Helpless in the Face of Evil?

Barcelona. Cambrills. More blood shed, more lives lost, more evil to stun mind and heart with its unexpectedness and apparently random character. Do we see what happened in Catalonia as just another terrorist attack, another tragedy to be endlessly discussed on Social Media and surrounded with well-meaning but ultimately comfortless words by those who are expected to voice an opinion? They will tend to be much of a muchness: from religious leaders, the deploring of violence and an exhortation not to repay wrong with wrong; from politicians, expressions of solidarity and revulsion; from people in the street, attempts to put into words feelings of loss and bewilderment that only tears can articulate; and from some, hate-filled threats and invective. And so we have the flowers, the candles, the vigils, the embracings of people of different religious backgrounds, while the Emergency Services get on with their tasks, and those who believe that ‘government’ has let them down spew their anger and fear over the mosques and homes of those they hold responsible.

The real problem, the one we must all confront, is the reality of evil and our feelings of helplessness in the face of it. Recently, I have begun to see that this is one area where there is something of a masculine/feminine division in approach*. Most religious leaders and politicians are male. Inevitably, they frame their discourse in predominantly masculine terms. They talk of fighting, conquering, waging war: there is a victory to be gained, a defeat to be avoided, something to be eliminated, and when the issue is not clear-cut, as it is not in the case of terrorism, there is a frustration that is almost tangible. A more feminine discourse relies on less aggressive verbs and expects a less clear-cut outcome. As a woman I am used to living with, putting up with and similar verbs with ‘fuzzy edges’. Apply this to the evil of terrorism, and what do we get?

First of all, I think we get a better sense of the West’s inability to understand the motivation of those who perform terrorist acts. It is not simply a failure to prevent radicalisation, or a selective reading of the Qu’ran, or even a disregard of the economic and other pressures on those who adopt an Islamist stance that accounts for what happens. We tend to ignore the obvious. For example, the jihadist as warrior or marty is an alien idea to most of us. The warrior ideal is not fashionable in the West today, and however little we may have retained from our Christian past, it certainly does not include any sense of what martyrdom really means. We do have a vague idea that somehow our modern virtues of equality and inclusiveness demand that we do not judge and do not condemn, so we do not call evil out for what it is. But calling evil out for what it is, is not the same as mirroring evil ourselves. We confuse the two.

As I understand it, the self-proclaimed jihadist rejects Western values and sees him or herself as a warrior for God, purifying the world of all that is evil. The ‘war on terrorism’ called for by George Bush and adopted by others is often seen by jihadists as a crusade and so plays to their religious interpretation of events. The trouble is, the war metaphor of Westerners is devoid of religious or moral content. It is all about winning. But we will never win any war on terrorism because the underlying dynamic of terrorism is not based on winning or losing.

I think we also get a better sense of what we can do to oppose terrorism once we recognize its fundamental motivations. It demands courage and sacrifice, but it is by no means the wimpish response that some think it. To go on living lives of integrity, refusing to hate, isn’t an easy option. It will mean being scorned and derided by those who are happier venting their anger or calling for vengeance. It will be no defence against bombs or bullets, that is for sure. However, it doesn’t mean acquiescence, closing our eyes to what is wrong. We must be prepared to name evil and suffer for our honesty in naming it. But the catch for Christians is this: even in our naming of evil we must be careful not to allow the Evil One to infect our zeal. There is a way of calling out evil that is evil itself, which only prayer and a readiness to allow God to be God in our lives can protect us from. So, responding to the latest terror attack demands much more than gestures or rhetorical flourishes: it demands hard work, and a hard work I would say begins on our knees.

This morning we think and pray about those people cruelly murdered in Barcelona; we think and pray about all those who, through the generations, have been victims of violence and hatred. We think and pray and resolve to do what we can to make sure that evil has no part in our own lives, that it may one day have no part in the world in which we live. Ridiculously naive? Possibly. But for those of us who dare to call ourselves Christians there is the knowledge that we follow a crucified Lord who was not afraid to confront evil. He did not fight; he did not wage war; he did not utter threats; but he overcame. I believe we can, too, in him.

* The division into masculine/femminine is clumsy but I hope it will help readers understand the point I am trying to make. If you can think of a better way of expressing the difference, please let me know.