When I was young, it was the Cold War. If we were going to be annihilated, it would be by the press of a button by an anonymous authority figure in Moscow, or London, or Washington or Beijing. It was a structured kind of terror. We watched the media, controlled by governments and big business, and were told, on a day-by-day basis, what our chances of survival were. We grew up with it. We were used to it. We knew our voice counted for nothing – it would be decided by powers way beyond our individual control.
Then the Berlin Wall came down, and for a lovely decade, it seemed like the world had become a safer place (unless you lived in the Balkans or Sierra Leone). The internet was born. People could suddently communicate around the world, without the need for governmental power and infrastructure. Universal peace became a near certainty.
Today, we know a different kind of world. Everyone can communicate with everyone. Online, people tear strips off others whom they have never, physically, met, using powerful, terrible threats and insults. Unlike the world of the 1980s, people can now engage in their own, transcontinental conflict.
This is the situation which can be exploited by anyone who wishes to use global (and anonymous) interconnectivity to escalate and promote conflict. We see it in the astonishingly successful internet campaigns of Muslim extremists. Young people do not know much about the long-term cost of conflict, and are therefore easily swayed to join in any fight for “justice” that appeals to their desire for integrity. For religious people, this can manifest itself in a zeal which can be exploited by cynical elders to recruit the energies of young into the cause of their own bids for power. The easy equation: integrity = commitment = absolutism is not just the preserve of Islam: it’s the case for any religion or cause which feeds on an appeal to some transcendent power, be it divine or nationalistic.
I am now in my 50s. I have been a Christian since birth and, since my teens, have been committed to the Christian faith. I know (and remember) the power of the youthful desire for integrity and purity of cause. I remember my desire for God which could eclipse lesser caution, instilled from my elders. The young are easy targets for any form of extremism: religious, nationalist or whatever. When we are young, we want some sense of purity, of integrity, or absolute direction.
I have known the appeal of the purity of the absolute; I have known the desire to be wholly committed, irrespective of the cost. But as you age, other things come into play. Bringing up children makes you realise a unifying identity as a human being. You start to empathise with other parents, irrespective of differences of culture, or creed, or philosophy. As your own children become adults, you watch other parents and children as they struggle to bring forth a new generation: you empathise, you recognise, you remember your own experiences, and … with time … you realise a unity within all human experience.
The internet has brought the possibility of the dissemination of hate, under the guise of purity. It allows those who wish to, to exploit youthful desire under the guise of religion, nationality or “justice”. Young people are looking for something to give their lives to, to commit to, to place their energies behind. It’s a romantic vision and it’s enormously powerful. But this youthful energy can be the undoing of the human race, when it is not united with a sense of our own frailty, fallibility and sheer value. When a Palestinian child is killed by the sophisticated weaponry of the Israeli army, it’s easy for a young Palestinian to convert this enormity into a reaction which delights in the taking of other, equal and young human Israeli life. But an older perspective realises that both actions are defeats, on the wider, human scale.
The immediacy of the internet allows quick reactions and judgements to be made, public stances to be paraded and easy alliances forged. It’s the best breeding ground for heating up any kind of conflict. The internet, rather than fostering an age of peace and growing tolerance, as we had hoped in the 1990s, is being exploited by its users as an incubator for the worst forms of human intolerance, revenge, posturing and recruitment towards violence that has been seen since the crusades. The internet demonstrates, in clear terms, the nature of the human condition. “All of life is there …”
As I grow older, I become all too aware of the weaknesses, as well as the strengths of committing oneself to a particular faith. But I remain in this faith. The reason I do this, is that it has taught me to recognise – to not to be in denial – about my own frailties. The longer I have been a Christian, the more I have had to reckon with my own weaknesses, my own propensity for failure and my tendency or potential to hurt others. I certainly do not feel (if I ever felt) a superiority of my own faith position over that of others (be they of another faith or of no faith). All I feel is a sense of human solidarity with all people who are around on this planet at the moment, and a strong sense of unworthiness that I should share in the privilege and wonder of living the gift that is life. So it is from this, somewhat humbled postion, that I believe, with all my heart, in the need for human beings to reckon, humbly, with their own limitations, and to reckon, kindly and sympathetically, with the limitations of their enemies. In short, this means loving both our friends and our enemies. This love, when we discover it, is nothing short of a revelation and transforms us as human beings. We become more compassionate. We cry easily. We love wildly. We run the risk of peace, even if it makes us look like fools.
This, in Christian terms, is called “the Kingdom of God”, which is an idea which lies at the heart of the Christian vision. It’s a place where people learn to forgive the failings of others, as they discover their own failings to have been forgiven. Where love is greater than anything else. Where God is not “owned” by any faith, but is allowed to be God as God truly is. Where people are set free from the tyranny of “being right” into being loved and being loving instead.
At a time when the news seems to be so negative, I want to affirm that I believe in this vision of the universe, and – in love – I want to celebrate it with others, irrespective of their faith, their belief or their politics.
I hope that this vision comes to pass. Because, although the old superpowers are now a history lesson, the power to destruction that they represented is still there, and much sought-after. I pray that this love, this forgiveness, this generosity would break out across our globally-connected humanity, if only for our own survival. For the alternative is as bad, if not more tragic, than the horror that faced us in the 1980s.