When worship is dangerous
Terrible news this morning from the other side of the world. It seems that 49 people have been killed and at least 20 wounded in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Only this Wednesday I was talking with someone who had just returned from that country. It reminded them of England some 50 years ago. No longer, following this event of "extreme and unprecedented violence,” to quote Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She called it "one of New Zealand's darkest days.” The foundations of Christchurch have been shaken far more than the 2011 earthquake. "For a long time New Zealand has assumed that this extremism is not here, but it is," said local counter-terrorism expert Dr John Battersby. He explained: "The internet is causing this, the echo chambers of the internet where people with extremist views can get together and listen to each other and encourage each other. We have been warning about this for some time." Tragically it seems that distance was no protection for the members of these mosques from the rise of global extremism, with the flourishing of the right in Europe and the alt-right in America. As if to demonstrate the power of the world wide web, the alleged gunman made a livestream video of his attack available online. In the 16-minute video, the man says: "Let's get this party started," as he starts his car and travels to the mosque. Clearly he wants to be seen as a hero. It wasn’t just that this man, apparently an Australian and not a local, attacked a group of Muslims. He attacked them at their place of worship. It seems that attacks on places of worship —synagogues, churches, temples, mosques— have increasingly become common as targets for extremist violence. Churches in Pakistan and Egypt have been regularly attacked. Only this January a bomb was planted in a Coptic church in Cairo. But not just churches. Just six month ago the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the US occurred in Pittsburgh, where 11 worshippers were killed. Here in the UK the Finsbury Park mosque was attacked by an individual radicalised by the internet. Clearly places of worship are soft targets and so here the Places of Worship Security Funding was launched two years ago. Some £2.4million has helped 89 churches, mosques, temples and gurdwaras to install protective systems while synagogues are covered under a separate government-funded scheme. However, there is more than meets the eye here, as one commentator observes. "By targeting a house of worship, rather than a private home or business, the attacker has committed a powerful symbolic transgression: profaning a space that is both sacred and communal.” They continue: “Attacks on places of worship double not just as attacks on worshippers, but as attacks on the community itself. (Vox, October 2018). In other words, places of worship are significant. Just by being there they make a statement in our secular age, even more so when they are being used. When people come together to worship, something there is happening which would suggest that there is more to life than naked individual materialism. Communal worship represents a challenge, an affront to secular values. In recent years there has been a strange resurgence in the popularity of our cathedrals. Swimming against the secular tide these magnificent places of worship are pulling people in - without demanding a statement of faith, indeed any commitment. Even so, a place to encounter God in some way. Cardinal Keith O'Brien may have been a flawed Christian but he was right when he said: “Perhaps more than ever before, there is that aggressive secularism and there are those who would indeed try to destroy our Christian heritage and culture and take God from the public square. Religion must not be taken from the public square.” When we come together for worshipping God, of which the church building is a visible symbol, there is a dynamic which we may not be fully aware of. When we arrive, we are making a powerful statement. This means that going to church in some parts of the world is a risky decision. Each time a worshipper enters a church in many part of the Middle East they are taking their life in their hands – or more precisely, placing their life in God’s hands. I wonder how we would react if attending church this Sunday was fraught with some danger. There would be the ongoing temptation of worshipping alone or with friends in the safety of our lounge out-of-sight of our neighbours. Would I play safe? The writer to the Hebrews in the New Testament was addressing a church which was facing some persecution but fearful of this escalating. They were worried. So he writes: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 11:24f) So we pray for the people of New Zealand, especially for those caught up in this terrible act of terror.