Navigating the faith challenges in a world of tragedy

When we are faced with a tragedy on the scale of what happened in Manchester, there is very little to say. For those who can, simply being with those who are suffering is not only an adequate, but an appropriate response. There is simply no reasonable explanation that can bring comfort. And, more pertinently, no explanation or kind action can bring back those who have been cruelly ripped away from their loved ones.

It’s not that this is the only tragedy that has happened in the past week. Unspeakable cruelty is all too common in some parts of the world. But this one is felt so keenly because it is so close to home.

No doubt in days to come empathy and fellow feeling will give way to the desire for explanation. Some of that desire will translate into questions asked of the authorities. And inevitably some of that desire will be driven by a frustration with religion or even with God.

I offer this post, not as an attempt to explain anything. The events of the last week, however, must cause thoughtful people to ponder how all of this relates to their faith or more importantly how their faith relates to the kind of tragedy that is all too common in our world. After all, the problem of evil is often stated as a major stumbling block to faith. And let’s face it most of the nation is trying to get its mind around the motives and the consequences of unrestrained evil.

So this post is simply a few thoughts on faith in a time of tragedy.

Tragedy often draws the best of humanity to the surface

One of the most notable features of any tragic situation, is how tragedy draws the best from people. The events at Manchester are no exception. At the very moment when you might be tempted to lose faith in humanity – `or people’s capacity for humanity – people respond with a kindness that perhaps they themselves never realised was possible. The worst of situations sometimes bring the very best out of people.

For some, this is simply the triumph of the human spirit. For any believer, and not necessarily any Christian believer, this kind of response points toward a humanity created in God’s image. How difficult it is to write of such deeply felt emotion and altruistic action as merely some sort of chemical response “designed” by evolution to enable us to cope with threat. Such an explanation seems cold and unfeeling in a world where there is so much hardship and sorrow and frequently such tragedy.

The very human response to Manchester and many another tragedy is a reminder that we really are human. We are not just animals or machines. We’re more than a random concoction of chemicals cobbled together by some sort of impersonal process. We are much more than gene machines   .

Resisting the temptation to distance ourselves because of fear

The impact of tragedy, particularly the kinds of terrorist incidents we have experienced in Europe in the last few years, is often one of fear. That is understandable.

In Luke’s gospel (Luke 13.1-5) Jesus mentions two tragedies, one a natural disaster, the other mass murder. The reaction of the public at that time was along the lines of “they got what they deserved because they must have been above average sinners”. Jesus’ response was that they should take stock of their own lives, rather than pronounce judgment on those who had perished.

Thankfully, the vast majority of people are not prone to such judgments these days. However, I believe we do try to distance ourselves if we allow such things to pass without reflecting on the state of our own souls. Tragedy reminds us that our lives hang by a thread, a thread that is easily cut. It is no bad thing to reflect on the brevity of life or the fragility of our humanity.

Resisting the temptation to dehumanise the perpetrator

The flip side of the incredible kindness for which we have the capacity, is an outrage that anyone could commit such a crime. Tabloid newspapers seem to have a vocabulary of opprobrium especially reserved for such people. You know the kind of language. Most of it screams “This person cannot really be a human being.”

Unpalatable as it might seem, he was. Just like us. Jeremy Vine posted a very touching piece on his Facebook page lamenting the loss of one of the victims, attempting to convey the scale of that loss by contrasting it with what might have been.

The bomber also had his life ahead of him and chose not only to take his own life but the lives of other’s along with him. He was a human being. He was a human being who made a monstrously evil decision.

Controversy has always surrounded Hannah Arendt’s work Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil, the story of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. For Arendt, the striking thing was that this mass murderer came across as a buffoon. Whether her assessment was accurate or not, the point is that someone guilty of monstrosities did not come over as a monster.

Human beings have an amazing capacity for creativity and good. And they have a staggering capacity for evil and destruction.

And for Christians, the challenge is not simply to recognise that a terrorist is a human being, but that he or she is loved by God. Bishop Angaelos, the General Bishop of the Coptic Church in Britain, in a reflection on the events in Manchester and the murder of Christians in Egypt later in the week, made this comment: “You are loved. The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but YOU are loved.”

Resisting the temptation to deny a religious dimension

There is a religious dimension to what happened in Manchester. We simply cannot deny that.

In our collective desire to explain what happened, we will search for all sorts of causes. British foreign policy. Western influence in the Middle East. Multi-culturalism. Whilst there might be connections with the above, they do not explain the cause.

What happened that Monday evening has its roots in a strain of Islamic theology that predates any recent military activity in the Middle East.

Sometimes the impression is given that it is only the more “hawkish” commentators or politicians who take this line. But that impression is not correct.

And some sections of the press and the political establishment go to great pains to maintain that this is not a religious issue. Oddly, some of those same media outlets were not slow in attributing religion as a major factor in the conflict in Northern Ireland. They had no qualms about referring to the IRA or the UVF, amongst other terrorist organisations without attaching the prefix “so-called” when in fact neither of those groups or their like represented the people of Ireland or Ulster.

Even the BBC’s Quick Guide: Northern Ireland Conflict cites religion as a main factor.

The religious dimension in the current terrorist “troubles” looms large and if not recognised little progress will be made in tackling the problem.

Nick Cohen argues cogently for a recognition of the religious dimension not only to this incident but to the ongoing conflict between the Western nations and Islamic terrorism. Cohen mainatains that to say Islamic State isn’t Islamic is like “saying Opus Dei isn’t Catholic”.

And former Islamist, Shiraz Maher, is in no doubt that theology gives the bombers the impetus to plan and execute their attacks. See reviews of his book Salafi-Jihadism in The New Statesman and The Guardian.

In a more recent article, Maher presents this view once again, relating an interview that he conducted with a member of IS.

“We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue” was the answer to a question about how IS would react if the West met all its demands

We are not doing ourselves or anyone else any favours if we pretend that religion is not at the very heart of this issue. Of course, that might complicate things for us as Christians, but facing the facts is better than pretending that there is not a theological root to this problem.

Recognising the desire for justice and meaning

If nothing else, Manchester reminds us once again, that deep in our hearts there is a sense of what is right and what is wrong. A sense of justice and fairness. And that innate sense of justice and fairness is not something made up. It is the inheritance of every human being. God’s image in us might be broken, but we are still created in His image nonetheless.  C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity speaks of his own experience of this:

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”

Our outrage is not a denial that God is there, more a cry for Him to intervene with His justice.

Alongside the desire for justice, there is the desire to make sense of all of this.

The familiar Darwinian line of life being without purpose or meaning, cuts little ice. It offers no hope. It’s just the way it is. But every human instinct rebels against such pessimism. And Christians say that we instinctively know that there is something wrong with the world and that life can’t be meaningless. Those kinds of thoughts

Recognising the role of the demonic

Finally, any truly Christian response to suffering in the world recognises the role of demonic power that lies behind the kind of evil that people inflict on one another. We live in a fallen world. A world that is in the state it is in because of one man’s sin (Romans 5.12). Of course, Adam’s sin did not just result in a breakdown in humanity’s relationship with God. It also resulted in yielding control of the world to Satan.

Jesus described Satan as the prince of this world (John 12.31, 14.30, 16.11). Paul referred to him as the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4.4). Elsewhere he is the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2.2).

There is a battle going on between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. It is a real battle. And the prince of the kingdom of darkness has given himself a mission of stealing, killing and  destroying (John 10.10). But the fight back has begun. In fact, the decisive battle was fought and won when Jesus died at Calvary and rose again on Easter Sunday (Colossians 2.15).

And one day evil will finally be brought to an end and the eternal kingdom of Christ will be established forever (Revelation 11.15-17; 21.1-4).

That is the hope that we have. That is a hope that has endured through much persecution and opposition over the last two thousand years. And it will endure until Christ finally returns to earth in glory.

Conclusion

The above isn’t intended is an explanation for what happened in Manchester or Egypt or anywhere else for that matter. It is offered more as a reflection on how we might respond to some of the questions that will inevitably arise in days to come. Hopefully, some of what I have written above will prove helpful to some.

I want to end however with the words of the Coptic bishop, Angaelos, whose church has suffered much at the hands of IS:

“Our world is certainly suffering from the brokenness of our humanity, but it is our responsibility, personally and collectively, to encourage and inspire ourselves, and all those whom we meet along our path, to a life of virtue and holiness, and the love and forgiveness of all.

This of course, is far from the reaction that many may have expected, but the Christian message is just that, to look at our world as through the eyes of God, Who loves all and Who desires that all be liberated through Him.”

Amen.