I was on the South Bank when the terrorist attack took place in the London bridge area that Saturday night. I was at the National Theatre. The play finished at 11pm and we entered onto streets of confused panic. Across the bridge I witnessed distress, confusion and panic on the pavements, tube stations and taxi ranks of the West End. The atmosphere was apocalyptic.
Emerging from the 8 hours of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece Angels in America I was particularly attentive to the theological significance of the evening’s events. Angels in America, set amidst the HIV epidemic in late 1980s New York, takes on the enormous themes of political ideology, race and religion, attentive to the rupture in people’s lives brought by the Aids crisis. It recognises that contrasting visions of our place in the sweep of history determine individual experience at a time of crisis. The play presents these visions of the future redemption: the apocalyptic end of days, a secular-political faith in progress and a mystical hope of arriving in the Promised Land. The genius of Angels is Kushner’s insistence that theology be used as a tool for its characters desperately attempt to wrestle meaning out of their suffering.
And in the distressed panic on the streets of London that night I witnessed the rupturing of everyday normality. In Eicha (Lamentations) the distress of the people is perceived, embedded on the urban landscape of their home. Personified, the city itself then bears the destitution of the people.
Eicha! Lonely sits the city once great with people!
Bitterly she weeps in the night,
Her cheek wet with tears. (1:1a,2a)
That night sirens filled the air in every direction; cars and buses panicked drove; people walked at heightened pace; phone screens promised certainty and brought confusion.
As the streets became the stage for apocalyptic rupture, I was eerily reminded of a different moment on the streets of London…
Some years ago I participated in a protest that marched through the West End. I recall a moment where protesters gathered at Oxford Circus. There were no cars, buses, shoppers or police to be seen, only protesters insisting on a vision for a just world. My teacher, Professor Melissa Raphael has taught us to recognise that at such moments of protest there may be a discernible spark of messianic potential. Protest marches that demonstrate our hope for a better future force a rupture in everyday life filled with redemptive possibility.
Yet I also know that on that day in London a protest that was, for some, full of messianic potential, was perceived by others – terrified of unpredictable crowds and determined that the street should return to normal – as apocalyptic. It seems then that one person’s apocalypse may just be another’s redemption.
Which takes me back to this recent night in London. When commentators discuss the attack, the frequent refrain runs something like this: we cannot possibly comprehend how human beings can carry out acts of extreme violence. Yet the frightening truth is hinted at by the tangible fear that ruptured the everyday that night: this apocalyptic atmosphere may have been, for the terrorists, akin to a messianic fulfilment. Yes, their redemption is a terrifying vision, and one which constitutes a gross distortion of Islam and of God, but it is a redemptive vision all the same. Rabbi Mark Solomon suggested to me that perhaps such violent extremism can best be challenged when it is named for what it is: a messianic-redemptive religious vision. Naming it, as this deathly dark shadow underside of life-affirming religious redemptive visions such as our own, will better enable us to protest against it and challenge it.
It is with the fear and confusion that comes from that night (and the uncertainty bestowed on us by our surprising election result!) that we turn to Shelach-lecha, the Torah reading for this week. There we read of the spies who are sent out to scout the land and bring back a report to Moshe and the people. Their challenge is to offer a response to the question of what will be in the future: can the people of Israel hold on to their vision of the Promised Land? The report of the majority says: no. Attentive to fear, we must remain where we are or go back, they say. The report of the two says: yes. Hold on to hope; hold fast to your vision of redemption: know the power of your vision to challenge darkness; let your vision for the future wrestle with today and teach you to affirm life.
Daniel Lichman LBC 5th year rabbinic student