This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day, hastily re-written in the light of this morning’s news of an attack on Muslims coming out of a mosque in London.

The disturbing news from London this morning in which Muslims leaving a mosque have been directly attacked shows that violence can strike at any time and anywhere, and we think especially of those who suffer today.

But, it comes after a weekend of remarkable events that demonstrate the unity of diverse communities. Not only the deeply compassionate response of ordinary people to the plight of those caught up in the Grenfell Tower fire, but also the Great Get Together. Thousands of people have got together in local communities not just to remember and honour Jo Cox, the MP killed a year ago here in West Yorkshire, but to demonstrate that difference does not necessarily mean division.

All this raises questions that not everybody feels comfortable addressing. Such as to how an emphasis on commonality enables us to be honest about the differences between us? Or, conversely, whether praise of diversity inadvertently closes down honest discussion about what makes us distinctive.

I spent a decade working in global interfaith conferences in places like Kazakhstan and Turkey. They sometimes reminded me of that old BT commercial that ended with, “It’s good to talk”. I sometimes wanted to add “… as long as you don’t talk about anything.” It sometimes felt like the root political assumption underlying them was that all religions are basically the same – we just have different diets and dress sense. So, we should ignore these superficial differences in order to become the same and safe. I constantly had to do the unpopular thing and insist that if we didn’t recognise the differences, then we were being neither honest nor realistic, and the enterprise would not hold up when put under pressure.

But, as events in London last night suggest, coming together and talking are only the beginning – not an end. These things are complex.
When Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in the House of Commons that we have more in common than that which divides us, she was surely right. But, the genius of what her husband Brendan has done (in focusing on that commonality and compassion) lies in creating space for relationships to be made within which our differences can then be explored honestly.

In other words, we need both – common ground and vibrant diversity. What is often called ‘the common good’ actually creates space for difference to be expressed and lived with, and within agreed limits.

As the prophet Jeremiah recognised when urging exiled people to pray for the welfare of the city where they lived, a mature society is one in which difference can be owned whilst the common good is built up. But, this has to begin with getting and being together in a recognised and respectful common humanity – a responsibility for all. This has to characterise our response today.

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This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in the wake of Saturday’s terrorist attack in London.

Borough Market in London is a place I used to know well when I lived just a few miles away. Go down any time and it was like being drowned in smells and sounds and languages from around the planet. I once bumped into a television news foreign correspondent by a cheese stall – a man normally seen in a war zone somewhere remote. I wondered – but was too shy to ask – how he coped with moving between the two worlds: the world of unspeakable violence in parts of the Middle East and the world of safe, domesticated ordinariness of home.

This weekend the two worlds collided once again in the brutality of extremist violence on an ordinary evening in an extraordinary city. Two weeks ago it was Manchester, last week Coptic Christians in Egypt, this week mourners at a funeral in Kabul, and a day ago people getting ready for another working week in London.

Perhaps the most uttered prayer – even on the lips of those who claim no faith – might be that of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord, how long…?” How are we to respond to yet another act of cowardly violence, and the prospect of more to come?

Borough Market runs alongside Southwark Cathedral – a place not just of prayer, but that attests to the reality of human life in all its colour. Here it is that Chaucer’s pilgrims met before embarking on their journey to Canterbury. Chaucer was clearly at pains to bring together a motley group of diverse people who had stories to tell, lives to share, fears to explore, deaths to face. They spare no hiding places as they walk and talk and laugh and weep and wonder at what it means to be mortal. Read Chaucer and there’s no escape from the fact that the freedom to love brings with it the freedom to hate; that the freedom to worship brings the freedom to mock the objects of another person’s adoration or value; that the freedom to fear accompanies the freedom to hope.

For some people freedom is precisely the problem: why doesn’t God stop it all? For others, prayer is the problem: if these crazy people would be rational, then they wouldn’t do these terrible things. But, prayer, even if it involves us opening our hearts to an expression of all we desire, is primarily an exposing of ourselves to reality: the reality that we are mortal, that loving in the face of murder seems weak, that giving in to the cycle of violence and retribution does nothing to solve the problem.

When people say they are praying for London, they will mean different things. But, for me and other Christians at least, it involves commitment to all the world can throw at us, never exemption from it. Like the man on the cross at Calvary, this commitment refuses to give violence, death and destruction the final word.

Yesterday my dad was 86 years old. Today at least 22 families will wake up to a world in which their own children will have found their life ended young. The loss can only be indescribable. Life will never be the same again; the sense of injustice will not be comprehended.

The cowardice of the perpetrator is striking. Isn’t it brave and principled to target unwitting children and young people?

The emergency services, along with ordinary people who responded heroically, represent the best of a society that refuses to regard such events as ‘normal’. It is shocking, a crime and a sin beyond words.

The words that haunt me come from a poem written three thousand years ago:

How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? (Psalm 13:2)

The depths of human perversion are evident. My prayer is that those whose lives have been torn apart by this atrocity will be drawn by a profound hope and not devastated by fear.

May the crucified and risen One shine light into this darkness and bring some peace.

This is the script of an article written in London within hours of being released from Westminster Abbey in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Parliament yesterday. It was published in the Yorkshire Post this morning.

When I got to the Bishops’ Room in the House of Lords on Wednesday morning the screen above me said ‘Threat Level Severe’. It usually says that. And I usually ignore it. I park my coat, grab the papers for the day’s sitting, then head for the library or the tea room.

That particular day I had some meetings before preparing to lead Prayers in the chamber at 3pm. I was already in there when a colleague told me that something had happened outside. Within minutes we were locked down and told to remain in the chamber. The rest is, as they say, history.

Having been moved by heavily armed and camouflaged police to a courtyard at the other end of the Palace of Westminster, we could look through the archway to the scene where the policeman Keith Palmer had been killed by a terrorist. The story of the mayhem outside was beginning to drip through. School children on a visit to Parliament were kept with us while we awaited further instruction. Having been moved into Westminster Hall, scene of many triumphs and tragedies throughout history, we were eventually taken over to Westminster Abbey where we remained until released around 9pm.

From a Palace of democracy to an Abbey of prayer.

The police were magnificent throughout. The emergency services were massively impressive. Parliamentary staff were utterly professional. Westminster Abbey swung into action and showed not only pastoral care (and prayer), but also the hospitality that characterises such places. Parliamentarians, visitors and officials – more than 1,000 of us – used the time to talk and wait and conduct the sort of human relationships that defy the chaos that some would wish to reap. People around Westminster showed courage and compassion, helping the injured and dying on the bridge, holding those whose life had been horribly changed for ever.

Here we saw the worst and the best of humanity. And here we saw the brutal reality of human mortality in a world that shares both fragile beauty and appalling violence.

I am writing this only two hours after getting out of Westminster, so my thoughts are immediate rather than considered. But, my thoughts are irrelevant to those of the families torn apart by this particular violence. So, why offer them now?

Well, it is human to wish to bring order out of chaos, to make some shape from the destructive formlessness of mayhem. In the coming days millions of words will be written and spoken about how this criminal tragedy happened. Many will provide analysis, others judgment. Assumptions will be made about the motives or mental state of the perpetrator. And, no doubt, his religious affiliation – should there have been one – will be held up for inspection and condemnation. And why not?

The problem with religion is that it involves people. Violence is not a religious problem, it is primarily a human one. It all too often has a religious root or complexion, but violence is not the sole preserve of religious individuals or communities. If you don’t believe me, then look at the mass murders that characterised the 20th century. But, that does not exonerate or excuse violence when it does have a religious root.

Human beings seem to find violence and destructiveness quite easy to slip into. Yet, at the heart of Christian faith is a man who was crucified by religious and pagan imperial powers that couldn’t cope with love or mercy or forgiveness or generosity. Jesus wasn’t a mere do-gooder who annoyed people by telling them to be endlessly nice to each other. Rather, he got nailed because he lived and embodied and taught a faith that was so radical that it placed a huge question mark above the natural impulses of human beings to love power.

And yet even those who follow him find it easy to miss the point and turn protection of the faith into a commodity of power or preservation.

And Christians are not alone in this. Religious people are always prone to lose the heart of their faith to a divine construct designed to justify their own narrow interests. This is why the Old Testament prophets cry out at the tragic irony of a people who worship a merciful God whilst displaying anything but mercy to those around them. It is a scandal. But, it is also deeply human.

So, what is there to say about the carnage in Westminster? Well, it happened. It is impossible to have total security. The Palace of Westminster is about as intimidating as you can get: armed police everywhere, security checks at every entrance and exit, concrete blocks and solid railings surround the buildings. But, there is no such thing as total security. Determined people, lone-wolves set on murder and mayhem, will not be stopped by barricades. It is the responsibility of everyone to be alert to danger.

And now life must carry on. Parliament resumes and I shall lead Prayers at 11am on Thursday. We will express our grief, shock and sadness – especially for those killed, injured, bereaved or traumatised by the events of Wednesday. But, then we shall carry on and do our business in the two Houses of Parliament. Democracy will not be damned by this violence.

The murderer would have been disappointed to find that he didn’t stop the world – he just got off while we carry on.

The beginning of wisdom, says the Book of Proverbs, is fear of God. This means simply that when we acknowledge our own human fragility, weakness and accountability to more than ourselves, we begin to live with humility, generosity and carefulness. It might sound a bit deep, but it is this wisdom that emerges from Westminster today: that we might reflect the mercy of God in how we serve one another – especially where innocent blood is shed.

 

This is the text of an article published today (and written in haste) in the Yorkshire Post following the attack in Berlin last night:

Any pretence at optimism about the world must surely lie bleeding in the ruins of the Christmas market at the Breitscheidplatz in Berlin. If the assassination – live on social media – of the Russian ambassador to Turkey was not shocking enough, the blood continued to flow in Germany. Remarkably, even before facts were known, the commentariat leapt to judgement on the causes of this latest atrocity.

I know Berlin well. I walked across the Breitscheidplatz only a few weeks ago while attending a conference on freedom of religion and belief. It adjoins the iconic church (the Gedächtniskirche) recognised around the world as a symbol of destruction and reconciliation in the 1940s. Yet, here, in a place of celebration and mercy a lorry is driven into crowds of innocent people, bringing death and injury. What are we to make of this?

Well, it demonstrates that there is no escape from a globalised world. That is to say, the small planet does not provide any private annexe for people who wish to live in a way that is disconnected from the lives of others. What happens in Syria impacts on Ankara and Berlin; what happens in Iraq and Yemen impacts powerfully on Italy and France. What happens in Pakistan impacts on Bradford and Dewsbury. Whether we like it or not, there are no hiding places in an interconnected world.

But, what is sobering about the latest attack (following on from the atrocities in France since the Charlie Hebdo shootings) is that conclusions were being drawn before facts were known. The suspect is a Pakistani asylum seeker … or have the police arrested the wrong man? They are unsure if the man arrested is the right one. Which means that the murderer is still at large. He might be an asylum seeker and might be an Islamist terrorist, but we don’t know. Yet, there is an explosion of assumptions. In a post-truth era it appears that any opinion will do.

Anyway, whatever the identity and motive of the perpetrator in this case, here is a sobering fact: if he is an asylum seeker who entered Germany last year when Angela Merkel opened the doors, that still leaves another million asylum seekers who have not committed a crime or abused the hospitality of the host country. What conclusions should we draw from that?

The violence in Berlin does raise other questions, however. What are we to make of people who are willing to inflict misery on others in pursuit of very particular ends? And how are we to address our own fears in the face of such shocking events – where people going about their Christmas business are mown down indiscriminately? (Discriminate murder would be no less morally offensive, of course.)

There is little comfort to be given in a world in which we are deeply connected but often in ways we don’t understand. We can cope with watching violence on the screen when it is happening far away; but, when it happens to us on the streets of our own cities we struggle to understand. Yet, if you are on the receiving end of British-made cluster bombs in Yemen or a rogue lorry in Berlin, the misery and injustice of it all seems indifferent. I suspect there will be more to come – grievances go deep across the planet, and they last for a long time.

So, is there anything to be said that doesn’t just resort to platitude or escapist wishful-thinking? I think there is.

I am a Christian – that is, a follower of Jesus Christ. Some people assume this is a bit feeble in the modern world. But, there is nothing feeble or romantic about a baby born into political and military oppression under the heel of the Roman Empire. There is nothing sentimental about growing up, firstly, as a refugee in a place that represents everything you ever wanted to escape from (Egypt) and, secondly, getting abused and ultimately executed for loving the wrong people and saying the wrong things.

Christmas brings this home. Christmas is about God opting into the world as it is with all its violence and contradiction, and not exempting himself from it. We shall move from the manger in Bethlehem to a cross at Easter and find ourselves challenged by an invitation that looks ridiculous if put in a religious box and removed from the real world: we can be driven by fear or drawn by hope. Christian hope comes to us and grasps our imagination. It comes from a God who is no stranger to suffering and who doesn’t turn his face from horror. It is a hope rooted in a refusal to see death and violence and destruction as having the final word. And we are invited/challenged to commit ourselves to being this sort of hope-bearers in the face of all the misery and fear.

I suspect we might have to cope with more atrocities as the world has become a more dangerous place. How we respond will determine whether we are agents of hope or not.

I pray for the people of Berlin. And Turkey. And Russia. And Syria. And England. And so on. But, it is prayer that commits me not to withdraw, but to engage with the mess of it all.

Donald Trump plays into that bizarre American obsession with 'safety'. You paint America as a dangerous place where before even catching a train you have to be persuaded that it is a safe thing to do. You then demand a president who will make America safe as well as 'great' again.

Which means what? What would it look like for America to be 'great' again? Or 'safe' again? We don't get answers – just the usual perversity when it comes to asserting that more accessibility to more guns will magically make everyone safer.

Well, Americans will have to do their own business in the face of its Faustian pact with democracy in November. But, this impacts on the UK, too. Before leaving for a break I did an interview with BBC Radio 5Live in the wake of the murder by IS crazies of an elderly priest in France. Not exactly heroic, these criminals, are they? I mean, choose your targets.

The line of questioning put to me was that churches in England will now have to increase their security. What advice would I now be giving to my churches? I think my response must have been very disappointing. Increase vigilance and learn to look differently at what is going on around us, but don't go mad, start erecting fences or putting sentries on our churches. As if.

Isn't this what terrorists want us to do – be terrorised?

But, the main reason for rejecting some vast increase in security of buildings is that, as I think I put it, you can't legislate for total security. Furthermore, no one has the resources of money, time or people to provide anything remotely approximating total security. In the end, total safety is not something anyone can secure. Not even Donald Trump.

Our churches should open their doors and welcome people in. Yes, as happens already, someone should keep aware of who is there and who might be lurking around outside – especially if they are carrying knives and have their face covered. Yes, anything suspicious should be noted and, if necessary, the police alerted. That is common sense.

But, the first casualty of the current horrors should be the lie of total safety. History is littered with demagogues who promised safety and security along with renewed greatness. Their names are known to us. While understandable that in times of great fear and uncertainty people look for security and the promise of simple certainty, we should beware of the disillusionment and destructiveness that can follow when the empty and unachievable promises are seen for what they really are: a fantasy.

I once lived in Paris. I worked for a telecommunications company near the Eifel Tower, doing a variety of jobs in translation, teaching and accounts.

I loved Paris. I would walk miles across the city, just looking and listening and watching and absorbing. I also went busking on my days off, except when I was writing a dissertation in German on some educational/legal issue. Back in the late 1970s it was a city of vibrant optimism, of cultural positivity and cosmopolitan joie de vivre. Problems in the banlieus were already recognised, although recent years have seen an explosion in the racial frustration that was incipient then. It remains to be seen if Friday's violence was planned and perpetrated from outside France or by 'insiders who see themselves as outsiders'.

Paris is now a city in mourning and France a country in fear. And if this mourning is shared across Europe, so should the fear. Paris will clearly not be the last of such atrocities.

But, I feel uneasy. Such violence is an everyday occurrence in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Last week suicide bombers caused death and mayhem in Beirut. Yet, we just read over it and move on. European cities apparently matter more; European lives are apparently more valuable.

The second cause of unease revolves around the liberal values that France embodies with its liberté, egalité, fraternité. Recently an archbishop in Erbil, Iraq, warned the West that the violence being poured onto his people would eventually find its way to Europe. He then went on to say the unsayable: that we might have to compromise some of our liberal values in order to counter the real challenge to our world and our freedom. He was ignored.

The next few months will see some focus on just how far we take this seriously. We want to be free from surveillance, but then want to be fully protected from killers who organise on encrypted social media. It's a tough call, but we can't have everything. So, how much of our freedom are we willing to sacrifice in order to secure greater protection? This is where one piece of rubber will hit one slab of road.

In the meantime, the avalanche of comment, analysis and judgement will gather pace. It is astonishing how, in the immediate aftermath of the violence in Paris, when little or nothing was known about what was being done by whom, the Internet was alive with words that could not be other than ignorant. Twitter was unbelievable: ignorance and confidence make for a terrible combination. And, of course, as facts become known over the next few days, the original judgements simply get forgotten as the narrative gets re-shaped with equal confidence. It is depressing to watch the utter lack of discipline – the one thing words demand.

Enough said.

In the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales we put out a simple and practical statement:

The slaughter in Paris on Friday is shocking and horrifying.

Cathedrals and churches have been actively using social media to offer their support and bring people together in prayer. Some are opening up and offering a space for local people to come together, to reflect, to show solidarity with the victims, maybe to light a candle and to pray. These are simple ways of opening a space for our neighbourhoods at a time of heightened anxiety.

United with others in grief and hope, we hold onto God's promise that perfect love casts out fear. Standing together, we must work hard to ensure that fear does not drive our communities apart.