Terror and the People of God

19.03.2004 | Andrew Cameron | Briefing 001  


Horrifying though the bombing of a Madrid railway station has been, the events that followed are perhaps even worse. Occurring as it did on the eve of a general election, the incumbent conservative government, who sent forces to Iraq against overwhelming public opinion, were quick to blame a domestic separatist terrorist organisation (ETA) for the attack. But a sea-change among the voting public meant that on the weekend following, the Socialist opposition swept unexpectedly into power, against (we are told) the expectations of pollsters.

Mounting evidence pointed to al-Qaeda, suggesting a reprisal attack for Spanish involvement in Iraq. If Spanish voters ousted the conservative government because of its handling of the bombing, did al-Qaeda actually succeed in influencing an election in a major Western democracy? We can never know, because voters often change their mind at the last minute. But some find the possibility of such influence as worrying as the attack itself.

In a sense, there is nothing theologically interesting about this tragic and wicked bombing and its aftermath. The Bible testifies that in our broken and fallen world, religious and non-religious people alike fight and flee from the living God. In such a world, it is no surprise when bad people hurt and maim others in the name of an ideology and to gain power. When Christians cry “Come, Lord Jesus,” we acknowledge that only his rule of justice, over a new creation full of people remade in his image, can solve anything.

Nonetheless, the events surrounding the Madrid bombing have reopened questions that seem set to be the running sore of the twenty-first century. The Twin Towers, Afghanistan, Bali, Iraq and Madrid cause increasing confusion among us, with questions that won't go away:

This short briefing is unable to answer all these questions, but there are perhaps a few things to be said. Firstly, it is worth remembering that, as far as we may speak in generalities, Christian thought differs from Islamic thought about the role of government. It is entirely consistent with the Qu'ran for pious Muslims to hope for governments that honour Mohammed, and ‘holy war’ is an honourable means to this end. In the Bible, ‘holy war’ and the rule of the kings is fulfilled in the rule of Jesus over his people, inaugurated at his cross. Therefore Christian thinkers, starting with Jesus himself (e.g. John 18:36), treated secular authorities as honourable but temporary. Honourable, because God administers peace and justice through them; but temporary, because one day God will replace them. Hence the pious Christian remains the friend of his or her ruler, perhaps speaking sharply to them from time to time, but supporting them by prayer for them and by submission to rule of law. Early Christians were strangely supportive even of the deeply pagan emperors who oppressed them. Perhaps a conversation needs to be had with Muslims, then, about these differing views of government.

So secondly, Christians will honour our government's efforts to use strength to do justice and make for peace. This honour will take the form of praying for our leaders; but it may also take the form of speaking sharply to them. For example, some of us do insist that the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq looks very much like a betrayal of trust. Our leaders must repent if they knowingly mislead us; or, must offer very clear accounts of why we were not lied to (as Tony Blair has attempted in a March 2004 speech—see http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/03/06/1078464688991.html.) It helps us to honour them if we can trust them.

In speaking sharply to our government, we might also add that their strength and justice must be tempered with an intention toward peace. In Romans 13:1-7, our submission to government, and our respect for the way it mediates God's justice, seems to be a consequence of Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Paul goes on to say that vengeance upon injustice is not for us, but is for God, through his appointed ruler. It follows, then, that we ought to expect a primary intention toward peace from our political leaders. Our leaders need to keep signalling a hope for peace toward the Muslim world, without being any less firm in keeping justice. So far, Western leaders seem only to be showing off their strength to impress their electorates. Perhaps Muslims can be forgiven for thinking a holy war is underway. But proper leadership finds ways to say, “We will be firm, but we seek peace,” and searches for the deepest peace that can be found with neighbours near and far. Even neighbours we disagree with.

Of course, we have limited opportunities to say such things to our government and our leaders. Letters to MPs and newspapers are a start, but we are each so limited; and in relation to Madrid, we cannot help to repair the damage, or heal the wounded, or track down the bombers. Our helplessness easily translates into mere hopelessness, and each new atrocity can bring with it a hardening of our hearts and a growing callousness toward evil.

To cry “Come, Lord Jesus,” then, does lie at the core of a Christian response. To pray for angry and misguided Islamist terrorists; to pray for our leaders in the fearful decisions they must daily make; to pray for the wounded lying in Madrid hospitals; to pray that it doesn't happen again and that peace reigns—in such prayers, we do well, because we take our helplessness, and the lostness of humanity, to the powerful throne of God.

May such prayer become our habitual first response at news of each and every such atrocity.


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