February 2011


So, Silvio Berlusconi is finally going to court. The abuse of power charge apparently relates to his procuring of prostitutes, some of whom were under-age.

What is amazing about this is that it is his sexual failures that have brought him to book (unless he manages to exert his usual patronage and power to escape once again) and not the big stuff about power.

For example, his massive ownership of media organs in Italy and the way this has enabled him to mediate information to his own benefit. This would be worrying enough were it not for the fact that someone in his position can occupy the position of ultimate political power in Italy. I worry about Murdoch, but at least he isn’t running to be Prime Minister or Queen.

Why does sexual misdemeanour count so heavily when other abuses of power are far more serious? This is not to say that his sexual life is irrelevant – and using power or money to buy teenagers for sex is a massive abuse of power. But, it seems that the value system is not too … er … ‘rightly balanced’ here.

Shouldn’t we be more alarmed by concentrated media ownership and its collusion with political power and patronage than about what Silvio does in bed (or to his remarkable hair)?

Just wondering.

Edit 21.09: The point I should have made clearer above is that there is no hierarchy of abuse – his sexual exploitation of girls is damnable. But it is clearly easier to get him nailed on this rather than the other stuff. That’s what is challenging.

The week that brought freedom (we hope) to Egypt concludes with the memory of another event involving masses of people in a life-changing and state-challenging event. Tonight marks not only the eve of Valentine’s Day, but also the 66th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden.

Between 13 and 14 February 1945 the Allies dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs on the beautiful Baroque capital of Saxony. 3,600 planes, of which 1,300 were heavy bombers, dropped as many as 650,000 incendiar bombs and other huge devices. The intensity of the onslaught destroyed 15 square miles (39 square kilometres) of the city centre and killed tens of thousands of people.

A couple of years ago I was preaching in Meissen Cathedral, only a few kilometers from Dresden. At the end of the service I shook hands with several hundred people as they left. One man refused to shake my hand. When I asked him why, he said that he could not shake hands with an Englishman who had the nerve to preach in a German pulpit. He had lived in Dresden all his life and had endured that night in 1945 which saw his family destroyed and his city devastated. He understood why we had attacked Dresden, but couldn’t understand why civilians had been targetted so directly when communications networks were up and running again so quickly.

It is a bit rough holding me personally to account for what the Allies did before I was even born, but I could see the enduring grief in this man’s eyes. I responded by saying that my own family (parents and grandparents) had endured the bombing of Liverpool and that war brought only victims on every side. He believed the bombing of Dresden was a war crime; I didn’t disagree.

Yet, last year (2010) the neo-Nazis decided to demonstrate on 13/14 February. The former East Germany is said to be ripe territory for right-wing resurgence and Dresden offers an iconic locus of resentment and perceived injustice. Yet, counter-demonstrations challenged the simplistic associations of the neo-Nazis and reminded people of why the bombing happened in the first place: the Nazis, the War, the attack not only on other countries, but on German civil society, too. Many Germans are saying that they have to be careful about claims of victimhood in the light of the facts about 1933-45. The Germans who remembered went onto the streets and kept the neo-Nazi revisionists off the streets. This year up to 20,000 people took to the streets to remember the bombing, to remind the world why it happened, and to challenge those whose ideologically-driven grievances demand a re-writing of history.

The bombing of Dresden was horrendous and – to my mind, at least – still has not been justified. It has been often described, but not adequately accounted for. But, when up to 20,000 people remember the context in which the bombing took place 66 years ago, they challenge the revisionism and easy sentimentalism of the neo-Nazis.

In June I will once again stand in the pulpit of the Frauenkirche in Dresden. I will be there to deliver a Bible Study as part of the Kirchentag. The church has been completely restored, the gold cross on top of the dome having been made by the son of one of the British bombers. The church speaks of reconciliation and its task is not just limited to a memory of 66 years ago, but the ongoing reconciliation between people now and in the future.

However, reconciliation with the reality of history also remains a difficult and permanent task of those who do not wish history to be repeated.

The BBC Trust‘s review of Radio 3, 4 and 7 makes for interesting reading.

In relation to religion, however, there are some intriguing statements:

Other types of content also feature in the Radio 3 schedule alongside the mainstay of classical music. These include arts programming (5 per cent of output), jazz (4 per cent), world music (3 per cent), religion (1 per cent), drama (1 per cent) and news (1 per cent).

I’m not quite sure of the definitions here, but I bet a huge amount of the ‘classical music’ content (at least) is ‘religious’ in origin, content or form. And ‘world music’?

On Radio 4 we read:

Radio 4’s commitment to a broad multi-genre proposition is reflected in its budgetary allocation. In 2009-10 Radio 4 spent £5.1million on entertainment and comedy; £3.4million on arts; and £2.6million on religion. Radio 4 is also allocated £2.6million of the BBC sports rights cost. These levels of spend have been broadly stable over recent years.

Excellent. But the report also concludes from audience responses:

Our research found that audiences were generally pleased with Radio 4’s religious output. … there are positive performance gaps for the statements relating to religion and beliefs, suggesting that Radio 4 is more than meeting audience expectations. We recognise, however, that this can be a very subjective issue for licence fee payers.

Well, that’s great news and demonstrates intelligence and maturity on the part of the audience. But, why is religion singled out as ‘a very subjective issue for licence fee payers’? Isn’t every judgement by licence fee payers subjective? Sport isn’t to everyone’s taste – nor is comedy. Or news and documentaries. Or short stories. I might be in a minority of one, but I can’t bear ‘The Archers’ and try to turn the radio off after the news and before that wretched music starts.

Ironically, the statement about subjectivity is a very subjective one and doesn’t belong in this report. If anything, it gives the ‘assumptions’ game away rather embarrassingly.

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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