James Jones: Preserving the fragility of freedom in new age of terror

A picture of late Father Jacques Hamel is placed on flowers at the makeshift memorial in France to the priest who was murdered while conducting Mass. Daesh, the so-called Islamic State, has claimed responsibility.
A picture of late Father Jacques Hamel is placed on flowers at the makeshift memorial in France to the priest who was murdered while conducting Mass. Daesh, the so-called Islamic State, has claimed responsibility.
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As waves of terror crash across the shores of Europe, we brace ourselves for more indiscriminate acts of violence.

The killers of Jo Cox and Lee Rigby have made us all feel vulnerable. The horror of what happened in London over a decade ago can make us all fearful of what could happen in any one of our northern cities from Hull to Leeds to Liverpool.

We are living in a new era. Globalisation has universalised food and football – and terror.

There have always been psychopaths and some who’ve used religion to control and destroy others.

But never before have they had the technology both to broadcast their threats globally through social media and to inflict such violence through weapons of mass slaughter. It’s a new and deadly combination.

The Government’s response is properly to prioritise our protection. They have to balance freedom and security. It’s like a spirit-level. At one end is the need to ensure that we do not lose our freedoms which have been so sorely won; at the other end lies the requirement to keep us safe by regulating and limiting the freedom of those who seek to harm us.

Making sure the bubble hovers in the centre of the spirit-level requires constant vigilance and wise government.

It’s very easy to tilt one way or the other with the upheaval of the public mood in the face of a crisis.

The only way to moderate public reaction to the outrages of terror is to be clear about our values and secure in our convictions about liberty.

Marbled into the human heart by our Creator is a streak of freedom that cannot be suppressed or ignored.

It’s the thirst for freedom that racked the bodies and souls of slaves and made them break the chains of slavery.

It’s that thirst that only a century ago drove the suffragettes to liberate women.

It’s the same thirst which makes the LGBT community around the world risk life and limb so that they can live free and true to themselves.

Freedom is the cornerstone of our civilisation. Terrorists may try to blow it up.

But with every blast of a bomb, every pull of a trigger and slash of a knife we must with grief and grit shore up our foundations, lock in the cornerstone and resolutely maintain the edifice of our civilised society.

One of the elements of terror has been its unpredictability.

But after so many indiscriminate attacks, the latest being the murder of 84-year-old priest Fr Jacques Hamel while he conducted morning Mass in France, the campaign of terror has become predictable.

Although wounded by their assaults, we’re no longer surprised by their abuse of the very freedom upon which they depend for their cruelty.

The world they want to create is as airless as a smog bound city.

A life without freedom suffocates the human spirit. But those who want to put our freedom in chains should look at history. Tyrants of whatever size never last forever.

The human spirit is irrepressible. It is freedom’s champion.

It is in this spirit that I contributed to Radio Four’s Thought For The Day earlier this week.

There’s a fragility to beauty. A flower. The wings of a butterfly. A dancing flame.

A breeze can display its shimmering vulnerability. A storm can destroy it and make mourners of us all.

Fragility belongs not just to the world of nature but also to the realm of ideas.

At the weekend Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke about freedom in the wake of yet another mass slaughter.

This, and attacks elsewhere as well as the assault in Kabul, desecrate the beauty of freedom and expose its inherent fragility.

In this centenary year of the Battle of the Somme when we salute the sacrifice of so many, we comfort ourselves with the hope that the
two World Wars were a battle for freedom.

With so much blood spilled and soaked up by the soil, we might think that the force for freedom is strong and powerful. But the alphabetical and violent litany in Kabul, London, Munich, Nice, Oslo and Paris shows freedom’s vulnerability.

Freedom is both great and weak. An idea that is so powerful that it gives oxygen to originality but at the same time so powerless in the face of evil.

This paradox about freedom is similar to what people of faith have wrestled with for ages – how can the world’s great Creator who is supposed to be powerful be also so powerless in the face of evil?

That question comes into focus for Christians with the vision of Jesus nailed to a cross. Can this victim of violence really be the eventual victor of good over evil?

Whenever there’s a terrorist attack politicians, in the name of freedom, pledge to fight and defeat the evil of terrorism. If I were a politician I’d probably say the same. But there’s another way of responding.

We could also say: “Every act of terror you inflict exposes the truth about freedom and its fragility. But
for all its vulnerability, and indeed because of it, we still believe in it. And you depend upon it. For without freedom you would not be able to do your deadly deeds. When you abuse freedom in a storm of violence we will die for it.”

So let the candle flames that
mark the names of the fallen and the flowers that grace their graves speak not only of grievous loss but also of freedom’s beauty, its fragility and its greatness.

* The Right Reverend James Jones was Bishop of Hull from 1994-98 and Bishop of Liverpool from 1998-2013. He lives in Ryedale.