Just before the end of July I was talking to a friend about my month off from blogging in August. Having mentioned that there is usually little news worth talking about over the summer, he made the comment that I’d probably find that all manner of things would kick off for once. He wasn’t wrong.
The last few weeks have been challenging faith-wise. When you see and hear about such extreme depravities that humans are capable of, it’s hard to work out where God is in all of this. At times it has felt like the world is imploding on itself as the dehumanisation and hatred for others repeatedly leads to the slaughter of innocents and humanitarian crises on an unimaginable scale. The thirst for power and control has been terrifyingly demonstrated, whether it be through blind and twisted religious dogma or nationalistic bitter envy. Even in our own ordered country that is proud of its history of just governance, hundreds of the most vulnerable children have been horrifically abused whilst those in authority buried their heads in the sand.
How do you begin to pray for the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have become little more than statistics? The international community has mostly stood on the side lines watching events unfold all around the Middle East and in the Ukraine without any real understanding of what they could or should do. What words do you use and what thoughts do you think when there appear to be few, if any answers that will not lead to more suffering?
Somehow trying to make sense of this is harder still when you are surrounded by thousands of Christians worshipping God passionately singing about joy and God’s unfailing love for us. As I was standing there in the middle of a multitude of fellow Christians at this summer’s New Wine festival in Somerset I repeatedly wondered whether I would be able to worship God with the same enthusiasm if I was living in constant fear that my community would be massacred because of our beliefs. How can I write about God being good and talk about following Him when others believe that they are following God’s commands resulting in their unwavering desire to wipe out any who do not convert to their way of thinking?
Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of St George’s Cathedral in Baghdad has done much to inform the rest of the world of the atrocities that have been’ carried out in Iraq over the last few weeks. In his most recent book, Father, forgive, written last year, he writes this:
‘The sad fact is, religion is very much tied up with violence. As Archbishop William Temple said during the Second World War , “When religion goes wrong it goes very wrong.” The apostle John, recording the words of Jesus in his Gospel, wrote, “the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me” (John 16:2-3). This is what we have witnessed in our time.’
There have been moments when I’ve listened to atheists damning religion, citing too many cases in history where the most heinous acts have been carried out in the name of God and thought that maybe refusing to believe in God would be an easier option. You no longer have to grapple with the tensions that faith in a supernatural omnipresent and omnipotent being produces. It’s much more straightforward to make up your own rules about how to live than consider that there is a true meaning to life beyond ourselves.
Appealing as atheism might be at a superficial level, comments like those of Richard Dawkins recently claiming that it would be immoral not to abort babies with Downs Syndrome is a reminder that rejecting religion does not guarantee any immunity to devaluing others or automatically produce compassion. Much as religion can potentially be a source of evil, I cannot see how atheism can solve these deep-rooted problems in our world.
Despite my doubts, I find it impossible to give up on my faith. I’ve seen too much and experienced too many things to turn my back on it now. Each day when I wake up I know that God exists and that he is with me, even if I don’t always feel it in any tangible way. As I put my feet on the floor and stand up straight, I’m reminded that until four years ago I couldn’t do that fully. My body was curved due to a growth defect, but one evening at church God did something miraculous and corrected me in a way that is medically impossible. Those who have known me long enough can testify to this change.
The God I believe in brought healing into my body. This is a God that I want to know – one who heals and restores rather than one who destroys. Our world desperately needs healing in so many places. Healing comes through forgiveness and reconciliation. There are wars to be fought for the sake of peace, but without forgiveness there can be no resolution.
Again, in Father, Forgive, Andrew White writes:
‘In Iraq, Jesus’ radical challenge to forgive those who mean us harm is not an occasional challenge, but a daily one. Forgiveness is a constant, continuous act of the will – something we walk out and practise regularly.
‘My trust in the Church has been so greatly enhanced by living with my people here at St George’s in Baghdad. Here our people have nothing, most have lost everything, yet the presence of Jesus is so real. We talk about love all the time, and in love we see the beginning of reconciliation. The glory or miraculous presence of God is a constant topic of conversation. God is ever present in His power and majesty, and in times of distress the Holy Spirit provides comfort and, truly, a peace that transcends the rational.’
These are dark days for Syria, Iraq and other places of conflict, both for countries and individuals, but there is a light that is stronger than the darkness and this is where our greatest hope lies. Andrew White believes that it is God’s love alone that has the power to bring healing into a broken world. If he is able to truly have this confidence despite what he sees daily, then so should we. And that should give us the faith to pray that it will happen.