The events of this last week – the Orlando shooting, the murder of Jo Cox MP, and now today reports of an attempt on Donald Trump’s life – have caused us to pause and ponder why some people choose to commit murder or mass murder, and how we label and explain those actions as onlookers.
What do we label as terrorism? What do we label as assassination or murder with no political motive?
(And why does mental illness keep coming into the reports – as though mental illness, which affects 25% of the population, is the sole cause and entire explanation of murder? I’ve said it before, but I feel like I need to keep saying it – the vast majority of people affected by mental illness will harm themselves, not others – or even be a victim of crime because they are ‘different’. Mentally ill people are much more likely to be victims than murderers, so it frustrates me that it keeps cropping up in mainstream media as an explanation of the unexplainable, which adds more stigma to an already-stigmatised illness.)
Today, as a Briton in the US was arrested for apparently attempting to kill Donald Trump, I can see many similarities between his offence and the murderer of Jo Cox. They are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but both have turned to violence to achieve a political aim. They may think that history or their political allies will approve of their actions. They both have murderous hearts.
The racism, hate speech (and hateful speech) in both the EU Referendum and US election campaigns have an awful lot to answer for, and it is alarming how many people have rallied to certain politicians’ calls to hate the outsider. This is the background and context for these actions, and it should cause us to ask some hard questions of our society and politics.
But there are also core, universal truths to express. Murder is wrong, and each life is precious – however offensive or dangerous that person may be – and we don’t have the right to take someone’s life. This is what I believe.
When we see gross injustices and terrorism, anger and fear spring up alongside. It’s natural to feel threatened by people murdering or speaking hatred against us or those we love and respect. It is also natural to want to label murderers, to draw a line around them and say, ‘They are influenced by Isil/ they are mentally ill…this is why this happened. They are not like us. We have an explanation now.’
We want something to blame. Evil has crashed into our lives, and it’s terrifying. It is easier to argue about possible explanations, and let that displace the panic we feel. It is understandable to feel out of control and frustrated in the midst of this – but sometimes our defensiveness can turn into attack without us realising.
So while there are some joking today on Twitter about the attempt on Donald Trump’s life, I don’t joke.
Our character is revealed not in how we treat our friends, but our enemies.
Donald Trump is a person. Jo Cox’s death was wrong – hideously, painfully, tragically wrong. But to kill Donald Trump would also be wrong.
I’m no fan of Donald Trump, and I am hoping and praying he doesn’t win the US election – but as soon as we start nurturing the hate in our hearts then we are in trouble, because although we may only be a little way down the road, at the very end of that road lies murder.
This is pretty much what Jesus expressed in the Sermon on the Mount – that we know that murder is wrong and is answerable to the court, but murder starts in our hearts, and so anyone who treats their “brother or sister” with contempt and calls them an offensive name is already on that road and guilty of sin. (Matthew 5:21-22, paraphrased.)
Jesus challenges the instinctive way we distance ourselves from those we fear or hate, and calls us to ‘love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us.’ You don’t have to agree or approve of your enemy’s actions to love them. But to love your enemy requires a different posture: looking someone in the eye rather than turning our backs.
I am challenging myself throughout the EU referendum and US election debates, and these are some of the questions I am asking myself:
- How would I speak about X as a person if they were on the opposite political side? Would I be ashamed of what I said, and want to take it back?
- Do I remember to limit my criticism to someone’s words and actions, rather than attacking them as a person?
- What labels do I give to one side that I wouldn’t give to the other? [edited to add] When talking of people-groups (e.g. referring to race, nationality, sexuality, gender, disability, employment status etc) do I fall into the trap of talking about them as if they were all the same, a single entity? Where do my stereotypes come from, and supposing I told a dear friend who came from that people group my assumptions – how would they feel?
- To borrow JK Rowling’s terminology – whom do I see as monsters and villains? What happens when I choose to view them as complex humans, made in the image of God? What shifts occur in my heart then?
- Of whom do I speak with contempt? How can I love my enemy, even while disagreeing with them? How can I pray for them?
- What is happening to my own heart in this debate? Why is that?
- When I am angry, what is behind that anger? What sadness or fears lurk there?
- How do I express that anger? Is it healthy?
- When I vote, am I voting positively, out of a settled conviction from informed choice and logical reasons? Or am I simply voting with my gut, out of fear or anger?
- When I vote, will this be an outcome that is good for as many as possible? Or is it just good for me?
These are hard questions to ask of ourselves, of myself. I don’t always succeed in loving well. But if everyone paused to examine the hate in their own hearts, well, then – who knows? – we might just change the world.
Over to you:
- Which of those 10 questions particularly challenge you today?