You are on a beach, deep in your novel, absorbing the sun, when a bullet hits you. You kneel to pray in a familiar place of worship. A bullet hits you. You open your bible in the company of friends. A bullet hits you.
On the beach, as you slip in and out of consciousness, you are aware of the presence of a particular hotel employee kneeling beside you. He is telling you not to be afraid and that help is coming. He is not one of the people shouting for help or telling others to run. He is not running either. He is simply there. He may get shot. But he does not want you to be afraid and he wants you to stay alive.
Salvation is not a matter of individual religions having the right answers to questions pertaining to God and the human condition, or of belonging to the right religious affiliation group or Church. Salvation begins with recognising and encountering the Saviour through the voice and the face of another person, irrespective of who that other person may be, or of their religion. This is the mystery of faith, something which is inextricably bound to love and which embodies truth.
Truth manifests itself in the most ordinary of encounters, as I found on a recent visit to Birmingham. I have minimal orienteering skills in unfamiliar cities and I was having trouble finding the station. I turned to the nearest person in the street, a young veiled Muslim woman with a small child in a push chair. She pointed me in the right direction and we chatted briefly about nothing in particular, but in that brief exchange we understood and trusted one another in the most profound way. I do not think this was a specifically Christian or Muslim glimpse of salvation. It was a moment in which time stands still. Jesus might have called it a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven. I should be interested to know what Muslims would call it.
For Christians, such healing encounters are moments of truth. They take us to a different place when it comes to what we say about God, because it is in such moments that we know ourselves to have been touched by him and healed, through the voice or the smile of another person.
Such encounters heal whatever hatred, in its conscious or subconscious manifestations, lurks within us. They heal the fear which causes hatred. These encounters are times in which God sees the truth in us. That truth is the essential goodness, or innocence, which was there when we were ‘made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth’ (Ps. 139:15) and made in his image and likeness. He sees it and literally redeems it. He gives us back to ourselves, or heals us.
Healing encounters often involve touch. One of the Christian gospels tells the story of a woman who is healed of a menstrual disorder which is not only physically debilitating but also makes her an outcast. Jesus heals her of the haemorrhage in the minute she touches his coat. He then asks to see her, not because he does not know who he has healed, but because he wants to take the encounter a step further, so that it can heal the rest of her pain, all the emotional as well as the physical pain she experiences as a result of this almost life-long illness. He wants her to understand that he knows her in the full truth of her predicament.
Truth and healing are complementary. You cannot have the one without the other. Jesus also tells her that her faith has healed her. There is a commonality about faith and healing in whatever context they appear. Faith, or trust, is always part of a healing dialogue.
What then, does this story of Jesus have to say to us in an age where terrorism and acts of atrocity are becoming almost commonplace? I think that it points us back to the hotel employee on the beach and to a museum employee at a similar incident which took place in Tunisia in March. The museum employee hid the terrified visitors in a basement until the killing was over.
Both of these people were Christ-like figures. They embodied the grace of God and, in so doing, confronted the evil in which darkness masquerades as light. This is the evil which comes of twisting a good religion into the shape of hatred. But the message of hope comes with the grace which is at work even in the darkest of moments.