The revelation that those who carried out the suicide bombings in London were British citizens is a shock. It would have been far easier to be able to regard the terrorists as people from out there, people who were totally different, people with whom we had nothing in common, and for whom were needed have no fellow feeling.
But we have been here before, and we need to learn from our history. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, possibly the most audacious acts of terrorism ever planned. It was planned by Englishmen. It was planned not by the poor or the dispossessed, but by people who largely were privileged and comfortable.
At the accession of King James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603, those who wanted to worship as Catholics had hoped that the new king would be more sympathetic to them than Queen Elizabeth had been. At first James had appeared to favour them, but the Puritans objected to the new relaxed attitudes. James brought back the fines for those who would not worship as Anglicans, and expelled Catholic priests and Jesuits. This intolerance proved to be a breeding ground for extremism of the most audacious kind. And this was within the hearts of Englishmen who loved England. Like the men who successfully bombed London last week, they were indistinguishable from the rest of the population.
Today we have to learn from history. 400 years ago a religious war was beginning in England. The Puritans were determined to get the king to treat Catholics so harshly that they didn’t feel they had a future in England. The Gunpowder Plot led to more repression, partly to the Civil War, certainly to Cromwell’s hated campaigns in Ireland. In the city of Drogheda he ordered the death of every man in the garrison, describing this as “a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches”. In Wexford he slaughtered townspeople and garrison alike.
The legacy of the response to the gunpowder plot has been severe repression and hostility particularly in Ireland which has continued until our own day. It has set the native largely catholic population against the immigrant ruling protestant class for generation after generation. The two communities have been unable to trust each other, and the reason both catholic and protestant terrorists were able to function was that on both sides they knew no-one in their own community would betray them.
Today we stand at that same point in relation to the recent bombings in London as people stood on November 5th 1605. And today we have to reach out and acknowledge that people of Muslim faith have a legitimate and valuable part to play in British society today. We cannot afford to reject people of good will. We need them on our side if good is to triumph.
The Bush administration in the USA with its war on terror has been just as misguided as that of Oliver Cromwell. Its indiscriminate bombing, destruction of infrastructure and failure to establish a rule of law which could be trusted, its treatment of prisoners and detainees have all made things infinitely worse since 9-11.
Jesus tells a parable (Matthew 13.24-30,36-43) which is appropriate to today’s situation. An enemy comes by night and sows weeds in the field. The slaves of the household are up in arms, and want to rush into the field and gather up the weeds. But Jesus says “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”
Our danger is that we could, as in the heavy handed and intolerant response to the gunpowder plot 400 years ago, rush in and make things infinitely worse, alienating good citizens of Muslim faith here, and breeding terrorists across the world. We have, fortunately, the good example of the dignified and appropriate response of Spain to the Madrid bombings as a much better example to follow.
The parable of the weeds sown in the crop has an important lesson. We are to live with those who are different. We do not know, and we do not decide which of us is ultimately the good seed which God will harvest at the end of the age. He sends his angels to do that. But we trample down those who are different at our peril, for in doing so, we spoil the good crop, we spoil even ourselves. We find our good intentions turned to hatred and our zeal to oppose what is wrong carries us away in a fury of righteous anger. And we become like an Oliver Cromwell, trampling on the whole of Ireland, turning people against each other for generation after generation.
Our task is to produce the good seed for the harvest, so that at the judgement we will be those whose response to God’s grace will find its fulfilment in his kingdom.