Finding the right words for Sydney

As the dust settles on the 16-hour siege in Martin Place on Monday, the words begin. Or rather, continue; whether […]

As the dust settles on the 16-hour siege in Martin Place on Monday, the words begin. Or rather, continue; whether you feel the media on the whole showed admirable restraint on Monday, or else fuelled fears and speculation, ceaseless commentary is now simply a reality of the internet age.

It’s right for the autopsies to start – for the Australian government, security forces, and people to ask what the event means, and where we go from here. This is a time for us to diagnose, criticise, and defend, and to ponder the kind of society we are and want to be. Perhaps it’s also a time to be thankful that this is such a deeply shocking event to us; that as a nation we’ve been spared even worse, or more frequent scenes of this kind.

The sense of the surreal, though, that accompanies an attack like this in a country like ours makes us unsure of what we truly want to say. We cast about for the right words, we chide each other for the wrong ones. We disagree on what responses or aspirations are appropriate.

We think of this as a new, perhaps (for us) unprecedented situation; a new and colder world, even. But hatred, grief, ugly force, fear, suspicion, and injustice are old, old foes. Humans have dealt with them before, and at times when we struggle to know what to feel or how to express it, we do well to fall back on the words that have been left us. And for the West, many of our “folkways” – the things we deeply and collectively know about the world and how we can best live together – are embedded in the long-crafted and oft-murmured prayers of previous generations.

The Book of Common Prayer stretches back to 1549, and has been revised, added to, and updated many times since. Here are some words from the 1979 (American) version that may offer us some solid ground among the shifts of the last few days:

Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth.

Another prayer, titled “For our Enemies”, begins: O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you.

There are so many more. “In Times of Conflict”: 
O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect.

“For Social Justice”: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations.

“For Sound Government” (how much wisdom is needed here!): O Lord our Governor, bless the leaders of our land, that we may be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth. What a vision for Australia and Australians.

Of course, if there is no God to appeal to, these words are ultimately fruitless – just false comfort, or misguided ritual. Yet, as many of us found this week, somehow it doesn’t always seem enough to say “my thoughts are with those affected”; we want to reach beyond, to say “my prayers”, to tap into something larger than our individual grief and powerlessness. If you are, have ever been, or could see yourself as a praying person, these old words, spoken by many before us, are a good place to start as we come to terms with new sorrow and new fears. 

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