Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Not in my name - and not in the name of my faith

As I have travelled in Palestine and Israel over these past few weeks, I have encountered a number of Muslim folk – both men and women. Our topics of conversation have ranged far and wide – including a discussion as to why Muslim men are allowed four wives and women only one husband. Not all arguments proposed by way of explanation as why this is so are ones I care to repeat here, but suffice to say that the one that blames women for men being unable to control their sexual urges is one that I am left feeling most unimpressed by.

That particular topic of marriage aside (and I promise I was not the one who raised the topic), there have been a number of conversations relating to the actions of IS – particularly yesterday and today, following on from the news of the beheading of members of the Coptic Church in Libya. Every Muslim who has spoken to me in recent weeks about the actions of IS and especially the beheadings on Sunday has said that those who perpetrate these crimes “are not Muslim”. “This is not in the Qu’ran,” they say. “This is not what our teachings tell us. These people are nothing to do with us.”

I have spoken about those in the UK who travel from the UK to train and who then return, planning to carry out killings. “We don’t know who they are,” I say. “It is worrying for many communities because they are unsure as to whether they will come under attack.” “It is the same for us. We do not know who they are either – but they are not of our faith. They do not act in the name of Allah."

And so, Muslims and Christians alike, have been united in our prayers for those who have been killed. We have also prayed for those who killed them. That they may come to understand the horror of their actions and the wickedness of their way and change the inclination of their minds and hearts.

Alongside these discussions and prayers, I have been reading Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria and today have been reading his thoughts on pity. Much of what he has written seems particularly apposite for these troubled moments, and so I quote him here:

I settled myself in my seat as the train trundled out of the station. For a while I looked out of the window, enjoying the melancholy reverie train travel always induces in me. Then I picked up one of the books I had brought along for the ride, Arthur Koestler’s novel about purges and persecutions in Soviet Russia, Darkness at Noon. The epigraph was from Dostoevsky: ‘Man, man, one cannot live quite without pity.’ I put the book down and looked out of the window again. One cannot live quite without pity. Surely that was the key to understanding human hatred. Hatred was an absence of pity. Graham Greene had said something like it. When you looked at other men and women, ‘you could always begin to feel pity. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.’ That is true but it is pity that does the imagining. Pity is sorrow at another’s sorrow, pain at another’s pain. To feel another’s sorrow! That has to be the way out of the predicament of human hatred. Pity! Yet it is a word some despise. And not just revolutionaries and ideologues for whom pity is always treason, because it blunts the edge of cruelty, their chosen weapon. Pity is despised because it is seen as demeaning to the one pitied. Poor little sufferer! How I pity her! But that is the tone of real pity. Pity is an identification with the other so profound that you enter her sorrow, even if she is someone you have been taught to despise. It is this that makes pity the antidote to evil. In spite of its colourful reputation, evil is an absence, a deprivation, the lack of something, a great emptiness. What the evil person lacks is the ability to identify with the other’s humanity. It is a lack of imagination. In order to hurt others we have to rob them of their humanity, refuse to see them as like ourselves, refuse to notice the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth. We have to make them objects not selves, otherise them! We have to do the precise opposite of what pity does, which is to humanise them, make us, almost helplessly, feel what they feel, grieve when they grieve, sorrow over their sorrow. Dostoevsky was right. We cannot live without pity. The more I thought about it, the more amazing was the revolutionary energy behind that beautiful little word. It even sounded lovely. I liked the way Hopkins used it: ‘My own heart let me more have pity on.’

I am grateful to Mr Holloway for his sitting with these thoughts and writing of them. I read them with gratitude for his insight. As I do so, I grieve for those whose hearts have no pity, or who offer pity only in partial measure (as I do sometimes too) and I ask how it is that our world, including the part of it carried within me, might be encouraged, assisted, challenged or, indeed, cajoled into feeling and showing pity to all who need it, and even to those who don’t.

‘Pity is an identification with the other so profound that you enter her sorrow, even if she is someone you have been taught to despise. It is this that makes pity the antidote to evil.'

May the gift of pity be revealed in your heart and, please think and pray for me, that it may be revealed in my heart too.

And here, to close, is one of my favourite prayers:

Eternal Father, source of life and light, whose love extends to all people, all creatures, all things, grant us that reverence for life which becomes those who believe in you, lest we despise it, degrade it, or come callously to destroy it. Rather, let us save it, and sanctify it after the example of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. A lovely post and one to pray about. Not in my name is a powerful statement, which we don't use often enough to demonstrate our 'difference' or 'set apartness' from the world. The concept which I feel closest too. In the world, but set apart. Not from humanity, but from those things that humanity does that are not God's way - but mans. And evil is exactly that - more evidence of our falleness, which we haven't yet reconciled with the sacrifice made once and for all time on the cross.

    I pray for you and for the world and it's people that we may all be reconciled to the Cross and to know the pity as the power of goodness and brings our humanness closer to that Christ like state we are called to attain.