Responding to violence and fear…


You know what I am referring to. The news, your Facetwitter feed, even good old fashioned communication- it is full of the desperate events that unfolded in Paris over the last couple of days. Violence and murder done in the name of religion. Violence that grew like poisonous funghi in the shadow cast by other violence.

Events like this have the capacity to shape our age, for good or ill. Our response to it should be to preach caution, to encourage a sense of proportion and to remind people of history, so we might learn from it.

People of faith have a particular role to play here, given the centrality of theology as both framing narrative and ideological justification for unspeakable barbarity. The meaning of ancient texts has become so mixed up with tribal identity and weight of injustice that perhaps it is only from within religion that violence can be challenged. I know this as the hard, unyielding condemning religion I grew up with was transformed through thoughtful engagement with a different kind of belief.

Giles Fraser had this to say about the relationship between iconography and religion;

But, of course, these terrorists weren’t really interested in theology. They thought that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were insulting their human tribe, a tribe they called fellow Muslims. And maybe they were. But whatever else was happening, it was the atheist cartoonists who were performing the religious function and the apparently believing Muslims who had forgotten their deepest religious insights. For any representation of the divine that leads people to murder each other deserves the maximum possible disrespect.


But back to the point- what should be our response?

I mentioned attempting to retain some perspective. It is so hard to do this when bombarded with so much infotainment/news coverage. Meanwhile extremes are shouted from the margins by those who have a different tribal agenda- Muslims are all evil, as is their religion; we are all under attack from immigrants in our midst; all religion is bad; Christians were right all along etc etc.

Let us remember in this white/anglo-saxon/protestant centric world we inhabit that across much of the planet human life is cheap. The deaths in Paris were tragic, dreadful, appalling. But Yesterday in Nigeria around 2000 people were killed in a different Islamic extremist attack that Amnesty International described as the “deadliest massacre” in the history of Boko Haram. Be honest now- did you know about this? How do you emotionally and intellectually respond?


Then there are the lessons of even recent history (let us not even mention the dreadful colonial legacy that has far more to do with the creation of terrorism than religion ever could have).

Although we have to start there in a way. At the end of Empire, Britain had lived with terrorism for at least 100 years. The transition from colonial territory to autonomous nation has rarely been peaceful; too many artificial borders imposed on disparate peoples, with a history of being on different sides of the many colonially sponsored conflicts. Britain learned the hard way that conventional warfare is never the long term solution to insurgency and terror. Or rather we had to re learn this again and again, treading a path that is remarkably familiar; concentration camps, secret police, propaganda campaigns that leave no room for dissidents, and along the way many a blood bath; Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ireland etc etc. Eventually we had to talk to people. We had to turn away from violence and try to make peace in the face of all sorts of provocations.

Ah- but these conflicts were largely about geography, not about ideology, I hear you cry; modern terrorism has no obvious negotiation point; we can not walk away, because it is coming to us- our homes, our streets. It arises internally from our own ethnic minority communities.

I would suggest that there are more similarities than would first appear, it is just that like all post modern movements, terror has globalised. It has worldwide franchises, but power and motivation are still generated in the conflict zones.

After the attack on the World Trade Centre, America declared a war of vengeance. They were quite open about it at the time. Someone had to pay. First Afghanistan was invaded, with a narrative about evil regimes, then on far shakier evidence (later almost entirely discredited) Iraq. Hundreds of thousands died. The bulging prison camps became training grounds for new terror movements. Surveillance and a suspension of the rule of law was seen as justifiable and expedient. To support the war effort successive governments incited fear in a wider public who, in general terms, had probably never been so safe. Has it worked? Can we really regard the world, even the USA as a safer place, a better place?


Here is Owen Jones writing about events in Norway in the wake of their brush with terror;

Three and a half years ago, the far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik bombed Oslo, and then gunned down dozens of young people on the island of Utøya. His rationalisation for the atrocity was to stop the “Islamisation” of Norway: that the Norwegian left had opened the country’s doors to Muslims and diluted its Christian heritage. But Norway’s response was not retribution, revenge, clampdowns. “Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity,” declared the prime minister Jens Stoltenberg. When Breivik was put on trial, Norway played it by the book. The backlash he surely craved never came.

Here’s how the murderers who despicably gunned down the journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo do not want us to respond. Vengeance and hatred directed at Muslims as a whole serves Islamic fundamentalists well. They want Muslims to feel hated, targeted and discriminated against, because it increases the potential well of support for their cause. Already, there are multiple reports of attacks in France against mosques, and even a “criminal explosion” in a kebab shop. These are not just disgraceful, hateful acts. Those responsible are sticking to the script of the perpetrators. They are themselves de facto recruiting sergeants for terrorists.

As a nation we are vulnerable to many things in these changing and rootless times. Our chances of early death at the hands of an Islamic terrorist are absolutely tiny. Lots of other things that we live with every day will kill thousands of us; our lifestyles, our motor cars. There is a chance that our over consuming will be the end of our kind.

So let us pause, remember with respect those souls who passed and then try to make peace with ourselves and then with our neighbours.

Jar of peace

What would Jesus say to ‘Sam Bacile’?

So a few blokes get together and decide to make a film. They have a network of friends, some of them with lots of money, and share a common hatred- Islam.

The film they make is so scandalous, so insulting, that it creates ripples around the globe. America, already seen by half the world as making a Christian Crusade against all things Islamic, has dared to display images of Mohamed, something specifically forbidden by the Qur’an, and this portrayal paints him as a weak, deluded womaniser who also abuses children and is gay.

They do not even tell the actors what they are planning- dubbing in the real content later.

It is a terrible film- you can see some of the lowlights of it on Youtube here. I am reluctant to give it any more airtime, but then again it is always important to know your enemy.

But then again, who is the enemy? On one side there are the bigoted, narrow minded Christians- the film maker appears to be a Coptic Christian called Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, and an organisation called Media for Christ. They are connected to lots of other prominent Islamophobes, such as Qur’an burning Florida Pastor Terry Jones.

On the other side, there are other violent men. People who would burst into Embassies and kill American diplomats. Others who would seek to kill people for making stupid crap films, and do so in the name of God.

So, this would seem to be a slight dilemma for those who seek to follow the ways of the Prince of Peace.

Although we have some easy clues in the Gospel stories- of how Jesus refused to join in with the men of violence, no matter where he found them but particularly when they claimed to have God on their side. He would saythat his followers should always be people of the open hand, not the clenched fist.

Because there is not doubt that the people behind this film were trying to provoke a reaction, even if the death of some of their own might have come as a shock.

Following the terrible attack on the World Trade Centre, the politics and theology of fear has dominated much of American collective consciousness. There is a really good article by Glenn Greenwald on what he describes as “The Sham Terroism Expert Industry” in which he has this to say;

The key role played by this “terrorism expert” industry in sustaining highly damaging hysteria was highlighted in an excellent and still-relevant 2007 Washington Post Op-Ed by Zbigniew Brzezinski. In it, he described how the War on Terror has created an all-consuming Climate of Fear in the U.S. along with a systematic, multi-headed policy of discrimination against Muslim Americans based on these severely exaggerated threats, and described one of the key culprits this way:

Such fear-mongering, reinforced by security entrepreneurs, the mass media and the entertainment industry, generates its own momentum.The terror entrepreneurs, usually described as experts on terrorism, are necessarily engaged in competition to justify their existence. Hence their task is to convince the public that it faces new threats. That puts a premium on the presentation of credible scenarios of ever-more-horrifying acts of violence, sometimes even with blueprints for their implementation.

There is no term more potent in our political discourse and legal landscape than “Terrorism.” It shuts down every rational thought process and political debate the minute it is uttered. It justifies torture (we have to get information from the Terrorists); due-process-free-assassinations even of our own citizens (Obama has to kill the Terrorists); and rampant secrecy (the Government can’t disclose what it’s doing or have courts rule on its legality because the Terrorists will learn of it), and it sends people to prison for decades (material supporters of Terrorism).

It is a telling paradox indeed that this central, all-justifying word is simultaneously the most meaningless and therefore the most manipulated. It is, as I have noted before, a word that simultaneously means nothing yet justifies everything. Indeed, that’s the point: it is such a useful concept precisely because it’s so malleable, because it means whatever those with power to shape discourse want it to mean. And no faction has helped this process along as much as the group of self-proclaimed “terrorism experts” that has attached itself to think tanks, academia, and media outlets. They enable pure political propaganda to masquerade as objective fact, shining brightly with the veneer of scholarly rigor. The industry itself is a fraud, as are those who profit from and within it.

Is it surprising that in all of the focus groups, think tanks and lobby groups, there is a sudden deeper interest in parts of the world where Christian are being oppressed, particularly by Islamic groups- for example the Coptic Christian in Egypt?

If this is happening within the political mainstream, how surprised should we be that the religious right might seek to go even further, and attack the very premise of Islamic faith in a direct way- as somehow overtly terrorist in its very make up?

What would Jesus say to these people? He might call them a den of vipers perhaps? But then perhaps he would relent and talk about longing to gather them together like a hen might gather its chicks.

What would he say to us? Perhaps he might expect us to get on with living the lives of makers of peace- small peace and Big Peace. This might mean deliberately opening our hands to the other and refusing to raise the fist (or the gun/missile/spy satellite/propaganda film etc.)


Terrorism, religion and the group dynamic…

I spent much of today talking about terrorism. This is not usually part of what I do, but I was asked to attend a local awareness session. In the end it was rather fascinating.

What we tried to think about was the sorts of processes and relationships in our communities that might draw people into extremism, and right away, we people of faith have to concede that one of the most common drivers for this in the world at present is religion.

Many people would have in their mind a stereotypical terrorist, and they well be Muslim, male and aged around 25. There are real problems with these kinds of stereotypes of course, as I have spoken about previously here. There is also a real possibility that we exaggerate the potential threat, and this plays into all sorts of paranoid murky politics.

However, we now know that even our sleepy rural county of Argyll has been touched by terrorism. Several extremist groups have used outdoor centres/outward bound courses up here to breed team spirit, and the bombers who attacked Glasgow Airport a few years ago did so from a holiday home base in our area.

What brings people to the point of being able to justify the use of extreme violence? Of course this is not a new thing, and many would regard the drivers of inequality, imperialism and oppression as fertile breeding grounds. However, today we talked about some of the societal/group pressures that might draw people in;


The need to be ‘saved’ from an old life, and released into a special calling, as part of an enlightened elite. So we see some people drawn into extremist groups out of situations of isolation, confused identity, drug addiction and poverty.


People often see themselves as on a special mission, to right injustice and to live to a higher calling. There is an exclusiveness to this, and a tendency to see others as weaker, more contaminated, sinful, outsiders to the truth.

Narrowed world view

Extremists are united by a compelling narrative, often focussed on a single issue and simplified to black and white kind of thinking. In this narrative, there will be good guys and bad guys, those on the inside, those on the outside, and a call to fight back.

The drive to proselytise

The need to be bigger, more powerful, to convince others of the rightness of your cause, and to win converts. All other things are secondary and this end justifies all means.

Powerful, manipulative leadership

Leaders who convince, who have elevation over others and able to use hyper emotionality and  charismatic manipulation to bring cohesiveness and common purpose.

Distortions presented as fact

Leaders like this often present historical and theological perspectives, or downright distortions as fact. They emphasis certain aspects (for example eschatology, judgement, Jihad) over others (for example, forgiveness, grace, peace.) People are not encouraged to think for themselves, to test and debate issues, rather they are expected to achieve correct belief.

Removal and isolation

Before every act of violence, there seems to be something in common- a time of removal, sequestration. People are removed, or remove themselves from wider society, and focus on the purity and certainty of their cause, and the need for their final act.

Here is the challenge then- I invite those of you who have been involved in Christian churches to consider this list from that perspective. Those of you familiar with charismatic or fundamentalist denominations may find this list rather familiar. The point is, the group dynamics of religion that distort faith and breed a kind of hatred and destruction do not just belong to the other, they arise from who we are as humans.

Jesus seemed to understand this very clearly, and anyone who knows his teaching would see it as the antidote to all of the above. He seemed to reserve his anger almost exclusively for the kind of religion that valued the law (or religious understandings of the law) over people.

And yet we stand in the shadow of two thousand years of repeated examples of where the group dynamic within our churches has become toxic and released all sorts of hatred, judgementalism and even death as a result.


Terrorism and Muslims…

Two words that are often used together in the press and perhaps in our consciousness.

We tend to be of the view that whilst not all Muslims are terrorists, most terrorists are Muslims.

Until you look at the evidence that is.

Brian McLaren posted a link to this information on

In my previous article entitled “All Terrorists are Muslims…Except the 94% that Aren’t”, I used official FBI records to show that only 6% of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil from 1980 to 2005 were carried out by Islamic extremists.  The remaining 94% were from other groups (42% from Latinos, 24% from extreme left wing groups, 7% from extremist Jews, 5% from communists, and 16% from all other groups.)

In Europe, data from 2007-2009 showed similar patterns-

The results are stark, and prove decisively that not all terrorists are Muslims.  In fact, a whopping 99.6% of terrorist attacks in Europe were by non-Muslim groups; a good 84.8% of attacks were from separatist groups completely unrelated to Islam.  Leftist groups accounted for over sixteen times as much terrorism as radical Islamic groups.  Only a measly 0.4% of terrorist attacks from 2007 to 2009 could be attributed to extremist Muslims.

Forgive me if I come over all ranty- but I think we need to know this.

We need to consider this in relation to the foreign policies pursued on our behalf by our governments.

And we need to seek understanding with those whose faith is different to ours, not demonise and misconstrue.

And where violence and terror is being propagated in the the name of God, we should perhaps also understand that God has been used as an idolatrous way of achieving power before, and he will be again.

And that violence repaid with violence leads only to more… violence.

Global crisis and local Christianity…

We live in an age of perceived crisis.

Not necessarily real ones you understand in the way that our grandparents may have known- in the age of Hitler’s (anf Churchill’s) bombs falling on cities, of concentration camps, and nuclear proliferation.

Instead we have the perceived crises of;

Terrorism– the so called war on ‘global terror’- which we fight using as a weapon, global terror. International policy is formed out of the elevation of fear in a general population- fear of an unknown evil, mixed in with a dose of racism, and religion…

The credit crunch– do you get the impression that there is some kind of hidden hand holding economic strings that we are powerless to influence? Almost as if the burst in the artificial credit bubble was a natural disaster? Meanwhile stock brokers ‘feel the pinch’ and lose the odd sports car, whilst in more marginal places where debt has become a the only option, survival is harder. (Check out this post for more discussion on this issue)

Knife crime- reported as an ‘epidemic’ in the UK, despite at best marginal rises within particular demographic groups in our cities. Anyone would think we did not live in one of the safest societies in one of the safest country in the world!

Energy crisis- oil prices soaring, leading to uncertainty and fear all over the world’s economy. Suddenly oil fields previously politically unacceptable are opened up. And people buy cars with smaller engines, to sit in the same traffic jams…

And so on- house prices, food prices, natural disasters, global warming, etc etc…

I am not a conspiracy theorist. I am always much more prepared to believe in a certain kind of chaos that results in some opportunist winners, and some unfortunate victims.

However, I am more and more convinced that our system of free market capitalism should not stand uncriticised. That far from being the answer to the complex problem of human economic organisation, instead it has become an animal that, once fed, is as likely to bite off the hands of the zoo keeper as it is to pull his cart.

My friend Ali sent me this link today. He tends towards relish of a good conspiracy, but I agree that this critique makes interesting watching…

This is propaganda, but propaganda when used by the powerless can become protest- if not a check on the actions of the powerful, perhaps at least it can lead to a reformulation of their strategy. It reminded me again of Thatcher, the most unpopular British prime minister ever, until the Falklands war. Then she was the unassailable economic saviour of western capitalism…

And also of Moazzim Begg, and his experience at Guantanamo bay.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I am a Christian. I am part of a small local community. What should be the local response to all this stuff that fills the airwaves? Which voices should I listen to that are beautiful and true?

Global communication networks allow us to connect with people thousands of miles away, but there is so much information out there, how would you ever make anything heard, or know that what you hear is good?

The old adage of think globally, act locally often just seems like an empty statement. A bit like ‘global village’. For some the world may have shrunk- but the gap between those who have, and those who have not is larger than ever.

But I think that we Christians do recognise truth when it hits us between the eyes. It comes at us when we see one person who transcends the times, and speaks up for beauty and peace, and love.

I remember reading an open letter that Brian McLaren wrote to George Bush just after the attack on the World Trade Centre. Warning against vengeful and angry responses that will result in more victims, more broken lives and families.

Check this out for more discussion about how we might respond to crisis.

The other way that we encounter truth, is through the words and stories of Jesus.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

And blessed are those for whom crisis (perceived or real) commands compassion, and love.

(link here to beatitudes)