Christian faith


This is the basic text of my sermon at this morning’s Chrism Eucharist in Ripon Cathedral:

Never ever take your vocation – to lay or ordained discipleship and ministry – for granted. For when you do, it will have become a private possession, a personal commodity, an exercise in vanity. The call of God is and has always been very clear: it is not primarily for me/us; rather, it is to me/us, but for the sake of the world and the church through whom the world is to be reached.

A sharp and sober way to begin a sermon on Maundy Thursday. And it might worry you that I have just spent a couple of months on sabbatical being miserable. But, far from the truth. Going away, looking at my own ministry and the vocation of the church for the sake of the world through the lens of other cultures and churches, taking the time away from the detail, tension and relentlessness of the last five years (or 32 years) afforded me the opportunity to take a big step back and think afresh. But, I have come back this week with a renewed conviction that vocation must never become about me, my gifts and weaknesses, my ministry, my needs – unless these are held in the clear conviction (in practice as well as theological or ecclesiological theory or aspiration) that the church and her ministers are called to lay down their life for the sake of the world.

Now, this might sound strange. The Jesus who calls us to be his body, the Jesus who tells his disciples that they will have to carry a cross – and, by implication, get nailed to it – if they want to follow him is the very same Jesus who, in John’s Gospel, promises “life in all its fulness”. So, what might this mean for us who gather today – bishops, priests, deacons, lay ministers, Christians seeking to be faithful to the call of God in a tough old world? I think our readings both give us a clue.

Isaiah 61:1-11

Why does Isaiah see the need to say what he does? Remember: Isaiah 1-39 is addressed to people who have lost the plot in relation to their vocation as God’s people and who are being warned of the consequences of living – unjustly – for their own interests. Chapters 40-55 are addressed to those who now suffer the exile promised in those earlier chapters: what does hope look like to generations of people for whom ‘home’ is neither here (Babylon) nor there (Zion)? Then chapters 56-66 address the people who have now come home, but face new questions they have never had to face before. If, for the exiles, the challenge is to keep alive – for a number of generations – the language of ‘home’ while in exile (at the same time as seeing the place of exile as‘home’), how do they now make sense of being ‘home’ which is now strange to them? The primary challenge facing them is two-fold: how to re-integrate with those who were not exiled and who probably see the returnees as ‘immigrants’? And, secondly, whether they should now seek to build a new home in continuity with the patterns and structures of the pre-exilic past or now create a new society (and shape of worship, etc.) that takes seriously the experience and learnings of exile … which, clearly, means not simply clinging to the ways of the past?

This is a choice every generation faces as they seek to be faithful to God’s call. The challenges of post-exilic Israel could not have been contemplated before, as they had not happened before. So, the questions were new, the challenge was new, and there was not a past to which they could simply return that might have been comfortable or safe. The new questions had to be faced, if these people were to be faithful to the God who had led them out of Egypt, into and through Babylon, and now brought them back to a home that was no longer home. Of course, ‘home’ had grown around it all sorts of mythologies and romanticisms; but, God’s people are called to be courageous realists who look to be faithful in the present – a present that has been re-shaped by experience and has inevitably to be re-thought theologically, culturally and behaviourally by people who dare to bear the name of this God who calls us forward and not backwards.

So, Isaiah goes to the heart of the vocation that had always been that of God’s people: to be the proclaimers, the organisers and the radical demonstrators of the character of the God they claim to serve. Hence, good news to those oppressed by the ways of the world, those imprisoned, pitied, mocked or marginalised by worlds in which empires set the terms and urge us to believe that “this is it for ever”. As an American in Orlando put it to me a couple of weeks ago: “There are wealthy people and there are poor people – that’s just the way it is. Millions have no health insurance, but that’s just the way it is.” He wasn’t applauding injustice; rather, he was simply stating that this is how the world is and he couldn’t see it changing.

Well, I agree with him. This is the way the world is. And I disagree with him: we must hold out, proclaim, work for and model a world that can be different. “For I the Lord love justice.” But, as we know from experience, even justice is not enough and not everybody benefits from justice. (Remember the Magnificat?)

Luke 4:16-21

Why, then, does Jesus choose this passage to read in the synagogue at the outset of his public ministry (according to Luke)? Each Gospel writer chooses a different way to do it, but, in common with the usual pattern of Roman biography, they each have the ‘hero’ of their story set out his stall at the beginning of the narrative of his public ministry.

According to Luke, then, Jesus goes to the synagogue – not to tell them off, not to castigate them for missing the point, not to deliberately alienate powerful people, but, rather, to read the scripture and relate it to now.

Remember, Jesus has just been led by the Spiritinto the desert where he had to face his own demons (as it were). What sort of messiah are you really to be? Drop the fantasies of self-sacrificial generosity that might crumble under pressure! Forget the aspirations for grandeur or the priority of your personal security and well-being! Surely, God is wet; it’s all about love and mercy and sentiment, isn’t it? Shape a comfortable gospel and then model it, Jesus!

Yet, here, where the Spirit has led him, Jesus faces the temptations he will face again in the couple of years ahead – ultimately in Gethsemane and on the cross. And, right here, in this place of abandonment, where he has been brought by the Spirit, he stares into the face of the truth about himself as a human being, seeking to be faithful to the Father, and refusing to deny the attractive power of prioritising himself and his own security. And let’s be honest, he does not know what this will mean in the months and years to come – what new challenges these denials and affirmations will lead him into for which there is no precedent and no easy answer to which to revert to.

So it is that, having faced all this, he stands up in the synagogue and reads from Isaiah 61. And, having done so, he tells the people there that this scripture is fulfilled – embodied, incarnated – in their sight, right there and then. And it went down well. They loved the beginning of the sermon. But, when he then read their tradition in a different way – illustrating how God is also the God of the outsiders – their mood changed and they tried to get rid of him.

I think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He had faced in the desert the temptation of shaping good news around his own need for affirmation, and here he decided to tell the truth. He re-tells the story of God and his people in a different way, and it goes down badly. We will see this again at the end of Luke’s Gospel when, walking alongside the couple from Emmaus, he asks them what they are talking about and they tell him how events have confounded their theological hopes. Only once they have told their story in their way (and shown how the end doesn’t compute) does Jesus ask them if he can now re-tell it differently – with the demise of the messiah being essential rather than anomalous to the story of God’s salvation.

And, remember, it is later, after bread and wine have been blessed in their home and Jesus has disappeared from them, that they realise that their hearts burned within them while they walked with him on the road.

There is much that we can take from this. The courage to face the unique challenges today that our forebears never had to address. The imagination to hold together faithfulness to God’s call through history with the responsibility in faith to take responsibility for shaping the present and future. The essential, burning and urgent need for preachers to take the whole of Scripture seriously, teaching our people both Old and New Testaments, not ducking the hard bits, but enabling people to learn for themselves the story of God and his people and to find their place – consciously – in it. Therefore, to take seriously the responsibility we have accepted to preach imaginatively and fearlessly with a confident humility, and to teach the faith: deliberate and serious catechesis, serious preparation of baptism and confirmation candidates – doing what Paul, in Romans 12:1-2 describes as “being transformed by the renewing of our minds”.

But, all without fear and with imagination. As Rowan Williams puts it in his book on Dostoyevsky: “The credibility of faith is in its freedom to let itself be judged and to grow.” (p.10)

I believe this is urgent. Christian faith must not be reduced to merely a private security system – a sort of safe spirituality that tries to keep me going and fulfilled while the world around me can go to hell. We live in times when the need to challenge corrupt-but-dominant world views has never been greater in our lifetime. I know a German pastor who has exercised his ministry in East Berlin since before the Wall fell down. He is passionate –  a word I hate being trivialised into “quite interested or amused by” – about shaping the mindset of a generation of young people being drawn from disillusionment by the intellectual and practical attractions and certainties of neo-fascism, power, dignity and self-assurance. It is little surprise that Steve Bannon should point to the Pope as the enemy of his brand of utilitarian nationalism. Gerhard von Rad, Professor of Old Testament at the University in Jena during the Nazi years, was one of those who refused to bow the knee to fascism. He was one of those against whom more than four thousand Nazis demonstrated in the market square – theology being taken seriously.

Brothers and sisters, I am powerfully reminded this morning of our seriousness as a church, despite a million failures and inconsistencies, to be faithfully captured by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I find this service every year to be deeply moving – personally – as we together affirm again our vocation and our determination to be faithful to it. I have come back to the diocese with renewed admiration for you and a renewed love for our common task. Thank you for your ministry and discipleship.

As we move on through the betrayal of Thursday; the abandonment and denial, and death of all our fantasies about God, the world and ourselves on Friday; the emptiness of Saturday; the glorious irruption into the here and now of God’s promised future on Sunday; may we begin on Monday – following a long sleep – purposefully to proclaim, teach, reach out, live, commend, talk about, argue about, renew our own focus on the Gospel of the Jesus who took Isaiah seriously and shone light into darkness and trusted it would never be extinguished.

As John Bell put it in a song:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.

This is the basic text of a lecture at Bradford Cathedral today at the launch of the centenary year. It is quite long.

Bradford Cathedral is 100 years old in 2019. That is, this building has been a cathedral since 1919, but the building has been here for many centuries before that. It is living evidence of Christian worship, service and faithfulness through times of peace and conflict, change and challenge, struggle and joy. It was designated a cathedral within just one year of the end of the so-called “War to end all wars”. European and wider global manhood had been cut to shreds by the developing technological weaponry disposed at the hands of people the Enlightenment had told us were progressing. So, this cathedral witnessed the loss of Bradford’s youth and innocence and tried to shape a lens of experience and perception through which a bruised generation might look at its torn world and find ways of making it better.

Fifteen years later Adolf Hitler took power in a democratic election in Germany and twenty one years later Bradford was back at war. Do we ever really learn from history?

Well, here we are today celebrating the centenary of this cathedral as a cathedral, now one of three in a single diocese (a first in the Church of England), at a time of considerable political uncertainty at home and abroad. Have we learned from past experience how to live faithfully in the twenty first century with its challenges and opportunities, with its particular manifestations of age-old and oft-repeated political and social phenomena?

One such phenomenon is that of populism, a word that makes many people worry and yet one that ignites fire in the belly of some who are fed up with the status quo and who welcome any disruption of the old order. And this is the theme of this lecture – one that will only touch the surface of the current phenomenon, but will try to raise questions for fruitful consideration and debate.

It is hard to open a journal or newspaper these days without coming across the word ‘populism’ somewhere. But, although frequently cited, it is rarely defined. The lack of definition means that it is a weapon that can be wielded by anyone on any side of any political debate to describe pejoratively those with whom one disagrees.

But, why the revival of ‘populism’ now – as a term or a concept or a phenomenon?

In brief, the current world order is perceived to be changing – changing with a rapidity that leaves people feeling out of control. Like ‘post-modernism’, we know what we are ‘post’ – leaving behind; but, we don’t know what we are ‘pre’ – what sort of an order (or dis-order) we are creating. This uncertainty creates fear, and fear is not the best motivator for individual or collective behaviour. What is being fundamentally challenged in the West is the root assumption that (a) post-war liberalism is self-evidently right and obvious, (b) that the rules-based international order that grew out of half a century of global conflict (played out on the same soil that gave birth to the Enlightenment) is worth preserving, and (c) that globalisation and the pulling down of national borders benefits everyone.

Some commentators describe this challenge as a decade-delayed consequence of elite groups – international bankers and financiers, for example – who caused a global financial and economic crash and got away with it scot-free. (No one went to jail…) Poor people have to pay for the failures and crimes of the rich – which reinforces the suspicion that the dice are loaded in favour of the rich and powerful. The first casualty of this injustice is the destruction of trust in authority and institutions, accompanied by a carelessness about consequences of resistance. It is from this stable that the “we have had enough of experts” horse has bolted (even if the jockey is a privileged and Oxbridge educated journalist and government minister who has the nerve to refer to others as “the establishment elite”).

The important bit to note is the sense of impotence that all this evoked in entire communities. We can’t even control our own lives; our society is being overrun by foreigners; we are victims of decisions and priorities set by people who are unaccountable and act with impunity; we have been left behind.

Enter Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Jair Bolsonaro, Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orban and the AfD. What they (and others) have in common is an ability to reduce complexity to simple slogans and to answer complex questions with simplistic solutions: “Take back control”; “Drain the swamp”; Islam or freedom?”; “Make America great again”. Language is key, fear is fundamental, and hope is reduced to instant gratification of visceral demand.

So, populism feeds off fear and insecurity, building a narrative of victimhood at the hands of ‘others’ who are trying to do me/us down. Well, we will come back to this later. First, let’s just note a bit of context. Nick Spencer of Theos points out:

  • In 1900 there were no fully-fledged democracies
  • In 1950 28% of regimes were fully democratic
  • By 2000 65% of regimes were fully democratic
  • From 2010 “fewer countries were making the transition to stable political accountability” and democracy began to retreat – ‘democratic recession’.

Old world assumptions were being challenged and fundamental assumptions about the inevitability of progress – technological and educational leading to moral – were being questioned. Three years ago it was unthinkable that a divorced atheist could be elected as President of the United States or an amoral liar could be appointed as the UK’s Foreign Secretary.

Of course, one of the learnings from that half-century of global violence was that populism can be manipulated by clever, charismatic and powerful people who offer simplistic solutions to complex questions. We learn from history, don’t we?

So, populism isn’t new; nor are those features of it with which we are becoming more familiar in Europe and beyond today. Human beings don’t really change. Technological sophistication and great learning do not necessarily make us morally stronger or more virtuous. As the Bishop of Hannover made clear in Ripon Cathedral on Remembrance Day, civilisation is thin, order is fragile, and chaos waits for a crack to appear. And when it does, emotional appeal trumps rational argument.

One of the books that made a deep impression on me when I was a student of German politics was called Open Thy Mouth for the Dumb (citing the book of Proverbs). It was written by Richard Gutteridge and detailed the failure of the German churches to offer opposition to the rise of Hitler in Weimar Germany. It is a painful read … and, like Christopher Clark’s great book on the origins of the First World War, Sleepwalkers, demonstrates how easily people are moved to do and defend terrible things, and how intimidating it is to oppose the powerful mass. But, it also cries out with the Christian need for courage in giving a voice to the voiceless and defying the agencies of violence, destruction and death.

If you find yourself in Berlin, visit the relatively new Topography of Terror museum (built on the site of the Nazi’s Gestapo HQ) and see how it depicts the slow disintegration of civil society as virtues are compromised bit by bit under the chipping away by the populist language and action of people who were good with words and symbols.

And remember how Ernst Thälmann rejected teaming up with other socialists in Weimar Germany because he thought that allying with Hitler and the Nazis would then allow the people – das Volk – to drop the obviously mad and bad Nazis and leave the self-evidently right Communists to rule. That miscalculation died with Thälmann in a concentration camp and the other 50 million expendables in other people’s political games.

Is popular affection always a bad thing? No, of course not. (On another occasion this year we will look at the popular resistance that led to the demise of communism – in the German Democratic Republic a resistance that was given space by churches  in places like Leipzig. We also need to recognise that this also gave rise eventually to a renewed rise of the Far Right in Germany.) But the word ‘populism’ is normally associated with a negative expression of popular will and the forces that generate division and fear. Yet, as I read somewhere recently: “Populism can sometimes sound like the name that disconcerted liberals give to the kind of politics in which ordinary people don’t do what liberals tell them.”

Much has been – and continues to be – written about populism, and there are some very good resources to help us understand what is happening in the world today. Of course, populism is, by definition, about the populace – the people. But, who are ‘the people’? If we look at Brexit and the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the European Union, for example, ‘the people’ appeared to be split down the middle: 52% to 48%. In the early hours of 24 June, as the result became clear, I tweeted: “The people have spoken, but we don’t know what they have said.” What I missed here was that ‘the people’ included both the 52% who voted to leave the EU and the 48% who voted to remain. However, it was not long before the Brexiteers began brandishing the sword of linguistic appropriation by identifying only Leavers as ‘the people’. This is what led in time to the Daily Mail loading a front page with photographs of Supreme Court judges under the heading ‘ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE’. Not even a question mark.

At a meeting in the Cabinet Office about Brexit I asked the minister how we are to handle common slogans that are never defined, but used against opponents. I asked what we do if a slogan such as “the will of the people” turns out not to be “in the national interest”. This went down really well … and I still have received no answer to what I think is a very important question.

We shall return to the specific matter of language later, but it might be useful to summarise a few statements that might help us clarify what we mean when we speak of populism. I offer the following (somewhat selective) characteristics:

  • The language of populism assumes that society is divided between, on the one hand, ‘the people’ (noble, innocent, hard done to and pure) and, on the other hand, ‘the elite’ (corrupt, greedy, unaccountable, ignorant of life on the ground, detached from most people’s reality) – and the elite are always ‘the others’.
  • Populism feeds, and feeds off, emotion, not rational analysis.
  • Populism is more about style than substance – feeling rather than policies.
  • Populist leaders claim the ‘will of the people’ and quickly disregard democratic norms on the grounds that we are in crisis. Disruption is the name of the game: fearmongering, the promotion of conspiracy theories, the undermining of trust (in, for example, media and institutions).
  • Populism generates a culture of victimhood and diminishes resilience.

In a new book (Confronting Religious Violence) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: to gain traction “populism has to identify an enemy”. It then amplifies its claims of victimhood at the hands of the enemy, using language to dehumanise or disrupt. Years before the onset of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke recognised that abstract terms such as ‘liberty’ or ‘equality’ had the power to move people without enlightening them. Words shape actions – and populists assert by slogan, use street language instead of careful and polite analysis, and corrupt the public discourse with language that defies definition, but hits at the heart of popular emotion. Just think about what is meant by the slogans I cited at the beginning of this lecture.

The disruptive language of the populists deliberately generates distrust of authorities – especially politicians, the media and experts – but feels no need to justify its own assumptions. Reality or rationality are dispensed with on the altar of visceral emotion as the populists set themselves up over against those they decry. They are ‘the people’ – their opponents are what? Identity politics are not neutral here.

Let’s return for a moment to the tweet I published the morning after the referendum: “The people have spoken, but we don’t know what they have said”. My point there was to ask a question rather than to make a point. What, for example, did the referendum result actually tell us about the EU? Or about Europe? Why did parts of the country vote strongly for Brexit when they will be poorer as a result? Why did people so easily believe bus-borne nonsense about £350 million being returned to the NHS? How was it possible for so many people to be duped by blatant lies and deliberate manipulation (by all sides)? It is simply not clear what this result had to do with the reality of the UK’s relationship with the EU and what was about giving Westminster a kicking. After all, what many Brexiteers articulated about their resentments had little or nothing to do with the EU and everything to do with policies of austerity rooted firmly in London. The wrong dog got kicked; but, who cares?

We could leave Brexit aside for one moment and cast our eyes at a different – but related – phenomenon: the appropriation of Christianity by the Far Right. Putin is supported by the Russian Orthodox Church because he fights for Holy Russia, dislikes Muslims, and has clear views on racial distinctions. Russia is Christian, so keep Muslims down. Well, that’s a long way away, so what has Russia to do with us? Look closer to home, then. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) speaks of the “Christian identity of the West” and the EDL brandish a cross – devoid of Christian theological meaning and representative solely of an anti-Muslim identity that embraces Christendom rather than Christianity. The cross is merely a flag to be waved when ethnicity is elided with a ‘faith’ identity.

What is disturbing here, however, is that the extremes of our political discourse seem to offer clarity where complexity is too demanding. “Lock her up” and “Crooked Hilary” were not thought up on the spur of the moment by Donald Trump, but were carefully crafted as short, gripping, practical and moral. Don’t unpack them – just wind up the mob to shout them. And just keep repeating the slogans; you won’t be asked to define them, but if you are, then the askers are clearly complicit in the crookery. Trump, Farage et al are expert at using language that appeals to people who want to know that their fears, concerns and unspeakable views are understood and sympathised with. It is a classic example of ‘empathy trumping competence’. Which probably brings us back to Brexit, ferries and pizza deliveries.

Of course, all agencies in society have a responsibility to promote and embody positive, constructive and truthful discourse; but, we need to pay particular attention to the role of the media in a world where populism is rife and the manipulation of emotions as well as messages is more powerful than ever. (If you want a good overview of the changes in the media landscape in the last three decades, you could do worse than read Alan Rusbridger’s recent book Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now (Canongate, 2018). He tells the story of how the Guardian has had to change in the wake of digital and other technological revolutions, but its value lies in the identification and articulation of the key questions and challenges facing society today when formerly trusted media of information have been overtaken by the somewhat anarchic cultures of social media and so-called citizen journalism. He illustrates why the diminution in the number and quality of professional journalists poses dangers to truth-telling, an objective understanding of the world and events, and the holding to account of power … including powerful media organisations and manipulators.)

Nick Robinson (BBC Today programme), in the Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture in 2017, made two points that bear repetition here: (a) “Critics of the mainstream media now see their attacks as a key part of their political strategy. In order to succeed they need to convince people not to believe ‘the news’.” (b) Attacks on the media are no longer a lazy clap line delivered to a party conference to raise the morale of a crowd of the party faithful. They are part of a guerrilla war being fought on social media day after day.”

I think Robinson is touching on a phenomenon that is more than a game for those interested in such things. When the Daily Mail identifies Supreme Court judges (doing their job independently of political masters in either the legislature or the executive) as “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE” and the German Alternative für Deutschland revive the Nazi insult ‘LÜGENPRESSE’, something sinister is happening. The fact that they can get away with it is frightening. There is method in this undermining of authority, intelligent analysis and commentary, and the integrity of experts in mainstream media. The populists also know that the business models that have supported such media accountability are bust; social and digital media are unaccountable, endlessly manipulable, and ideal for sloganizing brevity rather than longer, more complex analysis. Richard Gingras, Vice President of Google News, put it like this: “We came from an era of dominant news organisations, often perceived as oracles of fact. We’ve moved to a marketplace where quality journalism competes on an equal footing with raucous opinion, passionate advocacy, and the masquerading expression of variously-motivated bad actors.”

These actors, of course, include the charismatic leaders who drive populist movements and shape their cultures. These are the manipulators who themselves might well be being manipulated by other ‘actors’: think Trump and Russia, for example. Trump, Orban, Duterte, Bolsonaro: these men disrupt norms of language and behaviour, thereby portraying themselves as ‘breakers with past elites’. They perpetuate a state of crisis, promoting conspiracy theories and fearmongering, always on the offensive, on a permanent campaign to convince the populace that they are not ‘establishment’. Even when they are as elitist as you can get. Anywhere. Their approach is always negative: they are anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, anti-elite, anti democratic systems of modern government (preferring direct appeal to individuals in referendums). They are essentially authoritarian, intolerant and, frequently, amoral. And they promise big, knowing that they won’t have to deliver – people prefer big ambition to slow realism, even when they know it’s all a big fib: NHS slogans on the side of a bus; “no downsides to Brexit”; etc. As Alan Rusbridger summarises it: “Populism is a denial of complexity.” (p.93)

One more word about language and then I will attempt to say something about a Christian approach to all this stuff. I realise this won’t be accepted by those who think I am a stupid Remainer who can’t accept reality; but, I am actually trying to articulate the questions all of us – whatever we think about Brexit or Trump – need to be thinking about as our society and our world changes.

I have spoken several times in the House of Lords about “the corruption of the public discourse” and this is where these reflections coincide. As Rowan Williams illustrates in his books on Dostoyevsky and language, it is always the corruption of language and confusion of meaning that leads to the chipping away of social order and acceptable behaviour. Words are actions – language is performative. Read George Orwell’s 1984 and see how the corruption and control of language are key to the corruption and control of a populace. An unspeakable idea finally gets articulated; repetition reduces the social inhibitions that normally moderate language; the language, free of sanction, then encourages behaviour – for good or ill. Dehumanise people by categorising them, and then bad behaviour becomes not even merely permissible, but both inevitable and encouraged. Call the other tribe (or immigrants or asylum-seekers) ‘cockroaches’ and see what happens.

Behind the language lies a more concerning matter. My lifetime has coincided with philosophical developments that have not all proved to be helpful to humanity. The problem is that we now live with the consequences of philosophical assumptions that, in isolation fifty years ago, seemed noble and innocent of themselves. Take, for example, the existentialism of Sartre and Camus: I authenticate my existence by choosing. Well, that is fine if you accept that making choices is what defines a human being. Individual autonomy assumes moral frameworks that depend on individuals basically choosing to behave collectively in particular ways; but, these need not necessarily include altruism. Develop this alongside the culture of human rights and eventually you get to a different set of challenges: for example, if my individual rights (to freedom of religious expression) conflict with your human rights (to freedom of speech), who arbitrates … according to what authority … according to which criteria? Hierarchies of rights introduce new questions.

Today the questions these cultural and philosophical developments have generated have to do fundamentally with truth. Is there such a thing as ‘truth’ – that which remains true regardless of opinion or partisan affection? Or do we now prioritise opinion over truth and fact? How can Donald Trump get away with constant flip-flopping contradiction and a confident recourse to what his press spokesperson called “alternative facts”? Is the deliberate division of people into ‘us and them’ – depending on their agreement with my opinion, regardless of truth or fact – ultimately sustainable? Populism, as Jonathan Sacks has stated and we noted earlier, “has to identify an enemy” if it is to gain traction; it separates in order to oppose; it polarises and generalises, fearing difference or challenge; it serves only the interests of those who collude or whose personal interests coincide with it. After all, ‘Fake News’ is simply news that is inconvenient to my opinion, perception or interests; it is a dismissive term of abuse that needs make no reference to reality, fact, truth or objectivity.

Well, so far so good. It is not a pretty picture – even at the cursory level on which I have set the debate. Populism is a threat to an ordered society and world, not primarily because it is inconvenient to the interests of powerful elites, but because the phenomenon itself embraces and legitimises language, behaviour and moralities that are manipulable by powerful elites whose morality is unaccountable. So, how should Christians handle all this stuff?

The Bible is not neutral on the matter. When I preached on this theme at St John’s College, Cambridge, a couple of months ago I had to choose two readings. I opted for Exodus 32:1-9 (the Israelites making a golden calf while Moses was up a mountain) and Matthew 27:15-26 (where the mob call for the freeing of Barabbas instead of Jesus, and “Crucify him!” frames the “Lock her up!” of that generation. This is how I began the sermon:

It’s easy to laugh, isn’t it? A primitive people, out in the desert en route from over 400 years of oppression in Egypt towards a land of promise. Their leader, who had a habit of being somewhat singleminded when it comes to how things should be done, disappeared up a mountain for a while; and, because he didn’t come back down immediately, the people found a more emollient leader who gave them what they wanted: a golden calf to worship. So, that was quick and easy. All they had experienced, all they had learned … and they threw it away in an instant. You have to read the whole book to see that this isn’t a rare experience.

Jesus has proved to be good news to some and very bad news to others. So, when those whose security is threatened by the man from Galilee finally get him before a judge, they know how to whip up the crowd – presumably including those who have seen the transformative things Jesus has done – and “Crucify him” wins the day.

As our readings have illustrated, the challenges of destructive populism are not new.

So, here we can move on to think about what the Christian tradition might have to say in our day … in a culture that confuses patriotism with nationalism and reduces the public discourse to the trading of competing slogans devoid of substantive vision. As Adrian Pabst wrote in a recent edition of the New Statesman: “The populist insurgency sweeping the West reveals a lack of moral purpose among the main political forces… At present, none of the three main traditions offers a politics of ethical purpose, hope and meaning.”

Now, it could be argued that the Christian tradition in the West has lost its roots. The irony in the USA hardly needs spelling out: the Evangelical Right didn’t let ethics or ethical consistency stand in the way of Trump. Here in Europe Christian identity has been appropriated by political movements and associated with a narrow nationalism that threatens to cut it off from a founder who said that we should love (even) our enemy, serve and not be served, wash the feet of the undeserving, and set free those captive to hopelessness, rejection and fear.

The Moses who stayed too long up the mountain in the Exodus reading is the same Moses who had insisted that the land of promise must also be a land of generosity and justice. According to Deuteronomy 26, the people must bring to the priest the first 10% of their harvest and recite a creed that reminded them of their nomadic and dependent origins. Furthermore, they must leave the 10% around the edge of their field so that there would be something for the homeless, the hungry, the migrants and the travellers. The same Jesus they crucified in Matthew 27 is the one who had opened his mouth for those who had no voice and no dignity, and met populist bloodthirstiness with a bold silence that turned the judge into the judged.

A Christian response to populism (in the negative terms I have used for the purposes of this paper) must begin with a clear theological anthropology: human beings are made in the image of God and must not be categorised, dehumanised or relativized by language that leads to violence or rejection. But, Christian discipleship goes further – as I will illustrate briefly.

For ten years I represented the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, at some global interfaith conferences. They did my head in. The greatest aspiration was “mutual tolerance” – particularly on the part of politicians who wanted to anaesthetise potential religious fervour (on the assumption that religions were problematic, basically all the same, but encouraged different dress and diets). Of course, they thought their own worldview was neutral and self-evidently true. Anyway, I grew to loathe the word ‘tolerance’. To tolerate someone need not involve any investment in understanding or empathising with them – the attempt to look through their eyes, hear through their ears or feel through their skin. I got bored repeating the same line year in year out: Christians are called to go beyond tolerance to love.

Now, this is the easy bit. It is easy to ask people to imitate Jesus and love their enemy as well as their friend. It’s just quite hard to do. But, unless we are to be like the German Christians (Deutsche Christen) seduced into an elision of the Kingdom of God and the Reich of Adolf Hitler, we have to learn to pay attention to those things in our society that need to be encouraged (kindness, generosity, justice and humaneness) and identify and challenge those that are destructive. Christians are called to be realists, not fantasists – loving truth (even when it is hard to discern but important to plug away at) and resisting lies, misrepresentation, manipulation and subterfuge. Lovers of light and not colluders with darkness.

This means resisting the dualisms being propagated whereby you have to be on one side of a debate or the other, but from which any nuance or subtlety or complexity is expunged. It means creating space for encounter and conversation when it seems that everyone is lobbing grenades from the trenches. It means refusing to accept the polarising premises that the ideologues represent as the only options.

Practically and as a priority, however, we can pay attention to the language we use in shaping the discourse in a collapsing society. I lead for the bishops in the House of Lords on Europe, so have spent a considerable amount of time on Brexit and the fierce debates in Parliament. I have repeatedly pleaded for our legislature to watch its language and do something to redeem our articulated common life. Everyone agrees, but many then promptly revert to the categorising and mudslinging. I could illustrate this at length.

But, the Christian tradition has something more to offer in these current dangerous circumstances of division and insecurity and growing fear: hope.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs is often quoted: “Without a vision the people perish.” So, what is the vision being offered to the people of our islands, for example, as we prepare to leave the European Union? (Or not. Who knows?) And, if we do have a vision, how is it to be expressed? For, if the devil has all the good music, the populists have all the good slogans. The Brexit debate is not about political vision or substance; it is not rational or about reality – just look at the actual consequences already; it is visceral and emotional. Poor people might well get considerably poorer, but many would still vote to leave, anyway.

But, Christians are not driven by fear; we are drawn by hope. A hope that comes to us from the future – resurrection. It is a hope that should not be confused with fantasy. It commits to the life of the present – in all its complexity and muckiness – but refuses to see the present reality as the end or the ultimate. It takes a long-term view with a reckless courage that even dares to sing the songs of Yahweh while sitting in exile on the banks of Babylon’s rivers, being mocked by those whose vision is short. It is a hope that sees ‘now’ in the light of eternity and declines to build – let alone worship – golden calves. It is a hope that, in the face of baying crowds, will still cry out for justice. It is a hope that knows what was whispered at Christmas: “The light has come into the world, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

There is a desperate need for a younger generation to find the language for a new narrative for our politics and our common life here and in the world. A new narrative rooted in the old story … of God and his people, of the apparent bloody failure of a cross planted in a rubbish tip, and of the haunting whisper of a song of resurrection. It might take some time and we might fail a million times. But, we know there is more to be said before the conversation ends.

I concluded my sermon in Cambridge with this: Maybe our slogan ought to be: “Let there be light”. I believe it. But, we have an obligation and a challenge to turn this permissive concept (slogan?) into practical reality. If Adrian Pabst, Rowan Williams and Michael Sandel are right in their critiques of current forms of populism and the roots that have allowed these to flourish, then Christians – not just bishops in the House of Lords – must address some honest questions and take responsibility for resisting darkness and shining light, the light of the Christ who was on the receiving end of the mob’s “Crucify him!”. Our manifesto must be rooted in that which fired up Jesus as he began his public ministry in Luke 4; or the Beatitudes in Matthew 5; or the Ten Commandments which frame the obligations and inhibitions that enable a free society to thrive – including not misrepresenting your neighbour’s case.

This last reference might just push Christians to question the dualistic language being used to perpetuate a common sense of crisis, and to divide people according to notions of who is in and who is out. We need to listen for the voices of those who are silent or have no voice. We must resist those who offer simplistic (but emotionally appealing) solutions to complex questions – even if the complexity is boggling to us. We must question what we are being fed through media, and question which values are being driven by which people, especially when charismatic leaders are involved. We must insist on integrity, on consistency within clear moral frameworks, on the place of head over heart when making big decisions that have consequences for many people. (Can we think of a single Brexiteer who will suffer personally from a disastrous Brexit?)

But, I want to conclude with what might sound like an odd appeal. Politics is a rough old game. Christians should not be afraid of rough politics. I don’t mean to encourage the ad hominem bitchiness that targets individuals, questions their motives at every turn, and abuses them with language that dehumanises. I don’t mean to invite slanging matches between firmly convinced opinionators whose ignorance is exposed by a couple of sharp questions. I do mean to encourage engagement with the detail of political decision-making at every level. Those who represent us in our parliamentary (and local) democracy need our prayers and our encouragement. They need to know they can trust Christians to listen and tell the truth (as they see it). They also need to know that we can argue a case on the grounds of that case without resorting to easy slogan or dismissive attack. Yes, we can call out inconsistency between articulated policy and delivered reality; but, we can also encourage where hard and costly decisions are made, often with limited foresight and contested will.

Christians must love the light by looking at the world – and our politics, and our media – in the light of the Christ who is the light of the world. Don’t just look at Jesus – look at the world through his eyes, say what you see – always with the humility that we might be myopic or wilfully blind – and be trustworthy and faithful.

Viktor Fankl addresses where “freedom threatens to degenerate into mere licence and arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness” and suggests that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast of the USA should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. It is unlikely to happen; but, Christians should be at the forefront of holding these together at a time when there are powerful moves to drive them apart.

My last word before questions and discussion refers to two book titles by the American Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann: Hopeful Imagination and The Prophetic Imagination. Christians are called – in whatever time and place they live – to be people of hope, to imagine a different way and to live it. Prophetic living is not gazing into a crystal ball and guessing what the future might hold; rather, it is looking at the present in the light of the past and resolving to be faithful to God and his call whatever the future might hold.

It’s really hot and humid here in Novi Sad, Serbia. This morning threatened thunder and rain, but it’s ended up being just … er … hot and humid. Fortunately, the 500 people in the conference centre don’t have to sit too closely together.

The theme yesterday was ‘hospitality’; today’s is ‘justice’. We began with a Bible study on 1 Kings 21 (Naboth and the art of hiding behind the law when you do terrible things) by a Brazilian theologian, Dr Elaine Neuenfeldt. This was followed by a young German lawyer, Lisa Schneider, speaking (in German) both thematically and practically about justice – her main plea being that the church should never try offering young people simple solutions to complex questions. She stressed the need for young people to see the church demonstrating authenticity (‘practise what you preach, or just stop preaching sort of thing’) – young people, she said, are passionate about truth and justice.

A Swiss Methodist bishop, Dr Patrick Streiff, reflected on this (in French). I found his final point the most interesting: an over-preoccupation with the language of values ignores the actual root of Christian relationship: our unity in Christ. He observed that in many official comment on social themes we refer to “Christian values for Europe”:

Certes, il est nécessaire que les Églises participent au dialogue – et parfois dispute – sur des valeurs. Mais parler des valeurs se base déjà sur une certaine abstraction de ce qui est au cœur de notre foi. Notre foi ne se base pas sur des valeurs, mais sur le Dieu trinitaire qui s’est révélé à nous et dont la relation avec lui se répercute dans certaines valeurs qui nous sont chères.

In other words, Christian faith is rooted in the trinitarian God, not an abstract set of values. He then illustrated this in the following way:

Dernièrement, en Autriche, après une entrevue du ministre avec tous les dirigeants des religions officiellement reconnues, le ministre voulait encore voir le sanctuaire dans notre immeuble méthodiste. Le surintendant le lui a montré et expliqué qu’il y a une paroisse de langue allemande et une paroisse de langue anglaise qui se réunissent chaque dimanche, avec des personnes d’une trentaine de nations. Le ministre était étonné, puis a dit : « oui, il semble que c’est possible si on a les même valeurs ». Un peu plus tard et à nouveau seul, le surintendant s’est dit : « Ce n’est pas vrai. Ces gens ont des valeurs souvent très différentes, mais ils se réunissent ici à cause de leur foi en Christ. »

He concludes with this question: “How are we to witness to that which lies at the heart of our faith when we address ethical questions?”

The point is that Christians in Europe inhabit different cultural and political contexts, these arising from different histories of conflict and loss. Serbian Orthodox Christians will have a different approach to Kosovo, Muslims and justice from that of a Welsh Presbyterian (for example). Our perspectives and values (such as justice, reconciliation and the conditions these demand) might be seen differently depending on our communal experience; what unites Christians is our unity in Christ – which is shaped like a cross before which we must be repentantly hopeful. Unity of relationship and mutual obligation is not the same as unanimity of opinion on values.

In the light of this, this amazingly international and multilingual conference went on to address head on challenges to the future of Europe. No fantasy here, but, rather, a head-on articulation of the hard challenges facing Europe in the light of corruption, populist nationalism, and the collapse of a common vision.

On that cheerful note, we move on to business.

I am in Novi Sad in Serbia for the General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches. The shadow in which 500 Christians from a vast range of churches meet is a rapidly changing Europe. The first day has concentrated on the Christian obligation to offer hospitality to the stranger – pertinent in the face of populist nationalism, mass migration, the corruption of the public (and political) discourse, and the easy equation of the common good with mere economics and self-protection.

However, this is no abstract conversation between lefty snowflakes about bleeding-heart do-gooding; rather, it is intelligent and informed, led by speakers and contributors who are deeply engaged in practical hospitality for refugees and migrants in places like Syria, Iraq, Greece – places on the front line of bitter suffering.

Following a Bible study on Genesis 18:1-8 (Abraham and the strangers who visited him at Mamre), the Patriarch of Antioch made an impassioned yet measured justification for Christians to care for strangers as a biblical imperative. This theme runs through the Bible and rests on the reminder that “we all were slaves once”. Jesus was unequivocal on his own identification with the stranger, the refugee and the dispossessed (look at Matthew 25 for starters).

This is why it is so depressing that in the Brexit debates in Parliament and the media the sole preoccupation seems to be with economics, trade deals and money. Human value, social good, cultural richness – the soul of a society – get forgotten. People are more than cogs in an economic machine; society must be more than simply a functioning economy. For whose benefit does an economy exist? Or, to put it differently, does the economy exist for people, or do people exist to serve the interests of an economy?

The language we use usually gives away the truth of our response to these questions.

Given the contrast between Abraham (the nomad who offers hospitality to the strangers at Mamre in Genesis 18) and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (who abused hospitality by trying to exploit the strangers/guests), it is perhaps understandable that the stand-out sentence in this morning’s sessions was to the effect that “maybe today’s Sodomites are those who preach against hospitality to the refugees and migrants”.

Discuss.

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

It’s harvest time again, and all over the land churches are desperately trying to find something new to say about creation, cultivation and deprivation. A bit like the vegetables and flowers on display, it’s a big challenge to keep it all fresh.

Yet, telling the story afresh assumes that everybody already knows what harvest is about. And I wonder if this assumption might be false.

I grew up in a city where the answer to the question “Where does milk come from?” was likely to get the answer “the supermarket”. Then we would get some entertaining, but muddled, account of how we might not actually plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land”, but someone did. And we would be grateful – particularly because we didn’t have to do the dirty work.

But, harvest goes deeper than this. If all too often our connection with the land has been broken, then we need more than stories to reconnect us to where our food comes from. What most religions offer is ritual – celebrations that remind us of relationships.

Nearly three thousand years ago the recently liberated Jewish people were about to enter the land they believed had been promised to them. Yet, along with words of encouragement and comfort went words of warning like this: When you get established in this land you will soon prosper. You will build your houses, cultivate your fields and grow your wealth. Then you will begin to forget that you once had nothing and could not save yourselves. It won’t be long before you start exploiting other people. So, the cycle of each year is going to be shaped by rituals that will compel you to re-member, re-tell and re-enact the story of your dependence … on God, the earth and each other.

Not very exciting, you might think. But, take just one of these annual rituals – the one that sees you bringing the first ten percent of your harvest to the priest and reciting a creed that begins with the words: “My father was a wandering Aramaean…”. In other words, you once were a nomad, dependent on the land and other people. You remember that you inherited creation, not as a commodity to be consumed or traded, but a gift to be cultivated and shared. You don’t own it; you are to be responsible for stewarding it for the good of the earth and its people.

And, to rub it in, you must leave the ten percent of crops around the edge of the field so that the travellers, the homeless and the hungry can help themselves to food.

Harvest, then, confronts us with our obligations to the earth and each other. It challenges our ethics and our economic priorities. And it reconnects us with the simple fact of our mortality and mutuality.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day, hastily re-written in the light of this morning’s news of an attack on Muslims coming out of a mosque in London.

The disturbing news from London this morning in which Muslims leaving a mosque have been directly attacked shows that violence can strike at any time and anywhere, and we think especially of those who suffer today.

But, it comes after a weekend of remarkable events that demonstrate the unity of diverse communities. Not only the deeply compassionate response of ordinary people to the plight of those caught up in the Grenfell Tower fire, but also the Great Get Together. Thousands of people have got together in local communities not just to remember and honour Jo Cox, the MP killed a year ago here in West Yorkshire, but to demonstrate that difference does not necessarily mean division.

All this raises questions that not everybody feels comfortable addressing. Such as to how an emphasis on commonality enables us to be honest about the differences between us? Or, conversely, whether praise of diversity inadvertently closes down honest discussion about what makes us distinctive.

I spent a decade working in global interfaith conferences in places like Kazakhstan and Turkey. They sometimes reminded me of that old BT commercial that ended with, “It’s good to talk”. I sometimes wanted to add “… as long as you don’t talk about anything.” It sometimes felt like the root political assumption underlying them was that all religions are basically the same – we just have different diets and dress sense. So, we should ignore these superficial differences in order to become the same and safe. I constantly had to do the unpopular thing and insist that if we didn’t recognise the differences, then we were being neither honest nor realistic, and the enterprise would not hold up when put under pressure.

But, as events in London last night suggest, coming together and talking are only the beginning – not an end. These things are complex.
When Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in the House of Commons that we have more in common than that which divides us, she was surely right. But, the genius of what her husband Brendan has done (in focusing on that commonality and compassion) lies in creating space for relationships to be made within which our differences can then be explored honestly.

In other words, we need both – common ground and vibrant diversity. What is often called ‘the common good’ actually creates space for difference to be expressed and lived with, and within agreed limits.

As the prophet Jeremiah recognised when urging exiled people to pray for the welfare of the city where they lived, a mature society is one in which difference can be owned whilst the common good is built up. But, this has to begin with getting and being together in a recognised and respectful common humanity – a responsibility for all. This has to characterise our response today.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in the wake of Saturday’s terrorist attack in London.

Borough Market in London is a place I used to know well when I lived just a few miles away. Go down any time and it was like being drowned in smells and sounds and languages from around the planet. I once bumped into a television news foreign correspondent by a cheese stall – a man normally seen in a war zone somewhere remote. I wondered – but was too shy to ask – how he coped with moving between the two worlds: the world of unspeakable violence in parts of the Middle East and the world of safe, domesticated ordinariness of home.

This weekend the two worlds collided once again in the brutality of extremist violence on an ordinary evening in an extraordinary city. Two weeks ago it was Manchester, last week Coptic Christians in Egypt, this week mourners at a funeral in Kabul, and a day ago people getting ready for another working week in London.

Perhaps the most uttered prayer – even on the lips of those who claim no faith – might be that of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord, how long…?” How are we to respond to yet another act of cowardly violence, and the prospect of more to come?

Borough Market runs alongside Southwark Cathedral – a place not just of prayer, but that attests to the reality of human life in all its colour. Here it is that Chaucer’s pilgrims met before embarking on their journey to Canterbury. Chaucer was clearly at pains to bring together a motley group of diverse people who had stories to tell, lives to share, fears to explore, deaths to face. They spare no hiding places as they walk and talk and laugh and weep and wonder at what it means to be mortal. Read Chaucer and there’s no escape from the fact that the freedom to love brings with it the freedom to hate; that the freedom to worship brings the freedom to mock the objects of another person’s adoration or value; that the freedom to fear accompanies the freedom to hope.

For some people freedom is precisely the problem: why doesn’t God stop it all? For others, prayer is the problem: if these crazy people would be rational, then they wouldn’t do these terrible things. But, prayer, even if it involves us opening our hearts to an expression of all we desire, is primarily an exposing of ourselves to reality: the reality that we are mortal, that loving in the face of murder seems weak, that giving in to the cycle of violence and retribution does nothing to solve the problem.

When people say they are praying for London, they will mean different things. But, for me and other Christians at least, it involves commitment to all the world can throw at us, never exemption from it. Like the man on the cross at Calvary, this commitment refuses to give violence, death and destruction the final word.

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