September 11 - Faith and Politics

Trinity 16, Sunday 30th September 2001

Amos 6: 1a, 3-7; Luke 16: 19-31

Manhattan after September 11th 2001Sometimes following the discipline of preaching from scripture, especially passages which have been chosen for you, can be like treading on hot coals. You may be suspicious this morning that either I, or some other faceless person hidden away in Church House, have been thumbing through the Gospels, and indeed the Old Testament as well, searching for passages which would suit well the situation we are facing today. But you would be wrong. These are the readings which appear in the lectionary, adopted by the Church of England a few years ago, and by other churches longer ago than that.

In which case, we may choose to see these readings as a challenge from God to us this morning - accidental perhaps, but providential as well. And the challenge is to the heart of what we are and what we stand for. Are we going to allow the words of Jesus to face us down, to test us, to change us. Or are we going to wriggle away, pretending not to have heard, or consigning the message to that bit of our psyche which doesn’t really believe at all, but is only playing at it. In other words are we going to hold our hands up and say ‘You Lord have the words of eternal life’, or are we going to withdraw, mentally at least, from the practice of our faith, saying ‘It’s OK in theory, but we have to live in the real world’. I suspect many of us struggle with that the whole time, sometimes successfully and often not very successfully; but at times like these when the world is anxious, even fearful of the next weeks and months, the question being put to us is sharp and painful.

Two weeks ago, the world was in shock. An act of evil, the like of which few of us had ever dreamt of, let alone witnessed as it happened, brought the whole world to a virtual standstill. Images which are the stuff of the worst nightmare were being repeated over and over again, until I at least was tempted to scream at the screen, in a little music shop in Hay-on-Wye, “Stop it, stop it.”

In the days following the attack people flowed through this church in great numbers, I am told, searching in their hearts for some understanding of the tragedy which had overcome so many thousands of families, Americans, British, German, Christian, Muslim, black, brown and white. And on the Sunday in this Church, Eileen preached a magnificent sermon, which I of course did not hear but the text of which I have seen. Taking one of the newspaper headlines as the heart of what she had to say - “Love was all they had to set against their murderers”, she offered a deeply moving meditation on love in the tradition of Christ. It was a message of reassurance that the faith we proclaim, this Jesus whom we follow, does indeed speak into even such terror and hatred as was exploded on to the world at 2pm on that fateful afternoon.

Today the world has begun to move on. Momentarily true fear gripped the globe, as ill-chosen words and images were thrown out in the heat of the anger and sorrow of the American nation. Wise heads and hearts have prevailed, and the response to that awful violence has been weighed and weighed again. We still wait to see what, in the end, will be done. But we have been given time, time to reflect, to pray, and to begin to try to understand what is going on in our world that could possibly provoke anyone to behave with such cruelty and inhumanity.

At the Open Forum held here on Thursday evening, to which around a hundred people came from an extraordinary spectrum of society, a measured and sensitive discussion took place in which there was common condemnation of the attack, from Muslim leaders, political activists, and church people. But there was also common feeling that to repay, or punish such evil by inflicting yet more desperate suffering on a people or peoples with no chance of defending themselves would be a simplistic and dangerous response from those who already hold most of the reins of power in the world. And the pursuit of war would shield us from questions about the roots of the terrorist activities of such fanatics. The challenge and the responsibility which we cannot abrogate is then, to borrow a well-known political cliché, to be “tough on terrorism and tough on the causes of terrorism”.

Debate continues inevitably about the degree to which religion really played a part in this atrocity. That those responsible were and are fanatics is certain. Whether they are political fanatics or religious fanatics or just criminals is less clear. And in seeking the answers to these questions, it is of utmost importance to listen to those who speak from an Islamic background. It is important to understand the nature of the clash of cultures which undoubtedly exists between East and West, between North and South, between religious societies and secular societies. It is important to be aware of history and the resonances of history for different parts of the world. And it is important that we approach and listen to those who are on ‘the other side’ of these divides, in deep humility. The trap into which the Italian Prime Minister fell, unwittingly, is a trap on the edge of which we all totter. Indeed, perhaps we are already in it. If there is good to come out of Mr Berlusconi’s error, it is perhaps that we recognise that. It is a feature of western imperial and missionary endeavour that we have believed that our culture is superior to that which we conquer, that our political systems are superior, that our religious beliefs are superior, and that quickly leads on to the belief that we as people are superior to others. And we back all this up with rational and emotive arguments, and with economic, political and sometimes military power.

But the facts are clear. One half of the world has gained hugely from this system, whilst the other half languishes in poverty. For many millions of people in Africa and Asia and South America, the great economic and political adventure of the last hundred years has left them as pawns in the hands of others, powerless and destitute. Such societies are fertile seedbeds for ideological fanatics. I can tell you stories from Rwanda, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia. Fred will tell you about what Nigeria is going through at this moment. But you know the stories. These are not excuses for terrorism, they are facts. For so long as this worldwide poverty is understood essentially to arise from a western society determined to pursue its own well-being at any cost, regardless of the resulting suffering caused to faceless and invisible populations on the other side of the world, we will always be susceptible to this, or another sort of attack. Some of you will have seen Bob Geldof being interviewed last night by Michael Parkinson. What an impressive man. He spoke of the obscenity of this continuing poverty. After all the shattering events that Africa and Asia have been through, and through which he gained fame sixteen years ago, still we have continued to ignore them, or to come up with lame political arguments for how change might happen.

Christians should be - and to an extent have been - at the forefront of the campaign for change. We need go no further than ‘Love your neighbour’ for the justification. To quote Eileen’s closing words: “God has made us for love, to be bridges of reconciliation, to care for those on the edges of this world and to bring them into fellowship with all humanity”. These words apply not just in the wake of disaster, but all day and every day. And however much interpreters may try to get round it - and theologians, as well as us ordinary disciples, have been just as adept as any politician at removing the sting of scripture - the Old Testament and the New Testament are as clear on this as on anything. The parable in today’s Gospel reading is about being ready, a favourite theme of Luke. Look at your behaviour now, because judgement day will be too late; and the situation with which Jesus illustrates the point is the massive gulf between rich and poor, a gulf which sits on our very doorstep and is ignored every time we go outside.

“The sprawlers revelry is over” proclaims Amos, having just before cried “seek good and not evil so that you may live… hate evil, love good, maintain justice at the city gate”. It is a constantly recurring theme throughout the Bible. In a moment the choir will sing that most beautiful of Elgar’s anthems, taking the words of Isaiah, which Jesus makes his own as he launches his ministry in Luke’s Gospel. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering sight to the blind.” Beautiful, inspiring and mysterious Elgar makes it, but that should not deafen us to the clarity of the words, for if we are going to ignore them then there might as well be an empty church here next week. God does not want our worship unless we are ready to do justice. “I hate and despise your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemn festivals… let me have no more of the din of your chanting, no more of your strumming on harps. But let justice flow like water and integrity like an unfailing stream.” That’s Amos again, just before this morning’s passage.

We cannot ignore the relationship between faith and politics. They are inextricably linked, both at a personal level and at every other level. The religious element in the attack on New York is profoundly significant, and the extent to which fanaticism in religion can affect society depends a great deal on the other side of the balance - the extent to which our love of our neighbour actually makes a difference to the way we live our lives. What extremes exist within the believing community. We are responsible. It is a battle between love and hatred, between liberation and captivity, between good and evil.

In 1997 I accompanied the Archbishop of Canterbury to the United States to attend the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. On the Sunday morning we went to a service in a downtown church in Philadelphia. As forewarned, we were greeted by a group of protestors screaming at the Archbishop and waving their banners angrily in his face - well, as near as the police would allow them to get. The protest was on quite another subject, but the message was clear: ‘God hates fags’; ‘Carey is a fag-lover’ (and they were not referring to smokers!) This and worse was being chanted by children and adults from a Southern Baptist congregation, who seemed to spend most of their time pursuing Anglican leaders. In the car afterwards, the Archbishop quietly reflecting on the experience said: “God hates… now there’s a subject for a sermon”.

Andrew Deuchar
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 29th November 2001