While we naturally continue to hope and pray that atrocities such as the latest terror attacks in Paris remain isolated events, even our governments are telling us to expect more of the same. I have the unwelcome feeling that terrorism in Europe in the name of so-called 'Islamic State' is in danger of becoming the 'new normal'. Just as after 9/11, our world is in turmoil, and the political and social landscape is changing. Amid such upheaval, the Bible reminds us that Christians are "receiving a Kingdom that cannot be shaken" (Hebrews 12:27-28). The question that's been on my mind – ever since the Charlie Hebdo attacks and now again with increasing urgency – is 'what does a Kingdom of God response to this new wave of terror look like?'
Casting the net out into the world God loves
One of my favourite images of the Kingdom of God is that of a net, thrown into the sea, and filled with both good fish and bad fish (Matthew 13:47-48). Our natural tendency in the face of adversity is to hunker down and withdraw; but like the net in the parable, Jesus has thrown us into the middle of it all! We might be increasingly scared of the world on our doorstep, but Jesus has specifically prayed for us not to be taken out of it (John 17:15). Bad stuff may happen, nevertheless God loves the world, good fish and bad, and sends us out to be fully present and correct there, acting as salt and light. And while this certainly involves sharing the gospel, there's more to being a net than that.
Jeremiah 29:7 records God's words to his people in exile: "seek the peace and prosperity of the city... pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." That places a firm priority on the welfare of civil society.
Here and now, this involves praying and acting to uphold freedom of worship – and a proper place for religion in modern secular society. In the days immediately following the Paris attacks, one of the most downloaded tracks in France from iTunes was John Lennon's Imagine ("and no religion, too"), and the #PrayForParis hashtag was met with "we don't need more prayers. We've got enough religion already." There's a real danger of religiously-inspired terror being used as an argument to reject all religious practice in the public sphere: prohibiting anyone from casting the net, as it were.
That's a worrying prospect – but the crisis has opened up the potential for a far more promising alternative, too. As I have argued before, France needs to abandon secularism and return to true secularity (laïcité) – a level playing field for all religions instead of a blanket denial of spirituality. This would allow excluded Muslims breathing space to modernise and integrate, and give Christians greater opportunities to cast the net of the Kingdom of God, providing more salt and light everywhere. Today, there are signs this might be happening. A post-attack inter-faith ceremony held in a civic facility attended by the authorities may not be everyone's cup of tea, but to my mind it's an unprecedented acknowledgement by the state that religion should be allowed to be a part of everyday life.
Love your enemies – and your neighbour
We constantly need to bear in mind that the Christian battle is not against flesh and blood. When dispassionate individuals shoot innocent bystanders indiscriminately, it's hard not to demonise them – or their hapless co-religionists. Categorising your enemies as "psychopathic monsters" is a convenient way of dehumanising them: it fuels the fiction that they, unlike us, are not real people at all. But as a prison chaplain I'm constantly struck by the realisation that the inmates I know – not a few of whom have been labelled as monsters – are ordinary humans, just like me. I have to face the fact that sin, the human condition, is something common to us all. To borrow a famous line, "I have met the enemy, and he is us". With that sobering thought comes hope, too: nobody is beyond the reach of the grace of God; even the man known as Legion came to Jesus (Mark 5:1-20). Beneath any evil, no matter how great, lies a greater truth: that of our fundamental humanity – our redeemable humanity.
And so it is that we are to love even our enemies. In the wake of the Paris atrocities, our congregation was reminded of those words of Jesus by someone who, through family connections, knows first-hand precisely what political violence and terrorism mean – and this was not some gushy emotional response on her part. Rather, it was a humble yet determined acknowledgement of our need to take that command seriously. Working out what this means for secular governments might be a headache, but we can at least start to implement it locally, and individually.
Amid horrors in our familiar surroundings, it's easy to be swept away by the tide of images and opinions served up by mass and social media alike, and be overwhelmed with a sense of paralysis and powerlessness. But the Kingdom of God thrives in apparent weakness. It's not about propaganda or worldly power (or, heaven preserve us, opportunism by proud and foolish Christian leaders); nor is it about blandly 'liking' or 'retweeting' something somebody else said. It's about allowing God's New Covenant Spirit to teach each of us from the inside; "search us, know our heart and our anxious thoughts, and lead us, individually, on the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24).
The Kingdom of God is within us; a tiny seed that can grow to the largest tree; a few unassuming loaves and fishes that can provide enough and more to spare. Where do we begin? Very simply, by loving our neighbour – who, Jesus reminds us, may well be someone we feel thoroughly repelled by. How do we behave with our local Muslim family? The odd-looking person on the bus? Our office cleaner? The veiled woman or the bearded man? In all likelihood, they're as apprehensive about us as we are about them right now. They won't see the Kingdom of God on Facebook or the evening news. If they see it at all, it will be in you and me. Will we give them that opportunity?
David Buick pastors independent church Christ Pour Tous ('Christ for All') in Rennes, and has served as protestant chaplain in his local prison since 2003 – where those of several faiths, including Muslims, share the same worship space.