Column
Comment
Middle East
4 min read

“Sometime the killing just has to stop”

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.

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

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.  

Essay
Belief
Comment
1 min read

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.