Where angels fear to tread

It was very moving on Friday at noon. Quite a crowd gathered in the nave of Southwark Cathedral to take part in the minute’s silence that was being kept around the country and led by Her Majesty The Queen, giving us all the opportunity to remember the victims of the terrorist attack in Tunisia. The silence was powerful. It said more than words ever can – after all, what do you say when something like this happens? Anything you do say sounds so inadequate, or angry, or emotional, or aggressive. I was grateful that I could simply stand before God and hold these, my brothers and sisters, and their families and those who had survived and the people of Tunisia and those who, for whatever reason, feel that such acts are legitimate, and say nothing but feel everything.

This week we will be in a similar place and situation as we keep the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London. It hardly seems possible that it is a decade since the terrible actions of a few individuals brought terror and death to our streets and our transport system. I was nowhere near the places where the attacks happened but across the river and in the Cathedral. But as the news emerged we all went down into the church as people came in, confused, distressed, lost, unsure what to do and we were able to be with them and talk and pray. It was all we could do.

The power of silence

The power of silence

The language of victims and terror is of course dangerous in itself. One of the reasons that people perpetrate these acts – I assume – is to create a sense of terror which can have the effect of traumatising lives and societies. The language of victimhood makes us act like victims – for those personally involved then the language may be appropriate but not for the whole of society. One of the amazing things about London and Londoners over the years is that neither of these words have been given any currency and life and events have not been allowed to change who we are.

I arrived in London when the IRA were active in England and a ring of steel had been thrown around the City. We were all more vigilant after bombs had gone off outside Harrods, at the Baltic Exchange, in the Aldwych, in Canary Wharf. But life always returned to normal, not with a ‘don’t care’ attitude but one that confirmed that life and confidence and what makes London a great place to be was not going to be destroyed – that Londoners refused to be terrorised or become victims. Thank God that those who engaged in that campaign changed their ways and we have all been beneficiaries of that – not least the people of Northern Ireland. But one group determined to create terror amongst innocent people is replaced with another and with different tactics. What do you say?

The poet Alexander Pope in his ‘An essay on criticism’, 1709, rails against the literary critics of his day and came up with a line which has inspired others including Burke, Hardy, Forster and Joyce

No Place so Sacred from such Fops is barr’d,
Nor is Paul’s Church more safe than Paul’s Church-yard:
Nay, fly to Altars; there they’ll talk you dead;
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.

I began by saying that silence seems to be the best place to be when we simply do not know how to respond to the terrible atrocities that seem to assail too many in the world. Rushing in with words is potentially foolish, especially in a situation in which instantaneous social media make out ill thought comment global, immediately.  But I suppose silence can look like cowardice, or lacking conviction. However, I think that there is something more powerful and honest about it, and especially silence, in the Christian context.

In his book ‘Silence – A Christian History’ Diarmaid MacCulloch says

‘for Paul and for those who follow the Christian way, the crucified one is more powerful in his silent suffering than any power of this world or even of the next.’

Silence in the face of the divine, silence in the face of the unknowable, silence in the face of what threatens us or tries to destroy us is the strong, Christ-like response.  After all Job has suffered, after all he has said, after all the advice he had to listen to from his friends, ‘Job’s comforters’, and even after the encouragement his wife gave him ‘to curse God and die’, he comes to the realisation of something I find most profound and helpful.

Then Job answered the Lord:
‘I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you; 
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.’ 
(Job 42.1-6)

Job received a great deal of advice about what to say

Job received a great deal of advice about what to say

After all the words Job fell silent and sometimes, more often than we realise, so should we. When there is nothing we can say, we simply hold with the pain and hold with God.

God, when our words fail
be with us in the silence
and may Jesus, your living Word,
speak your peace
into our hearts,
into our lives,
and communities.

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