Jonathan Gibbs: Jo Cox’s brutal death challenges us all in post-truth era

The late Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox
The late Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox
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I HAVE been asked many times what made Jo Cox so special as an MP. A big part of the answer I think lay in her having been a local girl, born and raised in the community that she served.

It was also to do with the fact that she had a big heart and was passionately committed to changing the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, including through her work with Oxfam.

In addition, she was someone who was genuinely interested in people as individuals and in bringing people together in and for the good of the wider community. Those were some of the things that I saw in my contacts with her as a local MP. Her murder was a despicable act and her death is a huge loss to us all, most especially, of course, to her family.

The conviction of Thomas Mair at the Old Bailey means that justice has been done according to the law. The perpetrator has been convicted and will remain in prison probably until the end of his life. But what do these awful events say to us about the society in which we live and how will we respond to what has happened – or will Jo Cox soon just be yesterday’s news?

One of the things we need to ask ourselves is how our society could give rise to someone who was able to act as Thomas Mair did.

We cannot just put him down as a one-off, a loner who built his own twisted view of the world through endless trawling on the internet. We also need to look at ourselves and to what has been going on in our political discourse in the last 20 or more years.

There has been an increasing tendency to demonise those with whom we differ and a willingness to prioritise emotion and indignation above argument and truth. “Post-truth” is the new buzz word – and it represents a dangerous shift for us all. It has too many echoes of the propaganda of Goebbels and the Third Reich.

And even if Mair was a loner who made a desperate bid for significance through one horrendous act of violence, the finger must also point back
to us.

From a Christian perspective the correct answer to the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is “Yes, you are, because we are all human beings, made in the image of God”.

The increasing isolation in which many people live, especially but not only the elderly, ought to be a huge concern to us all. Our humanity for better or worse is forged through our relationships and we need to find ways of keeping people within the circle of society.

One of the good things that has come out of Jo’s death has been the determination of people in Batley & Spen to come together across community boundaries and to refuse to allow suspicion and hatred to drive us apart.

Faith leaders have a great responsibility in this regard and there have been some really encouraging signs in recent months – but this needs to go much further and much deeper.

We need to be honest about what is going on within and between our communities. We need to recognise that extremism and hate can grow up anywhere and that they are no respecters of race or creed and can occur among people of all faiths and none. The law and the apparatus of the state can only do so much to protect us, even with increased powers of surveillance (which themselves raise huge questions for us). In the end, we can never guarantee that human beings won’t sometimes do terrible things.

But that isn’t a counsel of despair or a reason to barricade ourselves in our homes. It rather makes it all the more imperative that we do everything we can to reach out in friendship to people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds and to people within our own cultural constituency. The fact that Thomas Mair could slip under the radar end up doing what he did was not and is not someone else’s problem – it is your problem and mine too.

As a white, Christian church leader, I need to recognise my own responsibility and to do whatever I can to reach out to people from other ethnic and religious backgrounds.

And I also need to use whatever influence I have to challenge the members of my own community to recognise their responsibility in this as well. We need to challenge each other to step outside our comfort zone and to reach out to those in other communities and also to those who are isolated in our own, because those who become cut off from others – like Thomas Mair – are particularly vulnerable to the cancer of hatred and extremism.

Jo Cox’s example was and will remain an inspiration for many years to come. Her death also stands as a profound challenge to us all. She was prepared to stand up and be counted. Now it’s our turn.

The Right Reverend Jonathan Gibbs is Bishop of Huddersfield.