After the London tube and bus bombings of July 7, 2005 killed her 24-year-old daughter Jennifer, Rev. Julie Nicholson has resigned from the Parish Church of St Aidan’s Bristol, because she felt it too difficult to lead people in words of peace and reconciliation, when she was unable to forgive the terrorsits responsible for her daughter’s death. John Watson discusses the issue of forgiveness and the growing feeling by some that religious faith threatens human existence.
Jennifer Nicholson was a lively and attractive young woman who was just twenty-four years old on 7 July 2005. Her family were devout Christians. She was an extraordinarily talented professional musician, who graduated with a Masters degree in Music from the University of Bristol in the West of England.
She then moved on to work for Rhinegold, a major musical publishing company in London. Jenny Nicholson died at the hands of a Muslim suicide bomber called Mohammed Sidique Khan in the Edgware Road Underground railway station, not far from Marble Arch in West London. The terrorist was a thirty-year-old teaching assistant from Dewsbury in West Yorkshire.
There were four suicide bombers in London on the 7 July, and fifty-two victims were mercilessly slaughtered in underground train and bus attacks. Some of the victims were Muslims massacred by Muslims. Forgiveness is something that might be expected of anyone, yet how many believers in any faith could say how somebody would truly feel if the human capacity to forgive were tested? Is there Forgiveness in any faith system at all?
In very many societies, from Indonesia to Turkey, surveys relating to Terrorism have shown that a substantial majority of Indonesian and Turkish Muslims are absolutely opposed to Terror in the name of God. In the Lebanon over 70% approved of suicide bombings. But it is also true that many good people are offended by any clash of faith and reason in today’s world.
Perhaps the majority of people – certainly the majority in China and Eastern Europe - are affirming that humankind can no longer tolerate views that pit one true God against another. A considerable number of books in English are now articulating the dangers and absurdities of all organised religion. It is certainly clear that numerous English-language texts are fiercely and fearlessly expressing the opinion that religion itself has become a terrifying danger, even for the most pacific of all believers.
The End of Faith. Religions, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris (Simon and Schuster, 2006) is widely applauded in the Western Press for demonstrating how religious faith threatens human existence. Any form of fundamentalism is described by Sam Harris as a faulty belief system that is so flawed that it endangers not just its adherents but also everyone else on Planet Earth.
There are Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists who are people of peace and there are killers and terrorists in all faith systems. For most secularists there can be no notion of religious tolerance. Secularisation in society may be the truth that survives. Winston Churchill, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, Josef Stalin – the list is endless – were all secularists. Perhaps we are not far from a modern world that will destroy the walls that presently isolate religious people from any criticism. Is religion the greatest curse to have visited us in 9/11 and 7/7? There is one question of central importance in the world that is coming of age in the twenty-first century: Are the days of our religious identities already finally numbered?
Religious violence is still among us because our religions are intrinsically hostile to one another. Where the religions appear otherwise it is because secular knowledge and secular interest are cautiously restraining the most lethal improprieties of any faith system.
No real foundation that truly affirms religious tolerance and religious diversity presently exists within the canons of the monotheistic faiths. Are the foundations of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith described as ministries of reconciliation, friendship and peace? For the minorities in these faith systems? Probably. But for the majority of monotheists in Islam, Judaism and Christianity? No. Exactly eight months after the London bombings, the Reverend Julie Nicholson, an ordained lady priest of the Church of England, resigned from the Parish Church of St Aidan’s Bristol because she could not forgive the bombers for her daughter’s death. Jenny had been destroyed on an underground train.
The Reverend Julie Nicholson will take on the role of Director in a Community Arts and Drama Project. It can be no surprise to any priest that standing in a church after such a terrible loss is extremely painful. Julie was oppressed by the religious violence and the religious hatred. “It’s very difficult for me to stand behind an altar and celebrate the Holy Eucharist, and lead people in words of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness, when I feel very far from all that myself.”In response to the four suicide bombers of 7 July 2005, Jennifer’s mother Julie responded truthfully and honestly to the killers: “Can I forgive them for what they did? No. I cannot.” The entire family - Gregg the father, the two other children, Tom, aged sixteen years, and Lizzie, aged twenty-two - had been through an emotional earthquake after Jenny’s death.
It was the local bishop who led Jenny Nicholson’s funeral in Bristol Cathedral last August. The Bishop said that he could remember the “wall of emotion” he met when he walked into the cathedral. The place was packed with young people. Could there be any cure for such violent hatred?The extraordinary reality of the Reverend Julie Nicholson’s response is clear, and the worldwide response on the Internet is no surprise. In fact any of the commentaries that might be found internationally could become a complete text on forgiveness and blame.
A writer from the Indian sub-continent explained that she could not imagine ever forgiving anyone who set out to kill. In California another commentator observed that ‘Forgiveness’ is not a pill that takes hours to kick in. God is probably still grieving over His creation. ‘True forgiveness takes years. Sometimes a lifetime’ another pundit replied.
An English observer understood the inability of the Reverend Nicholson to forgive, but continued to struggle with her need ‘to step down’ as the Vicar of an Anglican parish. But by far the greatest majority of commentators understood that the woman priest could not forgive the bombers for her daughter’s death. She has described her anger most fully and clearly.
“I will leave any forgiveness, for whatever it is, after this life has ended – I will leave that in God’s hands. I rage that a human being could choose to take another human being’s life. I rage that someone should do this in the name of a God. I find that utterly offensive.”
Forgiveness may not easily lead to any sense of peace within oneself. The corrosion of bitterness is surely inevitable for many, if not for most believers. The scars of suicide bombing will of course last for countless lifetimes.
Many of us must try to understand something of the lost life of Jennifer, and all the other victims of terror, with the unbearable bereavement experienced by her mother, the Reverend Julie Nicholson. There are multitudes of vanished lives destroyed by some who claim to have a religion, but it is God who is nowhere to be found in the godless annihilation.
Beyond the blasphemy the faithful will be alive.
The Revd. Dr. John H. Watson is an Anglican priest who lives in Dorset, UK, and has been writing the fortnightly Coptophile Column for Watani International since 2002. He is the author of several books including Among the Copts (2000), Christians Observed: Narratives for Today’s Church (2004), and Listening to Islam (2005).