LETTER FROM REV ROBERT BARTHRAM
In my letters over the past 18 months, Covid has understandably been a predominant theme with all the challenges it has presented to us as churches and individuals. There are however other things happening in the world, which was very obvious watching the television news yesterday evening. The BBC News began with a piece on Afghanistan, focusing on the humanitarian disaster for the civilian population but including their reporter speaking to leaders of the Taliban. There is a danger we can just focus on our own country’s news or be even more local than that and other places may seem far away and irrelevant but everywhere is part of God’s creation. Here in Reading, there is that special link to Afghanistan with the memorial in the Forbury Gardens; the Maiwand Lion was erected in 1884 to commemorate the death of 328 men from the 66th Berkshire Regiment during the campaign of the Second Anglo-Afghan War between 1878 and 1880, the statue being named after the Battle of Maiwand.
More recently, there has been the death of 457 British Forces personnel; I can only imagine the pain of their families watching the current scenes on the television news. It is estimated that, since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, over 111,000 Afghans have been killed and deaths from indirect causes may account for an additional 360,000 Afghan deaths. It is understandable that many have the reaction of, ‘Let’s just keep out’ but everywhere is part of God’s world and there are always implications of action or inaction.
Like many others during lockdown, I have been doing some sorting out and I came across old church newsletters including one from September 2005, which was the year of the London bombings, when someone from the church I was then serving was on one of the tube trains and was almost killed. One of the possible consequences of what is currently happening in Afghanistan is 'an increase in terrorism around the world’. As a recent newspaper article said, ‘whatever boils up from the . . . newly ungoverned plains and mountains will surely hit us here in Europe.’ Since the newsletter in 2005 I have had the opportunity to learn more but I still agree with what I wrote then:
“The motivation seems to have been a combination of political views and religious conviction. The overriding emotion regarding politics seems to have been anger. At times anger is quite right. I think we should be angry that every three seconds someone dies from malnutrition. In part, it is anger about that which made Live Aid happen. Anger can be channelled in a positive way or tragically in a negative way. What determines this are the other views that one holds.
What then of the other views? The form of Islam that was believed by the bombers is according to many not a true form of Islam but tragically, it is a view held by a significant minority. Its most common effect on others is the suffering for Christian minorities in Islamic countries. Sadly, the thousands who have died in recent years go largely without publicity and justice. What though of the belief that is in this form of Islam, which includes the conviction that a martyr’s death gains immediate access to paradise? Here we see in awful horror the implications of wrong belief. For here is the idea that we can gain favour with God by what we do. It is an extreme form of the view but it is still a form of the oldest heresy for the Christian that salvation is in our hands. It is not our view, and never can be. Heaven can only be a gift received by faith. To kill another can, unbelievably, be seen by some as ‘good works’ but it all relies on the assumption that our good works can have an eternal effect. We, unlike many others in the world, do not believe that. As we sing in a modern hymn, ‘only by grace can we enter, only by grace can we stand; not by our human endeavour, but by the blood of the Lamb.’
Yours in Christ,