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Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain: My manifesto for rescuing God from the terrorists

This piece appeared in The Times on 10 September.

Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of 9/11, which launched the start of a new era of global terrorism.

Those who had hoped that, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the nuclear arms race, we could at last live without fear had a rude wake-up call.

Back then, and similarly after 7/7 in London and other attacks, our reactions covered a range of emotions, and will continue to do so: horror at the lives lost, the injuries sustained, the families devastated; fright that it could easily have been us; anger, both at the perpetrators for such senseless destruction, but also at officialdom for not foreseeing it, however unrealistic that expectation may have been.

Once upon a time there was also disbelief. When 9/11 happened and we saw film footage of the second aircraft crashing into the towers, many could not believe it was real and thought they were watching a disaster movie or spoof news programme. Now we have lost that innocence. Every atrocity since 2001 is all too credible.

There is also a curious disconnect in our relationship with the victims. We see the events unfolding in our living room watching television, perhaps holding a cup of tea or munching a biscuit. That itself feels indecent.

We re-evaluate our priorities and change our behaviour temporarily. We play with the children more, phone our parents and tell our partners how much we care about them. Yet the moment passes and normality resumes with all its impatience and wilfulness.

We also become aware of our double standards. We were left gasping at the victims of terrorism — be it Fusilier Lee Rigby or the 12 at Charlie Hebdo — but we manage to ignore the vulnerability of millions who wake up each day wondering how they are going to feed themselves.

We also ask why God allows such terror to happen? Some will assert that it may not make sense to us now, but that is because we have limited vision. They say we must trust that God has an overall plan in which everything has a meaning.

Personally, I would hold that it is nothing to do with God. God created the world, but then gave humanity the independence to enrich it or wreck it. Whatever happens is because of people. The role of religion is to encourage us to work for good. It also provides communal structures and systems for mourning. We often witness people gathering at the place of attacks, light candles, bring flowers, leave photographs, write messages and sing.

However, those instant communities disappear, whereas people of faith still have regular services, while individuals who need solidarity several days or weeks later know where to go and will find others waiting for them.

Rituals and camaraderie help, but we also need the self-belief to resist attempts to disrupt our everyday life and undermine our values. We must have the courage to speak up for liberal religion, within whatever faith it is to which we belong. It acknowledges the sanctity of everyone’s life and allows other people to be different.

Liberal religion suggests a structure for oneself and for one’s faith community. It recognises diversity as positive and as different reflections of God.

Liberal religion educates children within a particular heritage, but also gives them the freedom to think for themselves and relate to God in their own way. It declares that we glorify God by living decently and trying to ensure that everyone finds happiness and fulfilment.

It also means rescuing God from the terrorists who have hijacked the name of God and made religion a dirty word. Instead, we hold that the will of God is best served by honouring others and working for a society at peace with itself.

We should proclaim liberal religion not quietly and meekly, but loudly and assertively.


Terror, Trauma and Tragedy: a new book

What happens when a tragedy occurs – be it terrorist attack or a personal trauma?

How does it affect our faith? What does Judaism have to say both to those who are victims and to those who witness it from afar? And where does God fit into it all?

Twenty-three Reform and Liberal rabbis have tried to provide answers that acknowledge the pain, anger and confusion that can arise, but which also offer ways forward and hope for the future.

Find out more and order a copy here.

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