When something dreadful, like the Manchester Arena bombing this week, happens, we have a choice about how we are going to respond. It's quite a simple choice, really, and it's made a quite a deep, often sub-conscious level. We can choose to respond with fear or hatred, or we can choose to respond with love.
Many followers of this blog will know that I am currently undertaking a survey of Unitarian beliefs and spirituality, which I will be writing up over the summer. Two of the questions are:
"What do you believe about the nature of evil?" and "What does the concept of sin mean to you?"
I believe that in the violent world in which we live, it is vital to think these things through, so that we can respond appropriately, when incidents like the Manchester bombing happen.
So let's think about the nature of evil. My own belief is that nobody is born evil. Who could believe that an innocent babe, fresh from the womb, is evil? Nevertheless, through a combination of factors, such as upbringing, poor environment, bad nutrition, mental instability, addiction, brain-washing, people are driven to do acts which we judge to be evil. Almost all my respondents so far are very clear that *no-one* is evil in the beginning, but that the capacity to do evil is within every human being, and must be kept in check, by each and every one of us. Evil comes from an absence of compassion, an inability to feel with the other. It is about the deliberate choice to do the wrong thing, not the right one. Which many people would define as sin.
But people are not evil. Only the acts they do are evil. It is important to hold on to that distinction. I have to wonder what lies the Manchester suicide bomber was told, that he would believe that blowing himself and other people up was the next right thing to do. I feel for his family, who are surely grieving for a beloved son, a beloved brother.
For me, the lies that the suicide bomber was surely told are the real sin, the real evil. Sin is a falling short of the standards we know are right, that we should be aspiring to. Many of my respondents defined the concept of sin as this falling short, as making the wrong choice, as separation from God, from good. Again, they were very clear that this is a learned thing - every respondent so far was totally against the idea of 'original sin' - that human beings are born flawed.
And we need to hold on to the other side of things too - the outpouring of love and compassion and support that we have seen in the last few days. On the night of the bombing, Twitter was filled with offers of support - of a room for the night, of food, drink, safe transport home, anything that people could think of. The emergency services did their usual splendid job, and taxi drivers of all religions and none turned off their meters, and showed up at Manchester Arena to offer a free ride home to anyone who needed it. Local hospitals have been flooded with offers to give blood.
The British Red Cross, in conjunction with the Manchester authorities, has now set up a 'We Love Manchester Emergency Fund', and money has been pouring in to support the families and friends of the victims. Because once this horrific story fades out of the news, which it surely will, these people are still going to be bereaved, still going to have to live with the consequences of that young man's evil deed. In less than a week, over £5.6 million pounds has been raised. My own small congregation at Banbury gave £50 yesterday. Every penny will be needed.
Tolkien, as ever, has it right. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo comments "I wish it need not have happened in my time" To which Gandalf responds: "So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."
"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." May we decide well, and respond with love.