Manchester: This Is The Place

manchester vigil Leon Neal Getty Images

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 notedBrutality, 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 saidTerrorism 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.

@calmlyobserving

thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page

My *other* blog is Catholic Scot

The picture of Manchester is from NBC and by Leon Neal / Getty Images

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8 Comments

  1. Excellent, as usual.
    I think there is a huge amount of truth in this, “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.”

    Our myth, I think, in the Anglosphere, from King Arthur, right on through to the American west, has often spoken of violent brutality, but in the service of a much higher calling. And that is how we have progressed.

    And you know, when these things happen, and they will periodically in a free country, my thoughts go often to the Bible, to the BCP, and to Kipling, soon followed by, an American western to remind me of our people at our best. For our best is not softness, and acceptance of evil, it is the pointed application of violence to achieve a necessary goal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The myth I grew up with always united ‘legitimate’ violence with chivalry. That is, undertaken by the strong to protect the weak, as in St George and the dragon, and carried out in an honourable fashion, which is why it was right to admire an enemy like Rommel who was reputed to behave in a reciprocal way. Tolkein captured this ideal in his portrayal of the free peoples fighting against Sauron. Now I think the tendency is to subcontract the task to a special caste while the rest of us concentrate on being lotus eaters. Something which works to the detriment of both groups.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was, indeed. What’s that old Irish proverb, “The first duty of the strong is to protect the weak,” as I recall. Tolkein did indeed capture it very well. Yes, I suspect it is something that makes the heartland of America different from our coasts, and from what I read, the UK, as well. Almost all of us, to this day, know the soldiers of America, from World War II, of course, but from all of our wars, they active, reserve, retired, and discharged, are here, amongst us every day, giving us an example to live up to.

        This very weekend our cemeteries around the world will bloom with American flags in remembrance of those who bought America for us, with their lifeblood. The wise do not forget the price of civilization.

        Like

  2. Was such a heart breaking time, listening to this in front of my students some of them there that night. Trying to hold back the tears until I was able to run into the staffroom. Manchester is such an amazing place. Thank you for sharing this with the world. Keep Strong Bee and Keep Smiling.

    Liked by 1 person

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