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

Good news! In only four weeks the days start getting longer again. The light will start to grow.

But, for me, the next four weeks won’t just herald the end of lockdown or the approach of the Christmas juggernaut, it’ll bring something even more powerful as we look towards the end of a tough year for everyone. Advent – the season that dares to defy the darkening days and awaken our imagination to the possibility of hope – and it starts next Sunday.

I was once in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, engaged in a difficult conversation with the then deputy Foreign Minister, a rabbi. At one point he stood up and banged the table. He said: “Sometimes it seems as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But, it is not because the light is not there; it’s because the tunnel is not straight.” And I wrote it down as I thought it might be a good line for a Pause for Thought script one day.

It’s a vivid image, isn’t it? Drive through the Mersey Tunnel and you’ll get the idea as the road bends around in the darkness. (And ignore the late great Terry Pratchett’s line: “There was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it was a flamethrower.”)

But, Advent, as we anticipate Christmas, beckons us to wait – to look and watch and not be done in by the present gloom. For the people of the first Christmas this meant yearning for the end of military occupation and daily suffering or humiliation. The light was coming into the world and no darkness – not even imperial Roman violence – would be able to kill it off. Or, in the words of the songwriter Bruce Cockburn, in the darkness we are actually “closer to the light”.

So, in this sense, Advent needn’t just be for Christians. I think it offers an invitation for all of us in these days of gloom to lift our eyes towards the light that will come, however bendy the tunnel we are in.

This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod which was, for the second time, conducted online.

One of the most beautiful cities in the world is Vienna. It is one of those places that echoes the heights of human culture and the depths of human misery. One of the things I was keen to see on my first visit there several years ago was the Holocaust memorial by Rachel Whiteread in the Judenplatz. It is really powerful: a large white inverted library with doors that don’t open – suggestive of books that had been burned by the Nazis and the attempt to extinguish the stories of people, 65,000 of them Austrian Jews who perished in the concentration camps. It is known as the ‘Nameless Library’.

What struck me when I visited a couple of years ago was that, standing about ten metres in front of it on the square, is a statue of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the German writer, philosopher and thinker who died in 1781 and is regarded as a giant of the Enlightenment. Given Lessing’s powerful influence on German culture, not least education, and standing between the statue and the memorial, I found myself asking how on earth a country and a culture can descend so quickly – within a few generations – from Enlightenment to Holocaust.

Now, this might seem like a weird way into an address to a diocesan synod in Leeds in 2020. But, it isn’t. We live at a time of massive challenge in which all the assumptions of progress, democracy, patriotism, the common good, and so on, are being thrown up in the air. We do not know how they will land. I grew up in a world that was determined never again to allow genocide – but look what happened in Bosnia and Rwanda. The post-war generation built nations and societies that assumed progress – that the world could only get better; that human beings had evolved through the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century and there was to be no going back; that the conventions of public discourse could only get better.

Well, I give you climate change. I add in Donald Trump and the direct and deliberate undermining of confidence in democratic norms and processes; we don’t yet know the end of the US election story. Or the coronavirus pandemic that has thrown the world into disarray, exposing inequalities and inconsistencies across the globe, but also close to home. Or the hit to the economy of a convergence between the pandemic and the ending of the Brexit transition next month. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh might seem small and distant, but so did Serbia in 1914.

Nothing is for ever. Nothing can be taken for granted. Norms are only norms for as long as they are normal (as opposed to extraordinary). We have no idea what tomorrow will bring; but, we do know that empires and ‘norms’ that take centuries to build can be demolished in weeks. We are not in control of everything.

And this is the context in which we meet as a synod today. We are in a second lockdown and are promised a vaccine soon; yet, we have been promised many things that have not been delivered. Our politics – at home and abroad – are being questioned everywhere, and going back to where we were fifty or thirty or even ten years ago is simply a nostalgic fantasy.

So, what does the church have to say in this context? The church that has been hit by two reports on its handling of sexual abuse in recent months? A church that has been forced by government to close its buildings for worship, rendering its ability to thrive and be properly resourced into the future at best questionable? A church that has just launched a process of addressing questions of love, faith, relationships and identity in Living in Love and Faith?

Let me briefly address each of these in turn.

I welcome the IICSA report and the light it throws onto how the Church of England has addressed abuse in and through the church. Light always exposes reality, and you can’t argue with reality. I am confident that we have a very good and experienced safeguarding team at the heart of this diocese, driving processes and systems that are strong. There is much further to go in offering care and redress to survivors of abuse – nationally – and we are alive to that. Bishop Jonathan leads for the bishops nationally in safeguarding matters and is making a significant difference. I will simply say, in the light of IICSA and the Whitsey Report, that many of the recommendations are already embedded in our systems here. For example, I always take the advice and leading of our Diocesan Safeguarding Advisers who, already, function as ‘officers’ in such matters.

The church, via the bishops, continues to question the rationale behind the closure of churches for worship in the latest lockdown. Closure of buildings does not close the church, but it changes it. We do not know what local church worship, attendance, and so on, will look like in the years to come. We know it will not look like it did a year ago. We can either mourn the loss of what was familiar, or we take responsibility for shaping what might become. As I said earlier, you can’t argue with reality, and lockdown has made immediate a number of challenges we had assumed might be addressed over time.

So, we have not only a challenge, but also an opportunity to be creative and bold and humble as we seek primarily not to recover a form of church life, but to renew the content of that life – our worship of God, our growth as followers of Jesus Christ, and our sacrificial service for our communities in the name of Christ. In short, we will discover whether we believe all this stuff about good news, death and resurrection, self-sacrifice, and Christian truth.

In other words, the situations that gave rise to the writing of the New Testament letters become more identifiable to us in our current situation. We are invited to read Scripture differently now. We can enter imaginatively into the minds of biblical writers because the precarious contingency of their situations is one into which we now have experienced a glimpse. And this, I suggest, is a gift. It reminds us of what we in England have too quickly forgotten: that life is fragile, social order is not a given, and control of the world is actually an illusion born of hubris.

Living in Love and Faith is not incidental to this. There has been a suggestion that the church is dragging its feet in questions of sexual identity because of its contentious or controversial nature. The opposite is true. This is the most significant and serious work done by any church anywhere and it has been published now – later than planned because of the impact on everything of the pandemic – in order to prevent further delay. It opens up a process for encounter with people, not just debate about a topic. I encourage you to look at the materials on the website and to engage with us as we roll out a programme of consultation during 2021-22. Bishop Helen-Ann is leading on this (as she is also part of the national ‘Next Steps’ group with the Bishop of London and others). Bishop Toby was part of the national group that has led on the process thus far.

Identity is not just a matter for people who like that sort of thing. If we are to value human beings as made in the image of God, then we have some complex and challenging – as well as engaging and potentially joyful – work to do. And we need to approach it with open hearts and generous minds.

So, today we have a varied agenda, set in the context I have described just now. Some items look more interesting than others and some are what we might call ‘housekeeping’ – how we order our common life and decision-making. We will consider the well-being of clergy, but recognise that this is not to downplay the well-being of lay people. We will discuss what a ‘re-imagining of ministry’ might look like in the months and years to come, but remembering that any ministry involves all people of all abilities and gifts. We will take seriously the life of the diocese as it is, and we will grow our confidence in its future.

Is that a rash thing to say, given the uncertainties with which we live? No, it isn’t. Our confidence is in the God who calls us, in the Jesus Christ whose church we are, and in the power of the Holy Spirit who constantly drives us out of what is familiar into the places of challenge where life is to be found. The risen Christ keeps telling his friends not to be afraid; we need to hear that clearly. We are called to be the church (and the Church of England with its unique vocation) now; it is no accident that we are here and called for just such a time as this. And we need to build one another up in faith as we venture into the uncertain world of 2021 and beyond. We are called to be faithful, even if some of what we attempt fails. We are called to do our business with faith, hope and – not least – charity.

There are many examples of individuals and churches fulfilling that calling over recent months in the way they have supported both their communities and the work of the church. We have seen parishes across the diocese respond graciously and sacrificially to the financial challenge that was laid out at our last Synod. Since then we have also benefited from the generosity of the national church who have given us the £1m we asked for to help the pressure on our finances. We have also received much generosity from individuals and parishes and I want to express my and our gratitude. We are not out of the woods and there is much to do, but we are moving in the right way and in the right direction.

To conclude. I began with reference to Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust memorial in the Judenplatz in Vienna. We cannot know what the future holds, but we can so live now that when people in the future look back at how we handled this present world, they give thanks for our courage and wisdom … and don’t simply spot the things we failed to grasp out of fear or familiarity. I trust we will be a blessing to the next generation and not a curse.

As we approach Advent and an unusual Christmas, a changed shape to our collective worship and outreach does not impede in any way the shining hope of God’s presence in the world – even in the cry of a tiny babe (as Bruce Cockburn put it). Our gospel – of light shining in the darkness – is rich and is for today. Comfort and joy are what we have to offer, albeit in a variety of creative ways this year.

We turn to our business in this light and in this spirit. May God bless us in our deliberations together for the sake of his kingdom.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show as Joe Wicks was about to begin his 24 hour PE workout to raise cash for Children in Need.

A quick question: what is Joe Wicks wearing for the next 24 hours of PE?

I just hope he’s comfortable, that’s all. I once played a game of football when I tore my shorts and wouldn’t run – but was too embarrassed to tell anyone why not.

Well, if Joe wanted to wear a leotard, he’d be accidentally celebrating the very first flying trapeze act on this day in 1859 when Jules Léotard flew above Paris without a net. And the one-piece bit of kit he wore became known as the leotard. Of course, it descended eventually into Borat’s mankini, but let’s not go there.

He may not realise it, but whatever Joe wears for his marathon workout, he will also be demonstrating some deep thinking. Many people have understood human beings to be made of different components – body, mind and spirit (or soul) as if they can be separated out and that what happens in one bit has no impact on the others.

I come from a tradition that has had to learn afresh that you can’t divide people up into separate and independent bits. The writers of biblical books are absolutely clear that body, mind and spirit belong together. This is why people 3,000 years ago in the Middle East were being told to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.” Jesus repeated it years later. Loving God meant paying attention to how the body (heart) affects the mind and the spirit … and so on. They belong together and how we exercise the body or the mind or the spirit will determine how fit we are.

This isn’t pseudo-psychology. It assumes that if our children – particularly those in need – can’t exercise their body, flex and grow their mind and imagination, and aren’t given space for spiritual wonder and discipline, then don’t be surprised if they end up with problems.

Joe, whatever you’re wearing, go for it. And we’ll support you as you raise the cash to help kids keep body, mind and spirit healthy.

I noticed I hadn’t published the text of my speech on 26 October at Second Reading of the internal Market Bill, so here goes. The speech at Committee (published earlier today) makes more sense if read after this one.

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, and look forward to her future contributions to this House. I fully endorse the arguments set out by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I concur with the concerns set out in the report cited by other noble Lords earlier. I even welcome the commitments articulated by the Minister, but I question how they can be trusted, given the underlying ethic of the Bill—and it is absolutely right for archbishops to ask questions of such matters.

Relations with potential partners usually depend on integrity. Trade, security, migration and so on all rest on fundamental trust. Trust cannot be one-sided, or it is not trust at all. Respecting one’s interlocutors is essential. This is inevitably evidenced in language. The Bill before us assumes that our interlocutors cannot be trusted and will behave in bad faith, and that we need to be protected from them. If they do not give us what we demand, we are free to do our own thing, including breaking the law and reneging on agreements made less than a year ago that were said at the time to be “oven ready”—a good arrangement that required “no more negotiations”. What the Bill does not ask is why our word should be trusted by others.

Integrity and morality matter at the level of international relations and agreements—unless, of course, we are now agreeing to reduce all our relations and transactions to some sort of utilitarian pragmatism. Morality also applies to how we remember history and establish what will shape the national mythologies that future generations will inherit. What story will be celebrated or commemorated next year, the centenary of partition on the island of Ireland: one that chose to end violence and respect difference, including different perspectives on identity, justice and unity, or one of a conscious abrogation of agreements built from bloodshed and courageous willingness to stem the wounds of grievance? Ireland, both the Province and the Republic, needs some certainty and shape in the future narrative, but what sort of certainty is built on a broken word, the negation of trust or the arrogance of exceptionalism?

Irish church leaders are surely right to be concerned about what the Bill implies for relations between the devolved institutions and with the UK Government. These leaders are not talking into fresh air; they straddle the border in Ireland and their deep concerns about a breach of the Good Friday agreement need to be listened to, not simply dismissed with a wave of boosterish optimism from Westminster.

Others will speak about the implications of closing an illegal route to challenge the Government’s implementation of the protocol, but let us be clear: parliamentary sovereignty does not translate easily into executive sovereignty. A decision to prefer short-term pragmatism over long-term ethics will lead to a future ​in which a question mark will hang over any statement by those whose word and adherence to the rule of law cannot be trusted. More is at stake here than economics.

This is the text of a speech I made in the Internal Market Bill (Committee stage) debate in the House of Lords last night. Hansard made sense of some of my mumblings, for which I am grateful. The government lost heavily in votes to remove clauses that allow ministers too much executive power, threaten the Northern Ireland Protocol and permit ministers to break international agreements. At Second Reading I had left the politics to others, but focussed on the moral/ethical question involved; this was dismissed by the minister as “We will not listen to strictures on morality” – which suggests that there is no place in politics for ethics.

The government has said it will simply re-instate the clauses before bringing it back for Report in the House of Lords. It is a mystery why they have chosen such an unnecessary hill on which to die – one which undermines the UK’s reputation vis-a-vis the rule of law and reduces the possibility of trade agreements (with the US, for example) which demand good faith.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. I endorse completely the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, at the outset of this debate. I hope the Government will listen carefully to the advice from the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on the alternatives to what is before us. This is not an either/or situation.​

I have read every word of the Second Reading and Committee debates and the reports—especially from the Constitution Committee. I have even reread Tom Bingham’s book on the rule of law. I ask myself whether I am missing something, but I still come back to the point of principle. I accept the Government’s intention in this Bill, but not the means. We were given pragmatic answers to questions of principle, particularly in the responses to the Second Reading debate. These will not work. At Second Reading, the Minister dismissed the ethical argument which I tried to set out succinctly in my speech. Yet even in today’s debate, we have heard moral language used. To speak of suspected bad faith by others is to speak of ethics. Ethics must form the basis of political principle. Objections to other countries breaching international law have to be set in moral considerations.

 In the last couple of decades, during the Mugabe years, I have had a lot to do with Zimbabwe and latterly with Sudan, including meeting former President Omar al-Bashir. How can we say to people like them that the rule of law is paramount and that one’s word has to be taken in good faith?

This is an ethical and a constitutional issue. How can the Government ask Her Majesty the Queen effectively to give Royal Assent to the acceptability of breaking laws to which we have agreed? Mischievously, I suggest that we might refer to it as King John’s revenge.

There are other parts of this Bill with which I am not happy—what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, referred to as Executive sovereignty trumping parliamentary sovereignty; the impact on the devolved authorities, and the concerns raised about the Northern Ireland protocol. Fundamentally, I keep coming back to the issue of ethical principle.

I will vote against the various clauses in Part 5 not standing part of the Bill. I hope that the Government will listen and look at alternatives which can carry the support of the Committee.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme as the uncertainty over the US presidential election continues.

A few years ago, while staying with friends near Philadelphia, we visited the place where the Constitution of the United States was signed on 17 September 1787. Famously, the Constitution opens with the words: “We the people…”. I remember standing in the chamber itself and wondering who the Founders had in mind when they used that phrase.

Well, in a sort of odd symmetry, tomorrow is the anniversary of the election of probably America’s most revered president, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860. And it was this simple-but-problematic phrase that posed Lincoln with his biggest challenge: does ‘the people’ include black people and slaves? The next few years saw civil war and the tearing apart of a country over precisely this question.

It’s not a question that has since gone away. What was remarkable about Lincoln, though, was the way he treated his political opponents. As Doris Kearns Goodwin demonstrates in her exceptional book A Team of Rivals, Lincoln brought into his close cabinet the very people who had run against him for the presidency and who variously undermined him, fought against him and tried to compromise his leadership. He knew that a country for all the people included his opponents and not just his supporters.

Lincoln summed up this approach when he said: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” In another context he said of an opponent: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

Some would say this is politically naive. I think Lincoln understood something vital to a good society – that ‘the people’ has to include all the people and not just the winners in an election. And in this understanding Lincoln drew from a biblical tradition that explored how societies are built from mutual obligations, common commitments and the privileges of belonging.

In the Old Testament the liberated people of Israel take forty years in a desert learning not only the need for social order based on freedom and responsibility, but also for establishing common rituals that re-frame their story, remind them why people matter, and impose boundaries of value and behaviour within which their newly-found freedom can be enjoyed.

Lincoln also draws on Jesus seeing his enemies as people to be loved and not rejected or despised. Naive? In a world that worships power and glory and glamour? Maybe. Both Jesus and Lincoln paid a heavy price.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the US election, Lincoln’s courage might have something to offer.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the anniversary of the Aberfan disaster in 1966.

Some things we see or hear in the news stick in the mind for ever. I was a small child when JFK was assassinated and I remember the fear in my home about what it might mean for the world. But, one of the images that has haunted me since this day in 1966 is the destroyed town of Aberfan in Wales when a coal tip slid over houses and a school and killed a generation of children. The images of that day – and since – evoke a terrible empty pain.

I now live in Yorkshire where evidence of the pits that mostly closed in the 1980s has disappeared. Hills of black stuff have long been landscaped and children in those communities now see fields and hills and playgrounds where a previous generation saw their life and livelihood.

Beautifying a landscape does nothing to wipe out the past and all it represented. Memory of community life and belonging goes along with the tragedies and losses of an industry that was dangerous and costly for many people. Lives lost and society built are, literally, buried in the seeds that grow the grass on the redeemed hills.

What these communities and their landscapes demonstrate, however, is that brokenness can be transformed by beauty. Ugliness and tragedy need not have the final word. Time moves on and we transform the landscape in order not to wipe out the past or de-value previous generations. Scars bear witness to both the wound and the healing. New life can come.

This is particularly pertinent as we live through a time of uncertainty when we have little or no idea what the future might hold or what it might look like for the generation of children who are at school or university now. Yet, it is essential, surely, that we hold out images of hope, of re-creation and future beauty that will see some healing of the scars of the current brutality.

For a personal image on which to hook my hope, I turn to the encounter of Thomas with the risen Jesus. Propaganda would have had the body of the risen Jesus looking beautiful and clean, with all traces of horror or suffering removed. What we get, however, is not some opiate for the people. Jesus is the same, but different. Remarkably, he still bears the wound marks of crucifixion in his hands and feet and side. And he isn’t squeamish about inviting Thomas to touch the wounds.

Like the landscaped scars of Yorkshire and Aberfan, the past cannot be romanticised. But, our children need to know it can be healed.

This is the script of my speech in the House of Lords today in the Second Reading debate on the Internal Market Bill. I was the 21st speaker out of 115. Others addressed detail – I chose to address ethics. A four-minute speech limit was in force. There were some powerful speeches on both sides of the argument; most were impassioned and courteous.

My Lords, I fully endorse the arguments set out by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I concur with the concerns set out in reports cited by other noble Lords earlier. I welcome the commitments articulated by the Minister, but question how they can be trusted, given the underlying ethic of this bill. (And it is absolutely right that Archbishops ask such questions.)

Relations with potential partners usually depend on integrity. Trade, security, migration, and so on, all rest on the matter of fundamental trust. Trust cannot be one-sided or it is not trust at all. Respecting one’s interlocutors is essential, and this is inevitably evidenced in language. The Bill before us assumes that our interlocutors cannot be trusted, will behave in bad faith, and that we need to be protected from them. If they don’t give us what we demand, we are free to do our own thing … including breaking the law and reneging on agreements we made less than a year ago which were said to be “oven-ready”and “a good arrangement” that required “no more negotiations”. What it doesn’t ask is why our word should be trusted by others?

My Lords, integrity and morality matter at the level of international relations and agreements. Unless, of course, we are now agreeing to reduce all our relations and transactions to some sort of utilitarian pragmatism?

Morality also applies to how we both remember history and establish what will shape the national mythologies that future generations will inherit. My Lords, what story will be either celebrated or commemorated next year – the centenary of Partition on the island of Ireland? One that chose to end violence and respect difference – including different perspectives on identity, justice and unity? Or one of a conscious abrogation of agreements that were built from bloodshed and a courageous willingness to stem the wounds of grievance? Ireland – both the Province and the Republic – need some certainty in shaping a future narrative; but, what sort of certainty is built on a broken word, the negation of trust or the arrogance of exceptionalism?

Irish Church leaders are surely right to be concerned about what this Bill implies for relations between the devolved institutions themselves and with the UK government. These leaders straddle the border in Ireland and their deep concerns about a breach of the Good Friday Agreement need to be listened to and not simply dismissed with a wave of boosterish optimism from Westminster.

Others will speak about the implications of closing any legal route to challenge the government’s implementation of the Protocol. But, let’s be clear: parliamentary sovereignty does not translate easily into executive sovereignty.

A decision to prefer short-term pragmatism over longer-term ethics will lead to a future in which a question mark will hang over any statement by those whose word and adherence to the rule of law cannot be trusted. More is at stake here than economics.

While staying with a friend in Basel once I visited the home of the late Protestant theologian Karl Barth. In the basement, where his personal library is kept, I looked through his marked-up copy of Mein Kampf and other significant books – Barth had been deprived of his university chair by Hitler and had then left Germany. The warden then handed me a box in which I found the original draft manuscript of what is considered to be one of the twentieth century’s most important political documents: the Barmen Declaration. It led to Christian opposition to the Nazis by asserting theological principles.

Together, a number of theologians found the courage to challenge dominant assumptions about power, human value and the meaning of it all. Many of them suffered from the consequences of their decision that order needs to be brought out of chaos and that this can only come at personal cost.

In a different context, the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka speaks of “the solidarity of the shaken”.* In other words, the experience of a common challenge brings with it the courage to stand up and stand out. The “solidarity of the shaken” is, I think, a phrase pertinent to today’s world.

What both Barmen and Patočka hold to is the conviction that faith is not a spiritualised escape from the demands of a challenging material world. Those who complain when religious leaders get involved in politics often assume that faith takes us out, rather than commits us to, the real world. But, it is impossible to see Christianity, for example, as a merely spiritual creed when at the heart of every Christian narrative is incarnation – God committing himself to the world in all its chances and contingencies and not opting out of the inconvenient consequences of materiality. The word Jesus says it all.

The current uncertainties of the world have blown a hole in western assumptions about control – of life, the environment and progress – and have shaken individuals and entire societies to their roots. The big themes, so easily hidden while we (in Neil Postman’s words) amuse ourselves to death, are now resurgent: mortality, fear, love, hope, faith, and so on. And through it all there is the possibility of a solidarity of the shaken – as we recognise the fragility of life and the common need for human interdependence.

It has been said that a crisis does not create character; it reveals it. Actually, both are true. But, as we navigate uncharted waters in the months ahead, it is the solidarity of humility that must trump the sham of hubris.

*Quoted in Night of the Confessor by Tomáš Halík

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

What does it feel like when the shape of your world changes overnight and everything you take to be normal disappears – a familiar experience in the pandemic?

I ask the question because we are now marking two connected anniversaries: the formal creation of the German Democratic Republic on 7 October 1949 … and German reunification on 3 October 1990. The GDR only existed for half a century, but, for some people, it was their lifetime … and then it was gone.

For many people in the east of Germany reunification was a takeover that valued little from the GDR and sowed seeds of resentments that are being watered today. Ostalgie is a hankering for value.

This is not new. In these times of uncertainty I’ve been re-reading one of the foundational stories of the Bible: the exodus. Moses, the reluctant liberator, led his oppressed people out of slavery in Egypt towards a life of freedom. Yet, they now found themselves not in some instant shangri-la, but in an empty desert. And gratitude did not last long.

Almost immediately the people started complaining. And moaning about the current shapelessness of their life soon led to romanticism about the past and a form of nostalgia that quickly forgot recent reality. And while this was going on, poor old Moses had to pay attention to how to shape a future in an uncertain world. Freedom from does not lead inevitably to freedom for. How to create a good society depends on more than a dislike or selective remembering of an old bad one.

Well, according to the story, a whole generation of nostalgics had to die off before the next generation could disempower nostalgia and look to creating a different future.

Which brings me back to the German question. Was the GDR a desert experience between National Socialism and Merkel’s land? Or is the current arrangement also a transitory journey towards another land – for good or ill? No society knows what will come next. The present is always transitory – we know what we are ‘post’, but we don’t know what we are ‘pre’.

Moses’ people had to unlearn the dependencies of captivity and take responsibility for their common life. This involved the hard stuff of enshrining justice and mercy in community, polity and law – protecting poor and marginalised people, ensuring that justice could not be bought and that powerful people can be held to account.

Past glories – imagined or real – do not shape a good future. Only a humble commitment to justice can do that – however often we might fall short.