I was tempted to call this post 'Let's do the Como-tion', but I resisted. Just. I bet you are glad.

I came on from Finland early Sunday morning and flew to Milan where I joined the Germans coming in from Berlin and we were driven to Villa La Collina in Cadenabbia, overlooking Lake Como. Having not slept a wink last night, I found the lectures and discussions today quite hard going. Even chatting at dinner was a strain.

This villa is the conference centre (Accademia) of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Konrad Adenauer was the remarkable first Chancellor of Germany after the Second World War, taking up office in 1949. His Stiftung (foundation) does some really excellent work on the relation between society, religion, culture and politics (among other research and other themes). This one is titled: Der öffentliche Raum in Europa und seine religiös kulturelle Prägung.

The first day (having arrived at 2pm, we started on the work at 3.30pm) tackled the theme: Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne. The first paper was by Professor Marcia Pally of New York University and she presented a paper (in English) on Covenant: Rebalancing the fractures and freedoms of Modernity. Basically, it was about the essential relatedness of human beings (although quoting Moltmann on 'relatedness' without reference to 'creation' is a bit weird) and the essential nature of relationality to human flourishing (my term).

The second paper was by Professor Dr Rolf Schieder (Humboldt-Universität, Berlin) and titled: Spiritualität und Glaube – und die Kirchen? Empirische Befunde in Europa. This was really a interesting survey of research into 'religion' (commitment and expression) and 'spirituality' in Europe – referencing the differences between neighbouring European countries in some surprising ways ('religious' getting a higher rating than 'spiritual' in Germany, but the opposite being the case in France). The ensuing discussion led to some difference of opinion about how optimistic we should be about the future of the church in Germany, given the cultural as well as 'spiritual' contribution it might make.

A long, sleepless and intense day ended with a superb paper given by the Speaker of the German Parliament (Bundestagspräsident), Professor Dr Norbert Lammert, on Kunst, Politik und Öffentlichkeit (Art, polotics and public space). He basically posed a fundamental question: how do you measure the soul of a society? He went on to consider truth, democracy, culture and the need for a [written] Constitution (which, of course, we do not have in the United Kingdom). He stated that culture is not an ornament of society, but is fundamental to society… and that although art has a claim on the State, the State has no claim on art or culture. The discussion was fascinating and detailed, but I was struggling to keep my concentration because of extreme tiredness… and will need to re-read the paper more slowly. (The paper will be published along with others in due course.)

Enough for now.

 

I have not had time to post on all the myriad of things going on in the world. I am writing this on the train back from London before heading off to lecture and preach at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena tomorrow (after a 3.30am wake up).

But, these are the questions I would ask anyway:

1. Why do newspaper editors want everyone else in the world to be regulated, scrutinised and accountable to outside agencies, but scream when it is proposed that they should be regulated, scrutinised and accountable? When did regulation become a synonym for censorship? How do you spell 'special pleading'?

2. What do members of the English Defence League think they achieved by coming to Bradford last Saturday and shouting to themsleves for an hour before going home again? Genuine question. Nobody was listening. It just seemed like a waste of time and money – to say nothing of the cost to Bradford and the police.

3. Are Manchester United fans not just the teeniest little bit embarrassed about bleating like babies after a couple of games where they didn't win? After laughing at everyone else for twenty five years?

4. Where was all this new Madeleine McCann stuff hiding before the UK police got going on it?

5. We already owned the Royal Mail; so, why were we asked to buy it?

6. Who decides whether Edward Snowden did the world a favour or played into the hands of the bad guys?

7. When is the Pakistani government going to start protecting all its citizens, particularly Christians who are being targeted with violence?

8. Which Americans are proud of their political system when it inhibits the working of government?

9. How do we get the balance between protection (intelligence agencies) and oppression (intelligence agencies)? And who decides what is appropriate secret service?

10. Are we nearly there yet?

 

I wonder if the Daily Mail has finally succeeded in opening the eyes of its apathetic readers to the true nature of its anthropology (that is, what they think is the intrinsic value or meaning of human beings in society).

The Miliband saga has intensified, with expressions of anger from some unlikely people.

What interests me most is how this feeds into a more general problem in the public discourse: the conscious and deliberate corruption of language. It is disingenuous of the Deputy Editor of the Mail to say in yesterday's Newsnight debate with Alastair Campbell that “headlines have to be read in conjunction with the text of the article” when the world and his wife knows (a) that headlines often mislead (deliberately?) and (b) that deliberate association goes beyond the literal text or juxtaposition.

Repeated use of simple phrases makes a powerful appeal to the subconscious that goes beyond the specific words. At the Conservative Party Conference this week the word 'hardworking' hung over and behind the stage on which speeches were made. The word dripped into the rhetoric of many speakers and commentators – as if we all understood what was meant by it and who was included in it. Or assumed to be included in it. Poor hardworking people (in multiple part-time and low-paid jobs and who are increasingly using foodbanks) are clearly not included.

Aren't stay-at-home parents 'hardworking'?

To go back to the Daily Mail furore for a moment: why was it illegitimate to recall the Daily Mail's antisemitism, support for fascism and affection for Adolf Hitler at the same time as deeming it (obviously) legitimate to quote from Ralph Miliband's teenage diary?

As I have argued many times on this blog, the corruption of language is deliberate and very dangerous. It is used to suggest and associate – working at a subliminal level and categorising people without always spelling out what is going on here and why. It is something George Orwell understood very well and articulated very clearly.

“Arbeit macht frei” is a simple and 'true' slogan, isn't it?

The heart can only despair. The Daily Mail has a low enough view of humanity, but its piece on Ralph Miliband is execrable. Its decision to print the original hatchet job alongside Ed Miliband's response – standing by every word of its nasty 'critique' – unbelievably crass.

Apparently, Miliband Senior wrote in his diary when only seventeen years old:

[the English were] perhaps the most nationalist people in the world… you sometimes want them almost to lose [the war] to show them how things are.

The paper then goes on to suggest there might be a link between father and son. Suggestive innuendo and ridiculous association. (I hope no one ever quotes stuff I wrote/said when I was a teenager…)

If the Daily Mail's association is valid, what conclusions might it draw from this screaming headline from its own adolescence?

When Ralph Miliband was escaping the fascism beloved of the Mail – and then fighting against it – this is what the Mail's owner was doing:

Perhaps it is time to recall this:

 

There are times when being a news editor must be the worst job.

What ought to lead the news today? What should be the order of priority? Which is most important in its implications for the world?

  • The continuing brutality in Syria and the dangers of a wrong move leading to a regional or global conflict?
  • The apparently uncontrollable brutality meted out in Nairobi, with Muslims being separated out for life and non-Muslims for execution in a shopping centre?
  • The suicide bombings in Pakistan aimed specifically at Christians? (Oops, this one has already fallen off the front pages, so no link.)
  • Ongoing violence in Egypt and violence against Christians there?
  • The latest warnings by scientists about global warming and the debate about human causes of this?
  • Potential rapprochement between the USA and Iran?
  • The re-election of Angela Merkel as Federal Chancellor of Germany and the most powerful political leader in Europe?
  • The continuing oppression and slaughter in Darfur, Sudan? (Oh dear, not on any page – old news.)

The disappearance of Christian communities from Asia and the Middle East might not seem to everyone in liberal Britain to be the most important phenomenon in the world – especially to those who think religion is just a slightly embarrassing matter of mere individual private opinion. Not only is it a scandal, however, but it might turn out to bring a really significant change to the balance of world politics – and human co-existence in parts of the globe where diverse cultures have lived alongside each other for centuries.

The loudest news isn't necessarily the most important.

 

Going to university back in 1976 opened a new world to me. Never really having the confidence to read widely or expand my interests beyond finding intellectual endorsement for my evangelical faith, I was compelled to read books I had not previously encountered.

My German teacher – probably deeply irritated by me, my seriousness and my questions – had got me to read Dante's Inferno and, with a group of German Assistent/innen, to see a Bertolt Brecht play in Manchester. It was The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, a powerful parody of the rise of Hitler, and a play I would return to many times. But, that was probably as far as I went.

In my first year in Bradford, really wanting to concentrate on becoming a translator, I opted for a course on European Literature and Thought. This opened me up to writers such as Sigmund Freud, Guiseppe di Lampedusa, Arthur Koestler, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Günther Grass, and many others. The text that gripped me, however, was The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

My knowledge of history was neither deep nor wide. It still isn't, but I am trying…

It did seem striking, though, that 1848 was a pivotal year in European and, therefore, world history. Among many other things – such as revolutions in parts of Europe (and the Enlightenment bedding in following more than half a century after the French Revolution) – various types of slavery were being both challenged and protected… and both on grounds of economics, property and a perverse anthropology.

Marx and Engels berated the commodification of human beings in the industrialising worlds of mass-production, challenging the right of a capitalist elite to protect its own interests by enslaving the proletariat – those who actually made the stuff despite being alienated from it – in meaningless work from which they derived no profit and yet which imprisoned them in soulless and degrading labour.

At the same time Abraham Lincoln (yes, I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Lincoln) made his first public political move against slavery in the United States, recognising that thus far “he had not delivered a single speech on the issue of slavery or initiated anything to promote the issue” (p.127). He subsequently drafted a proposal for the gradual emancipation of slaves in Washington DC. He eventually lost, remarking with pragmatic political realism: “Finding that I was abandoned by my former backers and having little personal influence, I dropped the matter knowing it was useless to prosecute the business at that time.” (P.129)

Slavery takes many forms and is always conditioned by the particular cultural, political and economic shape of particular societies. In the US it was the issue that was dividing the country and would lead to the bloodshed of the Civil War only a few years later. Yet, most proponents of slavery there argued in favour of their proprietorial economic rights to own and trade people as commodities. In Europe it looked different. But, in both contexts the economics and politics were undergirded by often unarticulated anthropologies – maybe theological anthropologies – that made assumptions about the nature of human beings whilst avoiding facing the consequences of those assumptions.

Now, this is not to read back into past times the wise hindsight of the present. It is, however, to recognise that if such battles were being fought on different continents – and I haven't space to get on to the British Empire – over the nature of what is means to be human, then progress made in some quarters has not diminished the continuing importance of the fundamental question even today.

The 'rights' culture we now inhabit is both positive and negative. It poses some of the right questions whilst running into the sand when it comes to taking seriously the consistency of implications – for example, in establishing which rights have priority when the rights of different people clash directly. It is a lawyer's dream. Yet, underlying this is the nagging question of why we think that people matter in the first place. If the ethical tenet of “you can't get an 'ought' from an 'is' holds water, then the mere fact of human existence cannot of itself demand any moral imperative. That is to say, the mere fact of human existence cannot of itself – clear of un-argued for assumptions about why – demand a particular crediting of human life with inherent value or significance. We simply import other assumptions in reaching a conclusion with which we have actually started.

1848 was a pivotal year. There must be a book somewhere that looks at that year synchronously across the globe, recognising the contingencies of political, economic and anthropological (and theological) thought and argument. If not, someone should write one. (If I had Internet access while writing this, I would google it and look cleverer than I am. But, I don't!)

What is clear, however, is that the same questions that racked people like Marx, Engels and Lincoln – although they could not be thought to share the same political ground – have not gone away. If you think they have, then ask a trafficked East European teenager who finds herself in the lands of the free traded for sex, money and power.

 

I caught a hint of a glimpse of a headline somewhere yesterday while on the move. It simply raised the question of how we, citizens of a democratic country, would have responded several decades ago to the suggestion that every individual would carry around on his or her person a tracking device. It sounds absurd, doesn't it? We would reject such a notion as being an infringement of personal privacy and a seriously worrying intrusion by the state (or other powers).

Well, like many things, we allow it to happen because rather than be presented to us as a policy, it simply creeps up incrementally as 'technological development'. So, now, without really thinking a great deal about it, we live in a surveillance state, whereby the 'powers' can know where I am, what I am buying, who I am texting/phoning, which websites I am perusing, where I am driving, who I am with, and so on. CCTV, road cameras, debit/credit cards, social media, mobile signal triangulation, store cards, etc. – the mere fact of this coverage makes any idea of privacy seem a little ironic (in an Orwellian, 1984 sense).

So, I was amused to read this morning's (always) excellent Newsbiscuit piece about GCHQ.

 

1. Kenny Ball died today. We got our first stereo before I was a teenager. One of the first records we got was a Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen album. I was just starting to play the trumpet and the two I tried to imitate (I failed) were Louis Armstrong and Kenny Ball. His jazz was fun and the you could never get bored with the songs. I eventually played in a couple of jazz groups as a teenager – I was rubbish, but I never lost the love of trad jazz.

2. Hugo Chavez is to be embalmed and put on display. I just think there is something weird about this. Is it a corporate inability to comprehend the finality of death? Or something more ghoulish? One of my great regrets is that I never got the chance (I wasn't allowed) to visit the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square – I worked professionally as a Russian linguist and was intrigued by Soviet history. But, it was to glimpse mortality and to note how fragile even the most powerful human beings are: Lenin stuffed. Chavez deserves better.

3. The programme for the 19th Bradford International Film Festival has been published. It looks brilliant. Running from 11-21 April, it makes Cannes look lightweight. Bradford is a very surprising place. Not all about curry and the relics of a textile industry, but inspiring people with cultural vision.

4. The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church have arrived in Rome for the conclave that will conclude with the presentation of the new pope. Not a role many people would covet, surely? The rumours around and charges levelled at the church in the wake of Cardinal O'Brien's resignation and the unending abuse scandals must make being the top man something you would only wish on someone you didn't like. It will take remarkable courage, intellect and integrity to argue confidently for the credibility of both church and faith – but it might also commend a refreshed humility, rooted in a theology that speaks less of authority and more of mutuality.

5. The Psalmists of the Old Testament constantly bemoan the fact that the wicked always seem to prosper while the just simply suffer. Then the prophets decry a society in which justice can be bought and the poor be trampled in the dirt – and all this be seen as 'normal' or 'acceptable'. And then comes Silvio Berlusconi.

Good grief…

 

The world is not a comfortable place just now. But, let's keep this in perspective: it is never comfortable, never has been, never will be. For most people with a pulse, life is tough and good times should not be taken for granted. Yesterday, spending an hour with a group of teenagers on a big outer-Bradford estate, we looked at who pays the price when we buy cheap clothes in England or drink coffee from companies that pay no tax here and probably don't pay the coffee growers a living or just price for their beans.

We do injustice and greed far better than we do justice and selflessness.

Italy is paralysed – demonstrating that Europe's financial crisis is more political than it is economic. It has to do with consensus, leadership and will… and not primarily the availability of cash.

Zimbabwe looks towards elections and the old tactics of violence and threat are already beginning to colour the process as Robert Mugabe seeks the protection of office (again) at the age of 89. Even the Pope can't persuade him to do the decent thing. And who suffers? Well, the 'wrong' tribes, for starters.

Just a few weeks ago we were in Sudan. President Bashir, already indicted before the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in Darfur, continues to pursue what can only be described as ethnic cleansing in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. Stories are coming out increasingly that allow no doubt of the nature of the oppression being exerted by the Khartoum government against its own people.

And there lies the nub of the matter: 'its own people'. The Africans are not seen by the Arab masters as their 'own people'. The Africans are aliens who should go south or disappear. Like all such cleansings – and here, despite the claims of the government, it is clear that the roots of Sudan's bombing and terrorising of civilians is ethnic and racial – people are reduced to categories that then become dehumanised: it is easier to get rid of them, if they cease to be 'people' and become simply 'objects that conform to a categorical type'. See Rwanda, Nazism, etc.

Today serious questions will be asked in the British parliament. Bishops will be urging action by the British Government and its partners in the face of Sudanese indifference to international rhetoric. These bishops are extremely well connected to the grassroots realities in Sudan (as many other places in the world) because we have very close partnership links with dioceses and bishops there. This means we get to see ordinary people living their ordinary lives away from diplomatic environments or media theatres.

After Rwanda we said we would never let this happen again. As Baroness Cox said on BBC Radio 4 this morning, “'again' is happening now”.

 

I was asked by a young child recently what I would do if I wasn't a bishop. I think I waffled unconvincingly. this question was as unexpected as another one I was asked by a five year old in a primary school: “Have you got a dog?” This followed, “What's that big cross for?” Weird.

The truth is, I'd love to be a headline writer for The Onion. They just make me laugh. One of the best today reads:

God Freaks Self Out By Lying Awake Contemplating Own Immortality

It might be funny, but it also makes me wonder if I am missing something.

I wondered if a similar joke was at work this morning when the Guardian proclaimed:

Britain's religious right is on the rise

I seriously must be missing something here… because the report it was reporting on said the opposite. Theos, the excellent think tank that has published the report, says this:

Claims of a British 'Religious Right' are misleading

And the Church Times both comments and commends it here.

Do the sub-editors actually read the articles before inventing the headlines?

Anyway, another week is done and the Bradford Legal Service awaits at Bradford Cathedral on Sunday morning. I will be preaching about 'justice' and thinking of the still un-caught lad who burgled my house last August and nicked my computer and car.

Then I have to get my head round a series of addresses in German for a conference in Hannover in a couple of weeks time.

Of course, the challenge is to make sure that the content meets the theme described in the headlines. Oh dear…

 

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