radio


Well, that set the cat amongst the pigeons. Last night I posted a response to the dismissive and sneering comments by Today presenters on BBC Radio 4.

I am about to do Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 this morning (different medium, different language, different culture, different agenda), but wanted to have a second go at last night’s story.

Despite criticism of the underlying dismissiveness of Today presenters’ comments, I would defend them, the programme and the BBC to the end. Although each presenter has a differing degree of apparent disinterest in the slot, they are still courteous, professional and do the country a massive service by holding power to account. (Whichever political party is in power thinks the BBC is against them – which probably means they are doing the job we need them to do.)

It is easy to snipe from the sidelines, but, religious dismissiveness aside, they serve us well.

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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 on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

When I heard yesterday that North Korea had tested another nuclear weapon, it was the language that caught my attention. What was detected in Japan and South Korea was described as “an artificial earthquake”.

I know what is meant by this – that it wasn’t a case of the earth moving of its own accord, but caused by a deliberate explosion. Yet, it is still an earthquake and there is little artificial about its effects. These go well beyond the realms of the physical world – they shock our imagination.

Interestingly, the language of apocalypse is beginning to find its way back into common currency, coloured no doubt by biblical images conjured up over centuries to depict the fiery end of the world. And there is nothing artificial about the fear that such associations engender – even if we don’t lie directly in the line of potential fire – or our sense of helplessness as we watch events unfold.

We have been here before – President Kennedy brought the world to the brink when in 1961 he challenged the Soviet Union and its plans to put missiles on Cuba. The world held its collective breath.

In similar circumstances now, it might be worth recalling what Apocalypse is really all about. The biblical Book of the Apocalypse – usually known as Revelation – contains vivid imagery of conflicts and choices set in a context of lurid cosmic battles.

Yet, contrary to much popular belief, it wasn’t intended to be a prediction of the end of the world. Rather, it was written from exile to a Christian community that was suffering terrible persecution at the hands of a Roman Emperor who, if nuclear weapons had been available to him, might well have behaved like Kim Jong-Un. This form of apocalyptic writing used image and metaphor to encourage the persecuted not to compromise and not to give up hope. Why? Because the present needs to be seen in the context of the cosmic and the eternal. Death, violence and destruction do not have the final word – even in this world. Judgement means ultimate justice. And Christians are called to be drawn by hope, not driven by fear. However weird that looks to anyone else, that is the deal.

Now, you can’t easily accuse the tortured recipients of this letter of escapism or other-worldly fantasy. Rather, they were compelled – as are many Christians in some parts of the world even today – to choose whom they will serve. This is about digging to the foundations of what we believe we are about and for whom we exist… now in this world.

We don’t know how the latest threat and challenge will turn out. But, we can ask fundamental questions about why we think the world and human life are worth preserving in the first place. And that might guide our thinking away from potential ultimate destruction towards committed life-building here and now.

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

Loving your neighbour as yourself is harder than it sounds. But, I would argue, it is also much more interesting than it seems. For example, it assumes that we might need to get to know our neighbour, and, at least, try to look through their eyes.

If travel does broaden the mind, then holidays such as this weekend when many Brits are enjoying a break abroad, surely open up the opportunity to look, listen and learn differently. And this is where we hit the problem: language.

Almost all Brits abroad will expect the natives to understand and speak English. And, to our embarrassment, they probably will. And they will pride themselves on their polyglottal skills.

Language learning in Britain continues to decline. According to statistics reported in newspapers last week, the numbers studying languages at school and university are falling fast. Some voices claim that this really doesn’t matter – that we can pick up a bit of German or Spanish later in life … if and when we need it.

Except that a language is not a commodity that can be simply picked off the shelf when convenient or expedient. To learn a language is more than to wield a tool; rather, it is to inhabit the world that language shapes.

At the age of 91 the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt wrote that we can’t understand our own culture unless we look at it through the eyes of another culture … and to do this we need to know language. In fact, he suggested learning two. For most Europeans this isn’t a problem; they constantly cross borders and entertain foreigners. Communication matters beyond mere functionality.

Not so here. It seems to me that political language in the UK has been coloured by the assumption that anything has value only in so far as it fulfils an economic end. Accordingly, we too easily regard language learning as a waste of time unless it leads to high-earning job in the future. But, I remember a German businessman in a hotel explaining to a monoglot British counterpart that although their negotiations were done in English the English couldn’t understand what was being said behind their backs – and that this put the Brits at a disadvantage. No response.

And this is why it is vital that children and young people learn other languages – at least in order to open their minds to different ways of seeing, thinking and interpreting the world. If loving your neighbour assumes knowing your neighbour, then learning the odd language opens up a world of wonders.

And let it be said at times of international insecurity, stress and fear: there is never a more important time to listen through the ears and look through the eyes of my neighbour – if only to see ourselves as we are seen.

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

The first time I went into the Foreign Office in London I was somewhat taken aback by the sight of murals depicting renowned military victories of the British Empire – scenes that now provoke embarrassment or shame even though they belong to their time and to a particular colonial narrative of national identity.

How do we deal honestly with conflicted histories?

Well, this is a question that is dividing America as pressure grows to remove statues of Confederate leaders who 150 years ago fought a civil war over the rights to enslave other human beings. And the problem is this: how are we to remember the past with honesty and courage, not celebrating, but remembering and learning?

This is not a new problem. Walk around some German cities and you find yourself treading on small brass plates set in the pavement, recording the names and dates of Jews who had lived there before being deported and exterminated. More powerful than some huge memorial covered in names, these so-called ‘stumbling blocks’ (Stolpersteine) have a massive impact as you realise that they are everywhere.

In fact, Germany has form here. Look up beneath the roof outside the east end of the Stadtkirche in Martin Luther’s Wittenberg and you see a mediaeval engraving of a Jew being baited in a pig sty. Exposed during restoration after German reunification, rather than put it in a museum or cover it up, they shone a light from a memorial placed beneath it to the fallen Jews of Wittenberg during the Holocaust.
Somehow this faces the horrors of the past in a way that draws a line to the present and educates those whose memory doesn’t stretch that far back.

The German approach is partly informed by its Christian culture which itself is shaped by Jewish notions of memory. To re-member means, literally, to put back together the elements of a story in a way that is healthy and true. The people of Israel, having been liberated from over 400 years of oppression in Egypt and 40 years in a desert (allowing the romanticises of history to die off), prepare to enter the land of promise. And they are warned: as time goes by you will quickly forget that once you were slaves. Then you will start treating other people as your slaves. If you forget this, you will one day lose everything.

So, they shaped the year around rituals and festivals that even today re-tell that story and militate against cultural or religious amnesia.

Maybe this offers a clue not only to Americans wondering what to do with statues of Confederates, but also to the rest of us who have to wrestle with ambiguous or shameful histories. Face it, but with the humility that remembers rightly. Not “forgive and forget”, but “remember and forgive”.

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

It’s that time of year again. For me August slows everything down and I finally get some space. But, it’s also the time for long car journeys … and that means loads of time to listen to music. The great thing about your kids having grown up is that no one argues with your choice of CDs.

Well, what you’ll find in my car this morning – I have just checked – is a strange mix of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Richard Ashcroft, Elbow and the wonderful Imelda May. I got back from a trip the other day feeling that my emotions had been shredded, listening to songs that seem to have been dragged out from the depths.

And that’s the power of music. Words on their own can pack a punch, but add a good tune and some decent backing and your guts go on a different journey.

There’s nothing new about this. One of the other things I do during August is read all 150 Psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures. Why? Simply because I get immersed in a song book that doesn’t always reflect my mood or circumstances, but does provide a vocabulary for times yet to come. Whether howling with complaint about the injustices in life, or laughing with joy at the wonderful enormity of the cosmos, or weeping alongside those whose lives have been torn apart, or encouraging your mates to stick with it regardless of the hindrances … the whole of life is in there and there’s a song for everyone at every time and in every place.

Just over a week ago I was talking to child refugees in the countryside outside Khartoum in Sudan. Kids whose family have disappeared and who find themselves abandoned or orphaned through the violence of others. Yet, they still hear the echoes of a haunting melody that whispers of hope as they are taken in and cared for by strangers who meet them where they are. Lament is coloured by laughter; memory does not just belong to the past, but is being created for tomorrow.

So, in all the twists and turns of a fragile life, it is still possible to detect the sound of a plea uttered by Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn: “Love that fires the sun keep me burning.”

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.

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