Eleven weeks on from the Grenfell Tower fire, I don’t feel ready to write about it.
But it was such a significant event that I don’t want to be silent about it. I’ve tried to organise my thoughts for you, but I’m very aware of my limitations, so please forgive me that this brief reflection will be inadequate. I’m hoping that the links I’ve added might be helpful too.
This is hard, because my overwhelming feeling about the tragedy is sadness. And sadness alone doesn’t make for a good read. I live in the same Borough (area of London) as Grenfell, and I live on an estate with seven tower blocks. Does this make the horror and pain of it more real to me? Maybe. I do think that being local makes it feel more real – it’s affected people I know. I’ve seen the tower in real life, and it’s much more chilling than it looks on the telly. And because it’s more real, it’s harder to accept and move on from. Nor do we want to accept it and move on.
The big headline for me about this whole thing has been this: Terrible Things Happen. We might say we believe that, but in this society I don’t think we really do believe it. If, like me, you had a happy childhood and grew up in a safe and healthy place, you may live day to day thinking that the worst thing just won’t happen. We’re able to go through life thinking this because, on the whole, the worst things don’t happen to us. When tragic things do happen, we consider them to be breaks from the norm. However, do we know how unusual that is?
Less than eighty years ago our country was living through a period of sorrow, loss, want and fear that my generation of Brits cannot even imagine. And even leaving war out of it, medical advances and social reform mean that most of us are living with levels of safety, comfort and good health that our ancestors wouldn’t have dared dream of. So most of us can go through life enjoying ourselves, overcoming challenges and ticking off our bucket lists, feeling pretty confident that one day, when we’re really old, we’ll die peacefully in our sleep.
But in other countries across the world (and of course for many people in the UK), life isn’t like that. They wouldn’t need to be told that Terrible Things Happen, because they’ve always known that. And now, for many people in my local area (and those across the country who’ve been engaging with the news), this concept that Terrible Things Happen has for the first time become a horrifying reality. This is a dangerous, broken world. There is good in this world (as we’ve clearly seen in the amazing response to this tragedy) but there is also pain, horror and death.
Some people might say that if a whole tower block of people can go up in flames, then there can’t be a good God in charge of this world. I might be thinking that myself if I’d lost my children in a burning building. A post I wrote a while ago, This I Know, seems appropriate at this point. But I also want to share three thoughts about this with you:
- Grenfell is the worst kind of reminder of the value of human life. Staring up at the burnt out shell which represents so many families, and so many deaths, we feel overwhelmed by the tragedy of it. But if there is no creator God, it’s hard to say why we feel that people are valuable – more valuable than other creatures. And if people aren’t special, because they’re not made in God’s image, then we have no logical reason to mourn them. If love is just caused by some chemicals in our brain making us want to reproduce, then the loss of Grenfell is meaningless. Whether we live in a towerblock, a country mansion or a beach hut, I’m sure we all believe this was a tragedy, but can you explain why you feel that way?
- Deep in our hearts, we all want justice. If there is no God, then there will be no justice for Grenfell. People might go to prison because of cladding, or building regulations, or council funding. I doubt it, but they might – we’ll see. But nobody deliberately killed all of those people. At worst it was neglect, which is terrible, but it’s not murder. Even if the blame could be given to one person or a small group of people, they could never be punished enough to make all of this right again. So many deaths, so many lives ruined. We feel deep down that there shouldn’t be such inequality and that the poor shouldn’t be neglected. I’m thankful that God has made us to feel that way and that somehow, God will one day bring about justice once and for all.
- If Terrible Things Happen and death is real, then it matters what will happen after we die. The trouble with living a happy, safe and healthy life is that we can pretend we’re not going to die. Friends, how confident are you that you know what will happen after you die? And what reason do you have for that confidence?
As Christians, we have a King who went through horror for us, who experienced the worst injustice for us, and who did all of that so that we could go to a place where there will be no brokenness, no mourning and no pain. This world isn’t how it was made to be, and that’s why we’re so sad about the things going on in it. But there is hope in Jesus, hope for a perfect world – a world of safety, justice and joy. And this hope in Jesus is on offer to everyone – whether you live in a tower block or a Kensington mansion.
Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless.
Why does the wicked man revile God?
Why does he say to himself,
‘He won’t call me to account’?
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless…
You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that mere earthly mortals
will never again strike terror.