In Westminster a few days ago a British-born man in his fifties, with a long history of criminal violence and instability ruthlessly killed four people in what was called another terrorist attack. The savage and pointless infliction of suffering on innocent people breaks one’s heart. It fades from the front page, security barricades are increased and the infection of fear worsens. But the personal grief of relatives and friends of those killed or injured by such an impersonal expression of hatred will last a lifetime.
The deranged murderer had converted to Islam and also changed his name several times. Like many who kill in the name of Allah they are really converted to a perverse religious vision hiding under the label of this faith that allows them to vent their personal rage at the world and to be applauded, by some, for doing so. Most of these terrorists seem to be mentally ill, repressed, social and psychological failures in life who are easily turned by ruthless radicalisers. We are told these events will continue to happen. Many can be stopped but some, like this one, will always get through the net. It is something the West will have to live with until complex political and religious conflicts that we cannot understand and happening a long way away, are resolved. In the meantime we will live through this ‘terrorist’ age as people have lived through other, and in fact even worse, periods of violence and chaos.
The media reports it all in graphic detail, giving the high publicity that the terrorists crave. Politicians and religious leaders denounce such acts searching for the most condemnatory terms to use. But there is increasingly a feeling of deja-vu, of fatalism in the repetition of shock and fear that slowly eats away at the heart of any society. This is, of course, what the perpetrators of terrorism want.
Is there a contemplative response to these tragic events of our age of terror?
Contemplation raises the levels of wisdom and compassion in individuals and in the community. Wisdom is practical and knows that it has first to protect the innocent from attack. But it has also to look into the causes of what seems mere madness, to ask the uncomfortable questions. Compassion can exclude no one, innocent or guilty. There is no deeper way to prevent the erosion of society by fear or hatred, than to explicitly extend the power of compassion to the guilty. St Paul (Rom 12:21) says that it is excruciating to be forgiven, like pouring burning coals on the head of your enemy. He is echoing the Book of Proverbs (25:21) that says, long before Jesus made it central to his teaching: If your enemy is hungry give him food to eat, give him water to drink. For you will heap burning coals o his head. The Lord will reward you.’
Forgiveness is not an easy virtue to understand or justify politically. But it is essential to healing and moral survival. Our faith tradition is committed to it. The West is, ostensibly, being attacked by terrorists because it is Christian. How Christian is the testing question. How we express it is our challenge. In Lent above all, in this season of simplification and reduction, and even under attack and in grief, we can draw on the wisdom and compassion present in the human heart and which is also the source of our faith.