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July 12, 2005

Reflections on the London Bombings

Bombs and explosions: A Londoners guide to keeping the faith
I remember my first-ever religious studies lesson at school. By way of introduction, the teacher wrote on the blackboard, “How can God exist if bad things happen in the world?” This was a pretty testing question for a seven year old, and it continued to trouble me throughout my theology degree and for many years afterwards. Today, just a few days since the bombings in central London, I realized the answer. It has nothing to do with free will. It doesn’t even have to do with original sin or the fall of humanity. It has to do with what happens after the bad things – something my teacher conspicuously failed to mention.

The explosion of love that followed the despicable terrorist attacks, the same explosion that followed the Asian earthquake and 9/11, resonated louder and prouder than any man-made device could muster.

There is an old saying that a friend in need is a friend indeed. When two planes hit the twin towers, I became your friend, along with billions of people across the world. When the timed bombs exploded in London, there was an almost simultaneous global explosion of friendship and compassion. Such is the bond of love and empathy between us all.

For many people, especially for those whose lives are directly affected by these natural and wholly unnatural disasters, their faith may falter, especially when tragedy is experienced in isolation. But when we look at the tragedy in terms of the human and spiritual reaction it provokes, then the tragedy may serve only to fuel the fire of our faith. This is why the terrorists can never be victorious – when they explode bombs, they explode something within us, all of us, which can never and will never be extinguished.

--Simon Cohen

London has been home to my husband, daughter, and myself for the past eight years. Prior to that, I lived here with my husband for nine years, moving from the U.S. in the mid-1980s. Last Thursday morning I drove my daughter from Fulham (on the north side of the Thames) to her school in Battersea (on the south side), and then headed down the street there to a 9:30 a.m. appointment to view some real estate. We are considering moving to be nearer to the school.

It was drizzling as I waited for the estate agent. He arrived, showed me the flat, and afterwards I walked down the road to a cafe. As I took my seat, I noticed "breaking news" flashing on the television screen on the back wall of the cafe. The news was not clear -- "power surges" were suspected on the London Underground -- but my gut feeling was that terrorists had hit my city. There were simultaneous incidents that had occurred at the height of rush hour.

I first thanked God for allowing me to be near my daughter's school on this uncertain morning. I was able to get my husband on the phone, and was assured he was all right. He had ridden the Underground early that morning but had made it to work safely. His office recently relocated to the City of London square mile, not far from all of the day's tragic events.

By then, people were starting to stop on the street, watching the news through the cafe's window. I decided to drive back to the school, the same instinct I followed on my daughter's fifth birthday, September 11, 2001, when I heard about the atrocities in the U.S. on my car radio. Once the Pentagon was hit, I had said to myself, "The end of the world is here -- I've got to get to school."

I ended up sitting in the lobby, just to be near, listening to the receptionist answer calls from hysterical parents. The phone was ringing off the hook, and she sweetly reassured each caller that the children were fine and that they would not be playing outdoors that day, that everything had been checked and was okay. Parents still turned up and pulled their children out of class early, though I figured I would wait until the day's end.

I accompanied my daughter to a playdate that afternoon -- normally I would have collected her at the end of it. My friend's home contains many Buddhas, and I was consoled by this. That and the laughter of the children playing -- true heaven on earth.

There are big Golden Buddhas in Battersea Park at the "Peace Pagoda," a gift from Japan that was placed on the Thames-side in 1985. We saluted them on our way home. When my husband opened the door, we all hugged each other and thanked God for our own safety. At last count, 74 families of victims and suspected victims were being counseled by police liaisons.

--Laura Sanderson Healy

London, June 6, 2005
Hyde Park has an area just to the right of the entrance at Grosvenor Square called Speaker’s Corner. It is a great British tradition. Anyone can stand on a soap box and start ranting about anything. This morning, as I passed the area on my jog, I had to stop. There were large crowds (several hundred people) gathered around several speakers. Two of the most popular were a Christian evangelist from Africa and a Muslim Cleric. I was rooting for the evangelist but went to hear the cleric. Here was an opportunity to learn about Islam first-hand instead of having it filtered through the spin doctors.

Like all things in Britain there is a certain etiquette to Speaker’s Corner. The speaker preaches his (there were no women speakers that I could see) message, and people from the crowd step forward, ask questions and debate their point. When I arrived, the cleric was arguing with a young American woman. It was not a friendly exchange. He was surrounded by a core group of maybe 15 young men of Middle Eastern descent. They would heckle the woman and anyone else who disagreed with the cleric. I was fascinated by her courage and by the things I heard the cleric say.

As a Christian who respects other faith traditions, I agreed with some things I was hearing. The cleric's main point was that we must put God first (he called it the straight path). With those words, I thought to myself, “That is encouraging -- following the path is also the essential teaching of Christ, of Judaism, and of the Hindus."

But then his words began to rankle. He began insulting other religions, especially Christianity and Hinduism. What struck me hardest was how little he knew about those religions-- not nearly enough to offer valid criticism. He condemned them because their formula did not match his own, and completely ignored the similitude between their core message and the "straight path" of Islam. He claimed that seeking God through Christ is idolatry, that Hindus believe that God is a tree. He confused the fact that God is changeless with the idea that our knowledge of God continues to grow as we move closer to the Sacred. He dismissed the Holy Trinity and lampooned the Holy Spirit, insisting that those who do not call on God exactly as he proscribed were destined for hell. Since non-Muslims are doomed to hell anyway, he asserted, Muslims are free to treat everyone else as inferior. It actually reminded me of fascism. All of these rants were met with cheers from the core group of young men.

I left Speaker's Corner feeling greatly depressed. I had hoped to see a positive message and mutual respect. Instead, I listened to a religious leader proclaim that his religion is at war with all those who disagree. Surely, he was a hard-liner, and every religion has its share, but we know what happens when these voices gain power and the ability to live out their beliefs. This one cleric was surrounded by others, and I saw heads in the crowd nodding in agreement.

I found the girl who had been challenging him and told her that he was wrong. She looked at me and said, “I know.”

-- Nick

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