This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, written in the face of the horrors of Gaza, Syria, Ukraine and all the other bloody conflicts filling the news screens, and with a strict word limit.

Way back in 1978 Boney M did a terrible thing: they took a song of desperate lament and turned it into a disco dance hit. ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ was a boppy little number with a very catchy tune, but the music bore no relation to the content or the meaning of the words.

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept… How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” This song – which is taken from Psalm 137 – is wrenched out of the guts of a people whose world has been lost – possibly for ever. Here they sit in exile, expelled from their homeland, being mocked by their captors while they weep in humiliation. After all, how can they sing songs of praise to their God when the evidence of their desperate experience tells them it has all been a big mistake?

Well, Boney M aren’t the only culprits when it comes to putting words to inappropriate music. But, this is the song that comes to my mind when I see the images brought to us from just about every corner of the globe by hugely brave journalists and film crews. Attempts to rationalize the immensity of human suffering in the world today must surely come second to some attempt at empathy. Our brains might be engaged, but our first response must be the surge of emotional horror and lament that is dragged from deep within us as we see the human suffering laid bare before us.

Now, Psalm 137 is not a comfortable song; nor is it a song for the comfortable. It ends with a shrill cry of pain and hatred: “God, I wish you’d take the children of my enemies and smash their heads against the rocks.” But, it isn’t there to justify an ethic. It isn’t there to suggest it is right to think such awful things of other people’s children. It is there for two reasons: first, to confront us with the reality of how deep our own human hatred can go, and, secondly, to tell us not to lie to God (thinking he can’t handle that reality or the depths of human despair).

If we thought the twentieth century of bloodshed and slaughter was bad enough, the twenty first is already proving pretty grim. Like everybody else, I have views on what is happening in the Middle East and closer to home in Ukraine – including the persecution of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere. And, having grown up in Liverpool in the aftermath of the Second World War with grandparents who well remembered the First, I am haunted by the human propensity for what historian Christopher Clark has called the “sleepwalking” into global conflict. Where does all this leave the myth of human progress?

“By the rivers of Babylon” perhaps gives us a vocabulary for times such as this – admitting the horror and the helplessness, but surrounded by other songs that compel compassionate response and action that is rooted in hope of a better future.

This last sentence is a reference to the fact that the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures tackle the hard task of imagining a future where one looks impossible.




Processed foods contain the wrong animal. And what line do media sensationalists take? “Do you mind eating horse rather than cow?” Brilliant.

How can there possibly be any objection to eating one animal rather than another? Whenever I find myself in Central Asia, we eat nothing but horse. It is the staple meat on the Steppe. And it is fine, if you like that sort of thing.

Surely the real controversy ought to be about misrepresentation and obligation. If a company tells us its lasagne is made of beef, then it should moo rather than neigh. The producer should know what is in their product and tell us the truth on the packet. Furthermore, if we trust cow – because there are rules about what goes into their rearing and which drugs cannot be used on them – then we might reasonably question if the same rules apply to horses.

Hence, it is a question of integrity and confidence, not of food safety. We should not be sold a pup… as it were.

And, as I said on Twitter, whoever in the government chose to call the matter 'distasteful' should get instant promotion.


While I was in Ireland last week loads of interesting things were going on elsewhere:

Liverpool finally got sold and bought. One lot of Americans went out (having done nothing that they promised when they took over the club) and another lot came in. Although we breathe a sigh of relief at the ending of one American dream, we clap the new owners with one hand while reserving the other one ‘just in case…’ If celebration is heartfelt today, there is also a great deal of suspicion. Having been fooled and humiliated once, we won’t (as The Who put it) be fooled again. Yet, it is almost embarrassing to listen to the language of the ousted Tom Hicks: he still doesn’t ‘get it’. But, at least Torres appears fit enough to play against Everton on Sunday…

Chilean miners were being released from 69 days of imprisonment a very long way underground. The world rejoiced, but this is only the end of the beginning. Mining safety has to be improved in a country where miners’ lives have thus far been cheap. And we know that the next months and years will bring huge challenges for the miners and their families: they will need massive support in the light of not only their trauma, but their new-found fame. Furthermore, the BBC overspent on its budget by covering this saga in such depth; will it now cover the stories of trapped miners in China and Ecuador similarly – or are some stories less interesting than others and some  lives cheaper than others? The Chilean saga was gripping, but it also raises questions of value and perspective for the rest of us. In brief, was it just more entertaining for us?

The Bishop of Fulham has announced he is to resign and join the Ordinariate (i.e. become a Roman Catholic). His announcement speech used extraordinary language, claiming ‘persecution’ of ‘traditionalists’. Someone should do a linguistic textual analysis of this stuff – for a start it cheapens the word and concept of ‘persecution’. But, the notions of ‘they are forcing us out’ and ‘we have no responsibility- it is all being done to us’ has reminded me of the posts I wrote about ‘future foreshortening’ and the hierarchies of victimhood.

As I have often expressed here, I understand something of the dilemma facing those who oppose the ordination of women; but they need to take responsibility for their decisions about the future and not do the unhealthy thing of simply identifying themselves as a victim of other people’s decisions. I know from personal experience something of the cost of such demanding dilemmas (twice: once in secular employment and once in the church) – and how important it is to stop blaming other people (or ‘the evil institution’ as the Bishop of Fulham puts it). The language is the give-away in all this and it will repay careful examination one day. Meanwhile we continue to pray and try to support those facing these dilemmas – everyone loses in processes such as this one.

The thing each of these stories has in common is the importance of perspective – and how difficult it is to see through the eyes of others or dare to change our point of view. I was going to write today about a German exhibition, but I guess that will have to wait.

Yesterday I addressed a group of people at a law firm in the City about Zimbabwe. These wonderful people have an ‘austerity lunch’ of bread and cheese and donate to the ‘project’ under discussion – which, yesterday, was Zimbabwe. I was invited because the Diocese of Southwark is deeply involved with the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe and I have been out there on my own and leading a group visit.

It was a good coincidence that I got home in the evening to hear that the Zimbabwean Dollar has been dumped and that foreign currencies are now allowed across the economy. This is only legalising what has been happening anyway – the parallel market has been operating in US dollars for years. Then, today, I heard that the MDC has voted to enter government with Zanu PF. This is precarious and we will have to wait and see what actually happens as plans are taken forward during the next two weeks. The MDC could find itself compromised and then more easily discarded by Mugabe later.

Yet, despite this news, I still get almost daily reports of human rights activists going missing, torture and abuse of prisoners, intimidation of MDC and Church people, and corruption at every level. The vital prerequisite for any improvement in the lives of Zimbabwe and her people is the restoration of the rule of law. Court judgements in respect of ownership of finances, accounts and property made against the ousted Anglican Bishop of Harare, Dr Nolbert Kunonga, have not been implemented  – and Kunonga, with the backing of Mugabe’s men, continues to steal money, retain possession of churches, intimidate anyone who denies him support and makes a mockery of justice.

The law firm people I addressed have asked to donate £1000 towards important projects in Central Zimbabwe. Wonderful stuff that will make a real difference now that foreign currency can be used and we don’t have to do dodgy things with currencies.

Today has also seen the publication of a statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the launch of the ‘Faiths Working Together’ Fund for rebuilding civilian lives in Gaza and relieving suffering in Israel through the work of Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. This is surely a sensitive and laudable attempt by Christians, Jews and Muslims in this country to address the humanitarian need without regard for causes of conflict, ethnicity or status. The link also gives advice on how to donate.

Why set this up when DEC is already doing the business? Well, I guess it is in order to demonstrate what many secularists prefer to ignore: people of different religions working together for the common good and going beyond the arguments that sometimes appear to sterilise effective action. Good stuff.

Zimbabwe is a disaster: Mugabe and the South African ‘mediators’ claim a deal, but the MDC denies having agreed it and the sorry saga continues. It seems to me that the MDC must not compromise its position or it will be dismissed by Mugabe at his whim.

Meanwhile controversy rages around the UK in the light of the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the DEC appeal for Gaza. Protestors had to be removed from Broadcasting House and we had the bizarre sight of Director General, Mark Thompson, explaining on early morning TV his reasons for the refusal to broadcast the appeal while behind him was displayed a huge backdrop of the appeal poster and all the contact and donation details. This must have been deliberate as well as canny.

There are war crimes trials going on in international courts and Sri Lanka is in violent turmoil again. In other words, business as usual for a world full of hostility and bad news. The financial crisis rages on, four Peers are being accused of corruption and the economic wallpaper looks pretty grubby. So what?

I went to get the train into London this morning and, as usual, picked up the free Metro newspaper. Its front page headline ignored all of this and proclaimed that a bit of an aspirin taken every day can help your liver.

Is it too much to wonder who thought this was top news of the day? I’m not saying it shouldn’t be – just that I’d like to know why it was thought to be so.

Perhaps it is simply that in the midst of all the bad news, we still find refuge in something small, personal and achievable. It could be that it is sometimes easier to shut out the loud noise of all the ‘big stuff’ and focus attention on the stuff of ‘me’.

Well, whatever the reasons behind this odd choice of priority, the evening papers simply led with the remarkable birth of eight babies to one mother in California. Amid the gloom there is a nice story – though I pity the poor mother who has said she will breastfeed all eight of them. I am not sure whether to be full of admiration … or just avert my attention back to the ‘big stuff’.