March 2009


When I was a languages student in the late 1970s I remember thinking I ought to get some culture and venture into a theatre. We were studying existentialist literature and ideas in one of my classes, so when I saw that Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting For Godot was on at the university theatre I decided to give it a try.

beckcolorized3It was an amazing experience and helped me fall in love with the theatre. Not a lot ‘happens’ (in terms of ‘action’) in this play, but it is attention-grabbing all the way through what amounts to nothing but dialogue. In the fifty years since it hit the London stage 50 years ago, it has continued both to shock and delight audiences in equal measure.

In the words of the blurb for the new touring production by Sir Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ronald Pickup and Simon Callow:  ‘There had never been a play like it; two men clowning around, joking and arguing, repeating themselves, as they wait through one day and then another, waiting for the mysterious Godot. The combination of music hall, poetry and tension redefined what is possible in theatre, so that these days, Waiting for Godot is accepted as one of the most significant plays of the 20th century. Beckett’s characters have lost none of their power to fascinate and amuse…’

Waiting for Godot was Beckett’s first play and is set around two central characters, Estragon and Vladimir, who spend two days waiting for the play’s namesake – two tramps pondering the meaning of life while they wait for a man who never comes. It has a reputation for being raw and bleak, depicting the apparent meaninglessness of life; but it is actually funny, thoughtful and often exhilarating. It depicts loneliness, but also the power of human beings accompanying each other through life and all life can throw at us.

godot-1In the fascinating interview on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme the actors discuss the play’s power and messages. In the course of it the actors discuss the indissolubility of the human need for companionship and the other. Faced by the ‘void’ of life’s meaninglessness, we wander through life together and need one another. McKellen speaks of having grown up ‘waiting for something’ and recognises that the point it that the characters – for all their complications – are waiting together. It is full of compassion and touches on love, having no illusions about the human condition.

This also brings it home to a Christian like me that you can’t force people to ‘meet’ God(ot) until God(ot) is known to have come. In other words, you have to wait for people to wait. The meeting can neither be rushed, nor compelled. yet, this is integral to the whole of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures: we have to learn to wait and let life take its time. It was the Asian theologian, Kosuke Koyama, who wrote about the ‘Three Mile an Hour God’ who leads his people into the desert and invites them to slow down and find that he is walking slowly and not rushing from place to place in a frenzy of ‘progress mania’.

I would love to see this production of Waiting for Godot and recover what Beckett had (unwittingly?) spotted about the human need for love and honesty and the call to wait – and not worry too much if nothing happens for a while.

I was wondering how to draw wider attention to the magnificent 4-0 (5-0 on aggregate) destruction of Real Madrid by Liverpool last night when I came across this. There is something quite special about it that must make the Manchester United fans turn blue with envy and Chelsea fans red with rage.

I was still ruminating on last week’s lecture to the Welsh Centre for International Affairs by the Archbishop of Canterbury on Ethics, Economics and Global Justice when I read of the indiscriminate murders of ten people in Alabama yesterday and fifteen people in Germany today. Added to that, I also had a long conversation with a friend in the City of London about the current financial crisis and the novel-but-incomprehensible notion of ‘quantitative easing’. And somehow there is a common theme to all three of these matters: alienation.

the-archbishop-of-canterbury1Back in September 2008 I took part in a discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s article in The Spectator the previous day rather mischievously headed Face it: Marx was Partly Right about Capitalism. In it he wrote this about the gap between those who enter into financial transactions and those who use the consequent debt as an asset to be traded elsewhere for profit that is necessarily disconnected from the person whose money it originally was: …’individuals find that their own personal financial decisions and calculations have nothing to do with what is happening to their resources, in a process for which a debt is simply someone else’s wholly disposable asset.’

He then goes on (and I will quote the whole paragraph) to drive the point home that the alienation of the transactee from the transaction can only lead to a fantasy world in which reality disappears behind the hubris of algorithms and greed: ‘Behind all this, though, is the deeper moral issue. We find ourselves talking about capital or the market almost as if they were individuals, with purposes and strategies, making choices, deliberating reasonably about how to achieve aims. We lose sight of the fact that they are things that we make. They are sets of practices, habits, agreements which have arisen through a mixture of choice and chance. Once we get used to speaking about any of them as if they had a life independent of actual human practices and relations, we fall into any number of destructive errors. We expect an abstraction called ‘the market’ to produce the common good or to regulate its potential excesses by a sort of natural innate prudence, like a physical organism or ecosystem. We appeal to ‘business’ to acquire public responsibility and moral vision. And so we lose sight of the fact that the market is not like a huge individual consciousness, that business is a practice carried on by persons who have to make decisions about priorities — not a machine governed by inexorable laws.’

The Archbishop is referring to a system whereby ideas become assumed to be ‘things’ (the Market) and people become commodities subject to the impersonal and amoral powers of the reified abstract. In relation to the financial crisis his point is simply that the further you remove the ‘person’ from the ‘transaction’, the further you remove the moral agent from responsibility. Now read his lecture and you will see how he develops this in relation to ethics and the economy and the goal of global justice.

tim-kretschmerBut I think the same analysis is somehow pertinent to the murders in Germany this morning. We have no idea as yet why the 17 year old Tim Kretschmer decided to slaughter teenagers at his old school. Like those who have committed similar atrocities in Finland, the USA and elsewhere, we only get clues about what goes on in the mind of someone like this. But, clearly, something has driven this young man to believe that this world holds little value for him and that the lives of others are equally expendable.

The recent Good Childhood inquiry makes it clear that children become alienated from society and their own responsibility when (a) that is what they see adults living out and (b) when they perceive (unconsciously?) they have no stake in society or how it might develop and be shaped for the future. In other words, alienation from both engagement with and benefit from the world and society in which they live.

There isn’t space to develop this here, but I need to think further about the implications of this for both the economy (and our agency in shaping it) and for our children. This remains impossible without some reference to the reasons behind the establishment of those Old Testament ‘laws’ that offered boundaries for good mutual living and sharing – neither fantasising about the ‘ideal society’ nor romanticising the poverty around them, but always ensuring that the powerful should never forget that once they were slaves and everyone has a place in a healthy community in which value is attributed by something more satisfying than a fat bank balance.

It is always silly to get into the numbers game, but sometimes you just can’t help it. So, when the National Secular Society has a hissy fit about the Church of England claiming to speak for the whole country and cites (without ever giving evidence for its claims) the ’emptying pews’, it is tempting to ask why there are over a million people in church each Sunday and only 3000 members of the NSS. We know numbers don’t prove anything much: Hitler packed them in at Nurenberg, but this apparent endorsement says nothing about the validity of his ethics.

Anyway, I was having a quick look at the sometimes-interesting online version of New Humanist magazine to see what recent dissing of the C of E has been going on. Much to my surprise I found the following reference to the C of E’s decision to Twitter its Lent stuff under the heading Twits from the Church of England: ‘I don’t know exactly when the C of E Twitter launched, and I’m not setting myself up for a fall by saying they won’t overtake us, but at the time of writing they have 201 followers to our 527. If you’re on Twitter and not following us, we’re on there as @NewHumanist – we promise there’ll be no preaching from our tweets.’ Two issues here:

c-of-e-lent1. Why do they think all we do is preach? And why do they think so many people are so stupid as to be preached at? Why do they have such a low opinion of people’s general intelligence and ability to form their own opinion? I think we treat people with a bit more respect.

2. Notwithstanding the disclaimer, there is a presumption that nobody will be interested in what the C of E might Twitter. So, I made a phone call to find out how many people are now following the C of E Twitter stuff. The answer? 1172. Which is double the 527 quoted by NS magazine. But, maybe their numbers have grown, too.

Anyway, it’s all good fun, isn’t it? But, I’m not sure who the greater twit is in all this.

I have been out all day today and got home just in time to be annoyed by a programme on the telly. It was called The Legacy of Jade and shamelessly preempted her death with a pointless examination of the juicy bits of her life. It seemed to say that her search for fame justified any intrusion into her life now. It was tacky, mawkish and oozed mock serious sympathy as a weak rationale for broadcasting it. It said nothing.

aljolson_walkoffameBut it did raise the question (again) about the value of ‘celebrity’ and the cost of fame. Tomorrow I am preaching at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street at the annual Bridewell service. The reading is from Ecclesiasticus 44:1-15 (‘Let us now praise famous men…’) and I will be quoting from Goethe (‘The deed is all, the glory naught.’) and Tacitus (‘The desire for fame is the last thing to be put aside, even by the wise.’). Fame of itself is a vacuous pursuit and those who crave it for its own sake are more to be pitied than reviled.

The interesting thing about the passage from Ecclesiasticus is that it reminds me immediately of Hebrews 11 which (for the uninitiated) lists the ‘heroes of the faith’. Famous names such as Abraham, Moses, Samson, Rahab and David make their grand appearance and are lauded for their faith. But, look just a bit deeper at these characters and we find that one tried several times to pass his wife off as his sister so the local king could have his wicked way with her and spare the husband (Abraham); one was a murderer who ran away from the scene of his crime (Moses); another was easily seduced into sex and a bad haircut (Samson); another was a prostitute who is not recorded as having given up the day job (Rahab); and the other was a king who fancied his neighbour’s wife, got her pregnant and made sure the husband got killed in battle (David). Er… right. Very noble and very straightforward.

rigaud-samsonWhat characterises these people (and loads of others in the Bible) is their ambiguities and God’s ‘use’ of them despite it all. When we sanitise them, we deny the power of what the biblical narrative is trying to tell us. For these people their fame is fundamentally to do with their lack of illusions about themselves and the realism that enables them to live useful lives with (and for ) God despite all the dodgy stuff they get up to.

This, again, is why my heroes include people like Niemoeller and Bonhoeffer: never afraid to change their mind, wrestling with the tough life-and-death moral/ethical/theological dilemmas that demand a committed response without absolute certainty of their rightness.

Fame is a silly and superficial thing to be pursued as a life-goal. To be famous for being human and humane is neither silly nor superficial.

The Anglican bishops, meeting in Bulawayo for the consecration of Bishop Cleophas Lunga on Sunday 1 March 2009, issued the following statement. It deserves wider acknowledgement, so I publish it here.

welcome-to-zimbabweStatement on the Government of National Unity by the Bishops of the Church of the Province of Central Africa at the Consecration of the Right Reverend Cleophas Lunga as Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Matabeleland on the 1st Sunday of Lent 1st March 2009 at the Parish Church of St Columbus, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

We the Bishops of the Province of Central Africa in holding and believing that all people are created equal in the image of God and that God wills his people to live their lives to its full potential abundantly, cautiously welcome the formation of the Government of National Unity in Zimbabwe.

This development comes after a long period of political polarisation which created immense suffering of the people. However we are concerned about the continued detention of some political and human rights activists which is indicative of business as usual contrary to the spirit and objectives of Global Agreement. The continued detention of the activists is not conducive to the spirit of reconciliation and to the promotion of peace and justice. Justice delayed is justice denied.

The Bishops of this Province urge the political leaders in this formation to put the interests of the people and the development of the nation in the fore. The leaders of the Government of National Unity should think profoundly and reflectively on the past weaknesses such as corruption, patronage, selfishness and regionalism and avoid them by dedicating themselves to the promotion of the rule of law, respect of human rights and good governance.

The bishops pray that the parties involved will faithfully commit themselves to the fulfilment and spirit of the objectives enshrined in the Global Agreement. This demands a high level of transparency and consultation for all parties involved.

We urge our people to play an active role in the success of the Government of National Unity by fervent prayer and safeguarding the gospel values of love, peace and righteousness. We further ask our people to genuinely reconcile themselves to one another and above to our God of peace and justice.

God bless Africa

God bless Zimbabwe

Guard her children

Guide her leaders

Give her peace for Jesus Christ’s sake

Bishop Ishmael Mukuwanda (President of the Service), Central Zimbabwe Bishop Godfrey Tawonezvi (ACZ Chairman), Masvingo Bishop Sebastian Bakare, Harare CPCA Bishop Peter Hatendi, Manicaland CPCA Bishop Trevor Mwamba, Botswana Bishop Robert Mumbi (ZAC Presiding Bishop), Luapula Bishop Derek Kamukwamba, Central Zambia Bishop David Njovu, Lusaka Bishop William Mchombo (Acting Provincial Secretary), Eastern Zambia

My last post on the rules of pizza was sufficiently disturbing that I have now lost all confidence in the protocols of public consumption. And it is clear from the comments people have made that I am not the only one currently having to review – with confidence well and truly shaken – the ethics and form of pizza-eating.

I went to Brighton with my younger brother on Friday to enjoy a day off in the sunshine by the beach. Tim has come down from Liverpool for a week or so and is staying with us in Croydon. So, we parked the car and went searching for lunch. Brighton is brilliant for little alleyways and narrow roads stuffed with small restaurants and cafes. We eventually got drawn into an Italian with a cheap offer. There was nobody else in there, so I felt reasonably confident about eating without any wider scrutiny.

We ordered the same pizza and then started to attack it. Judge for yourself (my brother is on the left).

cimg11401cimg11421

Does that look weird to you?

The photo below is at the half-way mark when I was beginning to lose the will to carry on.

 

cimg11432Please tell me this doesn’t negate my entire life!

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