Friday, 15 March 2019, Christchurch, New Zealand. This will be a date, a place, etched in my mind for years to come. A headline “The end of our innocence” accurately portrays the shock that permeated the city and nation.
On that afternoon, a lone gunman murdered 51 people and injured many more as he attacked the city’s two mosques. Reliable facts only came later in the evening, before that the news was full of uncertainty and constantly changing reports. The city went into “lock down”. Schools were formally secured and parents had to wait anxiously to find out when they were going to be with their children. Businesses, tourists, and public were advised to stay indoors and wait for more news. Many of our church and friends were stuck in and around the specific areas of attack. Nothing was clear. How many attackers were there? Who was at risk? How long will the lock down last? Are my children safe? How many people have been killed? Why is this happening? Is this even real? Will it happen again?
Christchurch has had its fair share of suffering and disaster in recent years. Back in 2010 and 2011 there were two huge earthquakes that literally brought the city to ruins. 185 people lost their lives, countless more were directly impacted, and even today, eight years on from “the” earthquake, the re-building is still very visible – physically, mentally and socially.
Christchurch folk have become attuned to the constant presence of subtle fears, unpredictability and pain. It’s not overt, but it comes across in the small conversations, for example the wife of one of my colleagues who refuses to drive to the other side of the island for fear of a major fault line rupturing and cutting them off. It’s not overt, but it’s there in the earthquake practices in schools, in the extra stock-piles of canned food, in the back of the minds.
But Christchurch folk are also amazing. Despite those fears they get on with life, plan for the future and hold on to hope.
This attack, this was something new for the whole country. Something New Zealand hadn’t experienced. The headline “The end of our innocence” accurately portrayed the shock that permeated the city and nation. Another of my colleagues described a conversation with his daughter after the attack, “Dad, you said this wouldn’t happen here, you lied”. They’d watched news reports where these events happened elsewhere and he said, and he believed, ‘this won’t happen in New Zealand’. That family is probably typical of Kiwi’s before the attack.
As part of the Police, I saw a widespread recognition that New Zealand has changed. This coming from people who have seen more than their fair share of painful and shocking events.
There’s so many things I could talk about following this attack but I’ll focus on just 3 aspects; the youth, the community, and the church.
Any of the city’s 11-17 year olds would have experienced “the” earthquake as 3-8 year olds. Many of them will have seen and remember the fear, pain and uncertainty in their homes. Many of them will have been too young to properly process those events and this attack took them right back to that confusing place. It robbed them of the safety they took for granted.
But God’s doing something special to restore this. My wife, Naomi, and I had the privilege of running a prayer tent at this year’s Easter Camp – a youth camp similar to Soul Survivor in the UK – for 3,000 of the city’s young people. This was just one month after the attack, it was still raw. We spent time with the leadership of Easter Camp who recognised a very understandable spirit of fear among the parents and an unusual mellowness in the young people.
God spoke louder. God moved in a way that they haven’t seen for years. We contend for this generation to stand on top of these experiences, confident in the goodness of God despite their circumstances. He’s already giving them reasons to do so!
What one man planned to divide and separate, actually brought people together in a beautiful and moving way. For at least two weeks afterwards there were so many vigils and memorial services, all organised by a diverse range of communities and movements, before the official government memorial service. Aside from these events there was a constant throng of people laying flowers at Hagley Park and in Linwood, near the attack sites. Walking around those events and sites you couldn’t help but notice the diversity or the communal sense of shock and compassion. Strangers engaged in conversation in coffee shops and workplaces, “where were you when…?”, “how were your kids after the lock down…?”.
The significant majority united in denouncing the attack and engaging with understanding a group of people so often feared in many countries. A group of people feared because of the actions of extremists. A subtle acceptance of “backward thinking” has allowed division to grow among portions of society here in the past. This attack, instead of empowering those divisive voices, brought the message loud and clear that New Zealand stands together. This attack has challenged everyone in some way.
There was a huge range of reactions among the churches here. Most churches engaged with their local communities, with the Muslim community and offered support, prayer and love. God brought together his church to remind us that the body is larger than any one congregation or denomination – something I’m told that He did in the aftermath of the earthquakes, He reminded us of again.
The Prime Minister sought to acknowledge the cultural differences and to dispel fear or misunderstandings. Unfortunately we saw a small portion of our extended Christian family reacting with fear, directly denouncing certain actions such as broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer and instead calling for vocal, active, spiritual warfare (admittedly as much of this came from overseas as here). We fully recognise there is a need for spiritual warfare. We fully recognise that we should never underestimate the enemy. But we also recognise that the enemy wants to divide and separate us.
A Christian Maori leader responded excellently (in my opinion):
“Dear Christians of Aotearoa. Why are you afraid? Do you have reason to be? Love casts out all fear. Overcome evil with good. If a gun was pointed at your face, could you say “Hello brother”? If a chant was said that differs to your theological ideology could you say, “Hello brother”? The one who counters with an opposing argument at the wrong time is being wooed by a contentious stirrer. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Therefore, be still and know that I am God. And God is love.”
We have a hope and an excitement for what God is building in Christchurch. A city that isn’t yet universally recognised for its diversity or bi-culturalism… but it will be! A city where people do, and will, sing of God’s goodness despite the circumstances. A city that will be known as a “City of Hope” not because it is always safe or always sunny, but because God is hope and He’s so evidently moving here.
City Life Christchurch [connected with Pioneer Network Australia] | Forensic Accountant with New Zealand Police
(If this blog has prompted you to ask questions or rethink the idea of suffering and pain; why not join us at the Pioneer Theological Forum where we will be delving into the theme of suffering and weakness. Find out more HERE.)