Never before can I remember a time when the question 'What is the world coming to?' seemed most appropriate than the last couple of weeks.
Yesterday came the news of the killing of a Catholic priest in Normandy, the latest in a string of attacks. Some of these had been attributed to extremists, but yet others seemingly had no connection to organised terror; rather they were acts of individuals with an extreme agenda of their own.
I often hear people say that religion is the cause of most wars. I don't agree. There is a lengthy explanation needed of what we mean by 'religion' anyway; like most language, it means different things to different people. Some see 'religion' as a set of rituals that we employ to win the favour of a deity, while others say that 'religion' is synonymous with 'faith', a belief that leads us to live life in a particular way, often denying our own selfish desires.
But this was not my point. Religion or faith is not the problem. It is not the answer either.
It is people who are both the problem and the solution. It is far too convenient to blame a belief system, akin to blaming the colleague who is not in the room for all that has gone wrong on a project. It is people who pull the trigger, as it is people who jump in the way of bullets to save others.
I have been astounded that, as we have seen acts of terror increase, so too have we seen acts of bravery and self-sacrifice increase as well. For every atrocity we hear of, we must also make sure that we hear of the acts of humanity. Teenagers in Germany leapt in front of others to act as their human shield. Police in Dallas hauled protesters to safety seconds after being the target of their protest.
There is hope for us yet!
So why so much carnage? It can feel dangerous to even try to explore why, for risk of upsetting someone. It is true that religion seems to provide an excuse to these terrible acts. But, far too often, our belief system is manipulated to tell us the things we want to hear. It can be made to support the action we want to take, the prejudice we want to have, and justify the feelings we want to hold. But is this not the same as some sort of idolatry, a religion or god fashioned in our own image, to our design, for our purposes? I find that my own faith tends to challenge me to explore beyond my 'natural' thinking and desires, towards something that is better. Early followers of Jesus, before they were known as Christians, were known as 'followers of the way' - an alternative to what was self-directed.
It is interested to note that many of these acts are committed by the young. Often by those who are disenfranchised, but sometimes by those who are not. Often by those who have had nothing, but sometimes by those who have had everything. No Marxist theory of underdog rebellion fits here. Surely there is something else, then?
Despite the 'natural' pull to selfishness and self-indulgence, I submit that we were designed for something greater - some significance, some divine purpose. Western consumerism, seductive as it is, does not satisfy us. Ultimately, it cannot placate our inner humanity for extreme good or evil. The acts of individuals, as well as those supposedly motivated by religion, start with horrific acts against others, but most end with death of the perpetrators, often 'suicide by police'. Maybe there is a historical precedent to these suicides. The 18th century saw a spat of suicides as young people mimicked literary deaths. From a place of privilege, but with pointless lives, the visionless grasp at a dramatic end.
Though by no means providing an excuse for these terrible crimes, surely what is needed is for leaders to step up with a vision for young people; something which is greater than soft soundbites about 'our way of life'. We need something else, we need standard bearers!
'Where there is no vision, the people perish' - Proverbs 29:18
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society have made a start with their 'Statement of Hope', available at www.faithandsociety.org
Hope does seem a better reaction than fear!
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