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