And these hard times again, in these streets of our city, but we won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity.
Because this is a place where we stand strong together, with a smile on our face, greater Manchester forever.
(This Is The Place by Tony Walsh)
Less than a day after dozens of people, mostly girls and young women, were killed or injured by a devastating suicide bomb attack in Manchester thousands of Mancunians flocked to a vigil of remembrance, solidarity and defiance. Central to this event were the words offered by the leading Anglican pastor of the city and by a performance poet known as Longfella.
A noteworthy thing about this is that the UK is one of the least formally religious countries in the world and practically no one reads, or at any rate buys, poetry. Yet in a moment of great stress and anguish as if by instinct these are the two things toward which people reached. At a more intimate scale the same thing happens innumerable times at funerals and other powerful moments in individual’s lives.
It may be that these two things, poetry and religion, have something about them which reach beyond a moment that may seem meaningless and clad that same moment with meaning and purpose. There is a human longing for things to be whole, and true, and peaceful and harmonious. We cannot ever encounter such harmony here in this life but the things of poetry and religion can transport us for a moment into a realm where we know that such things are and endure and will have the final victory.
There was much talk both in the poem and in the city of ‘the spirit of Manchester.’ By definition no such thing can exist in the material world. I highly doubt that it has existence in any spiritual realm either. A strict atheist would perhaps say that it is no more than a comforting fiction. But it is more than that. It is a mythological truth. A myth is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. In the act of telling it and in the attempt to live it out we change ourselves, we try to make it come true ‘in the real world,’ and if we don’t fully succeed we do at least make the world we inhabit a slightly better place if it is a good myth.
And there’s the rub. Religion, poetry and myth can be perverted from their function of purifying us and put to the service of defiling us instead. The philosopher Simone Weil noted “Brutality, violence, and inhumanity have an immense prestige that schoolbooks hide from children, that grown men do not admit, but that everyone bows before” When those things are mythologised we can see a vision not of harmony but of conquest and if we associate ourselves with the conquerors then we share in the prestige and worship they receive.
One of the apparently puzzling things about some of the murders and rapists who have associated with Islamic State and other jihadi groups perpetrating horrors like the Manchester bombing is that they have long histories of petty crime and/or substance abuse but practically no history of religious practice. They are, as President Trump would put it ‘losers.’ The puzzle is solved if we see them worshipping the prestige which brutality confers more than the ostensible cause which that brutality is supposed to advance.
In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the USA Pope St John Paul II said “Terrorism exploits not just people, it exploits God: it ends by making him an idol to be used for one’s own purposes.” The version of God, the Moloch, that Islamists offer up is a god of conquest, of victory without end, a juggernaut that crushes everything in its path. It is not a god that most people, Muslim or otherwise, recognise as the Creator of beauty as the transcendent source of life. But it is a god who has enough prestige to attract those who are losing in the struggle of life and want to hit out with the tenfold strength and prestige that this idol of brutality provides them with.
Simone Weil went on to say “For the opposite virtues to have as much prestige, they must be actively and constantly put into practice. Anyone who is merely incapable of being as brutal, as violent, and as inhuman as someone else, but who does not practice the opposite virtues, is inferior to that person in both inner strength and prestige, and he will not hold out in a confrontation.” Against their evil poetry and evil religion and evil myth we must muscularly assert good poetry, good religion and good myth. Not just in response to attacks but as attacks. The good does not drive out the bad by default it does so by struggle. We cannot defeat darkness by loving light, we must positively be light to achieve that victory.
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The picture of Manchester is from NBC and by Leon Neal / Getty Images