The murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich last week has shown again how living in an age of mass media distorts our normal human responses. The problem of over-exposure to tragedy is well known – the images on our TV screens no longer have any effect on us – but this atrocity revealed again that our responses can also become affected. This isn’t a rant against the press, just a few thoughts on how it might be possible for public figures to better express themselves, using the media for authentic communication rather than letting it control them and their reactions.
This deeply disturbing event has induced public statements from politicians and faith leaders from across the country. But the problem with statements is that they produce soundbites, and the problem with soundbites is that they’re reductive, boiling all complexity down to pithy sentences which can be easily quoted. It was particularly these lines spoken by David Cameron outside Number 10 that were unsettling: ‘The people who did this were trying to divide us. They should know: something like this will only bring us together and make us stronger.’
In many conversations since I’ve struggled to articulate why these words made me uneasy. I don’t want to sound unreasonable; I understand that issuing rallying cries is part of a politician’s job – we need our leaders to make bold claims designed to reassure at times of national crisis. But the merest trace of triumphalism seemed misplaced to me – wasn’t it too early for our ears to hear a message of ‘being made stronger’ when our eyes were still bombarded by images of men holding meat cleavers next to a crumpled body? Wasn’t it too simplistic to anticipate a society ‘coming together’ whilst the English Defence League went on the rampage and reports of retributive attacks on Muslims spiked?
But it’s not just nuance or subtlety that gets eradicated, it’s that the press office treatment seems to iron out all genuine human emotion too. There were plenty of exclamations of moral outrage (Cameron was ‘sickened’ by the ‘shocking’ event, the Muslim Council of Britain ‘condemned’ a ‘truly barbaric attack’), but there were very few expressions of grief at the loss of a husband and a father, of despair that two young men had given their lives to such warped ideology. Such sanitised reaction seemed removed from the real tragedy of what happened on the streets of South London.
For in failing to come close to the real pain of such an event, public figures then fail to express any true compassion. I lost count of the number of times I heard the formulaic phrase ‘our thoughts are with the victim and his family’ – every interview had to start with these words until it began sounding like a tick-box exercise in condolence. Even Archbishop Welby’s statement, though timely in its expression of unity with Muslim leaders, felt a little empty in its prosaic expression of ‘our prayers are with...’. Again I acknowledge the burden of expectation on Justin Welby in his public role and I don’t envy his job, and yet perhaps the Church could do more at these times to be seen to ‘mourn with those who mourn’ (Romans 12:15). ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord,’ says the psalmist. The Bible is full of the language of lament: let us not be afraid to use it.
And maybe this is true for how people of faith respond to suffering more generally. For in our efforts to bring hope in desperate situations it can be all too easy to offer platitudes and false optimism; in wanting to lift people out of their trials we can fail to stand with them. Television dramatist Dennis Potter put it very frankly in an interview with Melvyn Bragg just weeks before he died (having been diagnosed with terminal cancer at just fifty-eight he may have heard rather too many banalities from the mouths of well-meaning religious types):
‘I don’t see the point of not acknowledging the pain and the misery and the grief of the world,’ he said, ‘And if you say ‘Ah but God understands’ or ‘Through it you’ll come to a greater appreciation...’ I mean, I don’t think... well you nasty old sod, if that’s God... that’s not God, that’s not my God.’
Of course there are times when we must speak words of hope, the radical hope of the gospel, but there are also times when simply pointing to the God of Romans 8 ‘who works all things together for good’ (the spiritual equivalent of David Cameron’s promise that ‘this will make us stronger’ ) might sound hollow to someone in pain. Perhaps at these times we’d do better to turn to John’s gospel and read that even though he knew the end from the beginning, he knew the hope of glory, he knew all would be well, still ‘Jesus wept’.