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Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after The Epiphany, 11th January 2015
Isaiah 42:1-9, Ephesians 2:1-10

‘Time was when you were dead in your sins and wickedness, when you followed the evil ways of this present age, … We too were of their number: we all lived our lives in sensuality, and obeyed the promptings of our own instincts and notions.’ [Eph. 2:1-4, in the New English Bible]

The people of Ephesus were, before they discovered Christ, debauched and decadent. There’s something in this passage, in St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which is rather reminiscent of things that I have read and heard in connection with Moslem fundamentalists, in places like Bradford, parts of Birmingham or even nearer to home, from where young people are going to join Islamic State – or whatever it’s now called – in Iraq.

The Western world, according to their lights, is supposed to be decadent and depraved, godless; whereas they learn, in their madrasahs, that if they follow the prophet Mohamed, this will be the real thing, the true path to salvation, to God. In St Paul’s time, decadent Ephesians became decent Christians through faith. Today, wide boys from Halifax, through their faith, can become martyrs, according to the ISIL propaganda.

This is a terrible week to have to think seriously about the various challenges to Christianity and our Western way of life, from the various Muslim fundamentalist groups, in particular, Islamic State, and from the various groups which claim to subscribe to Al Qaeda.

The events in Paris and Northern France have been truly shocking, and they come on top of extraordinary brutality and cruelty shown by the ISIL terrorists in beheading people that they have kidnapped, and in forcing people to do things for them on pain of death. We must not forget the terrible atrocities of Boko Haram in Nigeria as well.

St Paul’s great message was that the gospel of Jesus was a gospel for the Gentiles just as much as it was for the Jews. There are these slightly recondite discussions in his letters about whether it’s necessary to be circumcised or not, and what the status of the Jewish Law is: must you, in effect, become a Jew before you can become a Christian?

It was, if you like, a very early example of inter-faith dialogue. True, St Paul was actually trying to proselytise, was trying to convert people, which is something which is not supposed to happen in inter-faith communications today. Rev Richard Cook, the recently retired vicar of Goldsworth Park in Woking, who was very much the Diocese’s expert on Islam, and is a good friend of the imam of the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, which I believe is supposed to be the oldest mosque in this country, used to say that, whenever he met his friend the imam, for a cup of tea or something, the first thing that the imam always said, after he had inquired after his health, was whether Richard was ready to convert to Islam or not.

He didn’t get too upset when Richard politely declined. Trying to persuade each other of the relative merits of their particular understanding of God is something that happens all the time. We can still talk to people of a different religion, exchange ideas with them, try to understand their position better, even if they are at the same time trying to convert us.

This civilised dialogue is a world away from the murders at Charlie Hebdo. The terrorists’ assault, which some of our newspapers characterised as ‘an assault on free speech’, an ‘assault on democracy’, was indeed an assault on the way of life of a civilised country.

The hallmark of free speech is said to be that, even though I disagree with what you say, I would defend to the last your right to say it, your freedom of speech. Equally, as a consequence of our all being God’s creatures – or just our all being human – as a matter of human rights – we are democrats: we have the right to choose our own government, by majority voting. To the extent that our voices are silenced, by people like the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo, it is an assault on democracy.

But amid this outpouring of grief and solidarity, solidarity with the journalists at Charlie Hebdo and with all journalists, who not unnaturally feel that this has been an attack on them all collectively, alongside all that, there have, perhaps unfortunately, been some notes of discord.

Earlier in the week, in his LBC radio phone-in programme, Nick Clegg encountered a questioner called Omar, who asked him whether he didn’t agree that the journalists at Charlie Hebdo had in fact brought their demise on to themselves, by their blasphemy. Nick Clegg was very angry on air, and insisted that the attack on Charlie Hebdo could not be defended under any circumstances or on any grounds.

But it was plain that the questioner, Omar, either didn’t understand what he was saying or, certainly, didn’t agree with it. And there was a piece on Radio Four involving some vox pop interviews with people in Bradford. They were British; they had Yorkshire accents, and were probably second or even third generation since their ancestors came over from the Indian subcontinent. Nevertheless they also commonly came up with the view that the Charlie Hebdo attack was brought on by the journalists themselves, by their blasphemous publications.

There was no concept, in these people on Radio Four or in Omar on LBC, that somehow the principles of human rights, of free speech, of democracy, could trump the seriousness of any alleged blasphemy. We say that the merits of democracy, of free speech, are self-evident: we all live by them. Anyone trying to contradict the principles of free speech or democracy is, in effect, attacking our society.

At which point I ask myself where we get our sense of human rights, of free speech, free will, of democracy, from. Because it seems to me that in fact they are not simply true or desirable in themselves. It’s not necessarily true that, because you’re a human being, you will automatically agree that democracy is a good thing, or that free speech is a good thing. Omar and Co are evidence of that.

There are many nations in the world today where democracy, the rule of the people, is subservient to the idea of theocracy, rule by God or by God’s representatives, by mullahs for example. It’s not the case that everyone, simply by virtue of being human, will assent to the proposition that democracy is pre-eminently a good thing, or that free speech is a good thing.

Even we to some extent accept restrictions on free speech – sometimes for commonsense reasons, so you are not allowed to shout ‘Fire!’ in a cinema – but also, ironically, for the purpose of collective security, in order to prevent the attacks on our way of life which terrorists have made and have threatened in future. We accept limited restrictions on free speech in order to preserve the right to free speech in general.

We justify the idea of free speech, the idea of human rights and so on, I think, not on the basis that they are self-evident truths, but rather ultimately because of our Christian belief. We believe that God made us equal in His sight, and that He gave us the freedom to choose good or evil. Muslims also believe in God, and possibly, in the same God. But they believe that free speech doesn’t come into it. If you blaspheme, according to them, you forfeit your right to life.

So we are in disagreement with Muslims, disagreement over something very important, about how God works. Although I would stress that this is not an argument for anti-Semitism, one could draw a parallel with the disagreements between the Jews and the Christians in the time of Jesus. The Jews and the early Christians were in disagreement. Jesus was a threat. He challenged the orthodoxy of the Pharisees and the scribes, their cherished beliefs. They dealt with the problem by killing Him.

In an evil way, the terrorists in Paris may also have felt that they were somehow solving the disagreement that they felt, between their own vision of the good life and what they perceived to be the contradiction to it in decadent Westernism, by killing what they saw as a major source of the decadence and blasphemy which they so disagreed with. That is not in any way to excuse the evil of what they did, but it might explain it.

What is our way of dealing with people we fundamentally disagree with? In so many cases, unfortunately, as a matter of history, it has involved warfare. If as a country we can’t agree with someone, or we feel that their view needs to be overturned, there is, always not very far from the surface, a resort to warfare.

We disagree with the Syrians. We are at war with them. But I do feel that we are not likely to change their minds by bombing them. I feel that instead, the solution to all this trouble must lie in the development of mutual understanding.

But, as St Paul has pointed out here, there is a limit to what we can do; there is a limit to how we can bring about the Kingdom. Everything depends on our believing and trusting in God, and in God responding with His bountiful grace. Are we prepared to risk that, or are we going to carry on as though we had never heard the Gospel message, of peace and forgiveness? Peace and forgiveness leads to repentance and reconciliation.

I pray that, as we defend our way of life, our gifts of free speech and democracy, we will remember how our prophet, the prophet Isaiah, foretold the coming of God’s kingdom, and how gentle our Messiah is to be.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching. [Is. 42:1-4].

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