Three angels - responding to the ethical demand on the streets ofWoolwich

Knud Ejler Løgstrup (1905-1981)
Reading: Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)

Jesus said: 'You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


I imagine that, like many of you this week, my mind has often turned to the shocking murder of the young soldier, Lee Rigby. My own thoughts and prayers go out to his family, friends and colleagues at this time.

However, since it is still less than a week since the murder occurred, it is clearly too soon to know what may be the full social, political and religious ramifications of this act which, because of the perpetrators’ invocation of Allah, may turn out to be both very complex and, alas, also very unpleasant. But two things have struck me about this shocking event that I think can meaningfully be spoken to right now.

The first relates to the general cultural background of nihilism. The word comes from the Latin “nihil”, meaning “nothing”, and it refers to the deep sense within our Western European and North American culture as a whole that life is (or is threatening to become) without any objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. As Charles Taylor says in his recent book important book "A Secular Age" (Harvard University Press 2007):

"We live in a condition where [now] we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and anxiety" (p. 11).

Another author, James C. Edwards, succinctly sums up the consequence of this:

". . . we have left ourselves no intellectually respectable way to dismiss the disconcerting thought that other, and radically different, forms of life have just the same claim on some sacred ground as does ours; namely no such claim at all. Our 'highest values' compete with the 'highest values' of others on what is looked at philosophically, a perfectly level field of battle" (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 47).

This nihilistic mood is our secular culture's primary mood. Many, perhaps most people (especially those in religious circles), regret this mood and see it as highly negative. However, I'm one of those who does not so view it. I see it as a real opportunity to bring about a much healthier and radically more democratic way of being in the world which can gift us new ways of understanding creation and of encountering what we call the divine and the sacred. Indeed, that positive way of being is where I am going to end up. But, firstly, let's look at the two major responses of those who see nihilism as negative: passive nihilism and active nihilism.

I've explored something of passive nihilism with you a number of times before because it has been the primary response in liberal religious circles. I appreciate that facing up to this tendency is not always comfortable for us. However, we must do it because whenever this passive nihilistic approach is adopted there develops what has, following Nietzsche, been dubbed a European or American “Buddhism” (not, of course, to be confused with other kinds of deeply located European and American socially engaged Buddhisms). To cite Simon Critchley, what this means is that “In a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces, the passive nihilist closes his eyes and makes himself into an island” (Infinitely Demanding, Verso Books, London 2007 p.5). The result is a “contemplative withdrawal, where one faces the meaningless chaos of the world with eyes wide shut” (ibid. p. 39). By the means of certain kinds of dislocated “pure” meditation and/or excessive shopping the actual state of the world and its general nihilistic mood can simply be put to one side and forgotten.

Let's turn now to active nihilism. Simon Critchley notes that “the active nihilist also finds everything meaningless, but instead of sitting back and contemplating, he tries to destroy this world and bring another into being.” He feels that in our age the paradigmatic example of this is Al-Qaeda and he goes on to say,

“The legitimating logic of Al-Qaeda is that the modern world, the world of capitalism, liberal democracy and secular humanism, is meaningless and that the only way to remake meaning is through acts of spectacular destruction, acts which it is no exaggeration to say have redefined the contemporary political situation and made the pre-9/11 world seem remote and oddly quaint. We are living through a chronic re-theologisation of politics” (ibid. p.5).

The brutal actions and words of the two murders, both connected to modern Islamist movements, clearly fit into this category of active nihilism. (None of which, of course, is to say that in these men's horrific mix of violence and theology there are not some real, legitimate general concerns about what has gone on and is still going on in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine that should be addressed by us.)

Anyway, I think it is important to see that a deep structural relationship exists between passive and active nihilists.

Now I have outlined active and passive nihilism (though this outlining can and should be done in greater detail) we can move to the thing I noticed that I alluded to at the beginning of this address, namely a way of proceeding that doesn't ignore our nihilist mood but which, instead, uses it to locate and firmly ground a more active, loving just and democratic way of proceeding.

It seems to me that we saw a powerful glimpse of it in the actions of the three women who, in the immediate aftermath of the murder, clearly helped keep the situation calm and controlled until the Police arrived and were able to take these extremely violent men into custody.

Firstly, you will recall there was the mother and daughter couple, Amanda Donnelly and Gemini Donnelly-Martin who approached the two blood-soaked killers and demanded that they let her sit in the middle of the road next to the fatally injured man in order to comfort him because, as they said, “no man should die alone”. Secondly, there were the actions of a third woman, a Cub Scout leader called Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, who also began directly to engage with the men in order to stop them from committing any further violence.

Now for various reasons, including the fact that I'm re-reading some of Simon Critchley's work, at the moment I'm exploring the work of a little known (to us in the English-speaking world) Danish philosopher and theologian called Knud Ejler Løgstrup (1905-1981). In his 1956 book, "The Ethical Demand" (Notre Dame and London, University of Notre Dame Press 1997, p. 15) he wrote the following words that resonated powerfully with me as I was listening to the news reports from Woolwich:

"A person never has something to do with another person without also having some degree of control over him or her. It may be a very small matter, involving only a passing mood, a dampening or quickening of spirit, a deepening or removal of some dislike. But it may also be a matter of tremendous scope, such as can determine if the life of the other flourishes or not."

What struck me about these women's actions was the extraordinary power of their small-scale, compassionate local interventions. Though they all will, undoubtedly, have their own different, deeply held philosophies or theologies of life, the women seem, simply and directly, to have responded primarily to the local, specific ethical demand that they encountered on the street in Woolwich. My point is that, unlike the murders and, to some extent our politicians and commentators (which must, of course, include me in the writing of this address), the women did not firstly line up all their philosophical, theological, political principles in order to see how they mapped on the situation before they then acted - they simply acknowledged the ethical demand of the situation and acted.

They did not act thinking that “by so doing my actions will promote my own philosophical, theological or political agenda”. No, they simply and immediately responded to this particular, local ethical demand. Then, when their work there was finished, they simply left on foot or by bus to get on with daily life. Notice, too, that neither did they turn to the many camera phones present on the day to say to the world, “look, we have done this because of belief x, y, and z and you all should pay attention to this and change your life accordingly”. No, once the local ethical demand had been responded to in the best way they could they simply went on their way. We only know about them and have now heard something from them because they were tracked down by our over ravenous, news-hungry newspapers and TV and radio stations.

What is particularly striking is that none of them, in their moment of decisive ethical response, seems to have shown any aggression nor made any immediate judgement of the murderers and by so doing, they were not only able to show love to the injured man and the innocent bystanders (which includes all of us) but also to the murderers themselves - people who by any stretch of the imagination one could call “enemies”. Their words and actions seem to me to have powerfully embodied a peaceful, Christ-like way of being in the world that we heard in Jesus' words from the sermon on the mount. One can only hope that this cannot have failed to impress itself upon the murderers and perhaps even have planted deep in their troubled and violent souls a saving seed that may yet flourish during what will almost certainly be life imprisonment.

But of more immediate importance to all of us is, I think, that the women’s small, compassionate interventions seem to me to be a matter of tremendous scope, such as can determine if the life of British society is to flourish or not. In this sense they may rightly be dubbed the “Angels of Woolwich.” This phrase was used firstly by the Daily Mirror - not my paper of choice I feel I should add - to describe their obviously brave and compassionate behaviour. Here we have a colloquial use of the word, in the way we may sometimes turn to someone who has showed us a kindness and say to them, “Ah, you're an angel.” But the word angel comes from the Greek word “angelos” meaning “messenger”, “envoy” or “one that announces”. So, yes, these women were angels in the popular secular sense of the word but more, much more than that, they seem to me to have been veritable messengers to us all of a way of acting that finds meaning in a highly plural world with all kinds of competing beliefs, not by ignoring them or by imposing on the world only their own beliefs, but by engaging in what Critchley calls, “an ethical practice that is driven by a response to situated injustices and wrongs” (ibid. p. 132).

Looked at this way, deep-human meaning, even what religious people such as myself want to call God, was displayed by those three women in their responses to the ethical demand made on that Woolwich street last Wednesday.

Nihilism opened the door to the highly plural and contingent nature of our world. It revealed to us what was a new and startling landscape that, at first sight (and culturally I think we still are in a time of “first sight”), was without question highly disorientating. However, for all that, I do not want us to loose our clear (if sometimes dizzying) sight of this radical plurality because it seems to speak of something true and important about our world. But it is clear that we have not yet learnt how to deal properly with this new view of the human landscape. Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount gives us what was perhaps our first glimpse at how to proceed. In the situated actions of these three women last week I think we might have just caught another glimpse of a way forward that is highly relevant to our own age and difficulties. May their loving, compassionate actions guide us well in the coming months and years. They may yet prove to be for us real angels, messengers of a secular Republic of Heaven in which we find meaning not in a God “out there” and beyond us in  heaven, but in the situated needs of both our neighbours and our enemies.


Anonymous said…
I couldn't agree with this more!