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After Paris

20 November 2015

THE test for bad religion and bad politics is the same: what harm do they do? Mechanisms exist for when they do only a little harm. Practitioners of not-very-bad politics can be voted out; leaders of not-very-bad religious movements find themselves without followers. The problem posed by extremists is that such mechanisms are ineffective against their willingness to do great harm. In the days since the attacks in Paris, European political leaders have unveiled a series of responses — tighter security, more military action in Syria and Iraq — that few believe will succeed in defeating the Islamic State militants, at least in the short term. How then shall we live?

The season of Christ the King is an opportunity to reflect on the nature of the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus. References to “King Jesus”, however well meant, miss the point. In his encounter with Pilate, as recounted by St John, Christ resists attempts to label him as such. “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight.” His purpose, he says, is to serve the truth. This servanthood is what characterises a kingdom in which leaders wash the feet of their disciples, and children are preferred to adults. Good religion, then, does not impose or dictate, and meets evil with humility and faith.

Good politics, however, does not have this luxury, since part of its purpose is to resist evil. It is a dirtier business, in that it is drawn towards the tactics used by the extremists, and it is only restraint that prevents its slipping into bad politics. The recent history of Syria shows what happens when neither side practises restraint. The events in Paris have given European governments a greater mandate to invest more money and effort in combating IS, but beyond this, little has changed: nothing new has been revealed about the terrorists’ tactics; no new stratagem has been devised to counter them.

Religion comes into this equation when Islamist leaders misrepresent the freedom inherent in Christianity as libertarianism. Every freedom contains within it the possibility of corruption, and Christians, from St Paul onwards, have struggled with the notion that freedoms enjoyed by some might harm others. In particular, the inability of Western Christianity to challenge the privilege contained in unrestrained materialism has contributed to a persistent injustice between developed and developing nations, generating much anti-Western antagonism. Sadly, the manifold good done by the Church when it follows Christ’s example of service, and the inroads it has made in forging relationships with people of other faiths, are likely to go unnoticed by people whose grasp of faith allows them to kill, maim, rape, and rob indiscriminately. The best response remains, however, to live ever more clearly by the lights of faith, offering hospitality to the refugees, supporting those who mourn, defending those in peril — and praying for strength and guidance to know how best to fulfil one of the hardest of Christ’s commandments, to love one’s enemies.

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