The Norwegian Church is an attractive 100-year old building in Rotherhithe, full of little maritime touches, south of the Thames. Back when London was a busy port, Rotherhithe was one of the main areas of port business. Whistler used to go there in the 1870s and 1880s to draw and paint. Today, it’s a pleasant enough lower middle class area, one of many in London, but it retains something of its maritime legacy. Including the Norwegian Church and Seamen’s Mission, right down the street from the Finnish Church. There are Norwegian Churches in all sorts of port cities, in fact. Liverpool has one. Cardiff. Edinburgh. Norwegians take their Christianity seriously. 80% of the country is a member of the Church of Norway.
So it was a fitting setting for today’s Memorial Service to the victims of a very evil man, Anders Behring Breivik, who last Friday blew up part of Oslo, leaving eight people dead and many maimed and injured. He then proceeded to spend 90 minutes stalking and murdering 68 teenagers at a retreat on Utøya island, all in the name of a some mythical armed struggle against multiculturalism. It was a mostly Norwegian crowd in the church, obviously, although I imagine there were some there, like me, simply to bear witness. And it was a fine service, with several ministers, the local MP, and an overwhelming feeling of dignity. There was talk of how much everyone admired the Prime Minister of Norway, whose response to the tragedy was to insist on more openness, not less. Openness and dignity–what alien concepts these days.
This is an act, a crime that passes understanding. Words just don’t capture what happened, or its repercussions, even in this little London church where everyone obviously knows each other. Norway is a small country—a population of 5 million, smaller than London by a third. I suspect six degrees of separation are three or four too many. Breivik, who is a poster boy for Aryan madness if there ever was one, was a member of the Church of Norway too. But something, somewhere, went very wrong. Needless to say, Pat Buchanan thinks he had some good ideas anyway. Pam Geller and Jennifer Rubin are outraged that anyone would think that their hateful words, or they themselves, bear any responsibility for the actions of another. They weren’t alone in ascribing a jihadist explanation to the bombing before anybody actually knew anything—in my office, we switched to CNN, and there they all were, yakking on about a likely Al Quaida plot, because of some political cartoon or something. Breivik was admiring of the Unibomber, and of Timothy McVeigh, of course. Glenn Beck tried to cut Breivik some slack by comparing his victim to the Hitler youth. That’s the level we’ve sunk to.
“Horror surrounds us like an oil spill. Not a day passes without more savagery or harm.” The late Terrence des Pres wrote these word decades ago in response to some other meaningless atrocity inflicted upon someone by someone else. We become inured to these events. Like we do to starvation in Africa, or yet another disastrous typhoon in Bangladesh. But these are natural events, acts of God, if you want to call them that. This is not the repeated, incessant refrain of the constant and willful destruction of human beings by others. We are overwhelmed with atrocities, we can’t keep up. What keeps us going is hope, the hope provided by gatherings like that of today, where people of good will and faith and understanding come together to keep hope alive. It’s all we have, really.