This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2.

I think I need to watch more telly. When the Emmys were announced the other day I realised I had never heard of most of the programmes that won. The problem is, though, that I’ve recently gone back to watching the whole box set of The West Wing and anything else seems to get in the way. I know what I like and I like what I know.

The West Wing – which first broadcast on this very day in 1999 – follows a fictional US presidency and is great for learning how the White House works – or doesn’t. But, of the many great lines in it, my favourite is: “What’s next?” President Bartlet, whatever crisis he has just had to deal with, comes out with the question all the time: “What’s next?”

Now, I know the feeling. And I admire the people who just move effortlessly on to the next thing on the agenda. But, I also think it isn’t that easy … and maybe isn’t always wise.

Most of us will know what it’s like when life feels like being trapped on a hamster wheel – or a conveyor belt to nowhere. You want the world to stop – to give you a break. But, things keep happening, time rolls on, and you just get thrown around by it.

And that’s life in the real world. But, I also hear the whisper of Jesus telling his friends to live in the moment: “Don’t worry about tomorrow; … today is enough to cope with.” Well, for some people that’s fine. They are sufficiently comfortable to know where the next meal is coming from. Yet, there is a rising number of people for whom tomorrow is a threat – today brings enough of a challenge.

This uncertainty makes me confront my own fragility. I am not in control of the world … or even my own life. So, when I see people for whom tomorrow brings only fear or failure, I might look for a way to make today better … for them.

Maybe that’s the answer to my own “What’s next?” question … while I continue to be haunted by the relentless pace of the West Wing.

This is the text of an article I wrote for the Yorkshire Post on Saturday 19 September 2020.

I have two images in my mind. One is the old BT commercial that told us in various ways, “It’s good to talk”; the second is the title of a book by the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks: ‘The Dignity of Difference’. Both run the risk of sounding good as long as we don’t get down to detail.

It is no secret that societies seem more fragmented today than they were a decade ago. We don’t need to identify all the changes across the world, but just use a word like Brexit and watch what happens. Differences have always been there, but the fissures seem more exposed these days, and the language more violent. Social media clearly don’t help; they draw people into echo chambers in which the temperature is raised and the room for mutual comprehension or compromise is, at best squeezed, and at worst eliminated. Every argument forces a binary choice – with me or against me. Families have been split over political identity; everything is something to be angry about.

On the other hand, we saw during lockdown how people came together to celebrate and thank our frontline workers – crossing otherwise powerful fault lines and encouraging people to make common cause in a common ritual of gratitude.

The big challenge for us all, however, is how we hold onto the precious experiences of connection and move on from some of the powerful drivers of division. We have a mutual interest in making things better – even if there are powerful voices that exploit chaos and profit from discord.

BT was right: it is good to talk. But, there has to be a relationship from which the conversation can flourish. Talking at is not the same as talking with. And we clearly need to find a vocabulary for talking together about hard choices and opposing opinions.

Jonathan Sacks, in the title of his book, hits on something powerful. As long as there are people – every individual unique and with a different view of the world and why things matter – there will be difference. But, difference is not the same thing as division. The question for us in the noisy autumn of 2020 is not to do with avoiding conflict or pretending to some false unity; rather, it is how to find ways of reconnecting with those from whom we differ in order to disagree well (unless we have the courage to learn, grow and – heaven forbid – change our mind).

Easy to say, but hard to do. How is our society going to find ways of rejecting mere acceptance that division has to follow difference and find the nerve to come together? As the Covid crisis develops and our lives have become less certain, how might we avoid deepening conflict and creating a genuine way of holding together in a common society? For the pandemic hasn’t created disunity, it has exacerbated it. But its consequences have also exposed wider tensions between generations, ethnic groups and degrees of affluence.

Well, like most things in life, the beginning of an answer won’t be found in grand political statements or even economic fixes. Community goes deeper than these social arrangements and power factors. It is rooted in relationships that are honest, humble and realistic.

I chair a new coalition that aims to find ways of encouraging just this and it is starting work in Yorkshire. Called /together, it has emerged from some of the country’s leading businesses, arts, media, politics, youth organisations, charities and faith communities getting together to look for practical ways of doing something – not just complaining about the problems. This is not, however, a top-down organisation aimed at do-gooders dropping their protected benevolence onto a grateful society; rather, it aims at listening, convening, encouraging and resourcing local initiatives for bringing people together in common conversation and common life.

One of the first initiatives, aimed at providing genuine intelligence, is a massive national conversation. Anyone and everyone can join in. We want to hear people’s real concerns and see where they see the potential for creating a kinder and closer society. An online survey, together with conversations with people across the UK, starting here in Yorkshire next week,will help us to understand where difference has descended into division – and where, together, we might begin to address this in a humane, intelligent and mature way. The survey can be accessed at www.together.org.uk and will not take long to complete. Every voice needs to be heard. Other initiatives will soon follow, shaped by what we find out.

Why start here? Simply because we won’t find any answers until we have identified the right questions. In other words, dialogue and conversation must always begin with mutual listening. Listening leads to hearing, and hearing might just lead to understanding … even if not to agreement.

Difference can be dignified. It needn’t be a threat. In fact, in my own Christian tradition Jesus chose friends who (the Gospels make clear) didn’t necessarily like each other. They had different personalities, experiences and priorities. But, their task was to hold together –sometimes despite themselves. They had to learn to love, to make space for each other.

Together must always be better than apart.

This is the text of my article in the Yorkshire Post today to mark the seventy fifth anniversary of VJ Day.

The 75th anniversary of VJ Day is not just a day for celebrating the end of a cataclysmic global conflict. It is also a stimulus for reflection, humility and courageous self-reflection. For, in the famous words at the end of Bertolt Brecht’s play ‘The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui’, pointing to Hitler, “The bitch that bore him is in heat again.” Not elegant, but inescapably powerful. The sort of idolatries and dehumanising perversities that led to two world wars have not gone away, and there is great danger in thinking that we have since then just “moved on”.

One of the most remarkable things about what followed VJ Day in 1945 was the ability of so many victims of Japanese military brutality to face the horrors they had endured and still forgive. Not everyone, clearly. And no one can point a finger at those whose suffering took them into silence, withdrawal or, even, hatred. Yet, many did recognise the complex nature of human identity, allegiance and obedience. (One of the best illustrations of this can be seen in the film ‘The Railway Man’ in which Colin Firth plays ex-POW Eric Lomax as he confronts the tortures he had endured during the war.)

This is not easy stuff. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hanged on Hitler’s orders a month before the Nazi surrender, addressed this when he rejected any notion of what he called “cheap grace”. You can’t just “forgive and forget” as a way of dealing with appalling cruelty or suffering; but, the beginning of any healing is to be found in facing the offence with courage and clarity.

A Japanese theologian called Kosuke Koyama did just that in 1984. Soaked in Japanese tradition and culture (though by then teaching in New York City), he wrote what he called a “pilgrimage in theology’ in which he went from Mount Fuji to Mount Sinai – from the heart of Japanese emperor worship back to the formative place of encounter in the Judeo-Christian narrative with God. What this meant for Koyama was not just some interesting historical study from which he could maintain academic distance, but an open facing up to personal challenge and failure. In a nutshell: how did he find himself seduced by a cultural worldview that led to unimaginable cruelty (as an exercise of power) while at the same time claiming to be a follower of Jesus Christ?

I mention Koyama because his account is not one that should be restricted to Japanese or Germans in the wake of a world war. It was a failure to recognise early enough the perversity of idolatry (of Hitler, the Reich, the Emperor) or the consequences of a thinking that dehumanises people that led to fifty million corpses across the planet in 1945.

An uncritical obedience to the Emperor cult led not only to extreme violence, but also to Hiroshima and Nagasaki where national identity and racial personality were reduced to ashes beneath the mushroom clouds of technological progress. Worship idols of national identity or racial supremacy and it will end in violence. Do we never learn from history?

Koyama came to the conclusion that Japan’s collusion with emperor worship was a form of idolatry – giving ultimate worth to a dehumanising ideology. He pleads that every culture is prone to similar idolatries and that these are easily colluded with. The challenge for us, learning from his experience, is how to critique the values of our own culture … in order to avoid unthinkingly slipping down a slope that leads inexorably to violence.

Self-criticism is not something that most of us find easy. Especially when we are asked to expose to external critique something as fundamental as our worldview: that is, our assumptions about the world, its people and what ultimately matters. It takes courage to look through the lens of others at the essence and drift of what we hold to be essential about our own collective values. The moral questions that lead us to condemn war crimes are the same as those we bring to bear on current challenges such as illegal immigration: what is a human being worth? And why?

I can’t go with Koyama from Mount Fuji back to Mount Sinai where the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition is rooted (the Ten Commandments and the shaping of a just society), but I can at least see in Sinai some fundamental encouragements and warnings: to love God and neighbour; to avoid coveting and killing; to avoid idolatry and build justice; to tell the truth.

VJ Day celebrates the end of a particular dehumanising brutality and the cost of resisting it. The values that led the world to oppose tyranny must be the ones we hold onto as they come under pressure in every generation.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

I am probably not alone in being haunted by film of the explosion in Beirut on Tuesday evening. The fearful images are powerful in themselves, but they also provoke a terrible sense of awe – at the destruction and death wrought by the apocalyptic suddenness of such a violent event. Observing from a distance is bad enough; being there must surely be appalling at every level.

As the shock turns yet again to musings about meaning, every witness will have their own vocabulary – their own associations – as they try to articulate the impact on their own sense of mortality or fragility.

I was probably also not alone on Tuesday in associating images from Lebanon with those from Hiroshima 75 years ago today. I remember seeing film of that first atomic bomb and reading John Hersey’s harrowing account from 1946 of the aftermath. Even at the time this provoked both scientists and ethicists to question whether technology had once again outstripped morality. In the light of our proven technological ability to do something, how do we then ensure that the question as to whether we should do it is properly addressed – and in which terms?

This is not easy. In the real world things don’t happen tidily or sequentially. But, I think there are other images that might help in the search.

In the Christian calendar, today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. This recalls when Jesus took three of his friends up a mountain where his appearance was transfigured by light before their eyes. They were dazzled. But, they didn’t quite get what they had just witnessed. Jesus had to explain to them, but also urge them not to rush around telling everyone what they had seen. Don’t leap to judgment when you don’t have the full picture or you haven’t had time to think it through.

What is also significant here is that Jesus leads them back down the mountain and they head towards Jerusalem where he knows that horrors await him and them. No fantasy idealism. No seduction by an ideological dream. Just – how to live with the vivid experience as cold, unpredictable (and perhaps incomprehensible) reality unravels before them.

The question whether we should do what we can do has not gone away since Hiroshima. Nor has the warning not to rush to judgment or blame simply because of a prior association. And nor has the need to share fragile humanity by prayer and practical care for those who suffer what they might never understand.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

One of the unexpected things I did during lockdown was watch the sort of television programmes for which I usually have either little time or sufficient interest.

I love art, but I can’t do it. When I was younger, in an attempt to slow me down and distract me from working, I was given a sheet of paper and a pencil and told to draw the chair that stood in front of me. I did my best – even using my thumb the way real artists do to measure size or perspective. The result wasn’t great. I was then told to look differently and not draw the chair, but the spaces around and between the elements of the chair. What then emerged was something that looked less precise, but more real.

What I began to learn from this is that the point of art is to invite the artist or the audience to look differently in order to see differently in order to think differently in order then to live differently in the world. And this perspective also began to impinge on ways of approaching theology or politics or just about anything else. Instead of looking at the thing itself, look at the spaces around it and new perspectives begin to open up.

Now, I think this is what many people discovered – often to their surprise – when Grayson Perry did his excellent Art Club – a six-part series during lockdown. Apart from the vulnerability of the exercise on his part and the huge numbers of people who joined in – often sending in their own productions – he touched on something important about human being and creativity. Commenting on the series he said: “Art is a powerful tool for expressing what is going on in the world and identifying what really matters.”

In other words, art and the arts have vital economic value in and for a society, but  cannot be measured in purely economic terms. They change the way we see and think. They reach into the depths and re-grind the lens behind our eyes through which we see – in my words – God, the world and us.

For a Christian this is not a new idea. The creation narratives in Genesis show an almost playful God, creating such variety, but then, for example, giving people the responsibility of naming the animals. Co-creators whose humanity is only being fulfilled when open to art for art’s sake. The Bible is full of examples of beauty and craftsmanship – valuable in their own right. Jesus invites people to look differently at everything – changing their mind and how they think. This awakens curiosity, teases the imagination, enriches experience.

It is what we are made for.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

This Sunday sees the birthday of the National Health Service – a poignant moment given our collective experience of the last few months. And those who put themselves in the way of mortal danger in order to care for the sickest in our society deserve every round of applause and every demand that they be properly valued for their commitment.

This is why there is planned to be one final round of applause at 5pm on Sunday to express our collective gratitude to all those who serve us so well and, often, sacrificially.

This is being led by a new coalition called ‘together’, which brings together people from across some of our political and cultural divides – recognising some of the fractures in British society at the same time as affirming the commonalities that need to be held onto if a society is to thrive and not just survive.

Interestingly, following a decade of disconnection, a call for ‘reconnection’ usually gets quickly translated as an appeal for ‘unity’. But, this is to make a fundamental mistake. Unity can too easily represent a cheap glossing over of differences; reconnection accepts difference, but still urges the need for community. A lack of agreement on certain fundamental issues is no excuse for not holding together in an ongoing mutual commitment or conversation.

Now, as a Christian, this is obvious. Back in the Hebrew Scriptures we read that God calls people to reflect his character in the world. And this is never a matter of private entertainment or enterprise; rather, the people God calls reflect the messiness and conflicts of real humanity, but their task – their vocation, if you like – is to work at reflecting that character in spite of their differences and conflicts.

The same can be seen in the Gospels. Jesus calls people to walk with him on a relatively short-lived journey of tough realism, having to get on with the other people he’d chosen. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t give any of his friends a veto over who else he might invite along – their job was to make it work. This was no walk in the park as people with different character, personality, priorities and preferences annoy each other, but have to stick together.

So, ‘together’ might sound a cosy word – a comfortable way of avoiding conflict – when, in fact, it is deeply realistic. It assumes difference and disunity. It is not afraid of tension. It brings us out on our doorsteps and brings people together in a common space, but not as an escape – rather, as a commitment to a common humanity and citizenship, with all the mutual obligations these demand of us.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show with Amol Rajan:

I know this isn’t the place for confession, but I do have to admit to a weird fascination with knowing what has happened on any particular day in history. And today’s epic is this: on 30 June 1859 the French acrobat Charles Blondin became the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He followed this up by doing it on stilts, a bike, and in a sack. He even once carried a stove and cooked an omelette.

Why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing. I can’t even look at videos of people looking down from high buildings without feeling sick.

But, Blondin didn’t leave it there. On one occasion he pushed a wheelbarrow over … while blindfolded. Naturally, there was an audience and he asked them if they believed he could carry someone across in the wheelbarrow. They all shouted “yes!”. So, he asked who would like to get in … and no one volunteered.

Now, that rings bells for me. You’ll see what I really believe by what you see me doing and how you see me living it out – putting my body where my mouth is, so to speak. It’s easy to believe something when it demands no follow-up that might cost me.

There’s a bit in the gospels where Jesus and his friends go to a place called Caesarea Philippi and he asks them who people say he is. They come up with a few suggestions – a reincarnated prophet, for example – but he then looks them in the eye and says: “But, who do you say that I am?” And that’s where the problems started.

These friends of Jesus found out that being his friend was going to change their life and might lead them to the same fate as he was going to suffer. In other words, faith means action, and action comes with consequences.

So, I look at Charles Blondin and his wheelbarrow and I think he was mad. But, his question to the audience put them on the spot. Belief needs action. It’s not enough to trust without exercising it. I can’t just sit there and claim to believe.

Still not sure I’d have got into the wheelbarrow, though.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show:

I am now on my tenth listen of Bob Dylan’s new album Rough and Rowdy Ways. And one of the lines that jumps out at me is this: “Be reasonable, mister, be honest, be fair, Let all of your earthly thoughts be a prayer.”

One of the surprising things to emerge from lockdown so far is the massive surge of people searching online for prayer or connection to some sort of collective worship. Researchers in Copenhagen saw a 50% increase in Google searches for ‘prayer’ over 95 countries.

And maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising, after all. For when things get tough, or life breaks down in some uncontrollable way, so the distractions from deeper questions fall away. But, I want to ask, what is this prayer thing all about, anyway?

When I was younger I used to think of prayer as an attempt to change God’s mind – urging an improvement in my own or others’ circumstances. When I grew up, and had a bit more experience of both the world and prayer, I moved to seeing prayer as essentially about changing me. The great writer CS Lewis once wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself… I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

Why did he think that? I think it’s because prayer involves being exposed to a view of oneself, the world and other people that challenges me to see, think and live differently. This is why Christians pray “in the name of Jesus” – you know, trying to see through the eyes of the Jesus we read about in the gospels. And the world looks different when seen through that lens.

Bob Dylan goes on to sing about a “gospel of love”. And by this he doesn’t mean something sentimental. Love is the costly outpouring of oneself and ends up being – in Christian terms – cross-shaped.

So, when I pray – wherever and however that might be … and whether alone or in a group – my eyes look to God and the world, but the change has to happen to me … so I can be part of changing the world.

Amen to that.

 This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show:

Well, I don’t know what you’re doing today, but I am busy waiting for tomorrow.

Now, this isn’t just me procrastinating or not living in the moment. Tomorrow – wait for it – is the day Bob Dylan releases his latest album. And it’s his first with original songs since Tempest in 2012. So, it’s been a slow train coming and I bet it was worth the wait.

It’s called Rough and Rowdy Ways and I have no idea – apart from hints in an interview I read – what it will be like. But, his Bobness never disappoints. His lyrics address the themes of the times and cut through the sentimentalities of life, offering a vocabulary for questioning, wondering and, sometimes, worshiping.

But, it’s the title that grabbed me when I saw it recently. Dylan has never shied away from dosing us with reality. If the answer is blowing in the wind, then it has to be found under the hard rain that’s gonna fall. When we want to settle down, he reminds us that the times do keep a-changing. So, rough and rowdy ways does sum up, in a pithy way, the world we seem to inhabit now.

Since lockdown began we have had to invent new ways of living, communicating, associating and, even, thinking about the world and what matters. And for many people this has been a real struggle. We’ve had to be inventive – discovering new technologies and ways of working – and it remains rough and rowdy, disruptive and untidy.

But, this is how life usually is for most people. One of the things that always hits me when I read the Bible is its utter realism. Right from the start, ordinary people are called to leave behind their familiar world and journey to an unknown destination. Jesus invites people to walk with him, but into a future they can’t control … and might end badly. People go into exile or suffer oppression. And, yet, the constant is that God never abandons them even when the loss is more powerful than anything.

Rough and rowdy might describe the way ahead, but this can be exciting, too. And if Bob can still see the possibilities at 79, then I’ll give it a go, too.

A couple of years ago I did a session at the Bradford Literature Festival with Professor Paul Rogers and Shashi Tharoor. I had never heard of Shashi Tharoor. It turned out he had been a deputy to Kofi Annan at the United Nations, but had now returned to India and was involved in domestic politics. The session we did was on where the world was heading … and no one mentioned a pandemic.

The day before the event I was sent Tharoor’s new book, but didn’t have time to read it until afterwards. Inglorious Empire opened my eyes to the reality of the British Empire. The question was: why did it take a book like this to inform me?

I grew up in Liverpool where we were taught something vague about the slave trade and the transatlantic routes that brought such wealth to my home city and England. I loved the buildings in the city centre without ever asking where the money came from to build them. I used to get my hair cut at the barber shop at Penny Lane, but never wondered who the street was apparently named after. It was after I had left at 18 that I found out that James Penny was a slave trader.

Reading Tharoor’s book I found myself cutting through some of the complacent mythology about the British Empire to some actual facts. We often hear reference to Britain as “the greatest trading nation” – without any reference to those who paid the price. The blood of slaves and the exploitation of people didn’t get a mention – as if the noble Brits went around the globe doing their best for people at no expense, civilising them and giving them railways. For example, I didn’t know that prior to the British taking over India had twenty three per cent of global trade; when the British left it had only three per cent. Look around our great cities to see where the money went.

So, this is what I am thinking while the Black Lives Matter protests go on. The USA has its own history of exploitation, segregation and racism; the UK has its own unique history. But, they are inextricably connected in the common experience of the slave trade itself.

Ignorance is no excuse. Yet, silence does not necessarily signify acquiescence; it can also be a response to facing the truth and having no excuse for not having enquired or understood in the first place. I am uneasy about making gestures that cost nothing – which is why I have not rushed to action or reaction, but need to think and consider and plan what might make an actual difference. (I know many people have ‘taken the knee’ as a mark of solidarity with black people; I have to be honest and say that I feel uneasy about appropriating someone else’s experience in this way, but recognise that I might be wrong and misreading the iconic power of it.) But, I find Reni Eddo-Lodge’s words powerful: “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” (From Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race.)

History is complex and can be appropriated for ideological ends by anyone. But, however some times and periods are open to debate and interpretation, there are some facts that cannot be ignored. Behind the numbers are people. And many of their successors still pay the price today of other people’s privilege gained yesterday.

This might be a pivotal moment in our history – on both sides of the Atlantic. Justice cannot be reduced to gestures. Our teaching of history clearly needs some serious attention – and that would only be a start, but not a conclusion. As James Baldwin said in As Much Truth as One can Bear (quoted by Susan Neiman in Learning from the Germans: Confronting Race and the Memory of Evil): “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”