4 min read

“Sometime the killing just has to stop”

George Pitcher is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest, 

Simple calls for peace are often against the grain of power, observes George Pitcher. Many still yearn for it, even when faced with complexities and impossibilities.
A dove stands on a concrete block wall.
A dove rests on a wall in Gaza, 2021.
براء حبوش on Unsplash.

I admire my friend Clive Stafford Smith for two principal reasons. He’s a demon pace bowler for my Vicar’s XI cricket team. And, as a lawyer, he has dedicated his career to defending prisoners on death row. I’m not sure whether batsmen or US attorneys find him the more threatening. But I know I’d want to have him on my side, whether on the pitch or in court. 

We always have to be careful how we describe people these days. I nearly wrote that Clive is an atheist; more accurately he is an unbeliever. He’s certainly pleased to have God on his side if it means appealing to the Christian conscience of jury members in a capital trial.  

But it’s two very ordinary comments that I remember from hanging out with him, which come to mind now as we witness the hatred of war in the Middle East and which evoke words spoken to me by the principal of my theological college some years ago:  

“Be very careful to notice, George, where you encounter the Christ.”  

Meaning that it won’t necessarily be among the pious, the faithful and the churched. 

The first was a comment I heard Clive make in an interview:

“It’s always been a rule of my life that if someone is being hated, you have to get between the hated and the hater.” I have tried, when I can, to stand in the corner of what we might call the “hatee”.  

The second was a phrase spoken by an actress in a play that arose from Clive’s work with the charity he co-founded, Reprieve. It’s a monologue comprising the story and the court evidence given in the US by Lorelei Guillory, whose six-year-old son Jeremy was taken and murdered by Rick Langley.  

Lorelei visited him in jail and subsequently appeared as Clive’s witness to plead that Langley be spared the death penalty. Her breathtaking words of explanation, which have stayed with me since, were simple:  

“Sometime the killing just has to stop.” 

It’s the simplest words that cut through the political noise and sophistry. I believe the voices of western powers should be calling for, insisting upon or even demanding a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Our Church leaders have done so. But these voices are called naive or simplistic or disloyal, or worse. 

In the UK, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has called for a ceasefire, pitching him against his political party leader Sir Keir Starmer. Khan is a Muslim – again, let’s be careful to note where we encounter the authentic voice of peace. Conservative minister Paul Bristow has been sacked by the government for calling for a ceasefire, while prime minister Rishi Sunak continues to mouth that “Israel has a right to defend herself.” 

So, the call for peace, against the grain of power, comes from across the political spectrum. Against it are the claims of naivety and disloyalty, which state that the situation is far too complex for peace or that Israel must be left to its own self-determination.

Faced with complexities and impossibilities, both these writers seem to conclude, almost in prayer, with a yearning for peace 

But even here the runes read for ceasefire. Take two recent and prominent commentators on the conflict, again from across the political spectrum. And, again, we must be careful, in this febrile climate, how we describe people. These are not Jewish commentators, so much as columnists who happen to be Jews. 

One, Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, writes a superb piece that this isn’t about Team Palestine versus Team Israel and picking which is wrong: “Israeli novelist and peace activist Amos Oz was never wiser than when he described the Israel/Palestine conflict as something infinitely more tragic: a clash of right v right.” His pay-off is devastating: “There are no winners – only never-ending loss.” 

The other, Daniel Finkelstein in The Times, writes equally soundly that foreign observers, calling for ceasefire, fail to understand Israel’s roots. He cites 1958’s blockbuster novel-to-movie Exodus to posit that Khan’s call for a ceasefire “was not merely wrong, not merely absurd… it was utterly pointless.” 

Yet he concludes with a quote from Exodus’s final scene beside an Arab and Israeli grave:  

“... the dead always share the earth in peace. And that’s not enough. It’s time for the living to have a turn.” 

Then Finkelstein’s own pay-off:  

“May it come to pass.” 

Faced with complexities and impossibilities, both these writers seem to conclude, almost in prayer, with a yearning for peace. It’s difficult to see how that peace comes without ceasefire. 

I’ve referenced a Muslim and Jewish voices so far. What of the third Abrahamic faith, the Christian voice?  

One hopes it joins the others, with the old hymn’s still, small voice of calm. It has to call for ceasefire. Because as my friend Clive puts it, we have to get between the hated and the hater. And as Lorelei said, sometime the killing just has to stop.  

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6 min read

For want of better words... the impact of the indescribable

Henna Cundill is a researcher with the Centre for Autism and Theology at the University of Aberdeen, and editor of the But… Bible Study Series for Young People.

Confronted with a question about belief, Henna Cundill found herself stumbling for words. She contemplates the link between our self-identity and what we can communicate.
A woman stops in her stride down a street and pensively runs her hand through her hair as she looks to the side.
Joseph Frank on Unsplash.

I recently got into conversation with a young man who asked me, “Do you believe in God?” When I replied, “Yes,” I almost regretted it, because his next move was to ask, “Why?” and I found this question troublingly difficult to answer.  

Of course, I could have dredged up the old philosophical arguments for the logical existence of God – but none of that would have really captured the thing I have no words for. Belief is like… Oh, what is it like? A glitch… no, a glimmer… no, like a glimpse of… No. Goodness. What is it? I’m lost for a word or even a metaphor that will somehow express what it feels to say “yes” and “I believe in God” and in that moment, even if only for a moment, to feel oneself transported or transposed out of this tiresome, human existence and into something that is... well, it’s something…  

I think it's fair to say that conversations about believing in God are unusual these days, especially when the circumstance is an 18-year-old lad talking with a woman in her late 30s – albeit the lad in question was a philosophy undergraduate and we were at Cumberland Lodge, where such conversations are welcomed amongst those of all faiths and none. Even so, it still felt rather unusual to be asked a question like that, not out of hostility but just casually over dinner, and to see him genuinely and respectfully interested to hear what I might have to say in response.  

Eventually I did come up with some kind of an answer; I can’t remember what. And naturally, I turned the question back on him. Turns out he did believe in God, in fact he was Jewish, so he stumbled out some kind of answer too, but I think it's fair to say that he was hardly more erudite than I was. Eventually, we both agreed that it was rather difficult to describe the indescribable, and our conversation turned to rather easier topics - the food, the weather, geopolitics... 


There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed. 

The question of believing in God was done with. Yet here I am weeks later, still pondering why it was so hard for me to articulate what it means to live with that belief, and why that part of the conversation ended, but still felt so unfinished.  

Has faith always been so indescribable? I suspect it rather has not. These dark evenings always tend to lure me to my bookshelves, seeking out my “comfort books” that I read and reread year after year. Mostly cosy fiction of course, but alongside those, a non-fiction favourite is Sheila Fletcher's, Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters. The book is a fascinating study of a family of young women in the Victorian era, faithfully compiled from their own real letters and diaries, so that the voices of Meriel, Lucy, Lavinia and May Lyttleton themselves can all be heard clearly on every page. I just love to read this book over and over again, entering into the hopes, sorrows, loves and ambitions of these young women – so similar and yet so different to my own.  

One thing that stands out particularly is how clearly and easily they each articulate their sense of faith. They were, of course, heavily schooled in Victorian public piety, but there is most certainly a real faith there too. A favourite passage of mine is an excerpt from the teenage diary of Lucy Lyttleton, recounting the day of her Confirmation. She speaks of a ‘nice and stilling’ drive to church, with her parents either side in the carriage, and then:  

I seem to remember nothing very distinctly till I went up and knelt on that altar step, feeling the strangest thrill as I did so… and I know how I waited breathlessly for my turn, with the longing for it to be safe done, half feeling that something might yet prevent it. 

Oh, to be so thrilled by a religious ritual, and to have both the words and the courage to write about it. After all Lucy, what if someone might be reading your diary 150 years later?  

In mainstream society nowadays, most of us simply don't talk about faith, religion, and what it all means to us personally in that way. It’s not the done thing in a (presumed) secular society. Consequently, it is now very hard to write about it too. Yet, many philosophers in the past century have observed a link between our self-identity and what we can communicate. For example, philosopher Charles Taylor describes how our sense of ‘self’ is formed in “webs of interlocution” wherein what we take to be “good” relies on what we can effectively talk about, and thus have affirmed by those we talk to. If we turn Taylor’s idea around, might we say that when there are parts of ourselves that we cannot talk about, parts for which we cannot find social recognition and affirmation, then we cease to value those parts of ourselves as good, or may cease to recognise them at all? 

 With that comes a sense of isolation. There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed.   

To me it feels that, as we talk about faith less and less, and as the language of faith becomes ever more confined, not even just to private conversations but to our own inner worlds, our “webs of interlocution” are beginning to shrink and disintegrate – until believing in God can feel more like dangling on a loose and solitary strand than being part of any kind of web. It’s a lonely place to be – there is a part of me that feels important, but no one can affirm it.  

And yet, by simply asking the question of each other, and being ready to listen respectfully to whatever answer was forthcoming, it seems that me and a teenage lad managed to connect two lonely strands together. It was of no consequence that we worship in different faith traditions, or that neither of us really found the words to say what we wanted to say – a conversation took place, and a certain web of interlocution started to form. For some, reading this, there may be a feeling of resonance, or a moment of understanding, and perhaps that too adds a little to the web, as different people’s words and thoughts and experiences begin to connect across different times and places.   

Webs do more than just create connection; webs capture things too. Perhaps, as this web spreads between different readers and thinkers and speakers, that’s what will happen to this question of believing in God. After a certain point, such a web may even become large enough and robust enough to finally start to capture some useful words, or an apt metaphor, that will really help me to say something about what it means to have faith. To be able to say it is to be able to share it, and in these lonely times, being able to say something is really not nothing.  

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