Still reflecting on engagement with the media, I am also thinking about Berlin.

I’m reading Francis Wheen‘s brilliant new book, Strange Days Indeed – a romp through the 1970s, the decade of my teenage formation. This was the height of the Cold War and the time I was beginning to learn about German politics and the division of Europe. I still regret that, having studied German politics seriously at university and having lived and worked as a technical translator in (West) Germany, I never made it to Berlin while the Wall was up. But, at the beginning of January I will be spending four days there with my youngest son who is studying history and politics at university. (I notice he seems to have nicked from home some of my books on German history/politics and Berlin…)

The reason for this rambling introduction will become clear in a moment when I pull some threads of thought together. But, the thinking really began last week when I read Evelyn Waugh‘s novel about Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. In this book (which a friend lent me – I had never heard of it before) Helena questions the Imperial Wall that Rome was building to keep out the barbarians. Questioning the defensive assumptions being made by the Roman powers, she asks:

Instead of the barbarians breaking in, might the City one day break out?

This reminded me of a conversation on a farm near Gweru in Central Zimbabwe. The cattle dip was standing unused and we, the English visitors, were interested to know why. The problem seemed to be that even if the cattle were dipped, they then got undipped cattle from neighbouring farms coming in and contaminating all the others. So, they were waiting until they had the money to build a fence that would keep out the potentially diseased cattle and protect their own.

One of our number (a Zimbabwean expat) suggested a solution: ‘Why don’t you invite all the neighbouring cattle owners to bring their cattle through the dip, charge them a small sum – and thereby you keep all the local cattle healthy, you make a bit of an income from dipping the neighbours’ cattle and you avoid the unnecessary expense of the fence?’ Everyone wins. This suggestion met with astonished staring. But, it was the off-the-wall sort of insight that was needed.

Helena was not interested in defence and protection, but in getting the ‘good stuff’ out there in order to make the barbarian world better. If the Gweru cattle farmers could think about positive engagement with the local/wider world, they would get their protection as a by-product. The German Democratic Republic was bound to fail because walls designed to keep people in (protection of sorts) never work. Israelis and Palestinians might also need to recognise that security requires the interests of both parties to be secured – or at least brought into the equation.

Jacques Ellul, a French theologian and jurist wrote a book in 1962 called The Meaning of the City. In it he questions the significance in Genesis 4 of the murderer Cain’s decision (having been expelled from ‘home’) to settle in the Land of Nod, build a city and call it Enoch. His conclusion is that all human beings, caught in the great expanse of human meaninglessness, build walls around themselves and their immediate relationships and worldview, thus giving them a ‘place’ in the universe by which other people and things have a sense of significance or proportion. The question he raises (which I have addressed in a couple of my own books, principally Hungry for Hope?) has to do with what happens when the walls – designed to protect – get breached and we are faced with a choice: (a) re-build the wall, but even thicker this time so that it won’t get breached again and our ‘world’ can remain undisturbed, or (b) poke our heads out and see what the bigger (and potentially scarier) world outside actually looks like? Of course, the ‘scarier’ world might, in fact, hold wonders and glories and opportunities hitherto never imagined…

For me all this comes together in the fact that the Jesus of the Gospels seemed to spend his time angering and frustrating the purists who saw their duty to God consisting in keeping the protective walls strong. Eventually they crucified him. Instead, however, Jesus seemed to think he should contaminate the ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ world with grace and love and generosity and mercy and joy and hope and goodness.

In relation to the media and the Church’s enagagement with the public discourse, I think this says that we should be unafraid of getting outside the walls and contaminating the world with the goodness and grace and mercy of God – even if we get roughed up along the way by both sides, those who think we’ve sold out from our own ‘camp’ and those who think we are intruding on territory that does not belong to us.

It’s a messy business, but I/we need the imagination, guts and sense of adventure to not retreat into ‘safe’ territory (whihc, of course, never is safe), but run all the risks of getting out there and facing the uncertainties of what might lie in wait for us. And, if we are going to do it, we had better enjoy the experience.