Terror all around
Terror all around. Words from the prophet Jeremiah in today's first reading at Mass which resound with us in London: terror in Westminster, on London Bridge; terror at the hate crime on Finsbury Mosque; terror in the flames of Grenfall Tower. The prophet calls for vengeance, denunciation, and we are seeing plenty of that. The Psalmist, in our next reading, continues in this line, demanding a swift response from God: answer me, O Lord!
So what might God’s response to all this terror be? And what might our own?
It goes without saying that terror is nothing new, nor man’s desperation for God’s voice in the midst of it. Scorsese’s recent film of Endo Shusaku’s novel Silence gives us one historic instance, the persecution of Christians of 17th century Japan. In the story, a young Jesuit priest goes there in search of his former master, rumoured to have apostatised. He finds hidden communities of Christians whom he tends until his inevitable capture, whereon the rumours about his master are confirmed to be true. He is determined to be a martyr to the faith, but the Japanese inquisitor is wise to his ways, and offers him that glory only with one formidable qualification: he will be allowed to die only after he has watched the execution of his flock. If he apostatises by trampling on an image of the virgin and child, they will be released.
Every day the young priest prays for a solution to this dilemma, and every day the authorities execute more and more of his faithful. God’s response can be gleaned from the title of the film, until the moment comes when he is led out to trample. His foot hovers over the image, and then he hears a voice: “Trample.” And so he does. A cock crows.
The authorities keep their word, allowing the apostate priest to marry and giving him a job at the docks, sifting through foreign imports to make sure that no Christian literature or devotional artefacts make it through to the mainland. He dies a natural death. At this point, the film deviates from the book. We see the priest’s funeral. He is being cremated, the Japanese way. The camera zooms in on his casket, and then goes inside, to where the body is burning; and clutched in his hand, we see a little crucifix. In the film version, at least, it seems he kept some vestige of his faith, hidden away in his heart.
So did he do the right thing? It’s tempting to believe so. He saved all those peasant converts, after all, and still kept the faith in his heart. Perhaps that was the most Christ-like thing to do.
But are we not left with the cock’s crow echoing in our ears? That voice he heard: it might have been Christ’s. But it might equally have been his own. It might even have been the Devil’s.
Yes, he saved the lives of many villagers, but what does his apostasy mean for the villagers he had already watched die for the faith he had taught them? What does it say about that faith, the faith in the film version he supposedly kept hidden to the end? It turns out to be exactly the kind of faith - a private, inoffensive matter of conscience - which the Japanese authorities wanted.
Make no mistake, this is the kind of faith so many of our modern authorities want to encourage, too. The Church on its better days can cope with a variety of opinion, but it seems that Tim Farron’s views are incompatible with the orthodoxy of public life. David Cameron’s ‘Radio 3 in the Chilterns,’ intermittent Anglicanism of the shires was just about tolerable to the press. The ideal view is that of Jeremy Corbyn, who would own everything publicly except faith, which he says is a purely private matter with no place in public discourse, which is why he wants to close church schools. I suspect his real answer to the question of faith would cost him too much of the Labour Muslim vote to say out loud, but just in case he is a closet believer in something higher than himself and the proletariat, he is wise not to announce it: the Today Programme relishes ridiculing Christian politicians who let slip that prayer forms any part of their decision-making process, as though they were basing their policy on voices in their heads (Muslim MPs, I’ve noticed, are allowed use the ‘p’-word unchallenged, so we might want to make allies of them). The overall message is that in this country, you can believe whatever you want - as long as it doesn’t get in the way. As long as it doesn’t challenge secular orthodoxies. In short, as long as it doesn’t actually do anything.
The Gospel reading today does offer a response to the terror all around. It is not Jeremiah’s answer, calling for vengeance and denunciation. It is not to form a rabble and bay for blood on the streets, as John McDonnell demands. Nor is the Psalmist’s demand for answers. It is not to resort to scapegoating, the search for an instant solution, not to make political capital out of the tragedy of others. It is not to engage in juvenile political posturing, putting up abusive stickers in public places and waving banners, posting cartoons of the Prime Minister as though she were personally responsible for acts of terror and dangerous cladding. It is not to chant the platitudinous litany of instant answers expected from every politician, pundit and pulpit whenever disaster strikes: nothing to do with Islam, it’s Theresa May’s fault, London is not afraid, etc. Many of the people in Camden have been told to pack for four weeks and evacuated to sports centres, and other people living in tower blocks fear the same well happen to them. Of course we are afraid. We would be stupid not to be.
God's response is not silence, but the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh: a man who was executed for failing to comply with the prevailing orthodoxy and for speaking out. We are told in today's Gospel to proclaim him on the rooftops, the ancient Israelite equivalent of over the garden fence. And following his example, while we must seek justice, we are surely not to create new enemies, resorting to hatred of political opponents. Rather we must see where our real enemies are and take the truly radical and dangerous step of loving them - even if it means loving them to our detriment, or loving them to our death.
Love your enemies. We are seeing precious little of that at present.