Where Angels Fear To Tread

Three terrorist attacks in as many months, and those who like to shout are shouting loudly. ‘It has nothing to do with Islam’ cry some. ‘It has everything to do with Islam’ yell others. The only point on which they agree is the need to apportion blame for the perceived failures of our politicians and policy-makers to keep us all safe. It is understandable that such extreme positions should be adopted, but I wonder whether we are confusing a number of things, and in so doing missing a central point.

I don’t subscribe to the view that what is regularly dubbed Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with religion. On the contrary, I think it has everything to do with religion, but not religion as we in the West usually understand it. Ask the average (non-Muslim) Englishman or Englishwoman the difference between Islam as practised by the majority of Muslims in this country and Wahhabism and they will be stumped. Some will have read the Quran but no commentaries, and so will apply to the text a literal interpretation they would not dream of applying to the Christian scriptures. Islam does not have the clear hierarchical structure of Catholicism, nor are some of the ways it deals with matters such as marriage and family easily understood by those whose norms of belief and behaviour rest on whatever remains in our laws and customs of the Christian tradition. Terrorism does, however, have the fervour of religion even if it does not have our Western sense of religious structure. That is why, it seems to me, all the various initiatives to try to prevent radicalisation have limited efficacy. Yes, the Prevent programm has had its undoubted successes; yes, our intelligence services have foiled many terrorist plots; and yes, the bravery of our police and emergency services cannot be faulted. But unless we meet religious fervour with religious fervour, I do not see how we can expect to end the threat to human life that terrorism poses.

By religious fervour, I do not mean what a Wahhabist terrorist seems to mean. I do not believe that God is glorified by killing anyone, nor do I believe that music and dancing are inherently sinful or that the education of women and girls is offensive to God. I do not believe that to kill someone who does not believe as I do is a virtuous act. However, I do believe that I must try to live by the precepts of the gospel in all their fullness, not the shrunken, for-an-hour-on-the-occasional-Sunday version that many of us actually adopt. I believe that I must take seriously the injunction to love my neighbour, to forgive, do good to them that hate me, and I cannot be selective in how I apply that. That is why I realise that prayer is of the essence. Left to myself, and I’d be just as brutal and vengeful as anyone who has ever lived. Clearly, this kind of response is not going to appeal to society in general. I fear it is not going to appeal to the majority of Christians, either, many of whom have expressed online sentiments that have more of the ‘eye for an eye’ of the Lex Talionis than the much harder teaching of Jesus Christ. However, I myself think it is the only way to combat the ideological attraction of terrorism. ‘British values’ alone cannot do it; Christian values, genuinely lived by Christians, might.

There is one important caveat that may surprise readers. In the course of my lifetime I have seen the Church weaken her hold on the hearts and minds of those who belong to her. The liturgy is often something to be endured rather than rejoiced in; the rhythms of the Christian life, with their fasts and feasts and regular times and ways of prayer, have been almost obliterated; the lack of respect for authority is palpable; where that authority is exercised, it can be authoritarian; and the dreadful tales of abuse and corruption have alienated many and sickened those who remain. We need a renewal of the Church, a new conversion of heart, each and every one of us, if we are to respond to the terrorist threat in our midst. I am reminded of the young Spaniard, a church-goer, who found the difference of Islam attractive. He was drawn by the five-fold daily prayer, the fast of Ramadam, the modest dress code — all things that have their parallel, indeed their origin, in Judaism and Christianity but are largely ignored today. That should make us think, especially as a number of British Jihadis are former Christians.

Whoever wins the General Election will have to make some difficult decisions about how to counter terrorism, and how to prevent a further fragmentation of society. It is, however, not a task for government alone. Our role as individuals is just as important but perhaps even more difficult. We may not have grown up expecting to have to make such a radical choice but now, more than ever, we must rise to the challenge of the gospel, becoming true icons of Jesus Christ. That will seem absurdly naive to some, ridiculously simplistic to others, but it may have just enough of truth in it to make us think. Darkness can only be overcome by light, and Christians are called to be light, to be martyrs in the real sense of the word. The white martyrdom of living witness is as necessary as the red martyrdom of blood. Let us pray we may be equal to whichever we are called to.


Martyrdom Red and White

Today the Catholic Church in England and Wales celebrates the canonized saints and recognized beati of Reformation times. In 2013 I wrote about them here, and on several other occasions I have written about reclaiming the idea of Christian martyrdom from the Islamist version prevalent in the media today. Dying for Christ, the red martyrdom of the title, is one thing; but what about white martyrdom, the term used by St Jerome for the daily living for Christ practised by monks and ascetics? Where does that come in?

Today’s section of the Prologue of the Rule, verses 14 to 19, sketches a useful vignette of the ‘martyr monk’, and it is interesting to note how much of it is concerned with a right use of speech and control of the passions or desires that motivate our conduct. To seek peace, to pursue it with all the ardour of a lover, is a key element in attaining the purity of prayer and action that will allow us to follow the way of life. It all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it, until we actually try it and discover that learning to control our tongue and act rightly is a huge task, a daily challenge. Dying for Christ begins to sound much more appealing, much easier, in fact, than this long, slow martyrdom we have undertaken in monastic life! And I daresay those who do not live the monastic life but do their best to be faithful disciples in the world would say the same.

Common to both red and white martyrdom is this: we choose Christ. In choosing Christ, we do not choose life or death as such. That is for him to decide. We ‘merely’ accept what he chooses for us and live, or die, by his choice. There is immense freedom in that, but both require courage of a special order. Today we might all ask the prayers of the martyrs that, whatever Christian path we tread, we may have the courage and fidelity we need to pursue it to the end.