Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Making compassion and solidarity routine rather than the exception

23 May 2017

William Temple Foundation Director, Professor Chris Baker, on the terrorist attack on Manchester.

As the tragic and horrific events of yet another terrorist attack filter through, this time in Manchester, I am once again struggling to come to terms with the enormity of the blind hatred and violence towards others that characterises so much of our modern public life.

Manchester Arena is a place I know well, having been to several concerts there over the years that I lived in the North West. The fact that children are among the victims whose lives have been cruelly taken from them in their prime adds another level of horror and despair to an already desperate situation. Election campaigning has quite rightly been suspended, and it is hard frankly to see how we can return to such a thing while those who died will be remembered and mourned in the days and weeks to come. However, like the IRA bomb attack on Manchester over 20 years ago, we know that the city will rise up from this outrage and continue to celebrate its identity as a core place of musical and cultural innovation and tolerance amidst diversity.

We have already seen acts of human compassion, kindness and solidarity that always emerge in the wake of such outrages – opening spaces and hearts to comfort and make safe those caught up in the aftermath, taking people home after the city centre shut down. We as a society instinctively come together as a wider community. It reminds me of what anthropologists, following on from the pioneering work of people like Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner call a communitas; i.e. a temporary form of community that emerges when a group of people make a transition from one threshold of experience or identity to the next. Symptomatic of these temporary forms of community are that the normal rules and hierarchies of social engagement are reversed or suspended. So for example, in the immediate aftermath of a mass tragedy, people cross a threshold from a settled and predictable existence into a chaotic and fearful one until ‘normal’ life is signalled as having returned to its usual patterns and rhythms, Within this liminal state, those most directly affected by a tragedy such as this will be the most deeply changed – they will eventually take on new identities and worldviews, and their sense of solidarity with those who have shared the horror of these events will mark them out as a community within a community whose experience is unique and unrepeatable.

For the rest of us, our sense of being in a communitas of changed citizens will probably be far more short-lived. Yet while we, as a nation, are in this heightened sense of communitas, we are prepared to suspend our normal rules of social engagement, often characterised by suspicion, fear and bitterness, and perhaps our own sense of entitlement. These norms, that so often come to the fore at election times, and which are often stoked up by a partisan press and social media, are subverted by a temporary sense of solidarity, empathy and compassion We instinctively put the needs of others before our own – we see others as vulnerable bundles of humanity that remind us of the precariousness of human happiness, and we literally or metaphorically say ‘Thank God – what if it had been my daughter or son caught up in this tragedy – how would I be coping now and so how awful it must be for those going through it now?’

The question that always hits me after these awful events is why can we only seem capable of acting like a decent compassionate society in a momentary way. Why can’t communitas – a temporary community of people recognising they are on a similar journey and supporting and affirming each other in that experience – not be more of the norm rather than the exception. The answers to these questions have of course haunted humankind down the ages – they are a mixture of the theological, the political, the economic and the psychological.

But I am guessing at the heart of the all these terrible events lies a distorted sense, in the minds of the perpetrators, of one’s own importance and the message one has, so that one then feels compelled to impose them on others. If they don’t listen, then one is entitled to force them to listen through acts of unspeakable violence. Perhaps the apparent increased prevalence of violent attacks from people who demand their voices and opinions be heard is a response to growing diversity in our society, and an accompanying fear that the specialness or significance of their message will be lost in the welter of competing voices.

If this is the case then one response is, first of all, to continue to celebrate and strengthen diversity – to not succumb to the rhetoric of highlighting difference and specialness. The second, is then to move from celebration to proactive and strategic reflection on the common values and experiences that unite humans to one another and which we seem wilfully to want to ignore or take for granted.

In the immediate shadow of this latest outrage, such reflection can sometimes feel futile. On the other hand, if nothing else, it is more important than ever to create spaces in which the normal rules of engagement are suspended, as a sign of hope and determination that we as a society will never succumb to the mindless nihilism of terrorism. As a communitas of diversity and hope, we are reminded of the importance of articulating and creating alternative visons of society, where the norms of decent and compassionate behaviour are indeed just that – more the norm, and less of the exception.


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