March 18, 2019

They Are Us: A reflection on the Christchurch Mosque shootings.

My friend Steve Morrison, chaplain to a large school and the wider community asked me to join with him in writing an article reflecting on the Mosque shootings in Christchurch on Friday March 15. I’d like to share a version of that with you here.

When bad things happen we ask questions. We may seek to know “What happened?”, but mostly we want to know “Why?”, often followed by a bewildered, if not downright angry demand to know “How?”. How can it have been allowed to happen?

The ‘What?” in this case is unfortunately all too clear. As I write, fifty people were killed while engaged in worship and prayer. I almost wrote that fifty people had lost their lives, but the sad reality is that so many more will have lost their lives. Lost the lives that they knew. The lives that contained their hopes and dreams and futures.

People of many faiths the world over believe that life is more than the animation of our physical bodies. It is the communion of our whole selves with the God we believe created us and the richness of our being in relationship with Him and sharing a purposeful existence in the tapestry that is all of history.

Which makes this and events like it crimes against not just all of humanity, but against all that is virtuous and remind us that evil is real.

Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand intuitively knew this truth when only hours after the events unfolded said in part:

“Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us.”

They are us.

If only those who perpetrate such atrocities grasped the truth of those three simple words. “They are us.” Perhaps then the unthinkable would have remained unthought and undone.

Why did this take place? It appears that a mind which saw only differences. A narrow mind which saw imagined stereotypes and not real people was able to see the worshippers that day not as ‘us’ but merely labelled as ‘others’.

We have a duty, especially as Christians, to shape our own behaviour, and as we are able that of our society, to reflect that understanding. The Bible repeatedly urges Christians to welcome, protect, be compassionate towards and love those with whom we share this world, even if they look, speak, and worship differently than we do ourselves. As just a single example, Leviticus 19:34 reads :“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

How is it that one person can speak with a heavy heart and say “They are us”, where another hours before saw targets? I believe it begins by forgetting the place we all share in the human race. Differences are dealt with by applying a label, instead of seeking to know and understand. Once labelled the tag is applied to whole classes of people no longer seen as individuals but only as imagined stereotypes. Then almost without effort those stereotyped are seen to be unlike ‘us’. Then less than ‘us’. And so the path to dehumanising has run its course. And the unthinkable is thought, and the unimaginable done.

Jesus teaches us again, and again in the New Testament (parable of the Good Samaritan for example) to be examples of love and grace. There is no better summary of how he expects Christians to behave in this world than what is recorded in the Gospel of John 13:34-35
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Four Hundred years ago, the poet John Donne, who was for a time Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London wrote the poem For Whom the Bell Tolls to press home the truth that the death of anyone diminishes us all, and to live with appropriate regard for that reality.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
John Donne

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

To honour the memory of those who were killed, and of those who live now with deep grief, let us make renewed efforts to resist the temptation to label those who are different as ‘others’. Let us seek God’s help to treat all people with kindness and generosity of spirit. And let us pray, that even in tragedy, love will prevail.

Chris Rowney 17th March 2019

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