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This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (broadcast from Berlin and focusing on the impact on Germany of Brexit):

I was in Vienna recently and saw something that sums up the challenge of Germany in the last century. At one end of the Judenplatz is the haunting Holocaust Memorial by Rachel Whiteread; facing it, twenty metres away, is a statue of the philosopher, poet and Enlightenment hero Johann Gottfried Herder who re-shaped German education and culture. The question that cries out is this: how did Germany go from Herder to Hitler in a mere century?

This is the question that Germany has been unable to escape in the last seventy years or so. Walk around any German city and you will find yourself stepping on small brass plaques in the pavement bearing the name and dates of Jews deported to their deaths from the houses before which you now stand. They are everywhere – and they are called Stolpersteine: stumbling blocks that get in your way and compel you to face responsibility for what happened to your neighbours only a generation or two ago.

Because of its history Germany has had no option but to confront its past and choose its future. Yet, as time moves on and memory becomes history, revisionism becomes easier for some people. Recent changes in the political landscape come on the back of concerns about immigration in general and Islam in particular. Yet this phenomenon was almost inconceivable only a decade ago.

What it demonstrates is that human beings all too easily re-shape their worldview according to the world they now live in. We can accommodate all sorts of challenges to our ethics … until we find their foundation has been undercut and we have given away too much. Perhaps history teaches us that it is not a big step from ‘every human being matters’ to ‘some matter more than others’ to ‘these are not really people of value’.

If you go into Berlin Cathedral and look up at the dome, you will see in gold lettering words from the Lord’s Prayer: “Dein ist das Reich” – “Thine is the Kingdom”. I have sat there and thought of the generations of people – from the Second Reich through Weimar and the Nazis, through the GDR and the now-reunited Germany – and wondered what Christian worshippers thought that meant. And how could they so easily confuse the Kingdom of Caesar with the Kingdom of the Jesus we read about in the gospels? Whose Reich/Kingdom do we really serve?

The question goes to the heart of how human beings make sense of themselves and the world – and whether, when the heat is on, the foundation of our ethical frameworks is as sound as we like to think it is. Humility, generosity, loving your neighbour, protecting the weak – or self-preservation at all costs?

Every generation faces the same question. So does every nation.

 

* I originally wrote two scripts for this. The first I set in Weimar where you can stand by the statue of Herder and look to the hills beyond … and Buchenwald concentration camp. I decided this was not the right introduction, so went to Vienna instead. However, I didn’t change the statue from Herder to Lessing. Only one person pointed this out. It doesn’t change the point, but the error should be noted.

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This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show with Sara Cox:

I have seen the Promised Land.

50 years. I remember thinking that if you could look back ten years, you were already old. But, I now remember too much.

50 years today people in Britain were waking up to the news that Dr Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis, having just delivered a speech that suggests in hindsight that he knew his end was coming. He got cheered to the rafters when he said: “I have been to the mountain top … I have seen the Promised Land”. But, like Moses who three thousand years ago peered over into the land for which he had given his life, he died before he could enter it.

Listening again to this immensely moving speech from Memphis, what is powerful about Martin Luther King isn’t just the vision he had – a vision that denied the power of the reality he experienced every day – but his ability to fire the hearts and imaginations of people … to get them to look beyond the limitations of their society and its injustices and have their imagination grasped by a vision and a hope that would not let them go.

It is the power of language and music. Dr King almost sang his evocation of liberation for black people in the United States. The Civil Rights movement was fired by the melodies and words of spirituals, the language of the Old Testament prophets whose poetry haunted their imagination, fired their courage and coloured their defiance of ‘the way the world is’. God was awake to the suffering of his people, and freedom was coming – one day, even if not to-day.

“Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord” were the last words spoken by Dr King to a crowd before his death at the age of 39. Here he dares to suggest that the glory of the Lord is not about some other-worldly realm of pious fantasy, but is to be glimpsed coming to us right in the heart of human suffering and confusion. Dr King had found his own heart and mind captured by a love that would not let him go – by a God who gets down and dirty in the muck and bullets of the real world we all recognise.

50 years. Yet, those words – and his delivery of them – still resonate, still sing out in defiant hope. The now is not the end.

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

Remember this? “Humpty Dumpty to Alice in ‘Through the Looking Glass: ‘When I use a word,’ he said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’” It’s no wonder Humpty ended up having a great fall.

The point of language is to allow for a common comprehension – mutual understanding between different parties. If we all, individually, get to choose what meaning we attribute to particular words, it is not only communication and comprehension that break down – so do relationship and society. Language matters.

Now, the reason that quote comes so readily to mind is that we now seem to live in a world in which comment is king, perception is everything, and meaning has become subject to individual whim. In his response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, Donald Trump said this: “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

Set alleged culpability aside for a moment and what is noticeable here is this novel understanding of what facts are. A fact is a fact, even if, as Mark Twain wryly observed: “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please”. What can it mean to “agree with the facts”? To disagree with facts is deliberately to choose to ignore reality – and that would prioritise ideological prejudice over reality. As Aldous Huxley put it: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Yes, facts have to be interpreted, but that’s a different question.

Facing reality, however inconvenient, is essential to honest living and the functioning of a reasonable society. The Old Testament prophets told the truth about the danger of short-termist thinking when establishing military and political alliances – and were roundly ignored until their people went into some miserable exile. Jesus never seduced anyone into following him, but kept talking about carrying crosses and the dangers of gaining the world and losing your soul. I don’t understand how people who think the earth is flat or that a theory of evolution is some satanic conspiracy manage to integrate all this.

There is no alternative but to live in the real world and face the challenges that throws up. Religious faith that has to be kept in some sealed compartment lest reality intrude is, in my view, not a faith worth having. If God can’t cope with the real world as we know and experience it, then what is the point?

As Christians now approach Holy Week we need no reminding about harsh reality. Fantasies of political liberation will soon bleed into the dust beneath a cross. And the disciples will find their world turned upside down as they are confronted by the power of death – an inescapable fact of life, but one which will prove not to have the final word.

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

I was getting off a bus in London late last night when a bloke standing outside a shop asked me the time. I told him. And he said: “That’s funny. I’ve been asking the same question all day and I keep getting different answers.”

I walked on quickly.

But, it did scratch away at the back of my head. It’s simple, really, isn’t it? The answer you get depends on the question you ask. Put the right answer to the wrong question and you get a mess.

I’ve had to live with this for years. Christians often get caricatured as naive people living in alternative universes. As a TV presenter commented just this week in response to an accusation of religious stupidity: “Of course I believe in dinosaurs. I am a Christian, not a Creationist.”

Well, both the Christian and the Creationist have to live in the real world.
Faith is not the same as fantasy. Fantasy avoids reality; faith inhabits the real world in all its complexity.

For example, the problem many people have with the book of Genesis and the creation stories is that they ask of it the wrong question. The early chapters of Genesis don’t pretend to ask the question “How did the universe come to be? – in terms of mechanics. Rather, the Hebrew poetry sets up really interesting questions about why life is as it is – why human beings get so messed up and, consequently, mess the world up. Now that’s a question of how to read, not a problem between science and religion.

And for me it’s a much more interesting question. Why am I the way I am? Why is the world the way it is? What is it at the heart of our humanity that is capable of cosmic beauty and generosity on the one hand and utterly corrupt cruelty on the other?

As Billy Ocean didn’t say: “When the going gets tough the tough write poetry.” But the job of the poet or the songwriter is to go beyond facts and play around with the ‘whys’ of life. As the Psalmist famously put it: “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, who are we that you are mindful of us?”

Good question.

This is the text of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, following yesterday’s debate in the House of the Lords on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill:

Current debates in Parliament and beyond about the nature of the UK’s relationship with Europe go beyond the technical detail of Bills and amendments. Clearly, many people are just fed up with what they see as the trading of insults and misrepresentations that have come to characterise this process, rendering it almost impossible to distinguish what is true and what is fact from what is mere assertion or wishful thinking.

But, underlying all this sound and fury is a much more important question – one that has always been around, but often gets forgotten in the storm of the moment: what is it all for? Or, to put it differently: what sort of a society do we wish to construct and what sort of character do we want our common life to exhibit?

These are not exactly new questions. Even the Ten Commandments form not a string of miserable demands to keep people in their place, but a contour for a mutually respectful, honourable and humble society – one in which people respect each other, care for the poor, honour integrity and work at building relationships of trust and accountability.

I wonder if these existential questions – about what and whom a society is for – too easily get lost when the headlines and the fog of social media just bang away at demonising anyone who dares to differ from one’s own position.

I have just read a paper by a Russian military and political analyst who dares to pose a different question. Aleksandr Khramchikhin, deputy director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, suggests that whereas Russians will still fight and die for the Motherland, their western equivalents are too soft to die for anything. Harsh? Maybe.

But, I wonder if this is worth pursuing, if not as a model of idealism, then at least as a matter of practical reality. Russians are almost defined by suffering – think of 20 million dead in the Second World War … a million starved or killed in the siege of Stalingrad alone.

It was Martin Luther King who proposed that if we have nothing worth dying for, then we have nothing worth living for.

So, when we have done our trade deals and dealt with the technical and practical challenges of Brexit – however it might turn out in the end, what will we have gained or lost? What is the end to which we aspire? What is the vision of a society for which we will sacrifice anything or everything? What are the moral goods which shape our ambitions and discipline our passions?

These are not vapid questions. The Old Testament prophet was not joking when he wrote that “without a vision the people perish”. Nor was Jesus when he said there is a danger in gaining the world and losing our soul.

It is a challenge, but, somehow, I need to poke through the fog of debate and not lose sight of the ultimate questions: for what? And for whom?

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

News, by definition, is unpredictable. But, I guess one thing none of us saw coming even a couple of weeks ago was the prospect of North and South Korea competing in the Winter Olympics under one flag. We seemed to have moved with astonishing speed from mutual nuking to cooperative skiing. So, what’s that all about?

I think it’s hard to read. Is this a case of two opponents pushed together by the erratic behaviour of the USA, leading erstwhile enemies to find in each other a greater security than in their apparent allies? Or is it merely a short-term expedient aimed at distracting energy, attention and resources from more dangerous political and military challenges and provoking a collective sigh of relief that might yet prove to be premature?

It’s hard to read. The new film about Winston Churchill, ‘Darkest Hour’, illustrates brilliantly the rather obvious fact that we always make decisions with little or no idea of their likely consequences … given that none of us actually knows the future. In Churchill’s case, do we keep the peace or go to war? Or will keeping the peace now simply make a later war even worse? Do we avoid the conflict or go through it?

Of course, it’s always easy with hindsight to spot the miscalculations and errors, where powerful desire for one thing blinds us to the reality before us. Prophets are not in plentiful supply, after all, are they?

Well, I guess that depends on what you think a prophet is. When the prophets of the Old Testament warned their people against entering short-term military and political alliances with the overbearing powerful empires of their day, they didn’t just dream up nightmare scenarios aimed at creating fear; rather, they studied and thought and wrestled with their imagination – that is, asking hard questions about the potential consequences of different choices. Being prophets, of course, they were ignored, and the short-term security they bought led later to longer-term subjugation and exile.

I think this applies not only at a national or political level, but also for us as individuals. When we feel insecure we reach for those solutions that offer fast relief, however romantic. Driven by fear, feeling that I am in a desert of uncertainty or insecurity, the temptation is to look for the quick way out. Against this reflex, however, Asian theologian Kosuke Koyama urges (in his book ‘Three Mile an Hour God’), that the thing to do in the desert is not to run away, but to slow down. Slowing down in our judgements means we become slower to make false connections or to attribute causality where it doesn’t belong. Ask any immigrant what it feels like to be blamed for all the supposed ills of the world.

I’ll be watching North and South Korea with intrigue – waiting to see what the flags of the future might tell us about the choices of today.

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

I was on the train down from Leeds yesterday – at some unearthly hour – and caught a glimpse of someone else’s newspaper. The story facing me was that Manchester Town Hall is going to close for six years for massive refurbishment. A similar fate awaits the Houses of Parliament in London, but the details of that one haven’t been nailed yet.

Anyway, the bit that I saw about Manchester that grabbed my attention is that the Town Hall clockface has inscribed on it the words: “Teach us to number our days.”
Now, how miserable is that? You’re off to the pub or to do your shopping, happy as Larry, and you look up to check you’re not late, and staring back at you is a warning to dampen your enthusiasm! Good grief. Or, is there another way of looking at it?

“Teach us to number our days” wasn’t plucked from just anywhere. In fact, it comes straight out of the Bible – Psalm 90 verse 12 – and the full version says: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”

I think what this is saying is: come to terms with the fact that you are not going to live for ever! Despite all the self-help courses and ointments aimed at keeping us eternally youthful, you only get free once you face your mortality. And that, believe it or not, is very cheerful … because it sets us free from anxiety and let’s us live every day to the full. Which is not bad, is it?

So, I can’t gain wisdom – or wise up – until I face up to reality – that every day counts. Which, of course, works in a variety of ways, because it also says to me: don’t waste your time! Don’t let the sun go down on your anger (to quote the Bible again), but sort out your relationships now, while there’s still time. If you get the chance, learn how to play and not just work: do I work to live or live to work? Why let trivia divide us and break us up when time is relatively short.

You probably get the point. Let’s learn to number our days and we might even become wise!

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