24 May 2013
Woolwich calls us back to our basic competence
M.O.D photo Wikimedia Commons: Lee Rigby
At a conference this week, the inspirational Johannes Reimer dropped in a quote that intrigued me. He said that "the basic competence of the Church is reconciliation". I’ve heard people talk before about the Church and reconciliation but have never heard anyone say so plainly that they feel it is at the core of what we do.
This August I'm taking a trip to Rwanda and Burundi with Christian Aid to look at the role the Church played in peace and reconciliation after the genocide and the 12-year civil war, which so scarred these countries. But Wednesday's breaking news from Woolwich provides us with a more pressing reason to explore the point.
Shortly after 2pm Michael Olumide Adebolajo and one other man are suspected to have mounted the kerb outside the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich in south-east London and driven their blue Vauxhall into Fusilier Lee Rigby. The men then jumped out of the car and began attacking the soldier with knives and a meat cleaver, killing him brutally. Rather than make their escape, the two lingered talking to passers-by, explaining the motives behind what they had done - to revenge the lives lost by Muslims to British soldiers in Afghanistan - until the police arrived and made their arrest.
Public response to the attack has exposed passions that lay just below the surface and demonstrates the huge potential for division between communities in our nation. If the Church has this competence for reconciliation then now is a time it needs to be employed.
Having thought more these last few days, I am beginning to see what Johannes must have meant about reconciliation and the Church. Lesslie Newbigin and Tom Wright are among those who have helped us see the Bible as a narrative - not as some kind of repository of spiritual propositions detached from time and place. It is one big story – of God, His world and His people. And, it’s very much a story of reconciliation.
It’s a story of broken relationships that have resulted from our rebellion: a broken sense of ourselves; and our broken bond with God, creation and our fellow man. But also a story of a God who wants to set all this right, who is acting in history to restore this brokenness and, crucially, who calls us to be not just beneficiaries of but agents in the reconciliation process.
Whether it is in Jesus’s reconciling Jews and Gentiles with one another and God to create the Church (Ephesians 2:11-22); in God’s invitation to us as ‘new creations’ to join His work of reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor 5:17-21); or in the groaning of creation as it waits for the children of God (that’s us) to share with it the freedom we have found; there’s a lot more on reconciliation than we might usually see.
The English Defence League takes to the streets looking for reprisal; Nick Griffin appeals for those disgusted by the murder to join the BNP and “start the fightback”; politicians intone responses of horror and convene emergency committees; journalists argue whether Woolwich or Kabul is the greater act of ‘terrorism’; and waves of social media opinion are permeated with anti-war rhetoric, immigration hysteria and support for Help for Heroes. In the midst of all this, what does our ministry of reconciliation look like?
It’s hard to say. Perhaps it looks like Cub Scout leader Ingrid Loyau-Kennett who distracted the killers to shield other passers-by from harm? In the same way, perhaps it is being a watching presence at local mosques as Muslims arrive for Friday prayers. There can be few better times for church leaders to reach out to fellow leaders in the Muslim community. Certainly prayer is essential too: our saviour taught us to pray for his heavenly kingdom to come, as we experience the brokenness of our world.
I don’t know what our response to the Woolwich attack will need to be. What I do know is that when violence and division erupt on the streets of our towns and cities then, as those called to be agents in God’s big mission of reconciliation, this is our time. It’s time to hone that basic competence.
Andy Clasper is part of Christian Aid’s churches team and a member of King’s Cross Church, London