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A new narrative after Christchurch & Colombo



What can one say in the face of yet another horror? This time it is the people of Sri Lanka who have suffered — Christians celebrating resurrection but 'bearing in their bodies the dying of the Lord Jesus that the life of Christ may also be made manifest in their bodies', as St Paul puts it in his second letter to the Corinthians.

Women weep as another is overcome with emotion during the funeral of a person killed in the Easter Sunday attack on St Sebastian's Church, on 23 April 2019 in Negombo, Sri Lanka. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images359 people have died as at the time of writing. The government has blamed National Thowheed Jamat, a virtually unknown organisation claiming Islamist inspiration while ISIS/Daesh — having been soundly beaten in Syria and Iraq by a combination of parties including Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbullah, Kurdish fighters and NATO — has claimed responsibility. There has been some suggestion that the perpetrators claimed to be acting in retaliation for the massacre of Muslims in Christchurch (also at prayer) by an Australian white supremacist last month.

It goes without saying that nothing can justify such attacks — not now, not ever — and Muslim groups, Christian groups, governments and individuals across the world have all expressed their horror for what happened in both Colombo and Christchurch. And yet, as always, there are obviously some people who weigh the chance of five minutes of notoriety in a hungry news cycle as worth all the dead, all the shattered wounded and all the grieving families.

The narratives, too, are playing out with depressing familiarity. As with previous attacks, there will be people who use Colombo as an excuse to further their own vendettas or narratives of a 'clash of civilisations'. The Sri Lankan government (still uneasy ten years after its brutal suppression of the Tamil minority in a horrific civil war) have used the attack to roll out further controls over its population — even though it seems that the security forces were warned of the attacks in advance but failed to use the powers they did have to prevent them.

This, too, follows in a terrible tradition. The perpetrators of the London Bridge bombings were known to British intelligence (and indeed, seem to have been veterans of an Islamist inspired group fighting in Libya with British backing). The Quebec mosque attacker was known to those who monitor far right groups — and the mosque itself had previously received threats.

The terrible fact is that, leaving aside the fact that terror groups of various stripes are often backed by governments when they happen to be useful to the black machinations of statecraft, no security measures will ever be able to suppress real or imagined grievances or prevent inclinations to hatred or violence which grow in the depths of the human heart.

And yet there is a difference between Colombo and Christchurch which might be worth exploring. Paradoxically, the most useful things that governments can do are those which are least often tried. The world has watched New Zealand's reaction to Christchurch with surprise and delight precisely because it was so counter-intuitive.


"It is not too late for the Sri Lankan authorities and others to try a different response to those which have failed in the past."


Rather than breathe fire and vengeance against the alleged attacker and demand the wholesale suspension of civil liberties with the usual excuse of 'fighting a war', the government response was to run the trial as an ordinary criminal case, without even resorting to 'terrorism' charges with which it is so easy to create martyrs — however undeserving. While obvious legal measures were taken (like reducing access to high powered weapons), these were deliberately not aimed at any group. It was made very clear in all official reactions to the shooting that there was no 'them and us', just 'us'.

Indeed, despite the fact that the alleged shooter was not a New Zealander, there was no attempt to build up any xenophobia or use the atrocity as an excuse for immigration controls. On the contrary, the New Zealand government has just announced that those foreigners affected by the Christchurch massacres will all receive permanent residence. Jacinda Ardern who is, despite all the hoopla, a politician subject to all the temptations of office, has nevertheless acted in an exemplary fashion in responding to the attacks. The result is that New Zealand has been made stronger as a society and less, not more, likely to suffer a repeat.

This past week we celebrated ANZAC day, remembering the deaths which Australia and New Zealand share in common — and which ultimately did little, if anything, to change the course of the war as a whole. On such occasions it is also worth reflecting on Sri Lanka, New Zealand and the ultimate futility of violence.

The worshippers who died in Colombo were killed reflecting on (and embodying) the triumph of one who suffered unresisting and, in his suffering, overcame the worst which violence had to offer. The New Zealand response to the Christchurch massacre likewise offers an answer in political language to the usual narratives of terrorism and repression. It is not too late for the Sri Lankan authorities and others to try a different response to those which have failed in the past.



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: Women weep as another is overcome with emotion during the funeral of a person killed in the Easter Sunday attack on St Sebastian's Church, on 23 April 2019 in Negombo, Sri Lanka. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Christchurch attacks, Sri Lanka bombings



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Existing comments

Indeed, the ultimate futility of violence. Both New Zealanders and Sri Lankans have suffered horribly and all the words written about the atrocities can not alleviate the senselessness and pain. There are significant differences between the ability of New Zealand to respond and the ability of Sri Lanka to respond. NZ is a relatively wealthy country with a stable government and a physical remoteness. Sri Lanka is less wealthy, the government has faced significant challenges and it is a very populous country with a recent history of violence. We can hope that Western democracies become more involved with Sri Lanka, not only in aid, but in true solidarity.

Pam | 26 April 2019  

Nga mihi nui e rangatira, Fr Justin.

Daniel Kleinsman | 26 April 2019  

What happened in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday is very different to what happened during the conflict with the Tamil Tigers which involved a group fighting the government in search of a separate state. We now have a different scenario. So, your comment that “It is not too late for the Sri Lankan authorities and others to try a different response to those which have failed in the past” does not make sense. And just what “different response” do you suggest?

Osmund Perera | 26 April 2019  

A good article Justin. On a different note, Churches, Mosques and Synagogues of necessity should now implement screening procedures of entrants, especially those wearing backpacks and / or carrying bags which can conceal explosives/ rifles/pistols. CC TV must be installed as well. Perhaps worshipers should carry ID entry cards that they must swipe to get past security screen doors. Windows should be protected. For instance the Notre Dame fire may have been deliberate because there is a U Tube video on Facebook of a person on the roof moving around and then a flash before the fire starts. Some years ago I was at Sunday mass at St Stephens Brisbane, when we were all suddenly evacuated due to a bomb scare. Sadly, today there are no warnings. The days when all the doors can be left open in trust and anyone may enter are gone. Places of worship will have to be far more vigilant. Take St Peters in Rome for example. The Swiss guards screen whoever enters and block those improperly attired. When I was there they blocked entry to girls wearing hotpants. At House of Commons Britain, Police screen entrants. Airport entry is now rigorous as well.

Francis Armstrong | 27 April 2019  

In November 2015, coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris killed 130 people. Outside the Bataclan theatre where 90 died, pianist Davide Martello played on a grand piano, “Imagine there’s no heaven”—an earthly utopian dream that, coincidentally, offers no hope for the future. In 2017 France, 878 attacks on churches or symbols (crucifixes, icons, statues) were registered. In 2018 those attacks increased by 17% to 1,063. On average, two churches are desecrated every day. However there is an eloquent silence in both France and Germany about the scandal of these desecrations, and to associate these acts with immigration brings accusations of hatred, hate speech and racism. There is a similar silence about attacks on Christians in Nigeria. Bishop William Amove Avenya lamented, “We cannot wait for a mass genocide to happen before intervening.” “Experts” told us that globalization would bring democracy to China; that there were WMD’s in Iraq; and 90% of Western media have eagerly trafficked in Russia/Trump collusion lies for two years. We live in a time where offense-taking surpasses truth. Yet Pope Francis reminded us, “There is no true peace without truth.” A sniper on the roof of Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance on Anzac Day told a truth.

Ross Howard | 27 April 2019  

Justin,Thanks for a very balanced and reasoned discussion of a topic the media seem unable to handle in a principled way. You may be a little too optimistic about NZ but we all hope to see the change in human nature only the Gospel of Christ can bring about.

Steve Etherington | 27 April 2019  

The more information that comes out about the perpetrators of this horrific series of mass murders in Sri Lanka, the more I realise that their actions were utterly nihilistic and had nothing to do with God or religion. My sympathies are very much with the suffering people of Sri Lanka, a country recovering and hopefully coming together after a devastating and brutal civil war. There are, as with the victims of Christchurch, practical things we can do to help the victims. This is, in many ways, a sad and broken world. Today is Greek Easter. That is perhaps symbolic that this brokenness can be healed.

Edward Fido | 28 April 2019  

try telling that to rupert murdoch andrew bolt and miranda devine

stuart lawrence | 28 April 2019  

I guess it depends on your point of view Ross. For me, John Lennon's "Imagine" offers so much hope for the future. Obviously not from a religious perspective, but that was the point of the song. Don't let evil overwhelm the good in humanity despite these terrible events.

Brett | 29 April 2019  

Very thoughtful insights. They deserve further consideration by our government whichever it might be. I regret that I don’t see hopeful signs

JL Trew | 29 April 2019  

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