May 2019


This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Fearne Cotton on the Zoe Ball Show on BBC Radio 2:

You know what it’s like when you get a song running round the inside of your head and you can’t stop it? Well, I’ve got one and it’s driving me a bit mad. It could be worse, I suppose – it could be something like an obscure national anthem – but this one is a hymn. It’s one everyone knows – it’s ‘Amazing Grace’.

I think what’s happened is that I heard a writer talking about it on the radio and it triggered something. I have known ‘Amazing Grace’ since I was a kid – a slave trader’s discovery that life could be different and that he didn’t have to be trapped in guilt for ever. Anyway, hearing it mentioned on the radio prompted me to go to the flicks and see the film of Aretha Franklin stirring hearts and souls (including a very young Mick Jagger) at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972. It is an intense experience and wonderful music.

Judging by the response of the cinema audience, grace is what you experience while watching. OK, you’ve paid to get in, but what you get is a massive dose of freely offered generosity and joy. What Aretha Franklin does is open your heart to the possibility that, despite all the rubbish in life, we are loved to death and beyond.

Grace is a word that, apart from being a popular girl’s name again, sounds religious. That’s because it is. For Christians it speaks of forgiveness and freedom – offered by a God who has no illusions or fantasies about human messiness or failure, but crosses it all out with a love and mercy you can only call outrageously reckless. In a world in which everything seems calculated or quantified – even love and affection: what will I get out of it if I put this amount into it? – how do we account for the unpurchasable, unearnable, unmanipulable love of one who breaks the bonds of guilt and fear and shines the light of newness into the darkness of loss? The Beatles hit on a similar idea when they sang “Can’t buy me love”.

Amazing Grace. ‘Slightly interesting grace’ wouldn’t have worked, would it?

The is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning:

I’m not sure if a confession this early in the morning is wise, but I have never watched Game of Thrones. I have no idea what the story is, who the characters are, or what the plot line is. So, I can’t comment on any aspect of it … except the response to its ending.

Social media seem to be full of people who are angry that they didn’t get the ending they wanted or hoped for. I have even seen passionate pleas with the producers to fire the screenwriters, pull the last series and re-write (and re-film) the thing so it ends properly. What on earth is this about?

I guess in a world of custom-made this and custom-oriented that, we too easily believe that everything revolves around me and my satisfaction – that somehow I should have a life of individual personal fulfilment that makes everything nice. And, of course, it’s obvious from experience that this is nonsense.

It’s not only nonsense, but I think it’s boring nonsense. I recently read a lot of books while on study leave and a couple of the novels I read left me hanging, wishing for a different denouement. But, the joy of story is the element of surprise – shock, even.

For a Christian like me, this shouldn’t be a novel idea – especially in the current Easter season. Follow the gospels through and we see a story developing that keeps twisting and surprising. Get to the end – Jesus dead and buried – and there’s no airbrushing the powerful human brutality of it all. It’s not exactly escapism, is it? But, while the bereft friends of Jesus are trying to make sense of what shouldn’t have happened, they are further surprised by their women coming home and saying that the dead man seems not to be finished after all.

But, this is no ‘happy-ever-after’ deus-ex-machina make-us-all-happy resolution. In fact, it causes more problems. These people have to keep wrestling with reality, experience and their whole understanding about God and the world, and try to make sense of it all. This isn’t the script they were following, but it is forcing them to choose between their expectations and their experienced reality.

That’s how endings work. Surprise, challenge, discomfort. And it’s the ending that makes you go back to the beginning and re-read the whole narrative in the light of the twist.

We can no more control the endings of our own stories than we can compel writers to change their books. We are supposed to be challenged, arrested, surprised and intrigued. That’s the point. The story goes on in our imagination. And if we simply say: “Oh, there you go then,” then the story hasn’t worked. As true for resurrection as it is for Game of Thrones. Whatever that is.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Zoe Ball Show on BBC Radio 2:

I’ve got two sons – both of them well grown up now (that’s what I tell them, anyway) – and they’re both seriously colour blind. It’s great to play snooker against them. The thing about colour blindness is that you can’t tell from looking at them that they’ve no idea which is the red, the green or the brown.

Well, I’ve just learned that tomorrow is Face Equality Day. Now, my first response was boredom that every day seems to be ‘something day’. But, because I didn’t understand the title, I looked it up. And it’s all about people whose face doesn’t conform to so-called normal expectations of beauty or normality. Perhaps because of medical or accident reasons, they suffer unwelcome attention or unkind responses from people in public.

I’m trying to get the words right here, because those people working for change in this area use the term ‘visible difference’ to refer to this phenomenon. It’s a way of challenging the assumption that some people who look different are worth less. The evidence is that when you find your own face has changed, people treat you differently.

Well, we all know how important our face is. According to Shakespeare, “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” – in other words, look past the appearance and you might detect the mind or soul of the person. I think he got this from his familiarity with the Bible which is full of stuff about faces. Try: Proverbs 27:19, “As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.”

But, it’s too easy to avoid the point here by saying simply that it’s what’s inside you that counts, not what you look like. Well, most people who say that sort of thing are probably OK with their own appearance. Perhaps I should try putting myself inside the skin – or looking through the eyes – of someone who gets stared at or, worse, avoided.

How we appear to other people does matter – especially in a culture which constantly bombards us with images of normal beauty. But, how other people look at those who are visibly different matters enormously.

Let’s face it, we can light up someone else’s face by loving who they are and the uniqueness of how they look.

 

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

I was checking my diary for this week when the news came in of the death of Doris Day. Whether it’s significant or not that this happened in Eurovision week, I have no idea. But, as we Brits will be exercising our foreign language skills again – nul points – in preparation for the big night, we might recall that it was Doris who introduced many of us to Spanish.

My late dad was a fan when we were kids and one of the first vinyl records he bought was one of her’s. And that’s where I heard Que sera sera – pronounced like a true Brit ever since. Que sera sera – what will be will be.

As a child I thought this was deep philosophy. You can’t change the future; what will be will be. Resign yourself to whatever comes. We call it fatalism.

Well, I liked the tune and I liked her voice. But, as I grew up I began to realise the idea was wrong. It’s a human responsibility to shape the future and not simply be a victim of other people’s decisions and choices. In Christian terms – which I was also exploring decades ago – the kingdom of God is not about some airy-fairy spirituality for when you die; rather, it’s about transforming the world here and now … thus creating a future that is more just and peaceful and fruitful for our children and grandchildren. After all, Jesus is all about God opting into the real world of matter and politics and muck and bullets and not exempting himself from it. Try sticking that into a Christmas carol.

Of course, this involves real commitment to the stuff of life and society. Fatalism is a denial of responsibility. Commitment to playing my part in building what has been termed ‘the common good’ becomes an obligation that goes beyond simply claiming my rights. Belief, in Hebrew terms, means committing oneself – body, mind and spirit – to the vision of the world that I believe to be true.

I think this is why politics gets fierce. After a couple of generations of little mainstream political choice we now find ourselves full of noise and fury about things that matter. If the choices currently facing Europe weren’t serious, we wouldn’t be getting up in arms about them, would we? It’s because the choices matter, the consequences matter, how we enact our collective priorities and decisions matters. In one sense, it’s heartening.

So, Doris Day nearly made her century. She lived through a century of wars and much more besides, and was part of the generation that exploded with optimism about a glorious and peaceful future. But, apathy and complacency have proved to be the enemy of peace-building. Que sera sera is a great song, but a disastrous way to think about living together.

This is the text of a speech just given in the House of Lords. I dropped material covered already by others (I was the ninth speaker and there was a speech limit of six minutes). For the wider context, and to see why I focused as I did, see Hansard when published.

Lord Harris of Haringey to move that this House regrets the conduct, and toxicity, of debate in public life; of the divisions in society which result from that; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to take steps to address such divisions.

My Lords, I am grateful to Lord Harris for securing this debate and for the clarity of his and other speeches. (Although I think, regarding Lord Patten’s suggestion, that some of the people who should be there in such a discussion wouldn’t come – or would seek to disrupt it!)

We still admire Benjamin Disraeli for telling parliament that half the cabinet were asses and, on being ordered to withdraw the comment, responding: “Mr Speaker, I withdraw. Half the cabinet are not asses”. Political invective is not new and surely has its place in a free society. Yet words matter. Language is never neutral. And the ad hominem abuse we increasingly witness now simply encourages wider public expression of violent hatred. It is incrementally corrosive.

If the conduct of debate in public life has become toxic, then it can only be because it has been in the interests of some people to allow it to be so. I have already spoken in this House of “the corruption of the public discourse” and the consequences of normalising lying and misrepresentation. Reducing people to categories might reinforce tribal identity, but it demonises and dehumanises everyone else. As Viktor Klemperer recognised from 1930s Germany, a million repetitions of single words, idioms, and sentence structures or slanders become unconsciously assumed to be normal. Think of Rwanda and ‘cockroaches’.

Jo Cox MP was murdered ten miles from where I live. Her attacker shouted slogans about ‘Britain first’ while killing her. Do we think this is just unfortunate? Or do we admit the link between language, motivation and action? I doubt if there was much analysis of the meaninglessness of the phrase ‘Britain first’ and the assumptions that underlie it. But, there was clearly a dynamic between language, motivation and action – language free from social inhibition and language that legitimises violence in the minds of some people.

What on earth is going on here? Was the violent bile there already and the referendum simply opened a valve? Or has the lack of any legal or political restraint actually sanctioned or legitimised the sort of language we hear and read now? This isn’t about hand-wringing wimpishness about robust debate; rather, it now sees MPs fearing for their safety, Jess Phillips MP being openly spoken of in terms of when rape might be deemed OK, people voicing violence that would have been deemed unacceptable three or four years ago, but which now is normal. This poses a danger to our democracy and corrupts the nature of our common life. It is not neutral and it is not trivial.

Classic populist language – of Left or Right – uses simple slogans, divisive negativity and visceral emotional pull. The accuracy, factuality or truth of what is said is irrelevant. Such language is powerful and effective … and apparently accountable. What are Nigel Farage’s policies for the construction of a post-Brexit United Kingdom? Where is there even a hint of any responsibility for the future other than a rejection of the past. Just one simple message supported by a whole set of angry assumptions. The language is all of ‘betrayal’. The culprits – the enemies – are those who are not them.

This is viscerally emotional and not rational. Reality, truth and factuality are of no concern. Complex questions are reduced to simplistic binary choices. And it works.

What we are witnessing is a trading in the language of victimhood: [if I am a victim of other people’s power, then my bad behaviour is at least understandable, if not completely justifiable]. And everybody is now a victim. All sides of the Brexit shouting match claim to have been betrayed: hard-brexiters by soft-brexiters; remainers by leavers and leavers by remainers; ‘the people’ by the ‘elites’ and the establishment by the people. And everyone by the BBC. The ninth Commandment is there for a purpose: “Do not bear false witness against your neighbour.”

Surely only satire could see old-Etonian Oxbridge-educated senior multimillionaire politicians complaining about ‘establishment elites’ as if this term of abuse referred to someone else? But, no one laughs. And they get away with it. But, it is not a great leap from this to the sort of conspiracy theories that have brought anti-Semitism back into polite conversation.

When politicians speak of the PM “entering the killing zone” and “taking her own noose” to a meeting, we are in trouble.

The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes that the nature of our public discourse matters because “moral and political aberrations almost always start with linguistic neglect.” Edmund Burke understood the powerful influence of abstract terms such as ‘liberty’ or ‘equality’ which have the power to move people without enlightening them.

We might be entering a dark age in these matters. But, we can put our own house in order and lead by example – for instance, by promoting a greater sense of responsibility among institutional and political figures who influence the public discourse; by making people who use such speech publicly accountable; by offering counter-narratives that ensure that our children hear something good and witness a discourse that is respectful.

We need strategies for addressing this and we need to start here, with politicians, in Parliament.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

When the news of the royal birth was announced yesterday part of the excitement focused on the couple’s decision to break with tradition and do things their own way. And why not?

Well, this welcome royal baby arrived in a very royal week.

After a three-day coronation ceremony, I imagine the new King of Thailand is taking it a bit easier today. And I imagine I am not alone in the world outside Thailand to have observed some of the rituals on television without really understanding what was going on and why. As an outsider it was fascinating to watch, but hard to follow.

What I found most curious was the powerful appeal to tradition – tradition that goes back a very long way and roots the present vocation in a collective national, ethnic and religious memory.

One of the misconceptions about the word ‘tradition’ is that those who value it simply want to live in the past – held captive by some nostalgic notion of a golden age of simplicity and clarity that promises security.

But, tradition has to do with the collective experience and wisdom of the past which then informs and shapes the future, giving roots to the values that underlie our common life – better seen as a fanning of the flame in the present rather than a holding on to the ashes of the past.

Tradition goes deep. Having regard to the experiences and wisdom of past generations – their successes and failures, strategies and accidents – instils the caution needed if history is not to repeat itself and change is to be properly, intelligently and soberly appraised.

For example, the central section of Isaiah in the Hebrew Scriptures is addressed to a people in exile in Babylon, proclaiming the promise that freedom is coming, that exile is ending, that they will soon go home – which sounds great.

Yet, when we dig down into the reality of the exiles’ experience, the promise also becomes something of a threat. For example, what will this mean for those who were born in Babylon and for whom the place of exile is and always has been ‘home’? How will the returning exiles – immigrants – be received back in their ethnic homeland by those who never left and regard the land as theirs? How will they negotiate a common society when, having been exiled, their notions of ‘home’ might have become stuck in a nostalgic past?

In other words, the tradition might root the people in a memory, but they still have to shape today and tomorrow by facing questions none of them has had to face before.

None of this is alien to the politics of our time. Slogans that implicitly promise that we can return to a golden age of the past are, literally, fantastic. We can shape the present and future in the light of the past, but this always demands courage, corrective and competence.