Where has God gone?

Had I been born into a protestant family, I might have grown up to be a vicar. And if asked what the most attractive part of that job would be, I’d say the captive audience I’d have each Sunday. It’s every public speaker’s dream. Sadly, all too often, when I go to mass, I am frustrated that the priest hasn’t put his ten minutes of sermon time to better use. It annoys me that, on the one hand, the Catholic Church, as an example, bemoans the fact that young people are not interested in the Church, while on the other, it seems to be doing sod all to make the Church (and its teachings) relevant. It’s public speaking 101 and something I preach to my students ad nauseam: give me a reason to care.

When I’m in Hungary, I usually go to a mass said by a Hungarian priest, in Hungarian. Not understanding helps keep my blood pressure down. But over the Easter weekend, I went to a very multicultural Easter Vigil … said in English. We’d come back in from the courtyard, having lit the Pascal candle from the fire outside. The priest was moving up the church, lighting our candles along the way. As he disappeared into the darkness leaving behind him a sea of light, a child’s voice rang out, anxious, questioning: Mama, where has God gone?

Last week, in the Iraqi village of Al-Asriya, about 25 miles south of Baghdad, one suicide bomber decided to end his life and in doing so, cut short the lives of 32 innocents. They had come to watch a game of football. They had come to support their teams. They had not come to die. Nearly half were boys aged 10 to 16 – the village’s future. More than 80 others were injured. The attack was claimed by Isis.

Some days later, on Easter Sunday evening, in the car park at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore, Pakistan, another suicide bomber blew himself to pieces just feet from the children’s swings. At least 72 people died with him, including 24 children. More than 340 others were injured. This time, responsibility was claimed by Jamat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, who specifically stated that it had deliberately targeted Christians and will continue to so do.

That child’s question is still bouncing around my head: Where has God gone?

When the subject of religion comes up these days, it’s often met by frustration and anger and in some cases, disgust. If it wasn’t for religion, people say, we wouldn’t be in the state we’re in. Muslims, Jews, Christians. What are we fighting for? Kofi Annan once said: The problem is not the Koran, or the Torah, or the Bible; the problem is never the faith, but the faithful and how they behave towards each other. And he has a point. The war being waged by Isis and the Taliban is one based in ideology. All the denunciation in the world won’t make it stop. They are immune to castigation, to rancour, to censure. The combined military might of those opposing them doesn’t have the power to finish it either. And as the death toll increases, the rest of the world spirals further into despair, wondering what we can do.

But what if we were to go back to God’s teaching – to whatever God we call our own – and look not at the letter of what’s in our respective gospels, not at the information it contains per se, but at the teaching, the essence. Be kind. Be selfless. Be honest. Be merciful. If we can relate to it again, then maybe, just maybe, we might realise that our God, in fact, hasn’t gone anywhere at all.

First published in the Budapest Times 1 April 2016


Fearing fear

I went to bed one night this week, planning a round-the-world trip to celebrate a big birthday later this year. I was imagining where I might go, who I might visit, what I might do. I fell asleep trying to figure out how long I could reasonably take off work or how much work I could do when travelling.

I awoke up to hear that Brussels had been bombed. The airport. The metro. Brussels? Brussels! Brussels?! The core of the European Union. The city from which the EU is governed. A city that many of my diplomat friends have called home and many others still call home.

I’m left wondering why I’m so surprised.

Istanbul, a city I’ve visited just once, but one that was high on my list of places to go back to, has seen a slew of attacks in recent months. Streets I walked on. Cafés I passed by. Corners on which I stood breathing in the city. Blown up. Gone. Perhaps amongst the dead and wounded are people I met in passing. I’ll never know.

Paris, a city I reconnected with last year, another city high on my list of places to go back to, has also been a victim of the terrorism that’s plaguing the world. Could I ever watch a football game or go to a music venue there without wondering what if? I’m not sure.

brusselsAnd now Brussels. I’ve been there a number of times. I prefer their chocolate truffles to their beer. As I write, the casualty count has hit the hundred mark and the metro is set to reopen. The airport? That’s another story.

French physicist and Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie said once that nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood. I grew up with the IRA and learned from an early age that terrorists win by changing how we live our lives, by instilling fear, by inducing paranoia.  I thought I understood enough not to be afraid, not to change, not to fear. Now, I’m not sure.

I used to take comfort in the fact that a fortune teller told me once that I’d live until I was 87. Have at it lads, I thought. I’m invincible for a few years yet. But then they never said what sort of life it would be. Terrorist attacks leave more than death and destruction in their wake. Hearts and souls are irreparably damaged. Children grow up far too quickly. Parents grow old far too soon. And the ugly seeds of distrust are sown. Yes, fear makes strangers of people who would be friends (a nod to actress Shirley MacLaine there).

Later, as the news from Belgium flooded the Net, I checked out Budapest, using the metro, the tram, the bus. And everywhere I saw the same thing. Crowds of tourists and locals alike going about their business but now under the watchful eye of pairs of armed police and soldiers strategically positioned on street corners, in metro stations, by tram stops. I felt a modicum of safety at this rapid response, but know in my heart of hearts that if IS wants to find a way, it will. Sky News reported one IS Commander quoted in an online Islamist magazine as saying: My advice is to stop looking for specific targets, hit everyone and everything. And that would appear to be their MO. I doubt I will ever understand what drives them. Or what makes it okay in their eyes to cut short the lives of random strangers. I doubt I will ever believe in any cause enough to knowingly and willingly terrorise those who don’t.

And while I might be more vigilant as I travel, I will still go. Because, more than anything else, I fear fear itself. I do not want to be afraid.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 March 2016