I was walking through Gatwick airport yesterday morning at about the same time as the bombs were going off at Brussels’ airport. The people who died in Belgium would have been sipping their very early morning coffee about the same time as I was mine, before setting off for their flights. I was luckier with my airport than they were with theirs. So I am still here; and they are not.
This is a special week for Christians. We call it ‘Holy Week’. It covers the week before Jesus’ own death. It’s a study in power relations.
If Jesus had been at all like most other revolutionaries, he should have entered Jerusalem on a horse with armed followers. But he turned the norms upside down by lurching in on a donkey, and without any weapons.
He set an example which was going to involve forgiveness for his killers, and love for his enemies. Instead of warning his executioners that they were going to be in SO much trouble in the moral hereafter, he asked God the Father, the cosmic enforcer of justice to forgive them, because he thought they had no idea what they had been doing.
This was either a despicably weak failure that was going to get nowhere, or it was the key that was set to unlock and heal the human heart.
The trouble for many of us is that what Jesus did is just not natural. It goes against all our normal instincts. These are to meet force with more force, and to so scare our enemies with the revenge we are going to wreak on them, that their will breaks, and they collapse.
Islam is much more ‘natural’ in that sense. The French Muslim bombers let it be known that the killing of the women and children in Paris was in revenge for the deaths of women and children in Syria. (That rather begs the question of who started the violence in Syria, but don’t go there. The instinct for revenge can always find a provocation. In fact if you go back to square one, Mohammed took revenge against people who simply failed to agree with his demands.)
Which takes us to Mohammed. Let’s leave aside all talk of good and bad Muslims or good or bad Christians, and just look at the examples and agendas each man had.
Jesus chose the symbolism of donkey, palm branches and carnival crowds; Mohammed used horses, swords and highly trained soldiers.
After his death, the followers of Jesus began a way of life that started by sharing all things in common, and making a big thing of looking after the people at the bottom of the heap:- widows and orphans.
In the thirty years after Mohammed’s death, and following his example, his followers attacked and conquered the populations in an area that now makes up parts of twenty-eight modern countries.
Jesus concentrated on teaching, healing and raising the dead. Mohammed concentrated on violence and enforcement.
Mohammed was a fighter – a warrior prophet. He was an astonishingly gifted general. In the space of a single decade he fought eight major battles, led eighteen raids, and planned another thirty-eight military operations where others were in command but operating under his orders and strategic direction.
You might say that as the worlds constructed by those who followed each man clash, we meet the crashing continents of two different ways of being human. One deals in love and forgiveness, and the other deals in control and revenge.
Secularism, a third option, isn’t sure what to make of either man. It is putting all its egg in a basket which hopes that if you can eradicate poverty and enforce equality, people will become so much nicer to each other. In this view, neither Jesus or Mohammed, or the patterns of life they followed and called their followers to embrace, will be needed.
Painfully slowly, the secular governments of Europe are coming to realise that the only way to control Islamic violence is to use even greater force; but that only goes so far. The horror behind the headlines is that nothing can stop a determined suicide bomber. If you put up the most sophisticated screening equipment to stop them carrying bombs into planes to kill, they will just set them off in the luggage queue; as they did in Brussels.
Is there an answer to the violence?
Perhaps only if a way can be found of changing people from the inside. And that’s why Christians call this week Holy Week. Holiness if about creating change in the human heart. It changes revenge into forgiveness, violence into compassion, and hate into hope. Where politics and power have failed, it promises a different way. The cross becomes not a sword, but a key; and it opens the heart.