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

Music For Holy Week, Easter Day

Jesus said, “Mary.” John 20:16

It all leads to this: restoration, healing, innauguration of a new kingdom. Creation reordered, reality redefined, the blankness of the grave shaken to its core. An almighty Yes. 

Again, a few songs instead of one. Again, all on the same post.

Radiohead have an unfair reputation as a miserable band; their music may often be bleak or difficult but live they express a deep joy. As I once remember the singer, Thom Yorke, articualting, joy is shared truth and this is what people experience at their concerts. For all that, they are also astonishing musicians and performers. This strange track is one for the live experience, or if not then greeting the sunrise in the country on a cool, crisp morning; holding coffee on the sofa in the silence of mid-morning; late-night after the wedding reception.

Lyrics

Today transfigures pain. It does justice to it, trumps it, redefines it. Pain is not removed by Easter Day. It is made holy, and is also reshaped into something that is no longer an ending. There’s a deeper, bigger truth than suffering and pain. Urban legend has it than in the days after 9/11, the working man’s prophet, America’s greatest living theologian Bruce Springsteen, was walking in New York. A man passed him by and told him “We need you now, Bruce”. If that’s true or not has long since become irrelevant. What he wrote as he reflected on those awful events was an intoxicating, Easter-soaked transfiguring of pain, a narrative of 9/11 written from the viewpoint of a fireman killed in the rescue in the Twin Towers.

Lyrics

I’ve left the most obvious to last. I tried to avoid U2, partly because some people seem to think I listen to nothing but (most definitely true); and because they are such a divisive band for Christians and non-Christians alike. But after the last 6-7 months I’ve just experienced, this little track seemed a good Easter Day summary to go out on. That, and if you’re sitting in a chocolate-induced coma right now, you can have bags of fun trying to name all the artists shown in this video.

 Lyrics

Also in this series: 

Introduction

Palm Sunday

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Good Friday

Holy Saturday

Music For Holy Week, Saturday

There was a garden near the place he was crucified, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been placed. So, because it was Sabbath preparation for the Jews and the tomb was convenient, they placed Jesus in it. John 19:41-42 (The Message)

God’s dead body. A borrowed tomb. Not a day of rest, but a day at rest. Endless speculation as to what happened to Jesus on this day. In reality, of course, we can never know. He was dead.

Two songs this time, again both on the same post.

I’ve loved Nirvana’s music. I was a student when they were the biggest band in the world, so it was perfect timing. This cover version of Leadbelly’s song, meditating on death and possible murder is haunting and beautiful, establishing for me that sense of coldness, of loneliness and fear around this day.

Lyrics

What were the disciples doing this day? Again, speculation. Guilt, fear for their own safety would surely have figured. Futility, I’m sure. This song expresses the sense of giving up I imagine them to be experiencing.

Lyrics

Also in this series: 

Introduction

Palm Sunday

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Good Friday

Music For Holy Week, Good Friday

Jesus, again crying out loudly, breathed his last. Matthew 27:50 (The Message)

Crucifixion day. Rejection, framed, spit, nails, whips, anger, buck-passing, violence, fear, denial. All this and more are where we are today. A murderer freed, Jesus killed.  It should be a hard day. It is.

It’s hard to pick music. Most of it seems too obvious, too trivial, too offensive. But here’s a few that speak to me of this day. I’ve put all today’s choices on one post, rather than do a separate post for each one.

There’s a rich Biblical and theological tradition of saying that we are crucified with Christ. That is to say, that if we are to enter into all that Easter can mean for us, we have to allow ourselves to die a death before we move to new life. This is different to physical death; it’s a dying to a sense of our own sufficiency and ‘good-enough-ness’, letting go of the capacity to prove ourselves, accepting that Jesus somehow does for us what we do for ourselves. Every yes requires a no, every life a death.

Tori Amos would be horrified to know her work was being used in this context. Her music shows her to be someone deeply hurt by religion in general and Christians in particular. Her anger towards a God she doesn’t accept is palpable. Her first album, Little Earthquakes, from which this track is taken details much of her personal pain. It’s one of my all-time favourite albums. It articulates pain and suffering, and somehow turns it into beauty. At times it’s almost impossibly painful to listen to; at others it’s breathtakingly beautiful. This song takes the language of crucifixion and applies it to her own suffering and her own search for healing. Which makes it, in my view, dangerously appropriate for this day.

Lyrics

Most of us have no real answer to the question of what it means to have someone die for you or to die with someone. It’s a strange concept, really. Florence + The Machine are a band it’s taken me several goes at to ‘get’; but now I find their music deep, rich and true. If the spirituality of their music is anything then it’s some vaguely flavoured soup … but it’s beautiful and intoxicating and occasionally (like this song), disturbing. In a way I can’t explain, it speaks to me of something I experience on Good Friday.

Lyrics

Today should end with a sense of finality. It should feel like a defeat. I love the simple, mournful beauty of this song; a tinge of hope, but achingly sad.

Lyrics

Also in this series: 

Introduction

Palm Sunday

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Music For Holy Week, Thursday

Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he plunged into an agonizing sorrow. Then he said, “This sorrow is crushing my life out. Stay here and keep vigil with me.” Matthew 26:38

Thursday is the day of the Last Supper; of betrayal; of arrest; of blood; sweat and tears in a garden at night. The night before everything changes is a night of gradual abandonment, of looming mortality, of sleeplessness, of fear. It’s not a time for the faint-hearted. It’s tempting to skip over the next few days to Sunday’s trumpet blast of hope. But to do so is to fail to do justice the reality of the cost, the presence of death in life; to do so robs Sunday of true joy because you won’t really have gone to the depths.

Johnny Cash was the Man In Black; mourning colours whenever he performed singing country songs telling stories of murder and love, life and hope, death and loss. A Christian who wore his sin on his sleeve, his career underwent a strange kind of renaissance in his last years. This song is not his own, as was the case of much of his recorded work. He made it his own, however; written by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, an altogether different (if very gifted) musician, in Cash’s hands this becomes an epitaph, a confession and acceptance of mortality. One of the very last works he recorded, it stands as one of those rare pieces of music which demands silence in its wake, the better to echo and reverberate. It’s the song of a man who’s lived, who knows he’s to die. The video only develops and enhances this, to startling effect.

Lyrics

Also in this series

Introduction

Palm Sunday

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Music For Holy Week, Wednesday

That is when one of the Twelve, the one named Judas Iscariot, went to the cabal of high priests and said, “What will you give me if I hand him over to you?” They settled on thirty silver pieces. He began looking for just the right moment to hand him over. (Matthew 26:14-16, The Message)

Wednesday is when the plots start to gather momentum. Moving from theory to practice, Judas chooses his side. Jesus is starting to annoy powerful people, and they want rid of him. It feels as if there really is no way back from here. It’s easy to paint Judas as the embodiment of evil, but that would be to miss the point. What his story tells us is that it’s possible to live well and still end up going badly wrong. We all mask dark secrets; if we don’t bring them into the light at some point, they’ll come back to bite us somehow, somewhere, sometime. Judas’ betrayal is, in reality all too believable. Better to make him a cartoon villain than the normal person he actually is.

Hip-hop, like much contemporary music, has an easy reputation as about sex, money and other worldly pleasures. Some of it is, of course; much of it, though, deals with the big stuff of life with wit, intelligence and perception. Scroobius Pip is one half of one Britain’s best hip-hop acts, and this song is taken from his solo album. It’s a dark song about the dark struggles behind the balanced facades of celebrity; released around Halloween, the disturbing lyrics and video capture darkness, gathering gloom and fear well. It’s an uncomfortable song of uncomfortable truths, to which I feel Judas would ask me to pay close attention.

Lyrics (explicit)

Also In This Series

Introduction

Palm Sunday

Monday

Tuesday

 

Music For Holy Week, Monday

 One day he was teaching the people in the Temple, proclaiming the Message. The high priests, religion scholars, and leaders confronted him and demanded, “Show us your credentials. Who authorized you to speak and act like this?” (Luke 20:1-2, The Message)

It doesn’t take long for the tide to turn. Already the questions and plots are biting at his heels. Jesus’ responses are typically enigmatic and confusing, seemingly designed to alienate and confuse anyone not in the inner circle. It’s a clash of cultures, people conversing in two different languages. Authority is challenged, credentials presented in the most obtuse of ways. Jesus would be terrible at public relations, always confusing the powerful with soundbites that don’t seem to follow, always at pains to point out how he doesn’t fit.

I love R.E.M.’s music; Michael Stipe (their singer and main songwriter) is an intelligent, articulate man who has written some of the greatest songs of recent times; he’s also an intense and passionate live performer. I’ve seen the band once in person, countless times on-screen, and weekly in my own ears. I once spoke to someone who worked for the BBC whilst R.E.M. were preparing for a broadcast. They were rehearsing in the empty studio; it was a sound check, with no reason for special performance. The person I spoke to said most bands dealt with these requirements by conserving energy, doing the bare minimum. Stipe, he said, performed to the audience of none as deeply as he would at the moment of recording. He always lost himself in his own music, never bored, never going through the motions; even if there were only a handful of technicians to hear it.

Today’s song isn’t one of his best known, taken from the band’s less-loved later period. Like Jesus in Holy Week, the band always seem at pains to obscure what they’re really trying to say; certainly they’re not religious in any way. This song is one of the few this week to mention Jesus by name, though. It’s by no means a song of devotion to him; admiration maybe. One of the many things I adore about this song is how well it presents the clash between world-views that Jesus presents. He remains present but also just out of reach throughout this song. Purveying wisdom, but no-one’s quite sure from whence it or he comes. Let those who have ears …

The melody moves me deeply, too. It’s simple, beautiful, but also seems somehow discordant. I’ve been listening to this song since its release in 1996, and I’m still seeing new things in it. Much like I am with Jesus.

Lyrics

Also In This Series

Introduction

Palm Sunday