Britain’s religious leaders are in the mood for telling home truths. In a stark Christmas sermon, the Most Rev Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, compared the Jihadist threat to King Herod, to whom Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, also alluded. In the Bible, Herod orders the massacre of young children in a delirious attempt to kill Jesus Christ. In today’s Middle East, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) is no less bloodthirsty.
“Today’s Herods, Isis and the like around the world in so many faiths, propose false apocalypses.”
Archbishop Justin Welby
It murders critics and religious minorities, enforcing its religious code with violence. It represents a fanatical perversion of Islam, and to defeat it, the West must understand its motivations. Religious leaders, educated in theological nuance, are well placed to decode its language. Archbishop Welby told congregants that it seeks to trigger an “apocalypse… defined by themselves and heralded only by the angel of death”. Isil cannot coexist with Western democracy. It is hell-bent on destroying it.
If theology helps us to understand the threat, theology, observed the Queen, also offers comfort. She said that while the year had contained moments of profound darkness, the Gospel of John speaks of a light shining in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome.
For those who do not believe in God, the light could be a metaphor for human decency. It could represent those who have donated money to refugees or even opened their doors to them. It could stand for the soldiers who have sacrificed so much to protect democracy and the oppressed. It could mean the simple act of our families gathering at Christmas and giving thanks for each other’s companionship. The smallest things in life are often the most inspiring.
“Many people say the first Christmas after losing a loved one is particularly hard. But it’s also a time to remember all that we have to be thankful for”
Queen Elizabeth II
For those who believe, like the Queen, that the Nativity is more than a metaphor, there is another dimension to this story: the hope that emanates from a baby’s birth. “Christ’s unchanging message,” said the Queen, “was not one of revenge or violence but simply that we should love one another.” That message is not just a polite request but a commandment borne of realism. In an age of global terrorism, WH Auden’s words have never been truer: “We must love one another or die.”
Love is a necessity. The West must preserve its security and be hard-headed about the fight ahead. But it must not succumb to fear and lose the human decency that has helped it to win so many battles against so many foes. It must seek to be, to borrow Her Majesty’s powerful image, a light of the world.