Coronavirus


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.

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

One of the unexpected things I did during lockdown was watch the sort of television programmes for which I usually have either little time or sufficient interest.

I love art, but I can’t do it. When I was younger, in an attempt to slow me down and distract me from working, I was given a sheet of paper and a pencil and told to draw the chair that stood in front of me. I did my best – even using my thumb the way real artists do to measure size or perspective. The result wasn’t great. I was then told to look differently and not draw the chair, but the spaces around and between the elements of the chair. What then emerged was something that looked less precise, but more real.

What I began to learn from this is that the point of art is to invite the artist or the audience to look differently in order to see differently in order to think differently in order then to live differently in the world. And this perspective also began to impinge on ways of approaching theology or politics or just about anything else. Instead of looking at the thing itself, look at the spaces around it and new perspectives begin to open up.

Now, I think this is what many people discovered – often to their surprise – when Grayson Perry did his excellent Art Club – a six-part series during lockdown. Apart from the vulnerability of the exercise on his part and the huge numbers of people who joined in – often sending in their own productions – he touched on something important about human being and creativity. Commenting on the series he said: “Art is a powerful tool for expressing what is going on in the world and identifying what really matters.”

In other words, art and the arts have vital economic value in and for a society, but  cannot be measured in purely economic terms. They change the way we see and think. They reach into the depths and re-grind the lens behind our eyes through which we see – in my words – God, the world and us.

For a Christian this is not a new idea. The creation narratives in Genesis show an almost playful God, creating such variety, but then, for example, giving people the responsibility of naming the animals. Co-creators whose humanity is only being fulfilled when open to art for art’s sake. The Bible is full of examples of beauty and craftsmanship – valuable in their own right. Jesus invites people to look differently at everything – changing their mind and how they think. This awakens curiosity, teases the imagination, enriches experience.

It is what we are made for.

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

This Sunday sees the birthday of the National Health Service – a poignant moment given our collective experience of the last few months. And those who put themselves in the way of mortal danger in order to care for the sickest in our society deserve every round of applause and every demand that they be properly valued for their commitment.

This is why there is planned to be one final round of applause at 5pm on Sunday to express our collective gratitude to all those who serve us so well and, often, sacrificially.

This is being led by a new coalition called ‘together’, which brings together people from across some of our political and cultural divides – recognising some of the fractures in British society at the same time as affirming the commonalities that need to be held onto if a society is to thrive and not just survive.

Interestingly, following a decade of disconnection, a call for ‘reconnection’ usually gets quickly translated as an appeal for ‘unity’. But, this is to make a fundamental mistake. Unity can too easily represent a cheap glossing over of differences; reconnection accepts difference, but still urges the need for community. A lack of agreement on certain fundamental issues is no excuse for not holding together in an ongoing mutual commitment or conversation.

Now, as a Christian, this is obvious. Back in the Hebrew Scriptures we read that God calls people to reflect his character in the world. And this is never a matter of private entertainment or enterprise; rather, the people God calls reflect the messiness and conflicts of real humanity, but their task – their vocation, if you like – is to work at reflecting that character in spite of their differences and conflicts.

The same can be seen in the Gospels. Jesus calls people to walk with him on a relatively short-lived journey of tough realism, having to get on with the other people he’d chosen. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t give any of his friends a veto over who else he might invite along – their job was to make it work. This was no walk in the park as people with different character, personality, priorities and preferences annoy each other, but have to stick together.

So, ‘together’ might sound a cosy word – a comfortable way of avoiding conflict – when, in fact, it is deeply realistic. It assumes difference and disunity. It is not afraid of tension. It brings us out on our doorsteps and brings people together in a common space, but not as an escape – rather, as a commitment to a common humanity and citizenship, with all the mutual obligations these demand of us.

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

I know this isn’t the place for confession, but I do have to admit to a weird fascination with knowing what has happened on any particular day in history. And today’s epic is this: on 30 June 1859 the French acrobat Charles Blondin became the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He followed this up by doing it on stilts, a bike, and in a sack. He even once carried a stove and cooked an omelette.

Why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing. I can’t even look at videos of people looking down from high buildings without feeling sick.

But, Blondin didn’t leave it there. On one occasion he pushed a wheelbarrow over … while blindfolded. Naturally, there was an audience and he asked them if they believed he could carry someone across in the wheelbarrow. They all shouted “yes!”. So, he asked who would like to get in … and no one volunteered.

Now, that rings bells for me. You’ll see what I really believe by what you see me doing and how you see me living it out – putting my body where my mouth is, so to speak. It’s easy to believe something when it demands no follow-up that might cost me.

There’s a bit in the gospels where Jesus and his friends go to a place called Caesarea Philippi and he asks them who people say he is. They come up with a few suggestions – a reincarnated prophet, for example – but he then looks them in the eye and says: “But, who do you say that I am?” And that’s where the problems started.

These friends of Jesus found out that being his friend was going to change their life and might lead them to the same fate as he was going to suffer. In other words, faith means action, and action comes with consequences.

So, I look at Charles Blondin and his wheelbarrow and I think he was mad. But, his question to the audience put them on the spot. Belief needs action. It’s not enough to trust without exercising it. I can’t just sit there and claim to believe.

Still not sure I’d have got into the wheelbarrow, though.

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

I am now on my tenth listen of Bob Dylan’s new album Rough and Rowdy Ways. And one of the lines that jumps out at me is this: “Be reasonable, mister, be honest, be fair, Let all of your earthly thoughts be a prayer.”

One of the surprising things to emerge from lockdown so far is the massive surge of people searching online for prayer or connection to some sort of collective worship. Researchers in Copenhagen saw a 50% increase in Google searches for ‘prayer’ over 95 countries.

And maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising, after all. For when things get tough, or life breaks down in some uncontrollable way, so the distractions from deeper questions fall away. But, I want to ask, what is this prayer thing all about, anyway?

When I was younger I used to think of prayer as an attempt to change God’s mind – urging an improvement in my own or others’ circumstances. When I grew up, and had a bit more experience of both the world and prayer, I moved to seeing prayer as essentially about changing me. The great writer CS Lewis once wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself… I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

Why did he think that? I think it’s because prayer involves being exposed to a view of oneself, the world and other people that challenges me to see, think and live differently. This is why Christians pray “in the name of Jesus” – you know, trying to see through the eyes of the Jesus we read about in the gospels. And the world looks different when seen through that lens.

Bob Dylan goes on to sing about a “gospel of love”. And by this he doesn’t mean something sentimental. Love is the costly outpouring of oneself and ends up being – in Christian terms – cross-shaped.

So, when I pray – wherever and however that might be … and whether alone or in a group – my eyes look to God and the world, but the change has to happen to me … so I can be part of changing the world.

Amen to that.

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

Well, I don’t know what you’re doing today, but I am busy waiting for tomorrow.

Now, this isn’t just me procrastinating or not living in the moment. Tomorrow – wait for it – is the day Bob Dylan releases his latest album. And it’s his first with original songs since Tempest in 2012. So, it’s been a slow train coming and I bet it was worth the wait.

It’s called Rough and Rowdy Ways and I have no idea – apart from hints in an interview I read – what it will be like. But, his Bobness never disappoints. His lyrics address the themes of the times and cut through the sentimentalities of life, offering a vocabulary for questioning, wondering and, sometimes, worshiping.

But, it’s the title that grabbed me when I saw it recently. Dylan has never shied away from dosing us with reality. If the answer is blowing in the wind, then it has to be found under the hard rain that’s gonna fall. When we want to settle down, he reminds us that the times do keep a-changing. So, rough and rowdy ways does sum up, in a pithy way, the world we seem to inhabit now.

Since lockdown began we have had to invent new ways of living, communicating, associating and, even, thinking about the world and what matters. And for many people this has been a real struggle. We’ve had to be inventive – discovering new technologies and ways of working – and it remains rough and rowdy, disruptive and untidy.

But, this is how life usually is for most people. One of the things that always hits me when I read the Bible is its utter realism. Right from the start, ordinary people are called to leave behind their familiar world and journey to an unknown destination. Jesus invites people to walk with him, but into a future they can’t control … and might end badly. People go into exile or suffer oppression. And, yet, the constant is that God never abandons them even when the loss is more powerful than anything.

Rough and rowdy might describe the way ahead, but this can be exciting, too. And if Bob can still see the possibilities at 79, then I’ll give it a go, too.

A couple of years ago I did a session at the Bradford Literature Festival with Professor Paul Rogers and Shashi Tharoor. I had never heard of Shashi Tharoor. It turned out he had been a deputy to Kofi Annan at the United Nations, but had now returned to India and was involved in domestic politics. The session we did was on where the world was heading … and no one mentioned a pandemic.

The day before the event I was sent Tharoor’s new book, but didn’t have time to read it until afterwards. Inglorious Empire opened my eyes to the reality of the British Empire. The question was: why did it take a book like this to inform me?

I grew up in Liverpool where we were taught something vague about the slave trade and the transatlantic routes that brought such wealth to my home city and England. I loved the buildings in the city centre without ever asking where the money came from to build them. I used to get my hair cut at the barber shop at Penny Lane, but never wondered who the street was apparently named after. It was after I had left at 18 that I found out that James Penny was a slave trader.

Reading Tharoor’s book I found myself cutting through some of the complacent mythology about the British Empire to some actual facts. We often hear reference to Britain as “the greatest trading nation” – without any reference to those who paid the price. The blood of slaves and the exploitation of people didn’t get a mention – as if the noble Brits went around the globe doing their best for people at no expense, civilising them and giving them railways. For example, I didn’t know that prior to the British taking over India had twenty three per cent of global trade; when the British left it had only three per cent. Look around our great cities to see where the money went.

So, this is what I am thinking while the Black Lives Matter protests go on. The USA has its own history of exploitation, segregation and racism; the UK has its own unique history. But, they are inextricably connected in the common experience of the slave trade itself.

Ignorance is no excuse. Yet, silence does not necessarily signify acquiescence; it can also be a response to facing the truth and having no excuse for not having enquired or understood in the first place. I am uneasy about making gestures that cost nothing – which is why I have not rushed to action or reaction, but need to think and consider and plan what might make an actual difference. (I know many people have ‘taken the knee’ as a mark of solidarity with black people; I have to be honest and say that I feel uneasy about appropriating someone else’s experience in this way, but recognise that I might be wrong and misreading the iconic power of it.) But, I find Reni Eddo-Lodge’s words powerful: “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” (From Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race.)

History is complex and can be appropriated for ideological ends by anyone. But, however some times and periods are open to debate and interpretation, there are some facts that cannot be ignored. Behind the numbers are people. And many of their successors still pay the price today of other people’s privilege gained yesterday.

This might be a pivotal moment in our history – on both sides of the Atlantic. Justice cannot be reduced to gestures. Our teaching of history clearly needs some serious attention – and that would only be a start, but not a conclusion. As James Baldwin said in As Much Truth as One can Bear (quoted by Susan Neiman in Learning from the Germans: Confronting Race and the Memory of Evil): “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

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