As we are about to begin the haunting journey through Holy Week (which needs to be lived as if we didn’t know the outcome), I have been doing two things: listening to the new Bruce Cockburn album and reading Tony Blair‘s A Journey.
Holy Week takes us with Jesus and his friends through places of apparent confusion to a place of dereliction and apparent abandonment. Some time ago Jesus ‘set his face to Jerusalem’ and knowingly entered the heart of political and religious power. This place in which God is blasphemed, his people exploited and political integrity compromised is the place you go to if you have a death-wish… or a point to make or a change to bring. The rubbish dump outside the city is riddled with the gallows used to humiliatingly execute those who dare to challenge Rome.
Read the Gospel accounts and it is clear that Jesus knew where he was going and what was likely to happen there; but, his friends travel with an optimistic misconception about their enterprise. And, ultimately, instead of their hero doing the stuff of religious vindication and political victory, he seems to walk directly into the trap set by the imperialists and their puppets. Why does he do this and why doesn’t he explain himself to his friends? Why doesn’t he avoid the personal pain and suffering and the radical disappointment and disillusionment of those who might now feel conned?
Well, part of the answer lies earlier in the Gospels when Jesus, immediately prior to his public ministry, faces up with ruthless honesty to the most fundamental questions of his character and motivation. In the desert, away from distraction, he cannot escape the questions: Are you in this for the power and glory? Are you really prepared to deny your own material needs in order to stick to your course? Do you really have to walk the way of pain and suffering – surely there must be another way? If you really are the Messiah, why must you walk this way and suffer such an apparently futile fate?
All of this goes against ‘normal’ assumptions about power, rights, purpose and value. Having faced it in the desert, now Jesus faces the reality as he walks towards the place where his commitments will be tested and he will discover whether or not he has been deluding himself.
Yet, his friends just don’t get it. He doesn’t try to tell them what they won’t understand. He knows that they will have to learn their own way – that there is no short-cut to re-shaping their world view or their fundamental assumptions about who and how God is. He has to let them do this in their way and in their time – and he can’t spare them the pain of it all. No short-cuts, no easy explanations, no false comforts, no escapism. (And we must resist the urge to leap too quickly from Good Friday to Easter Day without living – and enabling others to live – through the sheer bewildering emptiness and horror of Saturday. Sunday makes no sense without the experience of that desolation and sense of deep disappointment.
But, where do Tony Blair and Bruce Cockburn fit into this? The answer is: indirectly and tangentially, but interestingly.
I deliberately waited to read Blair’s book until the rather tedious and predictable judgements on it and him had gone away. There was little in the immediate criticism of the book that was enlightening. As Blair himself recognises (repeatedly) in the book, prejudices about him – his motives and the nature of particular events – are not going to be changed by Blair’s own account. Views are too entrenched. However, the best he can hope for is that people will understand why he took the decisions he did – particularly in relation to Afghanistan and Iraq – and on the basis of what information. He asks for comprehension, not agreement.
What has surprised me in the book is Blair’s honesty about the failures and his generosity to those who made his life and work difficult. And I now wonder whether my resistance to his defence of George Bush’s intelligence and integrity actually says more about me than it does either of them.
However, what I have found most intriguing is the way Blair draws lessons of leadership from his experience – albeit with the benefit of hindsight. The most explicit discourse on this comes in the chapter on the Northern Ireland conflict and the Good Friday Agreement. But, he illustrates well the loneliness of leadership and the agonising nature of decison-making when the loud voices around you want you to decide differently. Even if a million people march against you and accuse you of lying, how do you do what you believe to be right rather than what is either popular or expedient?
Now, I am not defending his decisions regarding Iraq; that’s for him to do. (And just to nobble those who might selectively quote me and accuse me of associating Blair with Jesus… it is the phenomenon of leadership demands that I am thinking about, not the nature of the messianic!) What I am interested in here is the matter of authentic leadership when the heat is on. What sort of leadership is it that prefers not to face the challenges of action (as opposed to loud words and empty threats) and looks to political expediency or electoral popularity as their principal guide when taking far-reaching decisions? In Blair’s case, he recognises the charge of the ‘messiah complex’ and does seem very sure of his own rightness. But, that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t right to make some of the decisions he did. As he states, only he could make them and make them he did.
I don’t know Tony Blair. I only met him once and our conversation got interrupted before it had got going. But, I feel more intrigued now to understand more about his motivation than I did before reading the book. I am not sure I have changed my mind on key elements of the decisions made, but I understand better why he made them. And, ultimately, regardless of whether or not those around him agree or understand, he still had to decide what he thought was right and not what might be merely expedient in the short-term.
And Bruce Cockburn? Back in 2004 he wrote a song called This is Baghdad. On the Life Short Call Now album, he rails against the misery and destruction in Iraq:
Everything’s broken in the birthplace of law / As Generation Two tries on his magic flaw
Carbombed and carjacked and kidnapped and shot / How do you like it, this freedom we brought? / We packed all the ordnance but the thing we forgot / Was a plan in case it didn’t turn out quite like we thought. / This is Baghdad…
It is angry and horrified and yet offers no solutions. Fair enough. The poet’s job is to illuminate, not resolve.
But, in his wonderful new acoustic studio album Small Source of Comfort he has two songs about Afghanistan. One – The Comets of Kandahar – is a guitar piece about the sight of jet fighters taking off after dark, invisisble apart from the purple flame from the tailpipe. The second is a powerfully moving elegy to dead soldiers. He was about to board a plane at Camp Mirage, a Canadian staging post in the Middle East, when he found himself part of a Ramp Ceremony in which the remains of two Canadian casualties were honoured before being repatriated. He says in the sleeve notes: “One of the saddest and most moving scenes I’ve been privileged to witness… this song is dedicated to the memory of Major Yannick Pepin and Corporal Jean-Francois Drouin”.
The song needs to be heard rather than the lyrics simply read. Like a good Psalm of lament, it is drawn beautifully and tragically from the bowels of the poet:
Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see / each one lost is a vital part of you and me.
Cockburn’s anger about the conflict is not enough to prevent him seeing beauty in the darkness or compassion in the particular. He also allows prejudice to be challenged by experience.