On the face of it, the Bishop of Carlisle and the young man who staggered blazing from that Jeep at Glasgow Airport on Saturday afternoon don’t have a lot in common. The Right Reverend Graham Dow is a grey-haired man with a twinkling smile, rarely armed with anything more lethal than a crozier.
That wannabe martyr – his 72 expectant virgins currently tapping their fingers impatiently in Paradise – had a head wreathed in fire and a Molotov cocktail in his hand. The Bishop of Carlisle is a diocesan bishop in the Church of England, not a sect commonly associated with acts of terror, while the as-yet-unnamed jihadi is, one guesses, an adherent of Wahabi Islam, a sect which very much is. And yet, on a spiritual level, it seems that they do share one thing. They both believe in a vindictive God. We already know how this belief was translated into action in the case of that young man at Glasgow Airport. He was prepared to incinerate young children and women and Muslims – anybody, frankly, who was unlucky enough to be on the other side of the entrance doors when he crashed through them. In the infamous words of a Christian zealot – “Kill them all, God will know his own”.
The Bishop of Carlisle’s expression of retribution took a much milder form: he expressed the view that the recent floods in the north of England were a sign of God’s displeasure, not only at our environmental fecklessness but also at our wilful refusal, as a society, to discriminate against homosexuals.
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“This is a strong and definite judgement because the world has been arrogant in going its own way,” he said. “We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation.”
Some of us are reaping it a lot more directly than others, of course. Take Ryan Parry, a Sheffield schoolboy who was drowned last week. Or Michael Barnett, who got his foot stuck in a drain in Hull and succumbed after a four-hour battle to save him. Quite why these two people, and their grieving families, should have been singled out to bear the brunt of God’s judgement isn’t clear – and by yesterday afternoon, the Bishop’s spokesman was busily backpedalling. But he didn’t explain away the Bishop’s remark that the problem with “environmental judgement is that it is indiscriminate”.
The logic of this seems to suggest that God is prepared to kill innocent people in order to get his message across. And if the Bishop is right, it isn’t just us that God is disappointed with. He’s furious with the people of Pakistan, where serious flooding has left 900,000 homeless, and Afghanistan, where 80 have died in recent storms, and Kansas and Texas, too, where floods have devastated communities and left people homeless. Then again, with a killer this “indiscriminate” about collateral damage, only a bishop could be sure what the message is.
Of course, there are important differences between the bishop and the Glasgow attacker. The bishop restricts himself to condoning the actions of a terrorist God, while the human fireball appointed himself as a direct tool of divine wrath. It’s hardly a distinction to be sneezed at in these dangerous times. But it’s not quite enough to quell the sense that the bishop finds himself in a distant intellectual kinship with the suicide bomber – both worshippers of a God who communicates through the deaths of innocents.