The events in Paris a week past Friday have raised lots of questions, really fundamental questions for us all. What is security? What is freedom? Where should the balance between the two lie? Who is powerful? Who is in power?
On the face of it, the terrorists who murdered more than eighty people at the Bataclan Theatre, who shot many more in several restaurants and cafés and who tried to cause mass carnage at the Stade de France, seem to have had power. They had the power to cause death on a dreadful scale. They had power to terrorise. They had power to terrify people and cause immediate changes in behaviour and policy. As you know, in a few days time, Paris is to host a major UN Climate Change summit. Many thousands of people were due to travel to Paris to call for real action to be taken to limit the effects of climate change. Now many of these gatherings have been cancelled. There is a sense that gathering together is not safe, as sense, particularly, that Paris is not safe. A football match in Hanover was cancelled because of a bomb threat. An over-reaction, perhaps, but no one can be sure at the moment. In major or in quite subtle ways, all our lives have been changed and may yet change more. And these terrorists have done that.
The reaction to these terrible events has been about power too. Most immediately, we saw the raw power of the French state, embodied in the paramilitary police units who brought the massacre in the theatre to an end, and have raided properties and killed suspects on several occasions since. The sight of these operations raises conflicting feelings – reassurance that people of goodwill are prepared to take terrible risks to tackle and stop people of bad will and, at the same time, fear that violence is the only tool available.
Then there is the response from governments in France and elsewhere. These are people in power. Governments have huge resources at their disposal, armouries which totally eclipse the power of a few Kalashnikovs and suicide vests. But many are left wondering if being in power and having such firepower at their disposal really translates into being powerful. Bombing Syria, a country already suffering intense bombardment, may only be giving an illusion of power, especially if those on the receiving end are as innocent and terrified as concert goers, diners and football fans in Paris; especially, as seems likely, if the terrorists wrought terror in order to escalate war for their own twisted ends.
What we are seeing is a curious mixture of power and powerlessness. Both terrorists and the nations states they terrorise have immense power at their disposal, physical and psychological, but where, we might well wonder, is it getting them? I am sure that you will have been moved, as I was, by the messages of defiance from ordinary French people, especially from the man whose wife was killed who wrote that the terrorists would not have his hate, because that is what they wanted and he would not give them that satisfaction. We need to take inspiration from people such as these. We cannot destroy our lives, our freedoms, our rule of law, our tolerance, our hospitality, our humanity in the ultimately fruitless quest for perfect security, for that would be handing the terrorists victory on a plate.
But at the same time, both terrorists and nation states are also quite powerless. France and Europe will not be overthrown by women and men with guns and suicide vests and a total disregard for life, their own or anyone else’s. But neither, it seems, is Europe, or Russia or the US, capable of bringing peace to those parts of the world where war and suffering are fuelling this terrorist ideology. For all our power, we are powerless. For all our strength, we are weak.
Today, our Bible readings lay before us images of power. Daniel and Revelation are books with much in common. Mostly, they describe visions, visions of God in the imagination of the writers. Thousands and ten thousands worship, serve and obey the Ancient One in Daniel’s vision. John of Patmos, in his Revelation, speaks of strength and immovability, of not even the mightiest forces of nature being more powerful than God.
And then we have John’s Gospel. This tells us, not about a vision, but about a real event. And the contrast could not be more stark. Here is the God imagined by Daniel and John, not enthroned, not attended by multitudes, but alone, on trial, facing death. It is an image of weakness, an image of powerlessness, yet appearances deceive. Who here is powerful? Who here is strong? Is it Pilate, calculating the political and security consequences of different possible courses of action; working out if the man before him is expendable; weighing up the benefits and risks of doing the bidding of the Chief Priest and his crowd of goons? Or is it the man who will not give a straight answer, yet still tells the absolute truth; who will not defend himself, knowing exactly the consequences of not doing so?
We who are Christians know the answer. We are not Pilatians, followers of Pilate. No one is, yet many kind of are. They don’t take their inspiration directly from the Roman Governor, but still think the way he did, weighing up the risks of displeasing some more than others, calculating how much violence to use to preserve their position, trusting in the command of things which give a sense of power – soldiers, crosses, nails, electronic eavesdropping, air forces, bombs.
Before Pilate stood Jesus, facing the man he knew would order his death. And though Pilate did not know it, before him stood one infinitely stronger, infinitely more powerful. For the death he would order would not destroy Jesus. The political calculations he made would never fully add up. Even the soldiers he commanded could have been overwhelmed and defeated.
The man before him was stronger because he loved. He loved the world with that divine love which is greater and purer and stronger than we will ever fully understand. He was stronger because, in love, he was prepared to accept suffering. He was stronger because, no matter what happened, he could not be broken. For that is what Christ stands for, what Christ came to reveal – that love is stronger than death and that God’s commitment to the world he made and loves can never be defeated.
We who are followers of Christ are called to follow his example of love. And we can do that because of what he did. We are called to love our enemies, because Jesus loved his. We are called to pray for those who would persecute us and terrorise us, because that’s what Jesus did. We are called to suffer without turning to bitterness and anger, because that is what Jesus did. We are called to these ways of living because Jesus lived that way and because living lovingly, prayerfully, openly, tolerantly and free from bitterness and anger will empower us in the face of every evil, and ultimately bring the peace the world so need and which it will never achieve with armies and armaments.