Praying for Our Fellow Christians

Yesterday evening, as on many previous occasions, we held a short prayer vigil here in the monastery for persecuted Christians in the Near and Middle East, especially those in the grip of IS. For once I remembered to mention the vigil on Social Media, and it was heartwarming to see how many responded and joined in ‘virtually’. Inevitably, one or two people wanted to widen the terms of reference, not just Christians but also . . . . Anyone who follows the daily prayer intentions on our Facebook page will know that we never take an exclusive view of prayer — the fact that we don’t mention someone or something doesn’t mean we’re not praying for them — but given that today’s gospel, Matthew 5. 43–48, addresses the subject of loving our enemies, you may wonder why we insist that our vigil was, quite specifically, for our persecuted brethren.

It’s easy to forget that as Christians we are the original corporate person, as it were. We are one in Christ, and as St Paul famously reminds us in his analogy of the body, what affects one affects all. We have a duty of care towards one another. The first way in which we express that is through our union of prayer. Nothing can substitute for that. It is from our strength and unity as a Christian community that our action proceeds, and unity cannot exist without being grounded in prayer. Everything we read about the outrages perpetrated by IS reminds us that Christians face a persecution as evil as any in history. Some will argue that the numbers involved are fewer than were exterminated by the Nazis or that the atrocities reported by the media are exaggerated. Personally, I find it rather repugnant to play any kind of numbers game. The fact is that people are suffering because they acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and God. They are being driven from their homes, enslaved, killed. We pray for them and ask their prayers for us, mindful that they show us what it means to be a disciple. Those Coptic Christians who died in Libya calling on the name of Jesus must surely be an encouragement to us all. Last night we asked the Lord to have mercy, but we also gave thanks for the witness of his followers who were ‘faithful unto death’ and showed us what it means to love our enemies:

Coptic Christians martyred in Libya

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A Seductive Brutality

A psychologist might argue differently, but it is difficult for a lapsed historian like myself not to see a seductive brutality at work in the attempts of Isis and other extremist groups to eliminate everyone who thinks or believes differently from themselves. A BBC World Service news item last night recounting how people had been lined up on a river bank then shot in the head and pushed into the river was horrible enough. Learning that it had been videoed and the video published on the web was more horrible still. Isn’t it enough that we should behave outrageously without then publicizing the outrage?

Perhaps that is a key to what is happening. Those who are weak or feel inferior acquire a false sense of power from association with extremist groups. The more brutal the behaviour of such groups, the more the sense of power increases; and it doesn’t really matter who or what the target is. Killing a child or an unarmed woman still provides the thrill of omnipotence; and if the killing can be dressed up in the language of religious zeal or political necessity, the hand that pulls the trigger can not only sleep easy o’ nights but glory in the act of murder.

You notice I speak of extremist groups, but the sad fact is that nation states can be seduced by the same kind of brutality and can perpetrate the same kind of horrors. At the moment the eyes of the West are on Gaza and Israel, Syria and Iraq, while the sufferings of African and Asia have slipped from our gaze. The attempted extermination of Christians has raised barely a murmur save among fellow Christians. Could it be that we too are seduced by the very brutality we see in others, not wanting to admit the full horror and shame of what is going on? We no longer speak of genocide but ‘ethnic cleansing’. We no longer condemn violence outright but merely seek to limit it what is ‘proportional’. Moral weakness is the deadliest kind, and it shows itself in the language we use. Have we in the West, somewhere along the line, lost our soul?

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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.

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