When words crack and break

The events in Manchester last Monday made us realise, if we did not already know it, that words to express our current feelings sometimes do not exist. We also recognise that when somebody commits a heinous action, which is a kind of blasphemy against the whole of humanity, there are no words adequate to describe what is going on. It is somewhat limp to use the word ‘fanatic’ or ‘extremist’ when the desired aim, to destroy the lives of innocent children, is so utterly deplorable. The English language breaks down in its ability to describe accurately the combination of utter ruthlessness and an appalling devotion to a nihilistic ideology. We need several sentences to bring together all the elements of fanaticism and hate which undergird the Manchester event.

One of the disturbing elements about the horror from last Monday, is the way that it was somewhere associated in the mind of the attacker with the principles of religion. For him, Allah demanded that cruelty and death should be shown to the most innocent in our society. There was also the fact that through the action, he was going to cause his own death. Thus we have a twisted understanding of religious martyrdom. Does any religion ever put us in the situation where we could contemplate killing others as well as ourselves for some higher cause?

Sadly, the history of Christianity gives us several examples where Christians have killed others in the name of their faith. Although my main presentation at the conference on cults in Bordeaux in a month’s time is on the topic of healing, I am also speaking about the Cathar sect for an historical thread. This heretical group flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly in an area of southern France known as the Languedoc. The group was destroyed by the ruthless work of the Inquisition by around 1320. They completed the work of Crusaders who had captured citadels and slaughtered the inhabitants without mercy. The Inquisitors themselves did not hesitate to use the punishment of burning against those who would not recant their beliefs. Hundreds of men and women, called Perfects, perished in this way. Once more we are faced with something utterly appalling. A religion of love expresses its beliefs in dreadful acts of cruelty. The minds of the early Inquisitors had similar sentiments to the Manchester suicide bomber. Can religious truth ever demand such behaviour from its followers?

At the beginning of this piece I asked the question whether words exist to describe the horror of fanatical hatred which seeks to destroy innocent lives. I found myself also wondering if there is a word to describe what I believe to be the attitude needed to counter such appalling extremism. We speak about liberal attitudes to respond to fanaticism and ruthless conservatism. We need a new word to convey the moderate, peace-loving and rational approach which many of us believe to be at the heart of Jesus’ message. Such an approach is required, not only to offer moderates of all religions a better understanding of the alternatives to extremism, but also an effective weapon against these forces. Religious extremism comes in many forms, from the desire to kill in the name of truth to a hubristic defiance of a complete denomination and its leaders, such as we have seen in the recent Jesmond consecration.

Is it possible to hold on to truth without being marked by hubris and conceit? All Christians claim to follow truth but they do this in very different ways. The extremist claim to truth will brook no alternatives. It will express its utter hostility to other truth claims, whether liberal approaches to Scripture or the emancipation of women in Muslim societies. The moderate approach to truth claims comes in a different garb. This seems to have three facets. To summarise these, the moderate will first temper his/her understanding of truth with a sense of its provisional quality. Secondly the moderate will accept that whatever s/he claims to be true may possibly be mistaken. Third and finally, moderate truth claims will be made in an attitude of humility rather than one of arrogance or aggression.

The first of these moderate ways of approaching religious truth is made inevitable by the provisional nature of words. Words have changed their meaning even in a generation, so why should we entrust all religious truth to the fickle unstable medium of words? To say that truth remains the same while the ways of articulating it will change is not a retreat from conviction. It is merely a common-sense way of recognising that we and our language are in a constant state of flux. Religious truth must open itself to possible verbal changes in the future.

The second principle is that we hold on to our truth while being aware that we could in fact be wrong in our claims. I think it was Oliver Cromwell who made the plea to a Puritan fellow member of the English Parliament. ‘ I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, consider that you may be mistaken.’ Being open to the possibility of error is never going to considered a strong position to be in. Even though it may be considered a wishy-washy kind of faith, the opposite, claiming infallibility for our truth, is potentially dangerous and may involve violence towards those who disagree with us.

The third principle, which binds the first two together, is that we hold on to our truth and our beliefs with the quality we call humility. Humility never seeks to destroy, pressurise or in any way bully another person. In other words, we hold on to our truth without any desire to impose it on another person. We certainly do not use methods of force or powerful persuasion. So much evangelism comes over as an exercise in hard sell. A recipient is made to feel that they are the target of professional sales techniques. They are invited to receive a product – not to share a new vision to help them live to the full and make the most of the rest of their lives.

There is no word in the English language at present available to describe this approach to the Christian faith. The moderate approach to truth, the humble sharing of the good news of God does not have its own word. Some of the words we would want to use, like love, have been partly devalued by overuse. Moderate evangelism, the path that seeks to share depth, silence and beauty is seldom discussed or articulated. Still less is evangelism as a new way of caring for other people given words. A moderate way, one that which gives individuals space to think about and explore the meaning of life and death within the context of the Christian faith, is needed. The words liberal, inclusive and broad church fail to describe this approach. I am left to ponder what words I could use. Perhaps my readers could help me?

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

6 thoughts on “When words crack and break

  1. The lad who committed this outrage was little more than a child himself. And seems to have been managed partly by his father. I always notice how the handlers don’t want to die themselves. They just think someone else should. But how someone could encourage their own child to die is something I find incomprehensible.

  2. Stephen, the word which came to my mind when reading this piece was generosity. I think it is good to find areas of agreement where possible even when I disagree with the thrust of what is presented. We all need encouragement. Barnabas did not write off John Mark you remember, but Paul did. Interesting!

  3. ‘Generosity of spirit’ is a term found in modern literature to describe the best that can be expected of human nature.- when we put others needs before our own. Perhaps this should be encouraged or expected in church life.

  4. Thank you Margaret and David for this word ‘generosity’. I am in the process of assimilating it and perhaps you will be hearing from me on this topic. It has the advantage on first sight of avoiding misunderstandings. It is also a combination of action and attitude which is quite a rare combination for any word. I will ponder on it.

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