painful reminder of the fact that we are not gods. We cannot bring about peace just by wishing it, nor by expecting the other person to make compromises or concessions. Peace can only be achieved by recognizing our own powerlessness and willing a change, even at the expense of appearing weak or foolish or both. Perhaps the real problem is that we don’t actually want to change. Let us pray that is not true of the people of Gaza and Israel.