“The only hope, or else despair …..”: T. S. Eliot


Terrorism is evil.  Terrorists are very sinful.  Yes, but …………..


Executing hostages, blowing up bystanders, destroying buildings full of people who just happen to be there – especially if you commit suicide to do it – these are sins of despair.


I know that some people despair more easily than others; that despair may be overcome by hope; and that despair need not lead to violence.  But, without excusing the violence in any way, it is surely worth asking what causes the despair.


“Who am I?”  I think my sense of identity depends on a whole range of things – my ancestry, my language, my nationality, my religion, my relationships with those around me, my awareness of nature and my place in it …………… what else?  My education?  My job? ………………  If my sense of identity is threatened enough, I might despair.


I believe there are changes going on in human society worldwide, which may have some potential good, but they threaten some people’s sense of identity, and could cause despair.  The scale of things is getting bigger and bigger.  (Some people even call it ‘globalisation’, but it happens at different levels.)  It is very noticeable in communications and in trade and finance.  People who live in USA now talk about “9/11” and “Ground Zero”.  This hides the symbolism of the attack on the World Trade Centre.


World trade seems to be controlled by a very small number of people.  They are mostly in “the West”, and especially in USA, though we must be careful not to blame the whole American people for any adverse effects of world trade.  For people who live in ‘non-Western’ cultures, world trade can be seen as quite aggressive.  Older methods of agriculture, clothing, art and craft, justice, etc., may suffer, and even traditional knowledge may be lost when European patterns of schooling are introduced.  (When I worked in Uganda, 1955-69, I had to learn the local language and talk to old ladies to get access to traditional knowledge of animals and plants!)  With large-scale activities, everything is more impersonal.


The money which accrues from world trade can buy political power, nationally and internationally.  I don’t mean bribery.  Time in the media and space in the papers are up for sale!  Military power follows.  The cumulative effects of economic change, with their effect on culture, and backed up by military power, can be very threatening.  I can see why Mahatma Gandhi, years ago, used spinning wheels as a symbol of traditional human-scale economic activity.  But the effect didn’t last!


The destructive effects on our own culture may not be so obvious, but if I ask my fellow old-age-pensioners whether society has deteriorated in their lifetime, they usually bring out the same long list of things getting worse.  So I won’t go into it now!


What does our Christian faith and tradition say about all this?  “Who are we?”  Do we collude too much with our local culture?  The late Bishop Leslie Brown, whom I knew in Uganda and then back in St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, told me that he visited a school in New York, and asked: “Are you Americans who happen to be Christians, or Christians who happen to be Americans?”  There was confusion!  Another friend of mine has been commending Romans 9 – 12, where Paul shows how God’s grace and mercy, if we are open to them, can lift us out of the culture into which we were born, into a new community.  Was Paul a Jew who happened to be a Christian, or a Christian who happened to be a Jew?  “Be not conformed to this world.” (Romans 12)


There are other aspects of our assumptions about economics and politics which, I think, need challenging, in the light of the Gospel, but they are more concerned with the nature of our Christian hope, rather than with the despair of terrorists.


Arthur French is a layman who worked in teacher education.  He was on the General Synod Board of Education Theological Education Sub-Committee 1970-75, and active in the South-East Churches’ Training Group 1975-1989.  He now lives in Devon.


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