Thoughts for these days

Occasional comments on current events from a Christian perspective

Reflections of a Mancunian

In response to the May 2017 bombing

Most people cannot feel anything but pain for those directly affected by the recent Islamist bombing of a crowd of teenage girls and their parents at the end of a pop concert at the Manchester Arena. Crowds have grieved alongside the families bereaved by the action of a young man brought up just a few miles from the place where he killed himself and twenty-two others. Many can sympathise with those who remain in hospital with a range of serious injuries, and with members of the emergency services caught up in the aftermath of this horrendous attack. The following reflections are in no way intended to detract from the acute sense of loss felt by families caught at the epicentre of this act of terrorism. My desire is to take a thoughtful look behind the emotions and pain which many are experiencing, and to ask how ordinary men and women can helpfully understand the deeper issues which have brought bloodshed to the streets of Manchester and other cities in Europe and beyond.

I am a Mancunian

I admit you would not realise this from my accent – I was brought up in Yorkshire – but I was born in Withington Hospital, Manchester. I was twenty years old when I believe God led me “back” to the city of my birth, though at the time I did not fully realise the implications of the move. It was in Manchester that I met my wife, and it was there that we spent the first thirty-three years of our married life and brought up our children. Just as parents did on that Monday evening we accompanied some of our children to occasional events in the very same arena, though for them it was basketball or ice hockey matches. Two of our adult children still live in Greater Manchester.

I didn’t go looking for the side of life in the city which most people don’t see, but it certainly came my way. Initially, this followed a suggestion from a local vicar who told us that Moss Side in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings would be a good place to evangelise young people! In the 1970s this was the red light district, and getting to know some of its many characters certainly introduced me to aspects of life which previously had passed me by. It was there I first came into contact with West Indian culture, particularly its night life. It was as I left one of their shabeems, also known as a blues, that for the only time in my life I was invited by a CID officer to “accompany him to the station”, though I don’t remember him being quite so polite! It was in Manchester that I was introduced to voluntary “social work” when a young girl (I think she was twelve at the time) with an established pattern of running away from family and children’s homes turned up on our doorstep. We were still occasionally supporting her when she was married with two daughters of her own. Manchester has certainly played its part in shaping me.

It was also in Manchester that I found myself involved in a wide range of Christian ministry. After accepting an invitation from the Catacombs Trust to work as a detached youth worker in the city centre, I took the time to visit every street in my “patch” on foot. The Arndale Centre (still under construction at the time) eventually became my de-facto youth club – on occasions two or three hundred young people could be found hanging around in there. It was through the young people of Manchester I became familiar with prison visiting. I even timed one girl’s contractions whilst sitting on a city centre bench! During the years I spent on those city streets I learned much about people.

Opportunities for other aspects of Christian ministry in the city centre flowed from this: organising the stewarding at large-scale Christian events; co-ordinating a street evangelism team during a two week crusade with David Watson, a prominent charismatic vicar from York; serving on the board of the city’s YMCA. After I gave up detached youth work, opportunities continued to present themselves, and I led two conurbation-wide prayer initiatives in the 1990s. I won’t bore you further with my Manchester CV; suffice it to say that I am a Mancunian and I value my connection with the city.

Manchester is familiar with grief

Deaths resulting from human irresponsibility are far from unknown to Mancunians. Perhaps the most infamous historically is the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. In this 15 people were killed and 400-700 injured during a cavalry charge on a large crowd gathered for a political hustings. Not as well known is that in February 1828 a River Flat named “The Emma” was launched in Manchester. It capsized shortly after its launch, causing the deaths of 47 of its estimated 200 passengers. During World War 2, the Manchester Blitz began in August 1940. Over the two nights between December 22nd and 24th, an estimated 684 people were killed and 2,364 injured.

Perhaps I should be more up to date. Most people will recall the Munich air disaster in 1958, which killed 23 of the 44 people on board the flight. This is remembered because half of Manchester United’s “Busby Babes” team died in the accident. There have been other air-crashes connected with Manchester since then in which significant numbers of lives have been lost. In 1970 a Manchester to Barcelona flight crashed killing 112 people; 146 passengers and crew died in 1980 when a Manchester to Tenerife flight went down in a forest; five years later an aircraft burst into flames on the runway at Manchester and 55 people were killed. This disaster changed aircraft evacuation procedures around the world.

In the summer of 1981 riots in Moss Side disrupted the normal rhythm of life in the city, though no lives were lost. These were not an isolated incident; there had been riots earlier in the year in Brixton (London), and street riots followed the Manchester ones in Toxteth (Liverpool), Chapeltown (Leeds) and Handsworth (Birmingham). I remember the 1992 Manchester bombings, when the IRA exploded two bombs on the same day, injuring 65 people. I recall too the 1996 bombing which injured over 200 people, but due to the IRA’s policy of telephone warnings coupled with a fast response by the emergency services, no-one was actually killed by this or the previous two bombs. All three however were detonated not far from the site of the Manchester Arena attack.

Why have I listed some of the disasters embedded in the history of Manchester? Because I want to set this most recent tragedy in context. As human beings we often allow our emotions more influence than they can helpfully handle. Yes, we need to know how to weep with those who weep, but we also need to think straight at times of crisis, or we may pile more troubles on top of those which are already distressing us. This latest bombing is life-changing for those who were caught up in it, but it is not the greatest calamity which has hit this city. Like many cities around the world, Manchester has known far worse.

Manchester also has many reasons to be thankful. For instance, during October and November 2002 a swarm of 105 earthquakes occurred beneath East Manchester. No one was injured or killed by these. In fact many people failed to notice any of them, just taking them in their stride and not thinking of what might have been. Yet there are many places in the world where a single earthquake has destroyed whole communities, often killing thousands of people.

My first reflection therefore is that we need to think carefully about the causes of this recent attack, about how to respond to it and about the wider lessons we can learn through this and similar tragic events.

Why do people kill others?

Many are struggling to understand why a young man brought up in this city deliberately set out to kill others as well as himself. Before considering whether or not this was a religiously motivated attack, we need to consider human nature in general. Human nature does have a dark side. Besides the potential to be kind and gentle, it can also be harsh and brutal. We all find it impossible to stop ourselves doing bad things, even to those we love. According to crime figures published in October last year, there were a total of 46 murders and 54 attempted murders in Greater Manchester in the previous twelve months. Each of these was just as tragic as those of the 22 people leaving that concert. Human nature has a bad side as well as a good one. We each need to remember this important truth about ourselves. It is all too easy to vilify others without reflecting on what we are like ourselves.

This “broken” part of each of us is not nice to know, though it readily argues that it is. The pride which gives rise to this self-justification is as destructive as the selfishness it seeks to excuse. Besides murders, this damaged part of our humanity leads to all types of destructive attitudes and actions; aggression, jealousy, anger, all-consuming ambition, rivalry, drunkenness, immorality, indecency, enmity, hatred – the list goes on and on. We all wish we were not like that but when we are being honest with ourselves, we know that we really are. We also know that being like this damages both ourselves and others. This is exactly what Salman Abedi experienced when he triggered his explosive device. He killed himself as well as his victims. He also damaged many more in the process, both physically and emotionally. We may think he should have stopped himself, but do we back off when we are hurting others or even ourselves?

More often than not we find reasons to justify ourselves, or others encourage us to continue in our selfish actions and we heed their words. It’s all too easy to go along with the crowd because flaws in other people make us less uncomfortable about our own failings. This is the nature of society at large – when we come across those who justify their own imperfections, obsessions or lack of self-discipline in ways similar to the way that we excuse ourselves, we want to spend time with them. Listening to others of like mind makes us feel good about ourselves without the hard work of dealing with our own brokenness. Our tendency to associate with those who have similar flaws or strengths to ourselves is the root of many types of sub-cultures. The Mod and Rockers of my youth, just like the inner city street gangs of today, are examples of cultural groupings which, whether or not it was their initial intention, ultimately foster broken aspects of human nature. There are many examples of this past and present, not all located amongst the less privileged by any means. Amongst the wealthy too, sub-cultures exist in which members use their status to abuse themselves and others.

Bad company ruins good ethics

If we select our company well, those we spend time with can help us to keep our own brokenness mostly in check. Choose the wrong companions and they will encourage us to let the darker aspects of our characters rise to the surface. We all know too well that there are good and bad sides to who we are. It has been suggested that this is a significant reason why people throughout history have turned to what today is disparagingly called “religion”. I will stick with that word, though I think it is not the best one to apply universally – the word religion derives from Latin and and implies “to bind again”. More than anything we need setting free from our own brokenness, rather than being tied more tightly to it. [[When the changes are accepted, the above sentence becomes part of the above para, not the first of the the one below.]]

Ultimately religions provide frameworks for understanding how and why life and the universe work as they do. We all need such a structure because understanding the whole of life is beyond our abilities. These frameworks are called world-views because they help us try and make sense of life. World-views are not exclusively religious, but those which are generally attribute a significant role to one or more gods. Atheism, humanism and secularism are closely related world-views which exclude the possibility of the existence of any deities. They are naturalistic philosophies which seek to explain the universe in completely materialist ways.

Very few people realise that they have a world-view, and therefore do not understand why they think in the way they do. One of the consequences of this failure to appreciate that society contains different world-views is that we fail to understand why others see life very differently from ourselves. Conversely, our own world-view tends to adapt itself to that of the people we choose to spend time with. The multicultural community in which many of us now live makes it increasingly necessary to understand both our own and others’ world-views. Most of the mistakes we make in communicating across cultures arise from failing to recognise the real differences between them, and from being unskilled in evaluating those differences. When we are faced with attacks like the one at the Ariana Grande concert, most people fail to understand what motivates the bombers because they do not take into account the implications of the world-view which the attackers have embraced.

Winds of change

In Western nations the dominant world-view has for centuries been based around Christianity. The teachings of the Bible have shaped our laws and much of our thinking for a long time. However, because the central truths of Jesus’ message do not conform to the religion arbitrarily imposed upon a society, the form of Christianity which influenced these nations, including Britain, lacked the real hallmarks of the Gospel. For much longer than most people realise there has been a strong undercurrent in European nations running against the world-view at the core of Christianity. This resistance first widely impacted a society through the French Revolution. The waves it created however only began to bring changes in Britain during the 1950s and 60s. Those born in the 50s like me have witnessed in their lifetimes a massive shift in the dominant world-views collectively held by Western societies. It is not my purpose here to explore how this has happened, but simply to identify that we are at a place in history where societies have now completely traded in a collective world-view loosely based upon the teaching of Jesus Christ, for one which is based on secular values. This new kid on the block argues that it is people rather than a deity of any description who decide what is good and what is bad.

This transition has not been accidental, but has been accomplished over centuries through much hard work by philosophers, politicians, educationalists, scientists and the like. On the whole these pioneers of conceptual godlessness have been, and continue to be, aided unwittingly by those considered to be Christian leaders. Instead of standing up to the critics of Christianity, they have “turned the other cheek” and tried hard to love their opponents by not speaking honestly to them. Perhaps they did this because what they knew about Jesus suggested that they should be gentle people not offending anyone; they wanted to be blessed peacemakers. Unfortunately, the agitators for change did not see the ecclesiastical desire not to offend for what it was, but perceived it instead as the weakness of the religious who roll over and play dead when growled at loudly. These revolutionaries also knew that they could not directly replace the traditional form of Christianity with atheism, for this was not a directly marketable commodity. It seems to me that this is why they decided to make use of the colonial past of many European nations. People from the many colonies had migrated to their respective “mother-countries”, bringing with them their non-Christian religions . This gave the secularists space to argue that Christians should respect these incomers and not seek to impose the homeland’s culture (world-view) upon them. Thus multiculturalism was born, but it is now apparent that the fly in their ointment was that the weakness of church leaders appears to have fooled secularists into thinking that all religious people were meek and mild.

Muhammed the warrior

When Jesus was being questioned by the Roman Governor, He was asked about the accusation that He had declared Himself a king. Pilate was concerned that this man could be a rival to Caesar; if so, his rebellion should be nipped in the bud. Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” (John 18:36 RSV) Jesus could not have been clearer – His authority was not based on political power, therefore his followers would not fight. He was no threat to Caesar nor to any other political leader. Sadly, this fact seems to have been lost for much of church history. It was because Jesus’ teaching was so radically different from the world-views of His day, including the prevailing Jewish ones, that He taught His followers to love their enemies, to pray for those who would persecute them and to go the extra mile. Not everyone who would later describe themselves as Christian has taken these, or many other of His teachings, to heart. Church history contains many examples of those who either ignored His words, or theologically excused themselves from embracing His alternative approach to life. The Crusades and inquisitions would not have taken place had Church authorities at the time been faithful to Christ’s words. Today the churches continue to be widely populated by those who see no compelling reason to take Christ’s teachings at face value.

Christianity is not alone in this mismatch between the teaching of its founder and its application in the lives of their followers. Given the context of this comment, I will mention just one such example – Islam. Take for example the majority of Muslims who have lived for several decades in European nations. These men and women on the whole are thankful for the host of benefits they have received from living in Western societies, especially economic prosperity and political stability. But their commitment to the teachings of Muhammed is generally as shallow as that of many church attenders in Britain is to the radical teachings of Jesus Christ. Quoting Isaiah, Jesus accused the Jews of worshipping God with their lips whilst having hearts which were far from Him. The situation is the same for many Muslims – outwardly they adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam, but inwardly their hearts are set on comfort and prosperity in this world. Rather than complete obedience to Allah and following all that his prophet Muhammed recorded in the Qur’an, they are cultural Muslims who are commonly materialists in their heart of hearts. This may be the current situation for many Muslims around the world, but it has not always been the case and it is very unlikely to remain so in the future.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1920s, Islam appears to have taken a political back seat on the world stage. Perhaps its re-emergence began with the discovery of oil under many Gulf States. More radical Islam, that which seeks to be completely faithful to the teaching of Muhammed in the Qur’an and Hadiths, seems to have regained prominence out of several strands – Palestinian terror groups, Sunni Wahhabism and the Shia Iranian Revolution (1979). Developments such as these seem to have caused a soul-searching in many Muslim communities. Consequently there has been a resurgence of vocally and physically robust Islam around the world. Even in traditionally Islamic nations the populations are becoming more militant. The belief that all citizens should live under the constraints of Sharia Law, which is considered to be divinely given by Allah, is becoming increasingly widespread. Islam it seems has been struggling with an identity crisis in recent decades; is it just an acceptable cultural variant or is it a religion that calls for a high level of commitment from its followers to the teachings and example of Mohammed? As I have pointed out, this is similar to the dichotomy which exists in nominally Christian cultures. In both it is often the young who can see the lack of clarity – some call it hypocrisy – of the older generations.

This is not the place for a full study of the Qur’an nor the Islamic principle of Abrogation but I do want to highlight the fact that Muhammed was a prophet of war rather than of peaceful coexistence between different religions and world-views. In Islamic scholarship it is generally accepted that where Qur’anic verses which were received later in Muhammad’s life contradict previous revelation, they should override the earlier passages. Sura 9 was written the year before Muhammed died and is therefore thought to be one of the latest chapters. Its title translates into English as “Ultimatum” and it prescribes violence against unrepentant unbelievers; “And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush.” (9:5) It is hard for many Westerners to appreciate that this command abrogates over one hundred and twenty verses in the Qur’an which speak of tolerance, compassion, and peace. This is also true of later statements in this chapter. These include “Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture – [fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled. The Jews say, "Ezra is the son of Allah "; and the Christians say, "The Messiah is the son of Allah ." That is their statement from their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved [before them]. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded?” (9:29-30)

All Muslims believe that their god Allah is the same deity as The LORD, the God and Father of Jesus Christ and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is what they are taught and though the Bible describes a God with a very different character to the one called Allah in the Qur’an, no Christian can constructively engage with a Muslim regarding the identity of their god without recognising their conviction that the Muslim god is the same God that the “people of the book” claim to believe in. In a similar way Western politicians deceive themselves (but not serious Muslims) when they claim that Islamist attacks on unbelievers [infidels or ‘kaffur’ in Arabic] have nothing to do with Islam, which they say is a peaceful religion. This shows that they either don’t understand or are in denial about the world-view taught in the Qur’an and Hadiths. (It is true however that many cultural Muslims do not want to embrace a world-view which is true to Muhammad’s teachings, even though he claimed that these had been dictated to him by Allah.)

When the same politicians claim that acts such as the Manchester bombing have nothing to do with religion, they are again deceiving themselves and any who want to believe them. Those who are carrying out these attacks certainly see them as religious, and with roots which go back well beyond the recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Consider the second half of the statement issued by ISIS after the recent bombing, “He detonated the devices in an arena for a profligate concert, which resulted in killing nearly 30 Crusaders and wounding 70 others. What is coming is tougher and worse for the worshippers of the Cross and their helpers, Allah permitting. Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.” There is no way that I would consider the fans of Ariana Grande as modern “Christian knights”, but to all serious Muslims, to be western and white is to be Christian, or as ISIS express it “a worshipper of the Cross”. I believe it was no coincidence that three days after the release of the above statement ISIS fighters killed nearly 30 Coptic Christians in Egypt including 10 children. (Note: radical Islam does not recognise international borders.)

My second reflection therefore is that if we want to prevent further attacks of a similar nature, we need to understand the world-view of those who feel justified in living and dying by this Islamic code.

The Shortcomings of Secularism

I have referred to the politicians’ failure to understand the true nature of Islam. I have also mentioned the erroneous belief amongst many Muslims that to be Western and white makes one a Christian. I now want to reflect on the belief that mankind can solve all the problems we create.

A few weeks after the 911 attacks in the USA I asked whether these were A Clash of Two Post-Christian Cultures? In that article I lamented that Western political and religious leaders were mistaken in their response to the horror of those attacks and how to react to them. First, they were assuming that the god of the Qur’an is the same God as we read about in the Bible – they also included the deities of all other religions in this blend. Secondly, and of equal importance, they expressed confidence that Western democracies could overcome this threat by their military might. Thus was launched what has become the infamous War on Terror, a war which it seems we are not winning. My concern at the time was that these men and women were trusting in their own human wisdom to solve this problem, rather than humbly seeking The LORD and asking Him to solve an otherwise insoluble problem. I quoted King Jehoshaphat’s plea for The LORD to defend Israel, “O our God, will You not judge them? For we have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.” (2 Chron. 20:12) A decade and half later I believe my concerns are as relevant now as they were then.

Given my strong connection with Manchester and its people, I have to be honest and say I believe the collective defiance shown in the days following this recent bombing has been completely misplaced. Our society’s prevailing culture of secularism misleads us into thinking that we can solve all the world’s problems by ourselves. In this case the misguided belief is that if we stand together, shoulder to shoulder, good human nature can overcome that which is broken. This is a repetition of the mistake initiated by Bush and Blair in 2001. It is the mistake of secularism which believes that people are essentially good and just a few are broken. Recently, I heard one BBC Radio 4 commentator assert that hate, apart from a childhood dislike of broccoli, is always a learned behaviour – implying that children always learn it from adults. This is only partly true because the root of hate is in each of our hearts, it is part of our brokenness. It is already there, which is why it can be fertilised by the words and attitudes of others. It is not possible for broken people to fix things, no matter how many of us crowd together – broken people cannot repair other broken people. Consider the fact that around 25,000 people applied for the free tickets to the “One Love Manchester” benefit concert which were being made available for the 14,300 people who were actually present on the night of the bombing!

The otherwise apparent solidarity of Mancunians (and others) in the days since this horrific attack has brought to mind the words of the song which became the anthem of the American Civil Rights Movement. With the title “We shall overcome”, it proclaims “We shall live in peace, some day.” It summarises the secular mindset in which so many of today’s Western populations have been schooled. Recently however I discovered that these were not the original words to this song. It was written by Charles A. Tindley in 1901 with the title “I’ll Overcome Some Day” and is actually based on a verse from the New Testament, Galatians 6:9 which reads, “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” One of its six verses has the lines, “If Jesus will my leader be, I’ll overcome some day.” What has happened to this song since it was written seems to reflect what has happened in Western societies over a similar period. Its author saw it as an expression of confidence in Jesus Christ – “My Jesus says I need not fear” – whilst the popular version declares the hope that evil can be overcome by a collective human effort against it. History is void of any examples where such corporate self-confidence has borne lasting fruit.

My final reflection is that not just in Manchester but throughout secularised Western nations we all need to consider more carefully the conflict between our secular, post-Christianised culture and a revitalised authentic expression of Islam.

My hope (though not my expectation) is that our societies realise that we don’t have a viable solution to the problem of aggressive Islam. Accepting this would make us more vulnerable, but if we could humble ourselves and seek the God of the Bible for protection, we would find that He is well able to defend us and give us the wisdom to live wisely.

© Randall Hardy - June 2017

Further reading: For those interested in understanding more about the clash between secularism and Islam, I recommend my article written in October 2001: 11th September 2001 - A Clash of Two Post-Christian Cultures?

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