Friday, November 18, 2005


Difficult to know whether what might need to be put in response to Bishop Tom Butler's shoot-to-kill endorsement can really be heard. Any response other than conditional pragmatism is usually seen as airy-fairy pacifist Christian nonsense. Still, I believe it must be said. I'd have the greatest personal sympathy if anyone felt they had to kill to defend themselves or others, but that's different from making shoot-to-kill a police policy, which in turn is very different from endorsing such a policy in the name of the church. And why, for heaven's sake? To make us look macho and 'realistic'. Well that's not too hard, but where does it get us, especially when the policy is deeply flawed on other grounds, and when the churches have more positive options to contribute that don't involve judicially sanctioned violence? What follows is the Ekklesia media release. A longer version of the story (mainly extended at the end) is here.

Ekklesia, the UK Christian think tank, has questioned the anti-terrorism stance adopted by the Anglican Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Rev Tom Butler, when he this week defended the Metropolitan Police ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy.

Dr Butler was speaking during a two-hour debate in response to the 7 July London bombings at the General Synod of the Church of England, meeting in London from 15-17 November 2005.

While highlighting civil liberties “anxieties” about certain aspects of the Terrorism Bill, which is currently passing through Parliament, he said that armed police might sometimes have to respond with lethal force to suspected suicide bombers.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4, the Bishop of Southwark described such killings as a lesser of two evils. “Sometimes we have to judge between two things that are wrong to produce the best result,” he told an interviewer.

He added: “Obviously, killing somebody is never a right thing to do, but if it prevents many other people being killed, it may be the only thing to do.”

However the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia has responded by saying that the role of Christian leaders is not to endorse violence as public policy, but to create alternatives to it.

“While we should respect the tough decisions that the police and others have to take in dealing with terrorists, it is sad to hear a representative of the Gospel supporting killing as an appropriate policy option,” said Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow.

He continued: “The police shoot-to-kill policy backfired disastrously the first time it was employed, resulting in the death of an entirely innocent Jean Charles de Menezes. Experience suggests that it contributes to a cycle of violence, rather than being an effective antidote to it. We have to examine the bigger picture too.”

He added that it was dangerous, and often misguided, to calculate that a greater good would come out of a basically wrong action.

Civil liberties, human rights and religious groups, including Muslim organisations, have said that the police policy should be to disable and disarm potential bombers, not to risk gunning down innocents or creating martyrs.

Arab news media have interpreted Bishop Butler’s response as saying police officers should be allowed to gun down suspected suicide bombers.

Ekklesia’s Simon Barrow commented: “This isn’t a marginal question for the Christian community. Jesus prevented a supporter using violence at his arrest and called on his followers to respond to evil with good. Where we should be focussing our resources is on conflict transformation, arguing against the religious legitimation of violence, and building alternatives to the culture of armed hatred.”

Mr Barrow said that it was unhelpful and over-simple for the churches to think that they could have short-term answers to every human dilemma.

“Christian conscience sometimes has to say ‘no’ to courses of action which might seem immediately justifiable, but which actually divert us from the better way to which the costly message of Christ points,” he explained. “This isn’t irresponsibility, it’s alternative realism.”

Concluded the Ekklesia co-director: “While we can’t reduce the complex ethics and politics of this situation to ‘who would Jesus shoot-to-kill?’, it’s not a question we can avoid either – and the core of the answer points in a different direction to the bishop’s response.”

[Also on Ekklesia: Beyond the politics of fear: An Ekklesia response to the London bombings; and Of bishops, bombs and ballast]

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