Unforgettable photographs

There are a handful of press photos that have etched themselves indelibly into our memory as portraying the horrors of recent times: traumatised children running away from the My Lai Massacre; an aeroplane crashing into the twin towers on 9/11; the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach during the Syrian refugee crisis. They will undoubtedly be joined from now on by the unforgettable image of desperate Afghans clinging to an American air force plane as it takes off from Kabul, some of them falling to their death.  

What message do these pictures give us? What conclusions can we draw from the astoundingly rapid victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the consequent chaos at Kabul airport? A Christian tries to go beneath the surface to discern what God may be saying through such things. Anyone who thinks that is easy is a fool, but that does not mean we shouldn’t try. We can only do it if we are prepared for uncomfortable messages, for God’s ways “are as far above ours as heaven is above earth.”

To give an example, the attack on the Twin Towers was widely portrayed as an attack on Western civilisation and Western values. But what exactly are Western values and how far does a building dedicated to trade and profit represent them? It is true that since the 18th century commerce has been widely seen as the mark of a civilised society, replacing the dark passion of aristocratic violence with the enlightened bourgeois interest of trading with others. But if so, what place do art, culture and above all religion have in shaping our values?

Even more pointedly, is there any relationship between an attack on the West by fundamentalist religious terrorists and the widespread sense among more moderate religious people that we have lost our way, and are headed for disaster if we attempt to live as if God did not exist? After 9/11 a wise person pointed out that conducting bombing raids in revenge is like taking a cricket bat to a dandelion: you may destroy it, but in the process you scatter the seeds of future terrorism even more widely. I believe that only people of faith can develop a coherent strategy to combat religious extremism: religious illiterates, like increasing numbers of our leaders and media staff, don’t have a clue.

The Taliban is a fighting force based on religious values, even though we and most Muslims reject their interpretation of those values. Surely there is a connection between the clarity of their vision and the effectiveness of their strategy and tactics. By contrast, the Western coalition failed to develop a coherent strategy for its mission in Afghanistan. Does that not point to a deeper problem, that our lack of religious faith leaves us unclear where we are going as a society?

In a powerful article in the Spectator of 7 August, Andy Owen, a former British intelligence officer, writes: “[A clear and measurable strategy] is a basic requirement if you want to unite a disparate set of allies behind a single purpose. At different times the mission was to capture those behind the attacks on the Twin Towers, remove the Taliban, halt opium production, establish a democratic government and install western human rights… Failures to coordinate these myriad objectives meant that they clashed… Strategy was often decided by what capabilities and resources were available rather than the other way around.”

This is a symptom of a society that has a lot of technical know-how but no clear idea where it is going. But if we don’t know where we are going, in the end others who do have that vision will decide it for us, and then it will be too late.

I am often haunted by a message I received while working for the Catholic Enquiry Centre from an English woman living in Turkey who asked how she could become a Catholic. ‘Go to your local Church,’ I replied, ‘and ask to join the RCIA.’ ‘But my nearest Church is over 300 miles away,’ she informed me. The reality then sunk into me, which I should have known, that the Churches evangelised by St. Paul and addressed in the first three chapters of the Apocalypse have ceased to exist, and the same could happen to ours in the West.

This doesn’t mean we will necessarily be conquered by Islamist terrorists. It could be a much more benign and gradual process resulting from immigration and birth statistics. Whether that will happen nobody knows. The Church itself cannot fail and will emerge triumphant in the end. But though the Church cannot fall, there is no guarantee it will survive in any particular part of the world; and its eventual triumph will be by a wholly unexpected action of God’s grace, not by our efforts. Where is the photo that will capture that message?

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