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.

 

This article was published today in the Yorkshire Post.

I remember 7 July 2005 very clearly.

I was in my office in Croydon when a friend phoned to say she couldn't meet me in London later because “London is closed”. She said the train from Leicester had been stopped at Peterborough and turned around. Passengers had been told that a power surge had shut the rail network.

It wasn't long before the shocking news began to drip through that in fact there had been four suicide bombings and the casualty numbers were going to be high. Within an hour all the buildings around the station had been evacuated and the station cordoned off. Fear of further attacks was palpable.

The next morning I was due to be at meetings in central London. There was a lot of questioning about whether it was safe to use public transport or venture into town at all. I was clear that (a) you can't let terrorists win by giving them what they want, and (b) life must carry on. So, I went.

Two weeks later there was a second attempted attack, but it failed. On a visit to Belmarsh Prison later that year I met the alleged terrorists and had a conversation with them about scriptures.

As we discovered very quickly, the bombers came from West Yorkshire; and questions began to be raised about what it was about this part of the world that made young people capable and willing to commit such atrocities. Of course, the religious motivation behind these murderous actions soon became the focus of media speculation and the satellite vans descended on Leeds and its environs.

The ten years since those appalling events have been both encouraging and discouraging.

Whatever the (often simplistic) public debates about radicalisation or ghettoisation in West Yorkshire, much significant positive work has gone on under the media radar. Relationships between Christians, Muslims, Jews and others have been worked at on the ground in order that they are strong and supportive when the crises come. When Muslims feel scapegoated by wider society in the wake of some Islamist atrocity somewhere else, it is often those of other faiths who maintain the friendship and keep the communications open. Although some local authorities are locked into a narrow conceptual preoccupation with 'community cohesion', they often facilitate and encourage serious initiatives that bring people together and break down barriers.

There are numerous examples of mutual care and compassion in our communities as well as honest debate and discussion about the hard issues: why some young people reject 'normality' and have their head and heart turned by exclusive and violent ideology; how doctrinal teaching can breed in young people the seeds of hatred; how the isolation of ghettoised communities can be countered and schools become places of encounter with difference.

The last decade has taught us that communities finding themselves under media scrutiny naturally turn in on themselves in preemptive self-defence. Muslims fear being scapegoated for the sins of the fanatics, and they resent the ignorance of outside commentators who find basic distinctions such as “ethnic” and “religious” too difficult to comprehend.

Clearly, radicalisation has its roots not just in religion, but in poverty, ideology and politics. (The Arab Spring turned into a nightmare ignited by responses to the chaos left behind by western invasions and occupations.) However, what has been particularly interesting about the western response to radicalisation and the cases of individuals and entire families disappearing to join so-called Islamic State is its bewilderment. We are told that we need to educate our Muslim young people better so that they know how appalling are life conditions under IS – that they will be subject to a brutal religious ideology that might involve them in violence and suffering. Of course, many of those who have left the relative comfort of 'home' in the UK are extremely well educated and fully cognisant of what they are heading off to. Education is not the issue. Information is not lacking. What perhaps is lacking is inspiration to see life and death here as in any way valuable or attractive.

I don't say this lightly, and I certainly don't say it in defence of Islamic maniacs who are prepared to do unspeakable things to innocent men, women and children. But, if we are to begin to understand what attracts then drives (mainly) young men and women to leave behind a life of humdrum security for a (perhaps short) life of action, we must ask this question: how do we offer our disillusioned young people an alternative world view and lifestyle that captures the imagination, fires up vision and inspires self-sacrifice (in a non-mortal sense)?

In one sense, none of this is new. Young people are always – and always have been – susceptible to alternative inspirations. But, our question in 2015 has to do with how we inspire young people to see value beyond celebrity and consumerism in a world short on vision and long on entertainment.

We need to continue to work in schools and places of worship to enable integration in a multicultural and multifaith and multiethnic society. We also face an urgent need to offer real opportunities to elements of this society who – rightly or wrongly – feel disenfranchised, disempowered and disillusioned. But, education won't do this alone; we need to inspire. And that is a much harder task.

 

This is the text of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

The Dalai Lama was at Glastonbury yesterday, but not for the music. Twice he described human beings killing each other as “unthinkable”.

However, events of the last few days have, once again, demonstrated that human cruelty is all too thinkable. It has proved impossible not to be scarred by the images and sounds of violence in Tunisia, France and Kuwait. And they are simply the latest in a litany of horror and destruction.

I think it is easy to try to block out such images. Yet, the very human stories began to come through very quickly: of fear amid the silence, of desperation in trying to get information when there might not actually be any to get, of loss and shock. And now, as inescapable reality sinks in for those involved, the pain and grief can only grow in power.

And many of us wonder again what sense is to be made of this human propensity for violence – the nihilism that explodes into killing, whether it be dressed up in the clothing of religion, politics or tribalism. Maybe, we need to start by recognising that what William Blake admiringly called ‘the human dress’ has a fitting that also distorts and destroys. The policeman who shot the Tunisian gunman says that the killer had stopped shooting and was praying when he himself was shot. And we rightly ask: to whom was he praying and about what? And what sort of madness is it that makes God in the image of our most depraved imaginings?

Well, two images have imposed themselves on my own mind since the mayhem of the weekend. The first was the President of the United States singing the hymn written by a former slave trader who had been surprised by what CS Lewis called ‘joy’: Amazing Grace. Obama went on to name each of those killed in the racist attack in Charleston, asserting that they had that grace. Not a grace that takes us out of the real world, but one that plunges us into the heart of both its joys and agonies. This, in the light of the forgiveness offered by those bereaved, defies the violence and denies it the end it seeks: a new cycle of destruction and vengeance.

The second image was one I read in the Hebrew Bible. The prophet Jeremiah buys a field … whilst besieged by the forces that will shortly occupy the land and drive the people into an interminable exile. In buying that field he invests in a future that cannot now be imagined. It looks ridiculous and wasteful. But, that small act of hope took the power away from the terrorists of the day.

It will be in such small visionary gestures that the demons of violence will be stripped of their crazed power, and a future opened up.

It is no secret that I worked (as a Russian and German linguist) at GCHQ in Cheltenham before heading down the ordination road in 1984 – just after Margaret Thatcher inexplicably banned us from belonging to unions and removed all our rights under the employment laws. Not that I am still sore…

In the last week or so I have only had time to follow superficially the business in the media about the PRISM project of NSA in the USA that has been exposed. It is all very Orwellian (in a 1984 sense), isn't it? Despite shock at the scale and nature of this surveillance, what really surprises me is that anybody should be surprised at what has been revealed.

The conundrum is a familiar one. We want to be protected and free. We want privacy and as little State interference in our lives as possible. We do not want to be watched or supervised every moment of the day. Yet, when anything goes wrong, we react with blaming fury at the lack of protection we have been afforded by those committed to this charge.

In a digital age it must be well-nigh impossible to work out what is, what isn't and what might one day prove to be vital or useful 'intelligence'. So, everything gets trawled up. It is yet another outworking of the maxim we so uncritically accept in other areas of life: that if we can do something – technologically – then we should do it.

The problem for the intelligence agencies is that their 'enemy' doesn't wear a big badge or simply speak with a funny 'Igor' accent. The benefits of technological advancement mean that the technology of espionage and terrorism advance. We can't have unlimited freedom and at the same time expect total security from threats by nasty people who don't think our freedom is up to much anyway.

Yet, we clearly need an informed, rational and responsible public debate about just how much freedom we are prepared to give up in order to increase security. We must collectively agree where ethics and effectiveness meet in a very complex world where some people just will not play by the rules of cricket.

And my view? I am wary about judging what I don't know: for example, and by definition, we have no idea how many crimes have been prevented because of hidden intelligence work. We would probably be horrified if we knew what was really going on out there where the unpleasant people seek ever more cunning ways to destroy people they don't like. I think PRISM looks like indiscriminate overkill and an intelligence network that has got out of hand – rightly provoking questions about power and its potential abuse. But, if I want to draw in the reach of surveillance by the State, I must also be prepared to pay the price if the nasties get through the gaps.

And, of course, we get worked up about this at the same time as we live in a place where we get photographed by the authorities a million times a day: England.

[It's not a very] funny old world.

 

A soldier is attacked in Woolwich and brutally murdered. The men who did it seem determined to be caught. Seeing the footage, they look familiar – speaking with the same deluded dysfunctionality that is not uncommon in some inner-urban areas. Criminal.

But, why is this being deemed a terrorist attack? If someone did something similar whilst shouting about being Jesus, would it be seen as criminal or terrorist? And would the EDL response – to attack mosques – be paralleled by attacks on churches by angry atheists? And would anyone try to legitimise or explain it, rather than simply condemn it outright?

The labels we attach, the language we use and the framework within which we understand such phenomena are shaped by the unarticulated assumptions we bring. Does anyone seriously think these guys are motivated by Islam any more than the Provisional IRA or the UDA were motivated by a rational reading of the Gospels?

In a week framed by Muslims taking responsibility for crimes such as child sexual exploitation in their own communities and the appalling murder of this soldier in Woolwich, it might be worth pausing to examine the assumptions behind the language and the judgements of those politicians and reporters who are doing their best to articulate what this attack represents – and to question whether another narrative might be more appropriate. At a time such as this we need wisdom.

In the meantime, behind the horror, we pray for the family of the murdered soldier, the people who witnessed this dreadful, violent crime, and those now dealing with it both socially and politically.