Summary of First Thursday discussion, January 8th 2015
We met on the morning after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. The Psalm we read in the morning prayers was Psalm 46: “God makes wars to cease throughout the earth” (verse 9), and we wondered what world the Psalmist was living in when he wrote those words- not the world we inhabit today, it seems. The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures seemed to express the same question: “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1). Perhaps the prophet felt the same frustration that we often feel- the wish that God would “step in” and sort things out.
The killings have provoked a fierce debate about “free speech”. But are insulting attacks on other people’s faith (as distinct from reasoned argument and criticism) a necessary part of this? Is the freedom to say what you believe the same as the freedom to make fun of others? Is satire part of faith? Should the Muslim objection to depictions of Mohammed be respected? (Some depictions of Christ would have been prosecuted as blasphemy in the recent past).
We recognised that there is a particular commitment to secularisation on the part of some sections of French society, because of past conflicts with the power of the Catholic Church. But we need to distinguish between “secularisation” (the notion that no faith should have absolute political power in a society) and “secularism” (the notion that faith and religion should not be allowed to take part in any public debate).
We also recognised that there is a particular challenge in the alienation of many young people living in the estates around Paris, children of immigrants from North Africa (and therefore of Muslim faith) who feel that their place in French society is not secure.
To what extent are Al-Qaeda, ISIS etc genuine Muslims? Any more than the Klu Klux Klan, the English Defence League and people who assassinate doctors working in abortion clinics are Christians, although they claim to be? Why do a minority of religious people (in most faiths, not just Islam) feel that violent action is sometimes justified, even though a majority of their fellow believers reject that view?
The New Testament reading was from John’s first letter (1 John 4:7 to 21): “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God”. If the New Testament is right in saying that “God is love”, this is the only way God can work in the world. If the coming of Jesus is the way God “tear(s) open the heavens and come(s) down”- ending up on a Cross to defeat the power of hatred in the world, this is the only way we can expect God to operate in the world today. Not a quick and easy solution, but the only one that ultimately deals with the problem.