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

I live not far from Haworth, home of the Bronte sisters. The youngest, Anne, was born two hundred years ago today. One line from her writing stands out for me: “He who does not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose” – which is a bit more poetic than “Get stuck in, whatever the cost.”

This is the sort of notion that hit me when I was out in Sudan last year, speaking at a diplomatic conference on freedom of religion and belief at a time of protest and instability there. Meeting with protesters, academics and lawyers, it became clear that they held a variety of views on how a future Sudanese society should be shaped. They were united in wanting freedom and justice, but that unity got thorny when conversation got onto detail and process.

Of course, the other thing they had in common was a willingness to put their body and life where their opinions and convictions lay. So many of the Sudanese people I knew there shared this understanding: that opinion has to be backed up with action, and action might incur a cost.

After this week in Khartoum I went to Jena in Germany. On arrival I was asked to take part in the dedication of a memorial to the young German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar. Bonhoeffer was hanged a month before the end of the war. For him, theology was not a matter of an internal world of vague spirituality; rather, it involved discerning the character and call of God in the real world of the Third Reich and then committing himself to its consequences. Put crudely, if human beings are made in the image of God, then destroying them is not on.

It is this element of commitment that appears to be absent from much of what passes for debate in the ‘any dream will do’ generation. The vision I have for people and society must demand of me the sort of action and commitment that must in turn cost something.

When I read the gospels, this screams out of every text. It’s why the child Jesus argues with the theologians in the Temple; why he stands silently in front of Pontius Pilate, questioning who is actually being judged and where power really lies; why he never sweetens the vocational pill, but tells people that if they do choose to come and walk with him, then they’ll probably share his fate. No illusion, fantasy or seduction – just reality. Don’t crave the rose if you aren’t prepared first to grasp the thorn.

It seems to me that today every opinion is valid. But, I suggest, the only ones worth taking seriously are those that cost.

This is the text of a speech in the House of Lords at Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill today. I was the sixth speaker of seventy four, with a speech limit of five minutes. I decided, therefore, to look at principles that go beyond the detail of the Bill.

My Lords,

I think it is important that old arguments are not re-run in this debate. Wherever one stands in relation to the 2016 referendum and subsequent debates, we are now where we are. I suspect, however, that it remains important for certain matters of principle to be re-articulated at this stage, as the record will need to be clear when the history comes to be written – not least regarding the wisdom of writing into law hard deadlines for an implementation period. Do we not have anything to learn from recent history?

I believe it is essential to refute the charge that Parliament stopped Brexit from happening. It did not. Parliament did its job and performed its democratic role, fulfilling its responsibility to question, scrutinise and hold the Executive to account. That might be inconvenient to “getting the job done”; but that phrase itself, widely propagated by people who know very well what they are doing, adds a lie to a lie. Countries where Parliament simply nods to the Executive’s will are not generally respected as paragons of democratic virtue or freedom.

This is the basic reason why amendments will be brought this week to the Bill as received by this House. The other place might well have the numbers to ignore this House, but it remains the responsibility of this House to make the points, raise the arguments and urge improvement to the text. I therefore attend to two matters of principle, rather than detail.

My Lords, if the point of Brexit was to restore parliamentary sovereignty (recalling that opponents were seen to be democratically suspect), then it seems odd at this stage to seek to limit parliamentary scrutiny of the process post-31 January. Asking the government to treat parliament with respect – informing, listening and consulting – must surely lie at the heart of any successful Brexit process. And making Brexit succeed for the good of all in this country must surely be the aim and commitment of all of us, regardless of whether we think Brexit was a wise or good move in the first place.

This, in turn, means that the government must assume the best of those who question and not simply write them off as saboteurs. I would be grateful if the minister in response would give this assurance. Failure to do so would risk feeding and fostering the sort of rhetoric and attitude that Brexit was supposed to protect us from as a sovereign nation.

Making Brexit work best for everyone and mitigating its negative impacts will require government to see questioning and debate as constructive and as a means to strengthen parliamentary support. Brexit will not be done by 31 January 2020. The process beyond then will demand more than just compliance or acquiescence.

Furthermore, my Lords, it is regrettable that this Bill now seeks to remove what will be universally seen as a touchstone of civilised society. How many children now live in poverty in this affluent country whose magic money tree has mysteriously started blossoming since the last general election campaign was launched? And how many children – surely the most vulnerable people on the planet – find themselves separated from their family through no fault of their own? How many exposed refugee children are now to be kept isolated from familial care and protection because this parliament appears to deem them incidental to how we do our politics? Their alienation will come at a price later.

I guess noble lords will hear their own maxims resonating in their conscience. Mine echo to the sounds of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Amos, who, despite economic flourishing, religious revival and military security, warn those who “trample on the heads of the poor” that this will not be the end of the story.

My Lords, our integrity and honour will not be judged by whether we rule the world as ‘Global Britain’, but, rather, by how we order our society in order to ensure justice and the dignity of those most vulnerable. Restoring the Dubs provisions would go a long way to restore honour.

The Bill will go through. How it goes through matters. It will say something powerful about who we think we are.

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

Being in the public eye is clearly often a very uncomfortable experience, unimaginable by those who haven’t experienced it. Watching the storm raging around you – everyone having an opinion on your appearance, behaviour, person and value – can be debilitating even for the most experienced and hard-bitten individual. You feel powerless to correct misinformation or misjudgments.

There’s a bit in the 1989 film Jesus of Montreal where a beautiful young model is told by her director ex-boyfriend: “You are just a piece of meat; that’s all you’ll ever be.” Well, you don’t have to be a sex object to feel that you are dehumanised by the opinions and judgements of those who would shrink from subjecting themselves to the same.

It seems to me that one of the most common human predilections is to turn other human beings into commodities. It happens when groups of people – classes, races, communities, for example – are categorised, generalised, then lumped together for condemnation. It happens when sympathy and empathy are thrown to the wind as individuals are turned into objects for other people’s entertainment in a discipline-free arena of social judgmentalism.

The rights and wrongs of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to take back control of their sovereignty, so to speak, clearly has a public interest element to it – simply by virtue of their identity and contingent responsibilities. But, there is also a deeper matter of their basic humanity. Whatever the wider considerations, this is still a young family concerned about protecting themselves.

It does seem odd to me that in a culture which venerates individual autonomy – shape your own destiny – a young couple who seek to do just that, and take responsibility for themselves then face a barrage of criticism. Or is it a case of ‘one rule for them and another for the rest of us’?

One of the shocking things about Jesus is that, in a culture that saw human life as cheap, he saw it differently. A woman caught in the act of adultery is dragged before him in order to test his legal purity. It ends well for the woman, but not for those who came to throw stones at her, but are embarrassed by their own failures. In story after story in the gospels it is the self-righteous judges who prove to be expert at missing the point. Stone throwing is not for grown-ups with humility or self-awareness.

However this current royal ruction plays out, the young family at the heart of it remain human beings, making hard decisions in a complex world in which their identity and status make them subject to the judgment of the rest of us. I don’t have to throw stones; I can choose to walk away.

 

This is the text of a speech I gave this afternoon in the first day of debate in the House of Lords on the Queen’s Speech (foreign affairs, defence, international development, trade, climate change and the environment). It followed an interpolated debate on a statement about the current crisis over Iran.

My Lords,

I think, following the last debate on Iran, it is wise to take a step back from detail to consider culture and principle.

2020 vision is something that, if claimed, only proves that the claimant is deluded. However, leaving fantasists to one side for a moment, we might take some wisdom from the late former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Helmut Schmidt. At the age of 91 he wrote a book called Außer Dienst (Out of Office) in which he advises young Germans considering a career in politics not to do so unless they speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. His reason? You can only understand your own culture if you look at it through the eyes of another culture … and to do that you need language. Some things cannot be translated.

On the anniversary this week of Anthony Eden’s resignation in the wake of Suez, and as the UK plans to leave the European Union and unleash its potential on a waiting world, Schmidt’s advice is both prescient and apposite. The British Government should never take for granted that living on an island generates a very particular (if not peculiar) psychology and that this has an impact not only on how we understand ourselves, but also how we perceive the way we are perceived by other nations. I think this is why the first couple of years of the post-referendum Brexit debate led to incredulity and bewilderment in many of those looking at us from the outside.

Behind all the politics and trading technicalities of Brexit lies the ineluctable fact that on this hyper-connected small planet no policy on anything can ignore its implications for the wider picture. Foreign policy is not primarily about ‘us’ directed at ‘them’, but, rather, ‘us’ behaving as part of ‘them’. And integral to this is the first rule of negotiation: to look through the eyes of the interlocutor in order to see ourselves as we are seen.

In other words, we need our Government to go beyond easy slogans – such as ‘Get Brexit Done!’ or ‘Global Britain’- and consider both (a) how actual policy is to be worked out with real people, and (b) how the implications and consequences of that policy are to be understood and responded to by those with whom we claim to be interconnected partners.

I am not seeking here to avoid the pragmatics of policy-making – other noble Lords will attend to that – but to argue that there is an urgent need for this government to look beneath the political game-playing to the deeper, longer-term dynamics of both ethical substance and communication.

I will not be alone in noting that the language of insulting other European Union countries (as if they weren’t listening or couldn’t understand English) has now changed into the language of ‘our friends and partners’ in Europe. Good. But, our friends and partners will not have forgotten, and they are not stupid. The UK’s response to the assassination of General Soleimani in Baghdad last week further exposes both the interconnectedness of foreign policies and the particular impact of trade dependency on the US of Donald Trump – something that won’t be lost on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe or her family.

My Lords, daily reading of the Bible does reinforce a sense of the transience of power in history. Quick and obvious defence alliances often led to terrible longer-term enslavements. Empires came and went, their hubris dribbling away into deserts of exiled misery. And powers and rulers never learned, even when they seduced their people into (what turned out to be) false securities.

Ethics is first and foremost an exercise in sympathy – looking through the eyes of others. The ethics of our foreign policy priorities must begin with an understanding of what drives other countries in their domestic and foreign policies … and a cultivated willingness to shape ours in the light of how we are seen by others.

I hope that this government, with some humility and deeper cultural thinking, might just listen to those who wish to see global justice and peace worked out in this complex world by people who are driven not by claims to power, but by the imperatives of mutual human flourishing.

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

I know it’s easy to get out of touch, but I was a bit boggled to read the other day that Ed Sheeran’s song Shape of You has been streamed 2.4 billion times. 2.4 billion! But, the most streamed artist of the decade is Drake – 28 billion streams. That is an utterly boggling number.

Now, this makes me feel a bit off the page, but the most auspicious musical event of the last couple of weeks – for me – was the launch of Leonard Cohen’s album, three years after his death, of Thanks for the Dance. It is funny, poignant and wonderful -however few streams he gets. His deep, old voice articulates the stuff of living and dying in colourful poetry and the language of joy.

Try this: “No one to follow and nothing to teach except that the goal falls short of the reach.” Now, isn’t that what we all feel most of the time? The goal falls short of the reach; we get disappointed that we aren’t all we want to be. We mess things up and get stuff wrong, and wish we could be better. Or am I the only one?

I was once asked in a radio interview about Leonard Cohen if he had “hijacked religious language” – like in his song Hallelujah. My answer was that, rather than hijacking it, he had actually understood it! “The holy and the broken hallelujah”. That’s what we all are, isn’t it? As we prepare for Christmas in a few weeks’ time, this goes to the heart of my longing: a God who in Jesus comes among us as one of us and subjects himself to all that the world can throw at him … without throwing it back. Taking broken people and making them whole. Running with the grain of who they are, but opening up a world of being infinitely loved and valued. Challenging the prejudices of powerful men and giving life to people who thought they were worthless because their goal fell short of the reach.

I guess Ed Sheeran would agree with that. Whatever form you take, the shape of you is unique and uniquely loved. Broken, forgiven, restored. And that, I think, is very good news.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show as Rylan completed his karaokathon in aid of the Children in Need appeal.

Karaoke! I’ve never done it. Been tempted once or twice, but I value my life too much to inflict my inner Gloria Gaynor on anyone else. How Rylan has managed it for 24 hours is anybody’s guess. However, I did once get arrested in Paris for busking when I was younger – the police just didn’t appreciate my art.

My favourite karaoke experience is Bill Murray in the great film Lost in Translation belting out Elvis Costello’s ‘What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?’ in Tokyo.

But, even those of us who don’t do karaoke do sing other people’s songs – in the bath, quietly on the train, walking the dog. There are always those songs that creep up on you when you’re thinking about something else and then, like Kylie, you can’t get it out of your head. It always amazes me to watch Glastonbury on the telly and see thousands of people singing every word of a song I’ve never heard sung by someone I just don’t recognise.

We all have those songs – words written by other people – that give us a vocabulary for saying what we can’t frame for ourselves. This isn’t new, though. Go back nearly three thousand years and you find poems giving voice to experiences of joy, wonder, anger, frustration, fear, hope: you name it, you’ll find it in the Psalms. Which is why in churches and synagogues you keep hearing them read or sung. They get under your skin. Sometimes, feeling fine, you find yourself doing a Psalm that expresses different emotions or experience; but, sing or say it anyway and, after time, you find it whispering through the mist of misery when you’ve lost the words to say what you feel.

I guess this also inevitably leads me to think about what it might look like to sing my own song. Not just to go along with someone else’s poetry, but to write my own. Some of the Psalms were written by and for a people living in exile – keeping the songs of home alive in a strange land. They had to work at it, not letting hope be swamped by the ‘now’.

Give Rylan a medal … and I’ll find the words today that give voice to my own song.

Thirty years ago today the Berlin Wall fell. What follows is the basic text of a lecture I gave at Bradford Cathedral on Wednesday 6 November. It was followed by a very good Q & A which is not recorded here.

In a crowded field I think Timothy Garton Ash’s books on Europe stand out. His The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 (just updated this month) is an eye-witness account of these momentous events. His book The File is fascinating. His book of essays Facts Are Subversive repays careful reading (and see my review of it here). Yes, I am a fan.

Here is the (very long) basic text of the lecture:

Memory is not an uncomplicated matter. If my own memory is suspect, then corporate memory offers even more opportunities for selectivity. We select those elements of our past that help construct the narrative that makes sense of, or gives shape to, the life we either think we have had or wish we had had. We all do it, and every society, country or community does it.

If you don’t believe me, then look at any tourist display blurb and ask what it doesn’t tell you. Or, perhaps more pertinently to where we are at in Brexitannia just now, listen to the language. I give two quick examples before getting to my main theme.

First, contrary to assertions by some politicians, England (let alone Britain) did not win the Second World War singlehandedly, pluckily standing in isolated bravery against the Nazi empire: our European neighbours provided huge numbers of people not only in the resistance on the mainland, but also fighting with Allied forces across the globe. Then ask further about Commonwealth citizens whose contribution has not always been acknowledged or rewarded.

Secondly, the British Empire was not primarily an example of “the world’s greatest trading power”. It is shocking how the new Brexit appeal to our imperial past stresses our excellence and success in global trade without any mention of oppression, exploitation or military power. (Indian politician Shashi Tharoor, in his book Inglorious Empire, points out that prior to the British colonising his country India held 23% of global trade; by the time the British left India they had 3%. Draw your own conclusions.)

Now, you might wonder why, in beginning a lecture on where the world is thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, I have begun with these particular examples of selective collective remembering. Well, the answer is simply that it might be easier to think about post-1989 Europe and the competing narratives being spun about it if first we have looked closer to home at our own limitations and failures.

St Vitus Cathedral, Prague

Two weeks ago I stood outside St Vitus Cathedral at the heart of Prague’s Pražsky Hrad and opposite the residence of the Czech President since independence post-1989. I went over to look at some display boards that tell some of the history of the residence. There is only a single line about the post-war pre-1989 period. It says something like: “Even during the time of unfreedom some important people visited this place, including the famous astronaut Yuri Gagarin.” That is the sole mention of the Communist period. Did Stalin visit? Or Honecker? Or any other head of state? Or just an astronaut?

I cite this example because what is omitted tells a powerful story – for now, at least. 1945-89: 44 years of recent history – lived through by most people alive today – simply ignored.

Yet, go down the hill from the Hrad and there is a special exhibition of photography celebrating events across Eastern Europe in 1989. To get in you have to pass a chunk of the Berlin Wall with a Trabi sat on top of it. You then get to walk around a garden and through a building with an excellent and haunting display of photographs from the GDR, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Of course, these images capture moments when the people involved did not know how the story would end. There was no guarantee that, despite Glasnost in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, the troops wouldn’t once again follow the tanks into Wenceslas Square or down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate. I look at the photographs through a lens that lived (albeit at a not disinterested distance) through the events recorded, and I know what did happen next.

Fall of the Wall exhibition, Prague

I also remember the euphoria. It was hard to believe in late 1989 that the ultimate symbol of division was being demolished by ordinary people while soldiers looked on. The opening of borders between Hungary and Austria, the decade-long demonstrations in the shipyards of Gdansk in Poland, the pressure on the West German Embassy in Prague, to mention just a few phenomena that contributed to the demise of a divided Europe, didn’t quite hold the symbolic power of a wall of death being picked apart.

The world was changing before our eyes, and it wasn’t long before politicians and commentators alike were proclaiming the end of a bi-polar world, the triumph of free-market capitalism, world peace and a glorious future. ‘Freedom’ was the byword and, despite Margaret Thatcher’s serious hesitations about the reunification of Germany, optimism was never going to be defeated by rational judgement.

What happened next might best be related to a parable Jesus told about a man who was delivered of a demon, only to allow a whole community of demons to occupy the now-vacant space. If you want to understand where the Russian oligarchs got all their vast resources of money, this is where to look. The collapse of a structure – not just political, but social and psychological – left a vacuum into which those best equipped to exploit it quietly stepped. As Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 illustrates perfectly, there are particular people whose expertise and instincts lie precisely in exploiting other people’s chaos for their own benefit. We’ll come back to this shortly.

But, first, let’s recall a few facts. Following the defeat of Germany in May 1945, the country was occupied by four powers: America, Britain, France and the USSR – each given their own zone. Berlin, located in the Soviet Zone, was itself divided between the four. The three western zones formed the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, which made the formal establishment of the German Democratic Republic (from the Soviet Zone) inevitable. Movement across borders remained fairly straightforward until the numbers of people migrating out of the GDR into the FRG pushed the authorities into doing the unthinkable: building a wall. On 13 August 1961, Berliners woke to find barbed wire blocking the border roads while workman began to erect a militarised concrete wall across the city. 27 miles long, it eventually held 302 guard towers and 55,000 landmines; 5,000 people escaped over or under the wall (including 1,300 guards). 327 people were killed along the German border, 262 of them in Berlin, including 24 border guards who were shot while on duty (usually for refusing to shoot civilians trying to escape). More than 200 border guards committed suicide, but most deaths involved civilians, 80% of whom were under the age of 35 (of which 10% were women).

The mantra within the GDR was that the wall was needed to prevent people flocking into the workers’ paradise from the western capitalist prison. The real reason was to stop people leaving, especially those needed if the socialist economy was to be built and protected. In 1989 30,000 East Germans fled when Hungary opened its borders temporarily; they sought refuge in West German embassies in other Warsaw Pact countries. The pressure built; Gorbachev, seeing the need for radical economic and political change, had opened the door in people’s imagination, and it would not now be closed. The 40th anniversary of the GDR took place in October 1989. Within a few weeks it began to cease to exist.

There is a strange symmetry to Germany, but one that we might note before looking shortly at what is happening there now. The Holocaust began its public expression and gained public sanction on 9 November 1938 – Kristallnacht, when Jews and their properties were directly attacked by violent Nazis and any pretence at civility in the political sphere died. The nightmare of the Third Reich, followed by the destruction of the war, the subsequent division of Germany and the failure of the Communist experiment in enforced ‘freedom’ – all collapsed into the euphoria of 9 November 1989 when the Wall was finally breached and the prison gates opened at last. Half a century of people’s lives, and now freedom.

The problem with politics is that politicians cannot always afford to tell us the truth. The language of liberation hid the realities and costs of change. Freedom always comes at some cost at some level, but the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Velvet Revolution was the destruction of eastern industry and the loss of a secure way of life. The reunification of Germany took place on 3 October 1990, but was, in fact, a take-over. Overnight many East Germans lost their homeland, their identity, their system, their flag, anthems and institutions, their values and their future. The West was going to put right what had been so wrong in the East; no value was attributed to anything experienced in the GDR between 1949 and 1989. The GDR had been annexed and had to assume the shape of the winners. Christian Wolter, a carpenter, lamented: “There was a uniqueness to East German society that didn’t exist in the West. There was something we had which I can only describe as solidarity.” Gerhard Mertschenk, an official with the East German Olympic Committee and a member of the SED (the Party) was blunt: “There was no unification, there was colonisation. I found myself on the garbage heap at 46.”

Much more could be said – not least that change inevitably brings cost: West Germans paid tax increases in order to invest and transform the former GDR economy and infrastructure. Long-term gain might bring short-term pain. But, if we are to understand what is happening in Eastern Europe today, we must at least try to enter into the experience of many who celebrated the fall of the Wall in 1989 only later to ask if all was as it appeared or, indeed, was promised. The diminishment of memory on the part of the ‘losers’ in the Cold War has only fed the sense of exploitation, resentment and devaluing experienced still by many in the East. (If you want to understand a little more, two films illustrate the phenomenon of change and what life looked like before and after. Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) and Goodbye Lenin are worth a watch.)

Of the many points that might be made from the experience of the last thirty years, it is the disillusionment that holds the key to much of what we are witnessing now. Yes, living standards improved for most people, but, on average, people in the former GDR territories of Germany earn 75% of people in the west of the country; GDP is 66% of that in the west and unemployment nearly 5% higher; the percentage of young people under 20 is considerably lower in the east than in the west. Although other measures are better (for example, life expectancy, completion of secondary education and employment rates among mothers), the rise of the Far Right and the popularity of populist demagogues across the world suggest that, contrary to western capitalist assumptions, people are actually motivated by more than money, security and consumerism. Westernisation has not led to paradise, after all.

I want to come back later to the role of the churches in all this, but, for now, we need to take a look at what is happening now, thirty years after the fall of the wall. And Germany, which I know best, is illustrative of wider phenomena.

Reunification saw a rise in xenophobia and attacks on migrants and foreigners in the east. Neo-Nazi parties gained traction, but never gained enough open support to make a significant mark on electoral politics. That has all begun to change.

Regional elections in Saxony on 1 September this year saw the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) come second with 25% of the vote. On the same day in Brandenburg the AfD got 27.5% of the vote. On 27 October in Thuringia the Left Party won, but the centre-right CDU (Angela Merkel’s party) fell to third place behind the AfD. How and why are the extremes pulling in the votes while the centre is collapsing?

As usual in these matters, there are many reasons and they are complex. Some are even just speculative: extrapolating future electoral behaviour from a vote today is a dangerous game and should be treated with caution. But, we can be fairly certain that three factors are having a powerful impact on electoral behaviour in these former East German Länder:

First, despite Angela Merkel being an East German, her government has increasingly been seen as an elite who take power for granted. Longevity in government, however successful, breeds a sense of tiredness and a need for change. Secondly, Merkel’s welcoming of North African migrants into Germany demonstrated firm moral integrity and purpose, but it legitimised a growing resentment in Germany about how the nature of the country was changing. This in turn was fed by a similar phenomenon to that in Brexit Britain: that global empowerment was leading to local powerlessness, and that local identity was being diminished and diluted by intrusion. Thirdly, the seeds of authoritarian ‘illiberal democracy’ (to use Viktor Orban’s words) found ready soil in those communities that feel increasingly left behind, neglected or fearful of losing their future.

Of course, these phenomena are not unique to Germany. The winners of globalisation do not have to worry about local identity as they treat the planet as an endless resource for their own economic and personal growth. The losers – or those whose grievances can be massaged by populist leaders, even if the loss is hard to evidence – are reasserting the local over against the global … and the costs, where identified, are regarded as a price worth paying.

This picture is being painted across Eastern Europe. As a number of commentators have been pointing out in recent weeks – in anticipation of the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall – three decades’ experience have persuaded many people that the gods of western free-market liberalism (economic as well as cultural) have proved as illusory as the defeated gods of Communism, Nazism and imperialism. That’s the problem with empires. Disillusionment creates a longing for security, often searched for in the nostalgic reaches of a romanticised memory.

The result is that Germany is now struggling with the end of the Merkel generation, appears unable to find a successful transition, whilst being challenged by a right-wing nationalist movement that is growing in confidence. It might not last, but it is clearly worrying for many Germans whose memory of the early twentieth century is still raw. They know fascism when they see it.

Frank Richter, a theologian and activist in Dresden, has identified the root of dissatisfaction in the experience of drastic change. “These multi-layered factors [young/old, educated/less educated, urban/rural, etc.] are extremely pronounced in East Germany because the people here have already experienced so much drastic change in their lives. Many people feel overwhelmed, and the populists play this tune terrifically.”

When Pegida started marching in Dresden and other cities in Thuringia they chanted “Wir sind das Volk!” To English ears this doesn’t sound very remarkable. But, this was the cry in East Germany in the run up to 1989. “Das Volk” has a resonance and deep connotations in German that “the people” does not quite capture in English. And where you put the stress matters enormously: “Wir sind das Volk!” or “Wir sind das Volk!” And, of course, there are resonances with the Nazis’ appropriation of the term in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. But, what was the cry of the crowds pushing for change in the GDR has now become the slogan of identity for the resurgent far right. In both cases – 1989 and 2019 – “Wir sind das Volk” articulates a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and a statement of intent to reassert identity over against the seemingly powerful neglect of ordinary people and their concerns.

Which brings us to the role of the churches.

I have a friend in Berlin who doesn’t like the film Das Leben der Anderen. He thinks it romanticises the role of the Stasi in the GDR and their impact on ordinary people. He once described to me how, coming home one evening as a young man, he heard his parents’ conversation from inside their apartment … on the radio in the car outside. Instead, he pointed me to a film called simply Nikolaikirche. This, he felt, told a truer story.

The Nikolaikirche in Leipzig was the venue for ‘peace prayers’ held every Monday evening. Christian Führer, the Lutheran pastor of the church, described how these meetings grew from 600 in 1988 to over 4000 by September 1989. There were – reportedly – 28 Stasi officers watching the pastor day and night. These prayer meetings were perceived to be a serious threat to the regime. Christian Führer tells some wonderful stories about this time and these events in his book Und wir sind dabei gewesen: Die Revolution, die aus der Kirche kam. The church events led to peaceful demonstrations and, despite provocation, beatings and threats, Führer’s leadership and moral courage shaped the outcome of these confrontations. On 9 October 1989 – one month before the fall of the Wall – over 70,000 people moved from the church through the city of Leipzig chanting “Wir sind das Volk”. Not a single shot was fired. As Führer said: “There was tremendous relief that there was no Chinese solution and a feeling that if 70,000 could achieve what they wanted, then East Germany was no longer the same country it had been that morning. The regime had been expecting everything. The only thing they weren’t prepared for was candles and prayers.” When the church was occupied by 600 communist officials one day, they were shocked to find that instead of stone-throwing counter-revolutionaries, they actually found people praying and singing hymns.

This is an example of how, not knowing the end of the story (and fearing it might be bloody failure), the church opened up space for conversation, dissent and resistance whilst urging peaceful challenge for constructive change. It is probably worth noting at this point that protestors at this point wanted reform and not necessarily abolition of the state. But, the church’s involvement and leadership was crucial.

However, once the revolution had happened and, eventually, Germany was reunited, the church’s influence slowly declined. Church membership in the east is still well below that in the west, and, according to a recent book by theologian and television journalist Arnd Henze (Kann Kirche Demokratie?), membership of the church is statistically more likely to align with right-wing sentiments than with those that motivated East Germans to seek freedom from communist oppression. It is as if the churches had served their purpose and now had little to offer to those shaping a different political future.

Of course, this isn’t all that can be said about the church in the east. But, there is a marked difference between the churches in the west and the confidence of those in the east. Currently, there is a spat going on in Thuringia because the Protestant (Evangelical-Lutheran) bishop of Saxony, Carsten Rentzing, resigned following discovery of things he had written in the past in support of far-right ideologies. (Saxony is the Landeskirche in which our link Kirchenkreis Erfurt is located.) He was clearly conservative on many social and ethical issues, but when challenged from within the church to respond to criticism of his earlier views, he simply went silent and eventually submitted his resignation. I have read the materials in question – and much of the reportage arising from his resignation – and it is hard not to sympathise with those church members wanting him to explain himself, not least how he might justify his views theologically. He still has not spoken. A petition in favour of him remaining the bishop has reportedly been signed by around 15,000 people.

So, even the church is challenged. The source of dissent and peaceful resistance against the previous regime is now divided over the legitimacy of views that would not shame German ideology of the 1930s. What might this have to say to us – in a country where the Labour Party is being investigated for its anti-semitism, several Labour MPs have either resigned or defected because of this anti-semitism, and Jewish Labour has told Jews not to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s party?

Perhaps the first thing is that people are very fickle. Conviction and passion for justice can take terrible turns when the conditions (or the objects of protest) change. Given the nature of Germany’s fairly recent history, it is hard from the outside to work out how anti-semitism, rejection of dispossessed and powerless migrants and resurgent passion for ‘German identity’ have become popular once again. The churches – certainly church leaders – are once again facing questions they thought had been closed down in 1945.

But, perhaps we need to be realistic about human beings and collective memory. In his great autobiography The Time of my Life Denis Healey suggested that politicians who have never fought in or experienced a war are more likely to send our troops into war in the future. We now have a younger generation for whom Hitler and the Holocaust are the stuff of history books and documentaries that relate to a different and long-gone world. Keeping an honest collective memory alive is a difficult task. Living in the present in the light of the past is not straightforward or simple. The building of contemporary walls, ostensibly to protect a nation’s purity and security, might have some popular appeal, but only if we simultaneously forget the real and symbolic power of actual walls in our recent history. Walls do not work.

Eastern Europe is seeing a resurgence of nationalism. Having escaped the suffocating grip of the Soviet bloc, there is little appetite for handing new political freedoms (or sovereignty) over to what some perceive as another empire – the European Union. Those countries that embraced Europe in the aftermath of communism’s demise have grown confident in trumpeting their own identities whilst commandeering Christianity over against the threats from Islam and ‘people not like us’. This defence of Christendom is unlikely to stand in the longer-term when it is linked inextricably with nationalism, xenophobia, a declining birth-rate and fear of those powers growing in confidence: China, India, and so on. However, it might have contemporary appeal at a time of widespread disillusionment, economic stress and identity anxiety.

This is where we might conclude and move on to discussion and questions. When Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev on 12 June 1987 (the 750th anniversary of Berlin) to “tear down this wall!”, he did the easy bit. Knocking down walls is a start; but, shaping the space that is then created is a much more challenging task. And the churches – here, in Germany, in Hungary and elsewhere – face the same old questions, regardless of whether or not we are successful or whether people use us to achieve peace and then forget us. Faithfulness to God’s call to love our neighbour as ourselves and to love even our enemies matters more than packing the pews and winning approval. Times will change and sentiment will move on. But, we read the Bible and the Bible tells a story of transience, unfaithfulness and people who as easily shout “Hosanna!” as they do “Crucify him!”.

Europe faces a challenging future. Thirty years are not long. Things can change quickly. A culture and its institutions can take centuries to build up, but they can be destroyed in days. The Wall should not be forgotten, nor should the reasons for its demolition. But, it should remain not as a mere historical memory of unspeakable division and cruelty in the past, but serve as a living symbol that strikes our imagination as we seek to shape the future.