February 2011


Two weeks in and Mubarak is still hanging on to power in Egypt. The story is now already slipping down the columns of the newspapers and headline orders of the broadcast media. What is wrong those Egyptians – why are they keeping us waiting for a resolution of their revolution? Don’t they realise that we need something definite to happen or our attention will go elsewhere to whatever newer excitement seduces our imagination?

Well, I was in a radio discussion on Sunday with Dr Harry Hagopian and I was interested in his observations on the situation. He was asking for a longer-term, more intelligent and reflective approach by the West to a changing Middle Eastern situation. And he is right.

Two images came to my mind while discussing the helplessness many of us feel when the inspiring revolution seems to dissipate as the days go by and the powerful retain their palaces. Hope begins to wobble.

First is the day I stood at Oxford Circus in central London, unable to pass because a man was standing on the roof of a building and threatening to throw himself off. The police had closed the roads and the pavement. Bored of waiting, some guys behind me started to shout, ‘Jump!’ So sad that their entertainment wasn’t coming fast enough.

Second is the image that haunts me whenever I stop to think about it: Mary standing watching her son die a slow death on the gallows of Golgotha and helpless to do anything other than stay there. No solutions. No resolution. No intervention. No ‘helpful’ advice. No expediting the end for the sake of the victim and the observers.

Helpless observation is not something we crave. We like to intervene, make it right – or, at least, do something. But, history and experience teach us that the hardest times are when we cannot do anything other than watch. The powerlessness mocks our self-understanding as powerful agents. The scandal of inactivity embarrasses our need for heroism. If nature abhors a vacuum, then so do we abhor a silent waiting.

This is not an excuse for apathy or an apologia for selective disengagement in the matters of the world and its politics. It is the opposite, in fact. It is a call for more intelligent reflection instead of instant reaction. It appeals for study, learning and ‘deep’ comprehension rather than shallow, immediate and ill-informed reportage – the sort of commentary that is never an innocent bystander observing from a distance, but actually becomes part of the event by shaping perceptions and invoking activity (‘just do something’).

We have had to be disciplined in our diocesan relationships with Zimbabwe that we don’t do things that salve our feeble consciences while militating (with all the best motives) against the real needs of the people there. Doing something does not necessarily mean that something useful has been done.

We still await the exodus from Egyptian slavery to freedom in a promised land. But, even that association forces us to remember that the original exodus was followed by forty years of wandering (terrible waste of resources – why didn’t they just allow a woman to look at a map?) and the expiration of a generation of romanticisers. Most of the ‘liberated’ did not see the promised land. We need to learn from this something about the way history unrolls – and how long it takes.

I am coming to the end of a run on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. Picking Fridays was a good move: Chris has started getting guests in and, so, without any effort at all, I’ve managed to meet Elton John, Peter Kay, Rick Astley, David Walliams, Selina Scott and loads of others. And the production team is always generous, welcoming and open. It’s a good gig and gives me a window into a different world.

The problem with Pause for Thought is that the BBC won’t let me post the scripts on my own blog. They post them for seven days on the BBC website, but it’s not the same. So, I’ll paraphrase. The thing is, 320 words makes you think concisely about what is going on in the world (or, at least, in my head) and it’s a good discipline for someone like me who produces an awful lot of words (one way or another) during any day.

What has been running through my head during the last couple of weeks is how we explain what is going on in Tunisia, Egypt and the rest of the world. What is it that leads people to rebel now as opposed to three months ago or two years from now? Is it simply something to do with the confluence of events, economics and public mood?

I think that behind all that there is something about ‘imagination’.

I’m a great fan of John Lennon – an honest hypocrite, if ever there was one. (I have written more fully about him in my book Finding Faith: Stories of Music and Life.) But, Imagine is a load of nonsense: ‘Imagine no possessions’ he wrote on an expensive grand piano in a mansion worth millions. But, this doesn’t mean that the song doesn’t tell some truth.

What Lennon recognised is that it is the imagination that makes us human. We aren’t made simply to accept the status quo or to live fatalistically in the world as it presents itself. Rather, we are made to imagine a different way of being – a better way of shaping the world and its ways.

Imagination is not the same thing as fantasy. Imagination can become fantasy – especially if it doesn’t lead to action in any way. But, imagination can transcend fantasy and shape the way we see who and how we are in the world as it is and as it might become. Imagination shapes vision.

Without imagination – as I put it this morning:

The Berlin Wall would still be up. Tunisians and Egyptians would stay at home and make the tea. The corrupt and the powerful would rule the roost, hoping to anaesthetise people into believing that nothing can ever change.

But human beings are made with imagination. In the creation narratives of Genesis God has a ball imagining everything into being. The Old Testament prophets beg people to wake up and dare to believe that the powerful empires are transient. The poets and musicians awaken and keep alive the echoes of another world – ringing in the memory and minds of oppressed and depressed people. Jesus dares people to live now as if heaven were already here.

Jesus was no fantasist. His invitation to us to imagine, then inhabit and create a world that reflects God’s self-giving character, has never been a form of cheap seduction. Rather, it led him and his friends to a cross. It radically challenged (and continues to challenge) a world that believes that only the powerful can change things – usually in the interests of their hanging on to power. The naked man standing before the might of the violent Roman Empire might look absurd, but he messed with their heads and changed the world for ever.

Of course, the biggest challenge lies not with those who don’t ‘get’ Jesus and the Kingdom of God. It lies with those who claim his name, but show no sign of having been grasped by his imagination.

The Egyptians are demanding their own exodus. But, at the heart of all the brutality and uncertainty and sacrifice and struggle lies a battle for the imagination.

Empires come and go. The trouble is, they seem permanent when you are under them.

Most of the Old Testament prophets keep banging on (in the best possible sense, of course) about the need for God’s people to see the world through God’s eyes and not be taken in by the apparent power of the ‘empire’. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Britain - they all came… and they all went. The thousand year Nazi Reich wasn’t even a toddler when it expired in a blaze of global horror.

And one of the constant themes to have come out of some Christian Churches in Europe in the last few decades has been the warning that the American Empire would also be time-limited… and the theologies that assumed its permanence (because blessed by God) would need some further attention in due course.

Now, in the Middle East, we see regimes tottering in the face of popular resentment and protest. It looks like the powerful dynasties are very worried while Iran looks on with a smile. The western-backed corrupt regimes are losing their grip and the script will have to be re-written in Washington and London. It feels like 1989 (the end of Communism in Europe) all over again, but a bit more worrying. And let’s hope Robert Mugabe is watching his telly and worrying about contagion.

It is easy to identify what we don’t like. It is not hard to complain about the things we don’t like and the injustices or inequities we resent. But, it is a little bit harder to put together something new and better than what has so quickly and easily been destroyed. (It’s like when people come to me with a problem and I ask them what their solution is…) It’s easier to direct blame and criticism than it is to constructively build something in its place.

And that is what will happen in those countries which now face radical change. They will also face radical disappointment – because these things never bring Utopia (or other fantasies).

I think we should always be suspicious of putting our hope in the apparent solidity or permanence of ‘worlds’ that we now know can change in a very short time. The walls fall down and it isn’t always clear what will be put up as an alternative. The empires come and go – we need to keep seeing through them and remembering their transience.

(And I am not convinced that Andy Carroll will replace Fernando Torres at Anfield. Silly money all round.)

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