On Holy Week, anger, and terrorists

A few months after my friend was murdered by terrorists in a Kenyan shopping mall, I was watching TV. It was Homeland, the thriller series where the lines between good and bad are blurred and the plot is only marginally unbelievable. There came a moment in the episode I found myself relaxing with that one evening where a character has a lead on a likely opportunity to kill a terrorist who was in the early stages of planning an atrocity. He pulls up alongside the terrorist’s car on his motorbike, ready to bomb the vehicle the terrorist rides in. As he does so, he becomes aware of a problem, someone in the terrorist’s car who is not supposed to be there. A child. He rides alongside the car for a while, caught in a terrible moment of indecision. Eventually he rides away, the opportunity untaken, conscience only temporarily salved.

Pre-Westgate, I would have been where most viewers would have been in that sequence – feeling the anguish, aware of the wrestle with conscience, willing him not to kill the child. But this was a new reality I was now in, one where for one week the headlines had been about my friend. There was no conscious mental process. Just this strong, distasteful feeling: take the shot. Risk the child’s life for the sake of those who will be killed. Kill the bastard. I was angry – at the terrorists for what they had done and the way it had changed me, at myself for stooping to their level, at the world for being so unredeemed. I remembered how I had felt, what I said in the aftermath of my friend’s murder: just give a few minutes alone with one of the perpetrators tied to a chair. It won’t take long.

My anger’s intensity has relented in the months since, but the wrestles of conscience don’t go away. The cinema release of Eye In The Sky presented me with an opportunity to see how, or if, I’ve changed. It tells the story of the hunt for members of Al-Shabaab (the group that murdered my friend). They are tracked by drone to a single house – the order to capture them is about to be given when it becomes apparent that they are preparing suicide vests for an imminent attack. The priority moves from capture to kill; the order to release the missile that will save innocent lives is on the brink of completion when a child sets up to sell bread outside the house in question. She will likely be killed if the missile is fired. The rest of the film is the moral, military and political dilemmas being wrestled with, passed up chains of command inside darkened rooms around the globe, all the while the clock ticking down to massive civilian loss of life. Actually, that depersonalises it. Yes, the clock was ticking – to the murder of my friend, all over again.

The film articulates most of the related dilemmas with which I have wrestled since my friend’s death. It justice to most of them, if not ever really articulating as it needs to the political complexities involved. It is a failing  – though not a significant one – that we never really grasp the geopolitical backdrop that brings countries to these awful choices. It’s economically directed, the lack of violence ratcheting up the tension to levels where you long for some sort of release. The performances are fine  – this an ensemble piece, rather than a star vehicle. Helen Mirren does fairly well despite being miscast; I’d like to have seen more of the brilliant Aaron Paul as the soldier with his finger on the button, Barkhad Abdi is consummate, and every line Alan Rickman delivers makes us ache that at what we’ve lost with his death.

The film offers no answers, no conclusions. Every option is flawed, every character compromised, every view has a valid alternative. The film asks all the questions I have … and leaves them hanging in a Kenyan dustbowl, strewn with rubble and human remains. As a leader I empathise with the personal cost of taking decisions most have no understanding of; thanks to some nameless men and women with guns I now have skin in terrorism game, complicating to previously unimagined levels a decision I’ll never have to take. Some justice systems give – for good reason – the guilty and the judge the opportunity to hear the affect the crime has had on victims and those close to them. I understand that; but now I’ve been as close to violent crime as this, I also understand why such revelations should never be the only factor in sentencing the guilty. I, for one, would be too angry to be just.

I am not by nature an angry or a violent person; though I do have a knack for breaking up violent confrontations. I’ve only ever been properly hit once – by a fan of the same football team I support, in an ironic case of mistaken identity. So it’s strange to find myself intimately involved in the moral quagmire of violence. All I’ve come to know is that my cosy neo-pacifist principles no longer sit so easily or safely  – I think I still hold them, but I hold them with alarming looseness.

I watched the film on Palm Sunday evening, the first day of Holy Week; an inexorable journey towards an act of horrific, prolonged, violent innocent suffering. That knowledge adds to the mix that mine is a Jesus who knows what it’s like to be on the end of both unrighteous anger – his murderers’ – and righteous (the anger of His Father which he took the consequences of that day). He didn’t deserve that latter anger, but He took it anyway. It says to me that, along with some alarmingly violent expressions of anger in the Psalms – there is a place for this emotion which is often the least acceptable to church subcultures. It says that innocent suffering is right at the heart of what I have given my life to; it is identified with and wept over, its cost and consequences eternally felt.

On its own, the film left me in anger – and to an extent, that’s OK. It also made me fear that maybe the terrorists win even when we capture of kill them – they’ve reduced us in some way, whether in mind or deed, to their level, even for a moment. But then Holy Week, with its complexities and denials and political blame-shifting and violence and resurrection come along. I don’t understand it any more than I used – probably less so, in fact. But the week gives me a glimpse of when this will end, and that Someone at least understands. And that, for now, is just about enough.

I rated this movie 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

I’m angry about International Women’s Day, and you should be too

International Women’s Day (March 8th) really got under my skin this year.

Let me tell you about that, please.

I saw some of my (mostly white) fellow men protesting that it was unfair.

That there isn’t an International Men’s Day (there is). Or that International Men’s Day doesn’t get the same attention.

That some of the posts and work I posted, by other people, about the objectification and mistreatment and injustices that are the daily reality of women everywhere skewed the picture unfairly because men are victims too.

Men do experience injustice. Of course we do. I have experienced injustice. I meet many men who have been or are on the wrong side of the scales. Those injustices need to be addressed.

I suffer from a disease that seems to disproportionately target men, for reasons no one quite understands – and that receives relatively little research next to other conditions. That’s an issue. The epidemic of young/middle-aged male depression and suicide is a health emergency that urgently needs money and attention. In my professional capacity I have dealt with several cases where men are the victims of domestic abuse at the hands of women; its devastatingly painful to watch and needs more attention to solve, to help men report, seek help with. For years I have been involved with work amongst those who are homeless – who are usually male. All these and more are true and important, and are issues at which I continue to work.

But today I find myself staggered that so many white men can’t see our privilege, or that we need to consciously lay down that privilege so that people who are not like us – women, and men of other ethnicities – have more access to what we have always taken for granted. That means saying no to things for which we consider ourselves equally or better qualified – and yes, that may include lucrative jobs or ego boosting speaking opportunities. That means calling out other men on their sexism, their contributions to rape culture, their mindless entitlement to privilege – and allowing other men to call us out on it in ourselves. That means expressing sorrow to women when they experience daily acts of sexism. That means following the example of a Middle Eastern Jewish man who gave up rights and status in order to serve; who sought to alleviate the injustice of others rather than complain when he was on the receiving end; who identified himself, one without sin, with those wracked and ruined by sin; who consciously emptied himself of privilege without complaint or self-validation.

It’s my responsibility as a white male husband, father and church leader to side with the one who called me and actively pursue justice for those who are so often on the wrong side of it. Sometimes I will be on the receiving end of injustice; in those moments I will know that He (and sometimes others) will side with me and somehow come to my aid.

But the world is unjustly balanced in my favour; my voice is easily heard; I am safe most places I go; I have more opportunities and more protection than any other demographic on the planet. I am one of the most privileged people in the history of humanity. In all these ways and more, I am rich – so it is hard for me to enter the kingdom of heaven. My only hope is to serve the Servant, and serve Him in those who have less than me.