Lucy Winkett reflects on how Christians can respond in times of despair and grief.
In many of the conversations I’ve had this week, I’ve heard a lot of hopelessness. The news from Gaza and Israel, and the attendant rhetoric from politicians and leaders mean that the air seems thick with fear, with grief, with rage.
At the Ecumenical Prayers for Peace for Israel, Gaza and the West Bank on Sunday afternoon, almost 200 people gathered in St James’s from many different organisations and charities to pray for peace, and to listen to first hand testimony from a Southern Israel Kibbutz that was targeted on 7th October, from Gaza City, from Khan Younis in the past 10 days. And among the crowd in church was Mahmoud, our own food market trader, whose falafel stall is one of the most popular at lunchtimes, who came with his cousin. His family live in Gaza and he has lost family members these last two weeks and those who survive are in grave danger.
There is always the debate in churches and Christian communities, especially at times of peril, about the balance between prayer and action. And in a situation such as this, where histories are so contested, and different narratives about the same events polarise people, I’m sometimes asked: what is the use of speaking and praying: how can we do more than that and take action in the spirit of the letter of St James who says that ‘faith without works is dead’.
On Sunday, one of the participants was in tears, having visited the Al Ahli hospital in Gaza and knowing the trustees there (one of whose wife and children were killed in the explosion there). He, like most people, feels helpless and is trying not to lose hope.
For what it’s worth, I want to offer in this week’s newsletter, a word of resolution for all of us associated with St James’s. Because the calling of the church in this situation is to return to our promises made at baptism, as we’ve been remembering with the anniversary of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s promises made 250 years ago last month in our church. And from these promises, grounded in love, to pray, to speak and take action.
In saying ‘I turn to Christ’, we turn back to the Christ who lives at the heart of all creation. The cosmic Christ, whose presence and energy brings new life every morning, every Spring. The Christ who laments our human violence towards the earth, our exploitation of its precious minerals and our labelling of its abundance ‘resources’ as if they were there only for us to use. But at the same time, the Christ who is irreducibly alive and calling us similarly to live. To live now. To live well.
In saying ‘I repent of my sins’ we name not only our personal sin, and wilful selfishness or cruelty to others or ourselves, but the structural sin that pollutes our politics, despoils our culture, and leads to violence and war. It also in this situation, must make us acknowledge the UK’s historic role in Palestine and Israel, not least in the time of mandate and Balfour, and the complex combination of colonial impulses and religious sensibilities that mean a British voice can never be an honest broker in this conflict. It also means that Christians especially must repent of historic and current anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism in our theology or teaching. And repent of Islamophobic assumptions that can rear up in both private conversation and public rhetoric when Christians start to comment in sermons or online.
In saying ‘I renounce evil’, we acknowledge that ‘evil’ isn’t far away and over there, but that, we throw ourselves on the mercy of God, with the inspirational Etty Hillesum, who was killed in Auschwitz aged 29 in 1943.
All disasters stem from us. Why is there a war? Perhaps because now and then I might be inclined to snap at my neighbour.
Because I and my neighbour and everyone else do not have enough love. Yet we could fight war and all its excrescences by releasing each day, the love which is shackled inside us, and giving it a chance to live.
What is the balance between action, prayer and speech? Generating hope is rooted in our taking action. What I want to suggest is that all of these are actions in the life of Christian spiritual practice. Prayer is essential, and the first and last action we take as people of faith. Speaking out is in itself taking action too, and remaining willing to take the risk to speak is an important aspect of our faith in practice. And changing our behaviour is a clear imperative alongside the praying and speaking, while recognising our agency and also acknowledging our helplessness before God. And importantly, as on Sunday, lamenting and raging towards God, who can receive and hold all our grief in a way that other human beings, even if they want to, just can’t.
In the current situation, although hope seems far away, the reality is that for people of faith, despair is not, in the end, an option. Despair is not an option. Today, what is one thing that you or I can pray, say or do, grounded in love, that builds hope in the face of despair? Let’s resolve, especially when things are this hard for so many, let’s resolve to find these things, to pray, speak and do them in community, together.