Just a question, but if every country in Europe did what the Swiss have done today – voting in a referendum to limit immigration into their land – what would be the economic and social cost (a) to the countries that need immigration, (b) to the countries that lose their best people to affluent Europe, and (c) to the people who need to emigrate from where they are in order to survive or thrive?

I have just arrived in Germany for a couple of days with friends before moving on to a theological conference near Frankfurt. Before leaving Bradford I finished reading Lucy Hughes-Hallett's award-winning The Pike, and have started on Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What both books evoke is the unnerving question about how possible it is to project ourselves forward in time in order to be able to look back on the impact our current choices, decisions or neglects will have on what is to come.

Silly, I know. But, this 'prophetic' attempt at imagination is vital. Hindsight, as we know, is a wonderful thing; but, is it possible to use appropriate foresight and consider where our priorities today might lead us tomorrow?

Gabriele d'Annunzio (of whom I had never heard before reading The Pike) was the sort of bloke who would have been sneered at by Brits like me. A swaggering Italian poser poet who seduced not only huge numbers of women, but also a whole nation – Italy – into the fascism that would lead to catastrophe, he comes over as a violence-loving nightmare on just about every front. The question that hangs over just about every page is: how did he ever get away with it? Or, as his biographer puts it:

Killing and being killed, pouring out the blood of myriads of young men, only by doing these things could a race demonstrate its right to respect. What d'Annunzio was saying is appalling: what is worse is how few people there were to disagree. (p.364)

Incidentally, the failure of other political parties and groups to coalesce in order to stop fascism in the early 1920s leads Hughes-Hallett to observe:

Keeping their principles unsullied, they open the door to fascist dictatorship.

In other words, a preoccupation with the purity of one's principles (or brand?) leads to the vacuum that the nasties will quickly fill. I think Jesus said something similar about clearing a demon out of a room only to find later that seven have moved in…

This is not trivial. Again, without knowing what might lie ahead – resistance, imprisonment and execution – Dietrich Bonhoeffer realised as a teenager that ethics must be practical and the idolatry of 'purity' questioned. In Paris in 1929 this Protestant saw who attended a solemn high mass at the Sacré Coeur and wrote subsequently:

The people in the church were almost exclusively from Montmartre, prostitutes and their men went to mass, submitted to all the ceremonies; it was an enormously impressive picture, and once again one could see quite clearly how close, precisely through their fate and guilt, these most heavily burdened people are to the heart of the Gospel… It's much easier for me to imagine a praying murderer, a praying prostitute, than a vain person praying. Nothing is so at odds with prayer as vanity. (p.40)

It is the last sentence that is unnerving. This is a young man, pushing the dominant theologies of his time – particularly that of Karl Barth – and beginning to shape the convictions and character that would ultimately lead him to resist Hitler, join in a murder conspiracy, and die alone on the gallows. Not much place for vanity.

My reading of the Gospels suggests that Jesus drove a coach and horses through obsessions with 'purity' and a consequent distancing of oneself from people or principles that might sully. He looked beyond the immediate reality – that the person with no moral leg to stand on cannot 'belong' and should not contaminate the rest of us – to the possibility of how people might become if exposed to the transforming power of love. And, yes, he probably knew that those who didn't like this would finally nail him. But, fear of being contaminated was rejected in favour of a desire to contaminate the world with goodness and grace.

Few resisted d'Annunzio and the glamour of his violent rhetoric and exploitation of other people. Bonhoeffer knew that even if no one else did, he would have to decide for himself and tell/live the truth… whatever the cost.

So, where might our decisions today (Syria, immigration, etc.) lead us tomorrow? That's the question hanging over my reading of d'Annunzio yesterday and Bonhoeffer today. And how do we know when we have been seduced by mere vanity?