A Sermon preached by Fr James Heard on the Sixth Sunday of Trinity at St George's and St John the Baptist
It's hard to read Mark 6 about the beheading of John the Baptist and not think about the grotesque images of ISIS. The brutality is shocking, which is the aim of those in ISIS. This week we paused to remember the tenth anniversary of 7/7, the lives that were needlessly lost that day, as well as those who retain the scars – both physical and emotional.
It leads us to question why some of our young people are being so radicalised and why some are even going out to fight for ISIS. This isn’t a problem out there in a far away land but rather closer to home, including pupils from North Kensington, and even a couple of former pupils from Holland Park School, around the corner. What’s going on?
The usual clichés about jihadis – that they are poor, uneducated, badly integrated – are rarely true. According to one study, what draws young people to Syria is neither politics nor religion. It is a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for “belongingness”, for respect. This might suggests a profound sense of alienation being felt, perhaps partly due to our individualistic culture.
Jonathan Sacks’ latest book, Not in God’s Name, has a particular take on the factors that have caused the rise of ISIS. In the book, he coins the phrase “altruistic evil” to describe the appeal to such youngsters of ISIS propaganda. It blends talk of high ideals and the sacred to justify what would otherwise be seen as murderous acts. “They are being offered an identity as part of the global nation of Islam which is presented in these social media outlets as being attacked and humiliated.”
To these young people, who see things in stark black and white terms, it seems as though radical Islam provides the illusion of a struggle against an immoral present in the cause of a utopian future. This begs the uncomfortable question: Why is it that so many intelligent and resourceful young people find an ideology that espouses mass beheadings more appealing than anything else that is on offer?
A week or so ago, Bishop Tom Butler gave the Radio 4 Thought for the Day. He described how he attended an inter-faith occasion where ministers from various world faiths read in turn some verses which each had chosen from their sacred scriptures. An Iman, a Hindu priest and the vicar who was hosting the occasion each read some uplifting verses. So far so good.
Then the vicar explained that, sadly, the Jewish rabbi who'd wanted to be with them was ill, but that he'd sent his chosen verses to be read out. They were from Psalm 137: "You devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!" There was a stunned silence.
A couple of weeks later he met the rabbi at another gathering and asked him, "why ever did you choose that lamentable psalm when there are so many inspiring verses in the Hebrew scriptures which you could have chosen?" "That's the point", he said, "All world faiths have irenic passages in their scriptures, but the truth is that all our scriptures also have difficult, or even scandalous passages, and we won't make real progress in inter-faith relationships until we have the courage to discuss those with one another."
Many people suggest that those who commit such atrocities aren’t real members of the faith that they're dying for or killing for. But that certainly isn’t their understanding; they're feeding on certain verses in their sacred scriptures or events in their faith history which encourage them to act in extreme or even violent ways. And is worth mentioning here that throughout the centuries, Christians have committed some horrific violence – to Jews, Muslims and to fellow Christians.
The truth is that any world faith doesn’t have a single colour to its understanding of God and the world, it’s a spectrum of colours. That's why it's difficult to put our finger on what is real Christianity, or real Islam, or real Judaism. The religious or political extremist focuses on just one of the colours and pushes it to excess or even destruction.
One part of the answer to combat extremism is to encourage one another to be open to the total breadth of our faith inheritance, however uncomfortable that may be. By having an honest and mature conversation about the difficult parts of scripture within our faith communities, those who use them to justify violence today might find it harder to hide behind them tomorrow.
It also requires that we actively critique our society, our individualistic, consumerist culture that seems to alienate so many people. We need prophets who are unafraid to ask difficult, uncomfortable questions, those who challenge the status quo.
The prophet Amos was such a person – he spoke out against the current state of life in Israel where the people ignored the poor, the widow, the alien, and the orphan. Making things worse, Israel's religious leaders sanctioned the political and economic status quo. To the priests who defended, legitimized, and justified king Jeroboam's corrupt kingdom, Amos delivered an uncompromising word of warning.
John the Baptist was another prophetic figure who challenged Herod’s immoral decisions, Herod had him arrested and beheaded. We learn that prophetic witness and personal or political expediency do not have a good history of co-existence. Speaking the truth to power is a dangerous business – many prophets literally lost their heads because of it.
And there are many modern day inspirational examples. Wilberforce, amongst others, worked for years in parliament for the abolition of the British slave trade in the 19th century.
The Archbishop and martyr of San Salvador, Óscar Romero wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter that he could have sent to any number of our military or political leaders: "You say that you are Christian. If you are really Christian, please stop sending military aid to the military here, because they use it only to kill my people."
It seems to me that the Muslim community also need courageous prophetic voices to articulate an affirming vision of Islam, one that includes living peacefully with those who are different, as well as critiquing the difficult passages.
For us, as Christians, sometimes we are impelled by the Gospel to speak out, despite the cost this will entail. This might mean challenging systems or attitudes at work; asking difficult questions to our councillors and MPs; it also might be speaking out about injustice within the church.
There will be differences of opinion on this but, in my view, the issue over women in ministry has brought out a number of prophetic voices. In a recent discussion on women and priesthood Rowan Williams explained how he had changed his mind on the issue 35 years ago. He admitted that the ordination of women and then bishops had come at the considerable cost of a series of unhappy ructions which had strained the unity of the Church of England to breaking point and had effectively derailed any hope of organic union with the Catholic or Orthodox Churches. But he insisted that the alternative would have exacted an even higher price - a festering injustice. There would have been the stifling of his own personal sense of what was right and true.
We pray God will raise up other prophetic voices, and in the words of the collect for St John the Baptist: ‘lead us to repent according to his preaching and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake; Amen.
Kenan Malik, ‘A search for identity draws jihadis to the horrors of Isis’, The Guardian, 1 March 2015
Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name
Bishop Tom Butler, Radio 4 Thought for the Day, 1/7/15