This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the anniversary of the Aberfan disaster in 1966.

Some things we see or hear in the news stick in the mind for ever. I was a small child when JFK was assassinated and I remember the fear in my home about what it might mean for the world. But, one of the images that has haunted me since this day in 1966 is the destroyed town of Aberfan in Wales when a coal tip slid over houses and a school and killed a generation of children. The images of that day – and since – evoke a terrible empty pain.

I now live in Yorkshire where evidence of the pits that mostly closed in the 1980s has disappeared. Hills of black stuff have long been landscaped and children in those communities now see fields and hills and playgrounds where a previous generation saw their life and livelihood.

Beautifying a landscape does nothing to wipe out the past and all it represented. Memory of community life and belonging goes along with the tragedies and losses of an industry that was dangerous and costly for many people. Lives lost and society built are, literally, buried in the seeds that grow the grass on the redeemed hills.

What these communities and their landscapes demonstrate, however, is that brokenness can be transformed by beauty. Ugliness and tragedy need not have the final word. Time moves on and we transform the landscape in order not to wipe out the past or de-value previous generations. Scars bear witness to both the wound and the healing. New life can come.

This is particularly pertinent as we live through a time of uncertainty when we have little or no idea what the future might hold or what it might look like for the generation of children who are at school or university now. Yet, it is essential, surely, that we hold out images of hope, of re-creation and future beauty that will see some healing of the scars of the current brutality.

For a personal image on which to hook my hope, I turn to the encounter of Thomas with the risen Jesus. Propaganda would have had the body of the risen Jesus looking beautiful and clean, with all traces of horror or suffering removed. What we get, however, is not some opiate for the people. Jesus is the same, but different. Remarkably, he still bears the wound marks of crucifixion in his hands and feet and side. And he isn’t squeamish about inviting Thomas to touch the wounds.

Like the landscaped scars of Yorkshire and Aberfan, the past cannot be romanticised. But, our children need to know it can be healed.

This is the script of my speech in the House of Lords today in the Second Reading debate on the Internal Market Bill. I was the 21st speaker out of 115. Others addressed detail – I chose to address ethics. A four-minute speech limit was in force. There were some powerful speeches on both sides of the argument; most were impassioned and courteous.

My Lords, I fully endorse the arguments set out by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I concur with the concerns set out in reports cited by other noble Lords earlier. I welcome the commitments articulated by the Minister, but question how they can be trusted, given the underlying ethic of this bill. (And it is absolutely right that Archbishops ask such questions.)

Relations with potential partners usually depend on integrity. Trade, security, migration, and so on, all rest on the matter of fundamental trust. Trust cannot be one-sided or it is not trust at all. Respecting one’s interlocutors is essential, and this is inevitably evidenced in language. The Bill before us assumes that our interlocutors cannot be trusted, will behave in bad faith, and that we need to be protected from them. If they don’t give us what we demand, we are free to do our own thing … including breaking the law and reneging on agreements we made less than a year ago which were said to be “oven-ready”and “a good arrangement” that required “no more negotiations”. What it doesn’t ask is why our word should be trusted by others?

My Lords, integrity and morality matter at the level of international relations and agreements. Unless, of course, we are now agreeing to reduce all our relations and transactions to some sort of utilitarian pragmatism?

Morality also applies to how we both remember history and establish what will shape the national mythologies that future generations will inherit. My Lords, what story will be either celebrated or commemorated next year – the centenary of Partition on the island of Ireland? One that chose to end violence and respect difference – including different perspectives on identity, justice and unity? Or one of a conscious abrogation of agreements that were built from bloodshed and a courageous willingness to stem the wounds of grievance? Ireland – both the Province and the Republic – need some certainty in shaping a future narrative; but, what sort of certainty is built on a broken word, the negation of trust or the arrogance of exceptionalism?

Irish Church leaders are surely right to be concerned about what this Bill implies for relations between the devolved institutions themselves and with the UK government. These leaders straddle the border in Ireland and their deep concerns about a breach of the Good Friday Agreement need to be listened to and not simply dismissed with a wave of boosterish optimism from Westminster.

Others will speak about the implications of closing any legal route to challenge the government’s implementation of the Protocol. But, let’s be clear: parliamentary sovereignty does not translate easily into executive sovereignty.

A decision to prefer short-term pragmatism over longer-term ethics will lead to a future in which a question mark will hang over any statement by those whose word and adherence to the rule of law cannot be trusted. More is at stake here than economics.

While staying with a friend in Basel once I visited the home of the late Protestant theologian Karl Barth. In the basement, where his personal library is kept, I looked through his marked-up copy of Mein Kampf and other significant books – Barth had been deprived of his university chair by Hitler and had then left Germany. The warden then handed me a box in which I found the original draft manuscript of what is considered to be one of the twentieth century’s most important political documents: the Barmen Declaration. It led to Christian opposition to the Nazis by asserting theological principles.

Together, a number of theologians found the courage to challenge dominant assumptions about power, human value and the meaning of it all. Many of them suffered from the consequences of their decision that order needs to be brought out of chaos and that this can only come at personal cost.

In a different context, the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka speaks of “the solidarity of the shaken”.* In other words, the experience of a common challenge brings with it the courage to stand up and stand out. The “solidarity of the shaken” is, I think, a phrase pertinent to today’s world.

What both Barmen and Patočka hold to is the conviction that faith is not a spiritualised escape from the demands of a challenging material world. Those who complain when religious leaders get involved in politics often assume that faith takes us out, rather than commits us to, the real world. But, it is impossible to see Christianity, for example, as a merely spiritual creed when at the heart of every Christian narrative is incarnation – God committing himself to the world in all its chances and contingencies and not opting out of the inconvenient consequences of materiality. The word Jesus says it all.

The current uncertainties of the world have blown a hole in western assumptions about control – of life, the environment and progress – and have shaken individuals and entire societies to their roots. The big themes, so easily hidden while we (in Neil Postman’s words) amuse ourselves to death, are now resurgent: mortality, fear, love, hope, faith, and so on. And through it all there is the possibility of a solidarity of the shaken – as we recognise the fragility of life and the common need for human interdependence.

It has been said that a crisis does not create character; it reveals it. Actually, both are true. But, as we navigate uncharted waters in the months ahead, it is the solidarity of humility that must trump the sham of hubris.

*Quoted in Night of the Confessor by Tomáš Halík

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

What does it feel like when the shape of your world changes overnight and everything you take to be normal disappears – a familiar experience in the pandemic?

I ask the question because we are now marking two connected anniversaries: the formal creation of the German Democratic Republic on 7 October 1949 … and German reunification on 3 October 1990. The GDR only existed for half a century, but, for some people, it was their lifetime … and then it was gone.

For many people in the east of Germany reunification was a takeover that valued little from the GDR and sowed seeds of resentments that are being watered today. Ostalgie is a hankering for value.

This is not new. In these times of uncertainty I’ve been re-reading one of the foundational stories of the Bible: the exodus. Moses, the reluctant liberator, led his oppressed people out of slavery in Egypt towards a life of freedom. Yet, they now found themselves not in some instant shangri-la, but in an empty desert. And gratitude did not last long.

Almost immediately the people started complaining. And moaning about the current shapelessness of their life soon led to romanticism about the past and a form of nostalgia that quickly forgot recent reality. And while this was going on, poor old Moses had to pay attention to how to shape a future in an uncertain world. Freedom from does not lead inevitably to freedom for. How to create a good society depends on more than a dislike or selective remembering of an old bad one.

Well, according to the story, a whole generation of nostalgics had to die off before the next generation could disempower nostalgia and look to creating a different future.

Which brings me back to the German question. Was the GDR a desert experience between National Socialism and Merkel’s land? Or is the current arrangement also a transitory journey towards another land – for good or ill? No society knows what will come next. The present is always transitory – we know what we are ‘post’, but we don’t know what we are ‘pre’.

Moses’ people had to unlearn the dependencies of captivity and take responsibility for their common life. This involved the hard stuff of enshrining justice and mercy in community, polity and law – protecting poor and marginalised people, ensuring that justice could not be bought and that powerful people can be held to account.

Past glories – imagined or real – do not shape a good future. Only a humble commitment to justice can do that – however often we might fall short.

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

I had a chat with a mate recently when he was facing a hard choice. In the end I said: “Well, it’s in your hands, isn’t it?” I doubt if this statement of the obvious was very helpful.

But, when I rang off what stuck in my mind was the phrase about hands. Don’t ask me why – it just did.

Now, I’m rubbish at remembering poetry or quotes from Shakespeare; but, I’ll never forget doing Macbeth at school and being shocked by Lady Macbeth murdering the King of Scotland and then going mad trying to wash her hands of the guilt. “Out, damned spot!” she cries as her life disintegrates and she finds that all the hand washing in the world won’t rid her of her guilt.

And that takes me to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate who also tried to wash his hands of responsibility for chickening out of setting Jesus free when the crowd wanted blood.

In other words, hand washing hasn’t had a great press, has it?

Well, as things seem to be closing down again in pandemic Britain, hands are making a big new appearance. Our hands hold a key to learning to live with a virus that isn’t going to go away – how we behave is literally in our hands; I am responsible for how I decide to love my neighbour by being responsible for their safety. Secondly, washing my hands might seem insignificant, but it isn’t. It’s the small steps that make the biggest difference.

As a Christian, of course, hands make another appearance in my memory. And, for me, this is the answer to both Lady Macbeth and Pontius Pilate. When the friends of Jesus meet him after the resurrection, he shows them his hands and, shockingly, they still have the wound marks of crucifixion. He is not ashamed to show the world the marks of loss and hurt and pain. And healing does not simply wipe away the wounds – the scars remain.

So, today I want to put my hands up. No need to hide the pain or the failures. How I love my neighbour actually lies in my hands.

 

 

This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Diocese of Leeds Diocesan Synod on Zoom on Saturday 26 September 2020:

We meet today in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We always do. But, today we meet in what is for us unprecedented circumstances. I don’t need to rehearse the pandemic-induced challenges and realities now upon us. I don’t need to draw attention to how this has been handled and communicated or the frustrations evident in both church and society with this situation. What I do want to say right at the outset is that feelings of frustration, regret, disappointment, incompetence to face the challenges, fear for the future, and so on are all perfectly natural, appropriate and understandable. No one should feel alone in this; no one should feel ashamed.

But, that is not the whole story. The current pandemic confronts us – individuals and society – with reality, a reality we can easily discount in what we have come to regard (perhaps somewhat nostalgically) as normal times. This reality provokes fear, but compels Christians to face up to what we really believe about life, death, mortality, morality and meaning. We speak about death and resurrection; now we are faced with questions about these that should not be ducked. There is nothing about COVID-19 that can be called good or a gift; but the phenomenon itself invites us to think deeply about what Christian hope is all about.

I remember doing some bishops’ leadership training in Cambridge and asking our guide in the lunch queue how working with bishops compares with the school’s usual clients – CEOs, chairmen of major companies, business leaders. He said: “There are two things they won’t talk about: failure and death.” “That’s funny,” I replied: “that’s where we start.” The beginning of Christian theology is to be found in coming to terms with what it means to be a mortal human being, made in the image of God, who will be subject to all the contingencies of temporal life and who will one day die.

When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome two thousand years ago he wasn’t offering spiritualised musings to people living in some mystical nirvana, dissociated from the real world. The Roman Empire was brutal and life was cheap – power was everything. These Christians knew that merely being Christian was tantamount to signing their own death warrant. Saying that Jesus is Lord was saying that Caesar is not – and they knew what this sort of political sedition would lead to. No romance – just brute reality. What would we do?

And as we now head towards Advent and Christmas we have a glorious opportunity to reflect deeply on what it meant for God to opt into just this sort of world in Jesus of Nazareth: no game-playing, no illusions, no wishful thinking, no feeble optimism (that all would turn out well). For Christian theology is clear: those who bear the name of this Christ are called to live in the world as he did – loving, living, learning; committed to the world as it is, but drawn by the hope for what it might become – the Kingdom of God.

Brothers and sisters, this is what our Scriptures teach us, but which we now read through a different – more urgent and pressing – lens. Life is inherently uncertain; that is what we are called to be faithful in. To return to Paul: when he writes to these persecuted Christians that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, he is staring our reality in the eyes. Do we believe it.

Now, this is not a sermon. It is, however, important to locate our work today in a context and a theology. Clergy and lay people together, we are called to work out what it is to be faithfully Christian in these times and not simply to regret that things are changing. Faith, hope and love are to be the colours of our complexion. And love, we read, overcomes fear.

The Church of England is looking seriously at how we should re-shape for a different future. The Archbishop of York chairs a ‘Vision and Strategy Group’; I chair a Governance Review Group; the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich chairs a ‘Transforming Effectiveness Group; the Bishop of London chairs the ‘Emergence Group’; and now the Bishop of Ely is to chair a group looking at the future of dioceses and the role of bishops in a changed church. This is not a case of avoidance therapy by setting up committees in the long grass. Rather, they are bold, determined and radical in their intent. We also face the challenge of complexity in it all, and need to keep our work as thorough and simple as possible in order to navigate this unknown territory which we now traverse – knowing where we have come from, but unsure where we are heading towards or what the future might look like. But, we are shaping it anyway and not just sitting waiting for circumstances to do their best or worst.

The question is: when the world has taken a challenging turn and past certainties or assumptions have begun to die, how are we to be the church God calls us to be for the future? And I am not worried. We will face the hard questions with faith, hope and love. We will love, live and learn. We will mess some of it up and get some things wrong. But, we will attend to the challenge anyway.

The Diocese of Leeds is well set to do this with confidence. We will face hard questions about finance, resourcing, church buildings, people, places and how we set our priorities. But, if this sounds familiar, it should do. This is what we have been doing for the last decade when we were given a scheme to dissolve three dioceses and create a new one. Those of us who went through the experience have no illusions about some of the challenges and obstacles we faced, especially during the last six and a half years since we began. And we have shown a resilience and determination in doing so that demonstrates that we have the gifts God has given us already – and we can approach the future with uncertainty, confidence, adventure, curiosity, hope, faith and courage. That, in fact, has always been the vocation of God’s people. This territory might be new and immediate for us, but it is not new for humanity or the Christian Church.

So, we need to come to our agenda today with a sense of realistic imagination and hopeful vision. As I have said to colleagues in the last few months, you can’t argue with reality. So, let’s embrace it and see where we get to. It will be rocky, but it will still be a road.

Our new Diocesan Secretary has joined us in the most extraordinary and challenging circumstances, and we welcome him to his first Synod today. We will be looking at finance, deanery representation, annual reports and the budget – all in the light of the pandemic and its impact on our churches as well wider society. Although budgets are currently works of the imagination, we need to plan and do our work with seriousness and generosity, not least to those having to grapple with detail on our behalf … even when the ground never stands still under our feet. We will do some reordering of committees in order to respond to experience of the governance we set up six years ago. And we will look at lay discipleship and the Rhythm of Life.

Now, someone will ask if this is not all a bit inward looking at a point when the outside world is in a bit of a crisis. It isn’t, if it is seen as a means rather than an end. Having missed two synods in 2020, we have some housekeeping work we have to do. But, it is all done in order to set us free to fulfil our vocation and promote our agreed strategy as a diocese. We need to keep that perspective clear as we move through our agenda.

This address is shorter than normal as our meeting on screen is harder to manage than usual. I am sure you won’t complain about relative brevity. So, I want to conclude by taking us back to the point of it all. We are called in the name of Christ to love, live and learn together in order that across our communities we can reach out with faith, humility and boldness … in order that the love and mercy of God can be seen and heard and felt and embraced by those we are called to serve. That is why we do today what we will do. Given the constraints of the technology, please be patient, forbearing of one another, generous of spirit and hopeful in all we say and do together.

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

I think I need to watch more telly. When the Emmys were announced the other day I realised I had never heard of most of the programmes that won. The problem is, though, that I’ve recently gone back to watching the whole box set of The West Wing and anything else seems to get in the way. I know what I like and I like what I know.

The West Wing – which first broadcast on this very day in 1999 – follows a fictional US presidency and is great for learning how the White House works – or doesn’t. But, of the many great lines in it, my favourite is: “What’s next?” President Bartlet, whatever crisis he has just had to deal with, comes out with the question all the time: “What’s next?”

Now, I know the feeling. And I admire the people who just move effortlessly on to the next thing on the agenda. But, I also think it isn’t that easy … and maybe isn’t always wise.

Most of us will know what it’s like when life feels like being trapped on a hamster wheel – or a conveyor belt to nowhere. You want the world to stop – to give you a break. But, things keep happening, time rolls on, and you just get thrown around by it.

And that’s life in the real world. But, I also hear the whisper of Jesus telling his friends to live in the moment: “Don’t worry about tomorrow; … today is enough to cope with.” Well, for some people that’s fine. They are sufficiently comfortable to know where the next meal is coming from. Yet, there is a rising number of people for whom tomorrow is a threat – today brings enough of a challenge.

This uncertainty makes me confront my own fragility. I am not in control of the world … or even my own life. So, when I see people for whom tomorrow brings only fear or failure, I might look for a way to make today better … for them.

Maybe that’s the answer to my own “What’s next?” question … while I continue to be haunted by the relentless pace of the West Wing.

This is the text of an article I wrote for the Yorkshire Post on Saturday 19 September 2020.

I have two images in my mind. One is the old BT commercial that told us in various ways, “It’s good to talk”; the second is the title of a book by the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks: ‘The Dignity of Difference’. Both run the risk of sounding good as long as we don’t get down to detail.

It is no secret that societies seem more fragmented today than they were a decade ago. We don’t need to identify all the changes across the world, but just use a word like Brexit and watch what happens. Differences have always been there, but the fissures seem more exposed these days, and the language more violent. Social media clearly don’t help; they draw people into echo chambers in which the temperature is raised and the room for mutual comprehension or compromise is, at best squeezed, and at worst eliminated. Every argument forces a binary choice – with me or against me. Families have been split over political identity; everything is something to be angry about.

On the other hand, we saw during lockdown how people came together to celebrate and thank our frontline workers – crossing otherwise powerful fault lines and encouraging people to make common cause in a common ritual of gratitude.

The big challenge for us all, however, is how we hold onto the precious experiences of connection and move on from some of the powerful drivers of division. We have a mutual interest in making things better – even if there are powerful voices that exploit chaos and profit from discord.

BT was right: it is good to talk. But, there has to be a relationship from which the conversation can flourish. Talking at is not the same as talking with. And we clearly need to find a vocabulary for talking together about hard choices and opposing opinions.

Jonathan Sacks, in the title of his book, hits on something powerful. As long as there are people – every individual unique and with a different view of the world and why things matter – there will be difference. But, difference is not the same thing as division. The question for us in the noisy autumn of 2020 is not to do with avoiding conflict or pretending to some false unity; rather, it is how to find ways of reconnecting with those from whom we differ in order to disagree well (unless we have the courage to learn, grow and – heaven forbid – change our mind).

Easy to say, but hard to do. How is our society going to find ways of rejecting mere acceptance that division has to follow difference and find the nerve to come together? As the Covid crisis develops and our lives have become less certain, how might we avoid deepening conflict and creating a genuine way of holding together in a common society? For the pandemic hasn’t created disunity, it has exacerbated it. But its consequences have also exposed wider tensions between generations, ethnic groups and degrees of affluence.

Well, like most things in life, the beginning of an answer won’t be found in grand political statements or even economic fixes. Community goes deeper than these social arrangements and power factors. It is rooted in relationships that are honest, humble and realistic.

I chair a new coalition that aims to find ways of encouraging just this and it is starting work in Yorkshire. Called /together, it has emerged from some of the country’s leading businesses, arts, media, politics, youth organisations, charities and faith communities getting together to look for practical ways of doing something – not just complaining about the problems. This is not, however, a top-down organisation aimed at do-gooders dropping their protected benevolence onto a grateful society; rather, it aims at listening, convening, encouraging and resourcing local initiatives for bringing people together in common conversation and common life.

One of the first initiatives, aimed at providing genuine intelligence, is a massive national conversation. Anyone and everyone can join in. We want to hear people’s real concerns and see where they see the potential for creating a kinder and closer society. An online survey, together with conversations with people across the UK, starting here in Yorkshire next week,will help us to understand where difference has descended into division – and where, together, we might begin to address this in a humane, intelligent and mature way. The survey can be accessed at www.together.org.uk and will not take long to complete. Every voice needs to be heard. Other initiatives will soon follow, shaped by what we find out.

Why start here? Simply because we won’t find any answers until we have identified the right questions. In other words, dialogue and conversation must always begin with mutual listening. Listening leads to hearing, and hearing might just lead to understanding … even if not to agreement.

Difference can be dignified. It needn’t be a threat. In fact, in my own Christian tradition Jesus chose friends who (the Gospels make clear) didn’t necessarily like each other. They had different personalities, experiences and priorities. But, their task was to hold together –sometimes despite themselves. They had to learn to love, to make space for each other.

Together must always be better than apart.

This is the text of my article in the Yorkshire Post today to mark the seventy fifth anniversary of VJ Day.

The 75th anniversary of VJ Day is not just a day for celebrating the end of a cataclysmic global conflict. It is also a stimulus for reflection, humility and courageous self-reflection. For, in the famous words at the end of Bertolt Brecht’s play ‘The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui’, pointing to Hitler, “The bitch that bore him is in heat again.” Not elegant, but inescapably powerful. The sort of idolatries and dehumanising perversities that led to two world wars have not gone away, and there is great danger in thinking that we have since then just “moved on”.

One of the most remarkable things about what followed VJ Day in 1945 was the ability of so many victims of Japanese military brutality to face the horrors they had endured and still forgive. Not everyone, clearly. And no one can point a finger at those whose suffering took them into silence, withdrawal or, even, hatred. Yet, many did recognise the complex nature of human identity, allegiance and obedience. (One of the best illustrations of this can be seen in the film ‘The Railway Man’ in which Colin Firth plays ex-POW Eric Lomax as he confronts the tortures he had endured during the war.)

This is not easy stuff. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hanged on Hitler’s orders a month before the Nazi surrender, addressed this when he rejected any notion of what he called “cheap grace”. You can’t just “forgive and forget” as a way of dealing with appalling cruelty or suffering; but, the beginning of any healing is to be found in facing the offence with courage and clarity.

A Japanese theologian called Kosuke Koyama did just that in 1984. Soaked in Japanese tradition and culture (though by then teaching in New York City), he wrote what he called a “pilgrimage in theology’ in which he went from Mount Fuji to Mount Sinai – from the heart of Japanese emperor worship back to the formative place of encounter in the Judeo-Christian narrative with God. What this meant for Koyama was not just some interesting historical study from which he could maintain academic distance, but an open facing up to personal challenge and failure. In a nutshell: how did he find himself seduced by a cultural worldview that led to unimaginable cruelty (as an exercise of power) while at the same time claiming to be a follower of Jesus Christ?

I mention Koyama because his account is not one that should be restricted to Japanese or Germans in the wake of a world war. It was a failure to recognise early enough the perversity of idolatry (of Hitler, the Reich, the Emperor) or the consequences of a thinking that dehumanises people that led to fifty million corpses across the planet in 1945.

An uncritical obedience to the Emperor cult led not only to extreme violence, but also to Hiroshima and Nagasaki where national identity and racial personality were reduced to ashes beneath the mushroom clouds of technological progress. Worship idols of national identity or racial supremacy and it will end in violence. Do we never learn from history?

Koyama came to the conclusion that Japan’s collusion with emperor worship was a form of idolatry – giving ultimate worth to a dehumanising ideology. He pleads that every culture is prone to similar idolatries and that these are easily colluded with. The challenge for us, learning from his experience, is how to critique the values of our own culture … in order to avoid unthinkingly slipping down a slope that leads inexorably to violence.

Self-criticism is not something that most of us find easy. Especially when we are asked to expose to external critique something as fundamental as our worldview: that is, our assumptions about the world, its people and what ultimately matters. It takes courage to look through the lens of others at the essence and drift of what we hold to be essential about our own collective values. The moral questions that lead us to condemn war crimes are the same as those we bring to bear on current challenges such as illegal immigration: what is a human being worth? And why?

I can’t go with Koyama from Mount Fuji back to Mount Sinai where the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition is rooted (the Ten Commandments and the shaping of a just society), but I can at least see in Sinai some fundamental encouragements and warnings: to love God and neighbour; to avoid coveting and killing; to avoid idolatry and build justice; to tell the truth.

VJ Day celebrates the end of a particular dehumanising brutality and the cost of resisting it. The values that led the world to oppose tyranny must be the ones we hold onto as they come under pressure in every generation.

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

I am probably not alone in being haunted by film of the explosion in Beirut on Tuesday evening. The fearful images are powerful in themselves, but they also provoke a terrible sense of awe – at the destruction and death wrought by the apocalyptic suddenness of such a violent event. Observing from a distance is bad enough; being there must surely be appalling at every level.

As the shock turns yet again to musings about meaning, every witness will have their own vocabulary – their own associations – as they try to articulate the impact on their own sense of mortality or fragility.

I was probably also not alone on Tuesday in associating images from Lebanon with those from Hiroshima 75 years ago today. I remember seeing film of that first atomic bomb and reading John Hersey’s harrowing account from 1946 of the aftermath. Even at the time this provoked both scientists and ethicists to question whether technology had once again outstripped morality. In the light of our proven technological ability to do something, how do we then ensure that the question as to whether we should do it is properly addressed – and in which terms?

This is not easy. In the real world things don’t happen tidily or sequentially. But, I think there are other images that might help in the search.

In the Christian calendar, today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. This recalls when Jesus took three of his friends up a mountain where his appearance was transfigured by light before their eyes. They were dazzled. But, they didn’t quite get what they had just witnessed. Jesus had to explain to them, but also urge them not to rush around telling everyone what they had seen. Don’t leap to judgment when you don’t have the full picture or you haven’t had time to think it through.

What is also significant here is that Jesus leads them back down the mountain and they head towards Jerusalem where he knows that horrors await him and them. No fantasy idealism. No seduction by an ideological dream. Just – how to live with the vivid experience as cold, unpredictable (and perhaps incomprehensible) reality unravels before them.

The question whether we should do what we can do has not gone away since Hiroshima. Nor has the warning not to rush to judgment or blame simply because of a prior association. And nor has the need to share fragile humanity by prayer and practical care for those who suffer what they might never understand.