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Today programme - Russian siege at Beslan

Saturday 4th September 2004

Transcript of an interview with John Humphrys for BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Following the Beslan school tragedy, questions of God, humanity, good and evil.

JH: There are so many questions to be asked about what happened at Beslan; how many lives will have been destroyed by the time of the final accounting? What made the Russian forces act the way they did? But above all, perhaps, why did the terrorists choose a school? How can a group of men and women, presumably some of them with children of their own, sit down together and decide to do such a thing, and then do it with such cruelty? Ordinary people condemn them and cannot understand; the politicians have their own explanations, some turn it to their own advantage, what does religion have to say? The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is in our radio car. Good morning Archbishop.

ABC: Good morning.

JH: Were these men and women evil?

ABC: Yes. They were performing deeply evil acts, they were performing, perhaps the most evil kinds of action that we can imagine, that is using other people wholly as instruments for their own purposes, and that's what the definition of evil entails.

JH: So they are to be condemned without reservation.

ABC: I think these acts are to be condemned without reservation, yes.

JH: And the people who committed them?

ABC: Who knows what goes on in the minds of people like that. I can't begin to speculate what it's like as you said to plan deliberately the suffering, the death, the mental suffering of the children involved. And I think of, you know the lines in the gospel where Jesus says that those who offend children, 'it would be better for them if they had millstones hung around their necks and were sunk in the sea'. Likewise, more bluntly, I suppose, the Koran says, talking about the conduct of war and conflict, 'God does not love those who over step the limits'.

JH: So you would agree with the person, the Russian who said on this programme earlier, you can hardly call them humans, they should be exterminated.

ABC: Of course you can call them humans, that's the worst of it, that human beings are capable of this, and to say they should be exterminated is just to repeat the kind of attitude to persons that the terrorists themselves showed.

JH: But you said, you quoted the gospel, millstones cast around ... tied around their necks, cast into the sea?

ABC: It's as much as to say think of the worst punishment you can imagine, and the judgement that is passed on a person who offends in that way, by God, is that severe.

JH: By God, what about by man?

ABC: Terrorists need to be punished, that's, that's axiomatic, I think. There's no dispute about that among anyone. But what I'm saying is simply that to say they are not human is exactly to mirror what they are doing.

JH: What punishment should they have, people like this ... in the real world, in this world?

ABC: In the real world, that's for States to determine. We all have laws which deal with this.

JH: And in your view, your private view?

ABC: Wouldn't be a private view if I said, but I believe that any terrorist should be subject to life imprisonment for acts like this.

JH: Where was God yesterday morning?

ABC: Where was God? Where was God in the Aberfan disaster? Where was God on September 11th? The short answer is that God is where God always is, and that is with those who are trying to comfort and bring light in any such situation. I would guess in such a situation and, how can one imagine the nightmare in that school, how can one begin to imagine it, I would guess that there must have been older children putting arms around younger children, you might see God there. But in a world in which human decisions are free, even free for the most appalling evil like this, God does not dictate and intervene for outcomes.

JH: Human decisions are free?

ABC: Human decisions are free, and that's why ...

JH: Not for the children they weren't, were they?

ABC: The children were held captive, the decisions were being made by others and that's how power works in the world, of course, that some are enslaved by the decisions of others.

JH: So when Christianity talks about free will, what it actually means is power?

ABC: It means the ability to make a difference in a situation. Now that also means the difference, the ability tragically to use others in the way that these terrorists were attempting to use those children. And I suppose, the sense that we all have that some kind of line has been crossed here, is the almost impossibility of imagining how people cannot only calculate that the death of children will serve their purpose, but actually to sit with suffering children for days watching that in a calculating way and that's the kind of decision which, yes you have to call evil.

JH: And it deprives those children of their free will; this is the point I'm ....

ABC: ... of their future and their freedom in that situation, indeed.

JH: Now I ask the question because I remember once talking to Margaret Thatcher about Christianity and asking here what the essence of it was. And she said precisely this that the essence of Christianity is freedom to choose in effect, but if you are a child in this situation or the mother of a child waiting outside, then you do not have that freedom to choose, do you?

ABC: You have the freedom to choose certain small things if, as I say, a child puts an arm around another child, that's a decision. If a mother goes to comfort another mother outside the school, that's a decision. And that is part of where something in the almost unrelieved blackness of that situation is opened up by a kind of turning to freedom. Freedom is something we ... it's a word we throw around, it's a word which has big and dramatic resonance's but actually it often means very, very small things, a very, very small gesture.

JH: But choice is denied to the people who are the victims ...

ABC: That's what it is to be a victim, your choice is restricted; you are imprisoned.

JH: And that's what God allows, so therefore God doesn't give us choice, does he in truth, he gives certain people choice. He gives the people with power choice and therefore the choice is denied to the vulnerable and that is why many people will look at what happened yesterday, perhaps, and say how can I believe in such a God?

ABC: Indeed. It's simply though ... no it's not simply. It is a fact that in the world people exercise different levels of freedom. One person's freedom interferes with another's. That's why I don't actually believe freedom is the essence of Christianity. It's one of those crucial aspects of it, but I would still come back to the question, what in a situation of this dreadful, captivity, restriction, what is it that an ordinary person, an ordinary child can still do with mind and heart. And I think back to 9/11 and the messages that people sent to their loved ones on their mobile phones as they approached their deaths, that's freedom too.

JH: But isn't this ... aren't we meant to have ... doesn't the church preach that it is a merciful God?

ABC: Of course, this is nothing to do with God's mercy ...

JH: Isn't it?

ABC: ... it has to do with, it has to do with the kind of reality that the created world is in which we make our futures in relation to God.

JH: But God is omnipotent?

ABC: God is all powerful, God has created us so that tin the world we act for him where we can ...

JH: So those people who where acting yesterday in such an inhuman way, were in some way acting for God?

ABC: Of course not. No God calls us to co-operate with what he, he longs for, what he wishes to see which is justice, which is love. And we are free to resist; sometimes people resist violently and horribly as in this case.

JH: So what do you say to people who want to believe, who want to have some faith and look at what is happening and say ... in the world ... it isn't of course just what happened yesterday, although that may perhaps be the most obscene expression of it that we've seen, and say I simply can't believe any longer, this is not a good world.

ABC: That's not the kind of issue that can be answered over the radio in general terms, but I think what I want to say, begin to say to any individual about that is , what is it that makes you find the torture and death of children so appalling, what is it that makes you value human beings because the faith that Christians hold and other religious people, is that each person and especially the most vulnerable, has that absolute value in the eyes of God, which means that it is impossible to treat them as a means to your own ends. It requires of us the most self forgetful respect, the most generous, the most outgoing engagement with other persons. That is what is grounded in the view that God has made us in god's own image, and that's what religious begins from in approaching such circumstances. If there is no eternal love focussed upon each and every individual, including the most vulnerable, including the most apparently unimportant then it's possible for persons to be used as tools, as objects.

JH: That is a theological argument, can I put it to you in a very personal way. You are the father of small children ...

ABC: Indeed.

JH: ... as many people listening to this programme are. You saw what happened yesterday, we all have in our minds the image of those children running away being shot in the back, being burned and destroyed.

ABC: Yes.

JH: Does your faith not tremble just a tiny bit at times like that when those images come into your head?

ABC: Of course it does. I think it is probably the suffering of children that most deeply challenges anybody's personal faith. And it's not, I think, it's not just because of that dreadful kind of flicker of fellow feeling that every parent knows when they hear of the suffering or the tragedy of a child somewhere. It's not just that it's also the sense, are there no boundaries, is there nothing that human beings will not do. And when you see the depth, the energy that people can put into such evil, then of course, yes, there's a flicker, there's a doubt. It would be inhuman, I think, not to react in that way.

JH: Archbishop many thanks.

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