Faith & Reason: Forget Mel Gibson, the Passion is to be found in Rwanda

Emotion is a poor trigger to finding the truth about good and evil. We need instead to think
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The Independent Online

It's two weeks to Easter, and the path to it runs underground from this point. All those who have been observing Lent properly, and those of us who have been, well, just observing it, can sense that the Passion lies just ahead. Do we have to look again at the pain and suffering of Christ? And for once I don't mean the Mel Gibson film.

The difficulty is that God is found in the depths. Just to complicate things, that's the very place where people lose God, too. But we have to follow him there at some points in our lives to collect the knowledge of him that can only be found at those levels - like one of those labyrinthine computer games. As I sit writing this in my local, a pint beside me, I wonder if this Lent I've gone quite deep enough.

Perceptive readers will have guessed rightly that something has triggered these thoughts. The 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda is almost upon us - one million people slaughtered in 100 days - and I spent the morning sifting through images to illustrate a commemorative article. For those who don't know the mechanics, the images appear as thumbnails on a website, in this case Reuters. There were 324, if I remember rightly, mostly of refugees who had fled the country, but several of the aftermath of the killing. Very few of these I could publish. We now have a tidy arrangement of skulls on the cover of next week's paper, the image that has come to represent Rwanda for the simple reason that other editors before me have applied the same filter for what can and can't be shown to a UK newspaper readership.

If you consider that this filter is applied after the filter of the photographers, who select only the shots that they think they can sell; and the filter of the Reuters desk editors, who display only a selection of the selection, you see how hard we work to protect our readers from horror. I'm not sure how effective all this is, because horror resides not in an image of dead flesh and bone but in our imagination, and that needs only a very small hint of something terrible to fire it up.

As you see, the task of finding a picture upset me, but you're right to be suspicious of the emotion. The chief horror of Rwanda is not a collection of old thumbnails that happened to catch an editor unawares, but the knowledge that the country has been struggling on for the 10 years after the genocide with very little outside help, trying to prevent a recurrence of the violence, trying to establish a truth-and-reconciliation process, trying to cope with the political and psychological aftermath of the killings. It's an odd sort of mawkishness that makes us wait until our sensibilities are assailed before we react to any wrongdoing. It can dull our response to the serious, future evils that we have the power to prevent. What should worry us most about the events in the Middle East in recent days is the amount of evil being stored up in the next generation.

With all this in mind, it is no coincidence that the symbol of Christianity is the cross, and not something jollier. The early Christians started with the fish, a secret acrostic of Jesus Christ; and I've always thought that, if we wanted a more upbeat image, we could copy a roof boss in Norwich Cathedral that depicts a pair of soles, the last glimpse that the disciples had of the risen Jesus ascending into the clouds. But the cross grew in popularity with people who had nobody to filter life's horrors from them.

Perhaps because our lives now are generally so safe, we are shocked when we drop below the reach of the usual comforts. At such times we are not fooled by messages of cheer from anyone who is not suffering with us. If they are in a position to offer us a message of comfort, they haven't authenticated that message by joining us at our level.

This is the level - reached by personal agony or public, historical trauma - that stuns us into silence. If we reach this level, we find only very primitive instincts at work. We crawl wounded into our cave, and the only ones we will allow in there with us are fellow sufferers. It is not a noble impulse to wish our sufferings on others, but it's the only way at this depth that we can find companionship. And somewhere here is the piece of knowledge that was missing at the start of this article, something that makes sense of a religion that has suffering and death at its heart.

Wise old liturgists, to make the Psalms the centre of our worship; foolish new liturgists, to allow them to slip out of use. Here is Psalm 139:

Whither shall I go, then, from thy presence?/If I climb up into heaven, thou are there: /if I go down to hell, thou are there also . . . /Look well if there be any way of wickedness in me: and lead me in the way everlasting.

Paul Handley is editor of the 'Church Times'