Saturday, January 10, 2015


Like most people I have found the atrocities which occurred in Paris this week utterly shocking.  As I listened with growing horror and a sense of disbelief to the unfolding stories of brutality and murder carried out in the name of Allah for the defence of the name of Mohammad I first found myself revolted and stunned.  Then I noticed a welling up of anger and a desire that those who perpetrated the crimes should be made to realise the pain and suffering they had caused.  And, as I continued to become aware of my feelings I also had to accept that I wanted to blame Islam for giving sustenance to the belief that such violence is permissible to defend a religion.  Gradually I realised a feeling that Islam must be a cruel and repressive religion and that we need to ban it from our shores.  And I heard other voices saying the same. 

Yet I sensed that such ’voices’ were leading me into treacherous places and that, whilst I needed to acknowledge they existed, to give attention to them put me in danger of opening myself to the very demons – malevolent forces – which animated the killers.  I can’t pretend that they don’t exist: that I am not susceptible to prejudice, anger, rage, violence and a desire for revenge.  After all, I am ‘only human’.  I may have a brain that’s been civilised over millennia but part of it is primal – ‘reptilian’ – and is the repository of those primitive desires commonly referred to as ‘fear’, fight’ and ’flight’.  I can pretend otherwise but that would leave me at their mercy.  ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is a dictum almost as old as humanity because it appeals to our primitive nature.

The I noticed the way that blame for this is not just levied at Islam but all religion which many see as an inhuman force.  Get rid of religion and the world would live in peace, as John Lennon sang.  But I doubt that’s the case for hatred lies deep in the human heart and is not the preserve of religion.  I sense that those who carried out such barbarous acts would still have had hatred in their hearts even if they weren’t driven by religious feelings.  In fact I would argue that religion exists in order to address this very matter.  Knowing that I am capable of good and evil, how do I embrace the one and avoid the other?  That’s the role of religion.  So Jesus recognised that age-old desire for vengeance and said: ‘But I say to you … love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’  (Mt.5:38;44)  And if we are, individually, susceptible to life-denying forces then that is equally true of societies and cultures and the role of religion concerns the way humanity is called to acknowledge its deepest urges – both for good and evil.  It’s easy to ignore the fact that for every sinner there is a saint whose light, born of faith, enlightens us.  I noticed these words of the Islamic Sufi saint, Rumi:

For those in love,
                        Moslem, Christian, and Jew do not exist....
            Why listen to those who see it another way? -
                        if they're not in love--their eyes do not exist.

And for every Islamic Rumi there’s a St. John of the Cross or a St. Teresa of Avila; a Desmond Tutu or a Dorothy Day.  But the light the saint’s offer can be ignored and I know that the tragedy of the violence that lies within me is the way it can blind me to anything else.  But I also know that the glory of the spirit is the way it can lead me out of blindness into light and raise me above my-self. 

One of the tasks of religion is to bring into the open the forces that drive the human spirit and to offer ways in which they can be used for the greater good.  When S. Francis met the muslim Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik-al-Kamil, it is said that he experienced a ‘conversion into a new horizon’ that enabled him to arrive at a vision of universal peace and reconciliation (Dr. Paul Rout OFM).  But I am bombarded with too many voices and I realise the power that all the media has to convey – consciously or unconsciously – its message, and the power of messages rooted in fear to connect with our primal instincts.  I know that it is easy to project onto the other   But I know that I need to listen to those voices which call me to love the other.  As S. Francis wrote: ‘Let us pay attention to what the Lord says: Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you, for our Lord Jesus Christ, whose footprints we must follow called his betrayer ‘friend’ and gave himself willingly to those who crucified him.’ (Francis of Assisi “The Earlier Rule” Chapter XXII 1-4)

I am called to cultivate those practices which lead to life – for example in Christian terms, the way of the Beatitudes – and to own and acknowledge that my heart is not always set upon them.  Religion calls that repentance.   If I don’t own all that for myself and find a way of dealing with it, then I am truly blind.  William Blake put it well when he wrote:

I was angry with my friend; 
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe: 
I told it not, my wrath did grow. 

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears: 
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles. 

And it grew both day and night. 
Till it bore an apple bright. 
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine. 

And into my garden stole, 
When the night had veild the pole; 
In the morning glad I see; 
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

(A Poison Tree)

No comments: