On grief, anger and agendas

It’s funny how things said can suddenly take on a whole new level of poignancy.  On Friday  morning I was involved in two little twitter threads. The first was started by Daniel Blanche sharing the lines of a beautiful worship song:

The second linked to a TV discussion that Graham Nicholls of Affinity was involved in on whether we need a minister for faith.

My response:

This led to a little discussion with a humanist about why we might or might not want politicians who have faith (in my view specifically faith in Christ) and his response that religion should be kept private.

Then in the afternoon we were forcibly reminded of the darkness that there is in our world as the news began to come out first that there had been an incident in Southend, then confirmation that it was the ,local MP who had been brutally stabbed at a constituency surgery  and finally the tragic news that he had died of his wounds. Sometimes the darkness seems particularly strong.

David Amess, the local MP  was one of those politicians who professed faith in Christ, known as a devout Roman Catholic.  Indeed, here was an example of someone whose faith did leak out of their private life and into their public priorities.  Amess never held high office but he had been a prominent and well known politician. He was famous for two reasons. The first was that it was his successful defence of his Basildon seat in 1992 that became associated with the turning point on election night when it became clear that John Major would retain his majority. Secondly, he was well known for consistently championing his local community, first in Basildon, then Southend and finding a means to show horn a reference into whatever debate or Question Time he participated in.

Amess had a commitment to public service that meant he prioritised representing local people over seeking power.  He was also committed to agendas, some fashionable, some less so, some that you would automatically associate with his particular brand of politics, a man on the Thatcherite right, others less so.  He campaigned for animal welfare and against fox-hunting, he unsurprisingly was pro traditional marriage and anti-abortion but the latter arose not out of theoretical morality but also out of deep concern for the vulnerable and so that factored into other campaigns he participated in, a choir for those with learning disabilities, legislation to protect the vulnerable and assistance for refugees. And all of this also meant that a man on the right of his party built links and alliances across the political spectrum. What struck home yesterday was the number of MPS across the party divides and even onto the left of the Labour Party who paid deep tribute to a man who they had come to know as a friend, someone known for their care, compassion, kindness and decency.

At the same time, there was the usual social media phenomena.  For all those who simply expressed their grief, there were those who needed to preface their condolences with the words “although I disagreed…”  When someone has died, such words are redundant. We don’t need you to signal your political position and we do not presume when someone responds with shock or sadness to a tragedy that they share any or all of the views of someone who has died.

Then there was the other thing that happened. People began to attach other comments and commentary.  As soon as something like this happens, we want to start providing a rationale. However, the reality is that we don’t yet know why the person who chose to walk into an MPs surgery and murder him in cold blood in front of others.  Throughout the day, different people and groups became the targets of vitriol.

At the Labour Party Conference, Angela Rayner had spoken about the Tories as scum.  She became an early target. If we talk about those we disagree with in disparaging language then we cannot be surprised when this encourages violence against others.  Now, it is worth noting here that over the years, politicians from all sides have often used extreme language against their opponents. It was the lauded Labour politician Aneurin Bevan who referred to Tories as “lower than vermin” in the 1940s and furthermore, some were quick to point out the way that violent language had been deployed against those on the left too.  At the time of Jo Cox’s death we talked about the toxicity of political debate as the backdrop to her murder was the increasingly bad tempered Brexit debate.

I think we can both say that such language was crass and unhelpful. We can recognise as we did in 2016 that there needs to be a better way of holding a national conversation whilst also realising that the only people responsible were those who chose to attack Jo Cox and David Amess. There is no excuse or justification for their evil acts.

Then there were those quick to blame government policies. The assumption was that the person must have been suffering from mental health issues and lashed out. This ignores the point that iniital reports suggest a level of pre-meditation and plays into a deeply unhealthy and unhelpful myth that those with mental illness are a danger to others. They rarely are.  Do we need to talk about mental health? Yes we do. Do we need to keep looking at the impact of Government policies on vulnerable people? Yes we do? Is it right to link those things to this evil atrocity? No.

Finally, as newspapers began to report that Counter Terrorism police were leading the investigation, that them man was of Somali origin and that Islamism was being mentioned there were the predictable comments about immigration and asylum.  This rather ignores the point that in 2016, Jo Cox’s attacker was an indigenous, far-right supporter. Such commentary and speculation is also deeply unhelpful at such an early stage in the investigation. We will do well to wait until the police have been able to report further.**

I want to say too things here. Just as there isn’t a place for virtue signalling qualifications when responding to express condolences nor is this the place for other agendas. All that mattered yesterday was that a man had set out to do his job and had not come home. All that mattered was that a life had been lost, a wife had lost her husband, children their dad and others including his team members and the emergency services called had been forced to experience a deeply traumatic and horrific incident.

Secondly, I think in a couple of those contexts we also need to acknowledge the place of grief. I don’t think the attacks on Angela Rayner were right, however those comments, unlike some counter-points clearly didn’t arise out of calculated political agendas but were a raw reaction in the moment.  It may be hard for those of us to realise this outside of the bubble of politics but there is a connection between party members/supporters, MPs and minsters/shadow ministers that functions like an extended family.[1]  They will have met Sir David at conferences, had him to speak at their constituency events, seen him at parliamentary receptions.  Furthermore, there will have been some transference onto their own local MPs, the fear that what had happened to one could have happened to others, the realisation that if it had happened in their constituency then they might have been there.

What this means is that a lot of people were and are in grief. With grief comes sadness and shock but also anger and blame.  I think we saw some of that yesterday and no doubt we’ll see more in the days and weeks ahead. When someone in public dies we should be ready for this just as we are when a private citizen dies.

If we want the better public discourse that people talked about yesterday then it does have to begin with our response to horrific events like this. It means that we need to show proper empathy for others and it means that we need to learn that there is a time for everything including a time to speak and a time to be silent.

At the moment our priority should be to pray for those in Sir David Amess’s family and community who are grieving. We also pray both for justice for the perpetrator and for his salvation.  Finally, we are reminded again that there is one true source of light in this darkness.

Do you feel the world is broken?
(We do)
Do you feel the shadows deepen?
(We do)
But do you know that all the dark won’t
Stop the light from getting through?
(We do)
Do you wish that you could see it all made new?
We do)

Is all creation groaning?
(It is)
Is a new creation coming?
(It is)
Is the glory of the Lord to be the light within our midst?
(It is)
Is it good that we remind ourselves of this?
(It is)

Is anyone worthy? Is anyone whole?
Is anyone able to break the seal and open the scroll?
The Lion of Judah who conquered the grave
He was David’s root and the Lamb who died to ransom the slave

Is He worthy? Is He worthy?
Of all blessing and honor and glory
Is He worthy of this?
He is

Does the Father truly love us?
(He does)
Does the Spirit move among us?
(He does)
And does Jesus, our Messiah hold forever those He loves?
(He does)
Does our God intend to dwell again with us?
(He does)

Is anyone worthy?
Is anyone whole?
Is anyone able to break the seal and open the scroll?
The Lion of Judah who conquered the grave
He is David’s root and the Lamb who died to ransom the slave
From every people and tribe
Every nation and tongue
He has made us a kingdom and priests to God
To reign with the Son

Is He worthy? Is He worthy?
Of all blessing and honor and glory
Is He worthy? Is He worthy?
Is He worthy of this?
He is!
Is He worthy? Is He worthy?
He is!
He is![2]


[1] Whilst distant from such things now, I was in my youth involved in politics at student level. 

[2] Andrew Peterson

*** I understand from this morning’s press reports that a possible terrorism link is being seriously pursued. Again, I believe it is important to wait patiently for full details and again, this does not have anything to say about immigration and asylum generally.

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