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Bitterness and weaponised words can’t soften scars

Finding peace for Daniel Anjorin, Salman Rushdie and Bishop Mar Mari.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

A man sits being interviewed and holds a hand to the side of his face, one lens of his glasses is tinted black.
Salman Rushdie discusses his attack.
BBC.

Knife crime around the world is unacceptably high, and with around 50,000 offences expected this year in the UK, it is sadly no surprise when we hear tragic news stories involving knives and sharp instruments. Recently, it was the terrible circumstances of the death of Daniel Anjorin that made the headlines. The gentle, much-loved, 14-year-old boy was on his way to school in East London when he, along with several others, was randomly attacked by a man with a sword. He died from his wounds shortly after being taken to hospital.  

I happened to be in the middle of listening to Knife, a memoir by Salman Rushdie, when the news broke of that tragedy. It is another heart-rending story. Rushdie describes how, in 2022, during a speech he was giving about the need to protect writers, a man ran onto the stage and frantically stabbed him 15 times. Rushdie was airlifted to a hospital and survived the attack but lost an eye. Then began his difficult physical and emotional journey towards recovery, documented in the book he never wanted to write. 

It was not the first time Rushdie had been the victim of aggression. In 1988, following the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, the Iranian government called for Rushdie’s death by issuing a fatwa against him. His book was perceived to be blasphemous to the Islamic faith, and despite ten years of round-the-clock police protection in London, he faced several serious assassination attempts.   

The fatwa was lifted in 1998, but twenty-four years later, Rushdie was clearly still not safe. He recounts the moment when he saw the man running at him in the darkness as he gave his lecture.   

“My first thought when I saw this murderous shape rushing towards me was: So it is you. Here you are…. It struck me as anachronistic. This was my second thought: Why now? Really? It’s been so long. Why now after all these years? Surely the world had moved on, and that subject was closed. Yet here, approaching fast, was a sort of time traveller, a murderous ghost from the past.” 

I can’t imagine how I would cope in his shoes. I have not had to experience the daily fear of assassination for decades as Rushdie has. In all my years of delivering speeches and sermons on stages around the world, I have never had cause to even contemplate the possibility of an attempt on my life.  Nevertheless, I was surprised to hear in Rushdie’s voice, the words he chose to say to his attacker:  

“If I think of you at all in the future it will be with a dismissive shrug. I don't forgive you. I don't not forgive you. You are simply irrelevant to me, and from now on, for the rest of your days, you will be irrelevant to everyone else. I'm glad I have my life and not yours and my life will go on.”  

Rushdie admits that his words are his weapons – and he certainly uses them to good effect. They are sharp. They are designed to eviscerate. They are calculated to cause pain. They express derision towards his attacker. Part of me cheers him on: a defenceless man in his seventies who walked into a lecture hall expecting to give a speech to rapturous applause but left barely alive as the victim of a brutal frenzied attack. Like the plot of every action movie I have ever seen, the story seems to have a happy ending – the hero is saved, the bad guy is locked up and justice is seen to be done.  

But there is another part of me that knows these Hollywood endings can’t be trusted. Those 27 seconds of violence have clearly left Rushdie reduced to spitting insults at a young man in prison. He claims his life now is “filled with love”, but sadly there is little evidence of it in the way he addresses the radicalised 24-year-old. Bitterness and weaponised words, however eloquent, can’t soften the scars, nor do they make the world a safer place.

Indeed, I have found it difficult to forgive the comparatively trivial experience of being metaphorically stabbed in the back. 

I can’t help but compare Rushdie’s reaction with that of Bishop Mar Mari Emanuel. The day before Knife was published, the Iraqi-born bishop was preaching at his church in Sydney, Australia, when he too was attacked by a young man with a knife, and, like Rushdie, ended up losing an eye. The attack was an overt terrorist act against Bishop Mar Mari, a controversial figure who has spoken dismissively about the Islamic, Jewish and LGBTQ+ communities.  

 Despite the striking similarities between the two men’s terrible ordeals, the contrast in their response couldn’t be starker. Speaking just two weeks later at a Palm Sunday service, Bishop Emanuel affirmed that he had forgiven his teenage assailant: 

 ‘I say to you, my dear, you are my son, and you will always be my son. I will always pray for you. I’ll always wish you nothing but the best. I pray that my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ of Nazareth, to enlighten your heart and enlighten your soul your entire being to realise, my dear, there is only one God who art in heaven…. the Lord knows it is coming from the bottom of my heart. I’ll always pray for you and for whoever was in this act. In the name of my Jesus, I forgive you. I love you, and I will always pray for you.” 

Woven into the fabric of every form of Christianity is a commitment to love and forgiveness, clearly exemplified for us here by Bishop Mar Mari. His words resonated around the world this week as he returned to the pulpit where he was stabbed, bandage over one of his eyes, to speak out with kindness and compassion.  

I am deeply challenged by the bishop’s response. I have never experienced the physical pain and emotional trauma of a knife attack. Indeed, I have found it difficult to forgive the comparatively trivial experience of being metaphorically stabbed in the back. I know how hard it is, to be gracious to those who deliberately cause pain to me or to my family members through their actions. Like Rushdie, I sometimes I would like nothing more than to see them locked up, living a loveless, meaningless, irrelevant life. But this is not the Christian way. I follow Jesus who forgave the soldiers driving nails through his hands and feet, so I must strive to be compassionate to those who do us much lesser harm, as well as seek, in his name, to tackle the underlying causes for the greater dis-ease in society.  

The issues that lead to knife crime are many and complex. They include poverty, fear of victimisation, gang culture, radicalisation, distrust of authorities, lack of education, experience of violence in childhood, and much more. Whatever we can do to tackle these problems, we do for the sake of love and peace in our world. Perhaps as we seek to overcome these things together, we can work towards a day when what happened to Daniel Anjorin on 30th April can never happen again.  

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Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.