ANY pretence at optimism about the world must surely lie bleeding in the ruins of the Christmas market at the Breitscheidplatz in Berlin.
If the assassination – live on social media – of the Russian ambassador to Turkey was not shocking enough, the blood continued to flow in Germany. Remarkably, even before facts were known, the commentariat leapt to judgement on the causes of this latest atrocity.
I know Berlin well. I walked across the Breitscheidplatz only a few weeks ago while attending a conference on freedom of religion and belief. It adjoins the iconic church (the Gedächtniskirche) recognised around the world as a symbol of destruction and reconciliation in the 1940s. Yet, here, in a place of celebration and mercy, a lorry is driven into crowds of innocent people, bringing death and injury. What are we to make of this?
Well, it demonstrates that there is no escape from a globalised world. That is to say, this small planet does not provide any private annexe for people who wish to live in a way that is disconnected from the lives of others. What happens in Syria impacts on Ankara and Berlin; what happens in Iraq and Yemen impacts powerfully on Italy and France. What happens in Pakistan impacts on Bradford and Dewsbury. Whether we like it or not, there are no hiding places.
But, what is sobering about the latest attack (following on from the atrocities in France since the Charlie Hebdo shootings) is that conclusions were being drawn before facts were known. The suspect is a Pakistani asylum seeker… or have the police arrested the wrong man? They are unsure if the man arrested is the right one. Which means that the murderer is still at large. He might be an asylum seeker and might be an Islamist terrorist, but we don’t know. Yet, there is an explosion of assumptions. In a post-truth era it appears that any opinion will do.
Whatever the identity and motive of the perpetrator in this case, here is a sobering fact: if he is an asylum seeker who entered Germany last year when Angela Merkel opened the doors, that still leaves another million asylum seekers who have not committed a crime or abused the hospitality of the host country. What conclusions should we draw from that?
The violence in Berlin does raise other questions, however. What are we to make of people who are willing to inflict misery on others in pursuit of very particular ends? And how are we to address our own fears in the face of such shocking events – where people going about their Christmas business are mown down indiscriminately? (Discriminate murder would be no less morally offensive, of course).
There is little comfort to be given in a world in which we are deeply connected but often in ways we don’t understand. We can cope with watching violence on the screen when it is happening far away; but, when it happens to us on the streets of our own cities we struggle to understand. Yet, if you are on the receiving end of British-made cluster bombs in Yemen or a rogue lorry in Berlin, the misery and injustice of it all seems indifferent. I suspect there will be more to come – grievances go deep across the planet, and they last for a long time.
So, is there anything to be said that doesn’t just resort to platitude or escapist wishful-thinking? I think there is.
I am a Christian – that is, a follower of Jesus Christ. Some people assume this is a bit feeble in the modern world. But, there is nothing feeble or romantic about a baby born into political and military oppression under the heel of the Roman Empire. There is nothing sentimental about growing up, firstly, as a refugee in a place that represents everything you ever wanted to escape from (Egypt) and, secondly, getting abused and ultimately executed for loving the wrong people and saying the wrong things.
Christmas brings this home. Christmas is about God opting into the world as it is with all its violence and contradiction, and not exempting himself from it. We shall move from the manger in Bethlehem to a cross at Easter and find ourselves challenged by an invitation that looks ridiculous if put in a religious box and removed from the real world: we can be driven by fear or drawn by hope. Christian hope comes to us and grasps our imagination. It comes from a God who is no stranger to suffering and who doesn’t turn his face from horror. It is a hope rooted in a refusal to see death and violence and destruction as having the final word. And we are invited and challenged to commit ourselves to being this sort of hope-bearers in the face of all the misery and fear.
I suspect we might have to cope with more atrocities as the world has become a more dangerous place. How we respond will determine whether we are agents of hope or not. I pray for the people of Berlin. And Turkey. And Russia. And Syria. And England. And so on. But, it is prayer that commits me not to withdraw, but to engage with the mess of it all.
The Right Reverend Nicholas Baines is Bishop of Leeds.