On Thursday this week I was at the city’s Cohesion and Diversity Forum, which met at the Posh ground. This is a collection of statutory and community representatives that looks at matters of concern for how our city coheres and lives with the differences that there are among us. It brings together the police, council, education and community groups. The main subject for our meeting was how to respond to radicalization, the process through which young people can be attracted to extremist groups and led astray. The use of mobile technology and social media not surprisingly featured, but so did personal contact on which these build. For me, though, the crucial question was about how someone responds when they see a video of something violent, be it a missile blowing up a building and everyone inside or of a beheading in the desert. Quite simply do they glorify or horrify at what they have seen. Does the image revolt or excite? Do they celebrate the violence or are they appalled at the death and hatred?
Glorifying or horrifying at what we see takes us several stages back to look at what shapes the character. The building blocks of this are as complex as all people are, but they touch on who we see as being equal and to be honoured, and who we don’t. They concern how we think a cause is to be advanced and whether we feel we are being listened to. The would-be radicalisers build on feelings of alienation, of someone not feeling that they count, and that no one else is listening to them. They are given a distorted image of what the future could be like ‘if you join us’. But the violence builds on a view of the other as being other than us, not one of us, not a brother or sister or a cousin unknown. The Wars of the Roses, in which King Richard III died at Bosworth, which was in the centre of our focus recently, were battles between cousins seeking power. Being related does not necessarily make us friendly and we all know there are dysfunctional families. This is a departure from how we want it to be; we know that belonging matters and kindred is an identity-shaping form of belonging. When it is fractured something deep inside us is fractured too. The power of the creation stories in Genesis is that they depict all humanity sharing the same ancestry; we are all brothers and sisters, belong to the same human family. War fractures the bond which should unite, reveals the fissure in the family; it breaks the fundamental bond and sense of who we are. So do radicalizing politicians and groups.
Who do you picture in this reflection on radicalizing? We are familiar with the extremists of ISIS. But the glorifying and the horrifying are not limited to any particular faith or cultural group. It is something we can all find within us and so the roots of radicalization and violence are within all of us, depending on what it is that shapes our character, our approach to others. The examples discussed at the meeting on Thursday included teenagers being attracted to travel to Syria, environmental terrorists who attack scientists working on genetic crops and animal experimentation, and so called ‘British’ political extremist groups. They could include the Christian fanatics who attack those who take a different stance to them on abortion or sexuality. Extremism is not limited to any one culture; it is how we mishandle the differences that we all have between us.
In these days of Eastertide, between the resurrection and the Day of Pentecost, we are brought to celebrate the key faith that defines us, that shapes who we are, our character. It is based and grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a faith of life and hope, of welcome and gracious embrace. It is a gospel of peace and good will, of life triumphing over death. It is worth being reminded of this, because it is foundational. It is also something which should boost confidence and not despair. Even when the worst takes place, and it can and does, life will triumph, God will have the final word.
The reports of violence against the vulnerable fill our news. Syria has an ancient Christian church, which still speaks Aramaic, the language of Jesus. They are in danger of being exterminated, wiped out by violent extremists. The Archbishop of Canterbury is today visiting the Coptic Church in Egypt, another church suffering great persecution at the moment. We can feel more or less powerless to stop this without triggering a major war. That is probably what those carrying out these atrocities would like to see happen. There is a stark reality that when the violent are intent on bloodshed, there is very little that will stop them, nothing short of a change of heart. It is too late to do the work that changes glorifying into horrifying. The history of humanity has seen this many times over. In the long run, the power of justice, cohesion and building the common good prevail, cut through and come to prominence. But the steps to get there are painful and blood-soaked. And yet, those suffering at the sharp end here refuse to give up their faith in Jesus’ triumph over death, in the hope of his resurrection. It is inspirational for the passion and the commitment, the strength of conviction that shapes and defines them. In their shoes, none of us know how we would respond. The closest I’ve seen is being with the dying and it is very moving when, in those moments, faith shines through. This is not a moment for lightly held beliefs. This is a moment for what really matters and the light within them is what matters most of all, defining who they are. Life is embraced, released and death accepted in the hope of Jesus who suffered violence and abuse and yet rose victorious. Christus Victor, the Christ who stands in glory but displaying the marks on his hands and feet, the marks of suffering and death, is the image of Christ that I prefer. Not an empty cross, not a dying cross, but a Christ who has passed through, still showing the wounds – his credentials for those enduring suffering today, and who shows where the ultimate victory lies. This is where I glorify. This is the character to define and set the tone for images of violence and those who would seek to divide us. This is the basis for me of a politics of hope as we approach a General Election.
We saw this in our readings. The resurrected Christ who appeared to his disciples showed his wounds, calling them to be witnesses to proclaim repentance and forgiveness, life over death (Luke 24:36-48). Peter addressing the crowd after healing the crippled beggar, talks of the common heritage as descendants of Abraham, which is fulfilled in God glorifying Jesus who had been rejected and killed. He is described as the Author of Life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses, he says (Acts 3:12-19).
Living as witnesses of the victory of Christ over death, of hope over despair and love over hatred, matters enormously as we approach the challenges of the world today. It is the character which means when we see videos or news film of missiles destroying buildings with people inside, or at the other extreme beheadings, we do not glorify these. It is a challenge because we are drip-fed a daily diet of ‘them vs. us’, of films where the solution is violence not restorative justice or rebuilding the bonds of affinity. We are in a year which has commemorations of World Wars and my week also included an invitation to lead prayers at the War Memorial on the 70th anniversary of VE Day on 8th May. I will need to think of the theme to approach that through, but celebrating the rebuilding and the peace which ensued seems particularly important. That peace includes the foundation of the NHS which means I can ignore adverts for medical insurance I can’t afford.
Making ‘Alleluia’ our song becomes an anthem to define our character. We live as witnesses to the hope in Jesus Christ who triumphed over the sting of death and opens for us the way of life and peace. In that we glory which means we can be horrified by all that stands against it, but confident that he has the ultimate victory and in that we can place our hope and trust.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 19th April 2015