I went with a colleague to Sudan last Saturday for a series of meetings and a day conference on ‘freedom of religion’ in Khartoum. Originally, this was instigated by the British Embassy, but then the US and Canadian embassies got involved. The Sudan government wanted to address the theme similarly, so it was all subsumed into one event last Tuesday.

The various meetings (which for me included a roundtable with diplomats, lawyers, academics and religious leaders and a dinner at the embassy with a wider group, including young civil rights people with interesting perspectives on the current protests) were characterised by frank and open conversation. Although running the schedule and chairing the conference itself, there was no restriction on open speech and honest exchange of views. I later did an hour-long television interview (a Sudanese equivalent of the BBC’s Hardtalk) in which the argument was robust as well as comprehensive.

Sudanese newspapers have offered an interesting interpretation of what I said at the conference – much of it news to me. But, they also picked up on some key points. For my address at the beginning of the day I did not have a final script. In fact, as usual when wanting to keep some flexibility in knowing how to address whom (for example, I didn’t know until I got there that the audience would include ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, civil servants, religious leaders, lawyers, academics, police and military representatives), I just had a few notes of key points to make. How to make them – and what language to use – was a matter for judgement at the moment itself.

I reconstructed my speech, not as actually delivered, but in terms of the key points made. Here it is:

I am the Bishop of Leeds in the North of England, but I also sit in the House of Lords (the upper house of the British Parliament). Questions of religious freedom – fundamental to matters of human rights – belong within the political discourse. Politics and religion cannot be separated: politics has to do with the common good – our common life together in a society of which we are equal members – and social order; religion has to do with how people live together and what motivates both individual and corporate behaviour. So, religion is political and politics cannot ignore religion. In secular states religion is too often seen as an add-on to ‘real life’ – a sort of private enterprise that sits alongside real life and social order rather than being integral to them. But, there is no neutrality.

Sudan, then, is not unique in facing questions of how in practice to guarantee freedom of religion, and the Sudanese voice in this challenging area should be heard alongside others. But, today we are focusing on the particular challenges in Sudan.

As I have said in relation to media in the UK, you can’t understand the world if you don’t understand religion. And if I am not free to change or drop my religion, then I am not free at all.

I also belong to an international parliamentary network on freedom of religion or belief. Sudan is not the only country facing challenges in relation to freedom of religion. But, we are here to address the questions particular to the Sudan. This is my third visit to Sudan – a country with whom my diocese has been linked for forty years and a country I have grown to love. So, I am here to listen and learn and be better informed about the situation in Sudan, but also here to offer an outside perspective on a matter of current importance. It is clear that three or four issues predominate here in relation to freedom of religion. I will come back to these in a moment.

Freedom of religion is integral to any consideration or exercise of human rights, based in a common humanity. Constitutions can commit to freedoms that become more difficult when we try to enshrine them in law which then shapes the lived experience of minority groups. It is precisely the translation of these commitments into real experience that is challenging. But, discrimination that is experienced by minorities becomes the touchstone of whether there is actually space for religious freedom that sees all people and faiths as equals and not just the recipients of generosity from the majority.

The three issues that become the touchstone of freedom are: (a) the closure of schools on Sunday in Khartoum State; (b) the demolition of churches and issues of land registration; (c) the default registration of babies as ‘Muslims’ (and the difficulty for Christians and others in correcting it afterwards – it can take years). A fourth issue is apostasy and the freedom to convert.

In my diocese we learned many years ago that leaders and members of faith communities need to build strong relationships when there is peace – when things are good and there is little or no conflict. It is no good waiting until a crisis occurs and then trying to build instant strong relationships; we build strong relationships in the good times in order that we are ready in solidarity for robust conversation when things get more tense.

The particular issues here in Sudan to which I referred earlier become touchstones of how freedom is experienced. So, to achieve a simple change in respect of several matters indicates something substantial about the reality of the commitments made in the Constitution regarding freedom of religion for citizens as equals. How are the commitments made in the Constitution to be translated into law and then protected in practice?

For many years I represented the Archbishop of Canterbury at global interfaith conferences where the key aspiration was ‘tolerance’. This is a weak word in English: it means that I tolerate (bear with) you, but I need not engage with you in any way that costs me anything. As a Christian I must go further. Jesus spoke of loving our neighbour – and love goes far further than tolerance. Love makes equal space and defends the interests of one’s neighbour even at cost to oneself. Love is costly … or it isn’t love.

The question for this workshop is, then, to recommend changes that the Government could easily make in respect of religious freedom. Freedom to convert goes to the heart of freedom of religion. Should an Interreligious Council be revived in order to facilitate strong conversation, relationship and advocacy? Will Muslims – the majority – stand up for the equal interests of Christians and other minorities? I trust that the workshop today will address real changes in Sudan – not only in concepts of freedom, but also in lived commitments that ensure this becomes a reality for those who find themselves discriminated against.

My key question was how to enable especially politicians to hear and respond to critical points. Freedom of religion is indicative of how human rights are negotiated and protected, so the theme itself should be seen in a wider light. There was no element of special pleading by the Christian minority, but that equality of rights and obligations in a mature democratic society must be guaranteed. Constitutions that guarantee rights and freedoms have to be supported by laws that enable them to function; but, religious (and ethnic) minorities in Sudan experience a lack of alignment between law and constitution.

Recommendations read out at the end of the day included some key ones: Sunday rules in Khartoum State that forced Christians to have Friday and Saturday as public holidays – meaning that Sunday had to be a work day – have been dropped. Problems of land registration and the demolition of churches were addressed head-on, and consideration will now be given to how the processes might be made more transparent and discussions with affected communities be handled more wisely. The registration of babies as default Muslims (and the later correction of such in the case of Christians and others) will be looked at – the principle objection was acknowledged and the administrative processes will be addressed. Perhaps the boldest recommendation – which was suggested by a government minister – was the establishment of a law reform commission to examine and report on divergence between law and constitution.

We will be following up progress on these and other matters (clear and strong representations from Muslims across civil society that apostasy should play no role in civil law and that sharia should not frame the law of the state, for instance).

So, a full visit, excellently facilitated by the British Embassy (and including preaching, meeting bishops and clergy), saw some frank discussion of challenges in Sudan, especially those that concern deeply the wider international community. Security was tight, but Khartoum felt largely relaxed. Protests are being organised at many localities rather than in one place, and some activists are clear that they will lead to change. We will see.

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.

This is the script of my address at the BBC Radio Leeds carol service recorded at Halifax Minster (with the same joke as in the Yorkshire Post piece. Sorry.

I made myself a snowball, 

As perfect as could be,

I thought I’d keep it as a pet,

And let it sleep with me.

I made it some pajamas,

And a pillow for its head,

Then last night it ran away,

But first – it wet the bed!

That was the Christmas poem by someone called Shel Silverstein. It gives new meaning to the phrase “missing the point”, but it made me laugh.

It also made me wonder what each of us thinks when the word ‘Christmas’ is heard – usually when the season begins some time in July. What are the associations in your head? Turkey, trees and tinsel? Presents pies and pudding? Family, fairies and fun?

Well, it could be anything, couldn’t it? Given my job, the first thing that comes into my mind is carols, cake and christingles. Swiftly followed by sleep after all the services.

Anyway, however you celebrate Christmas, and whoever you celebrate it with, the story at the heart of it all – familiar though it is – still has the power to surprise, encourage and challenge us. Just as a choir of angels disturbed the peace in the little town of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, Christmas sneaks into our imagination, gets behind our defences, and leaks light into the darkness. Like earth being surprised by heaven.

So, just as we are getting used to the notion that the world is falling apart – that Christmas in Yemen might not be much fun this year, for example – Christmas defiantly demonstrates that violence and power do not actually have the final word in this world. As the Gospel of John puts it: “the light has come into the world and the darkness cannot extinguish it.” Yet, even so, in the face of such defiant hope, we can too easily miss the point. Let me tell you a story.

A little boy sat in his room trying to write a note to Jesus. He wrote: “Dear Jesus, I have been a really good boy this last year, so please can I have a bike for Christmas?” But, he knew this was a bit of a fib. So, he threw it in the bin and tried again: “Dear Jesus, I have tried really hard this year and have mostly been a good boy; so, please can I have a bike?” Again, he knew this was pushing it a bit; so, in the bin it went, and then he wrote: “OK, Jesus, I haven’t been great this year, but I can try harder next year, … if you give me a bike for Christmas.” Then he threw it in the bin and gave up. “I need some fresh air,” he thought, and went out for a short walk before trying again. As he went around the corner, he glanced inside a garden and saw a large Nativity set near a neighbour’s front door. He checked no one was watching, nipped in, grabbed Mary, and hid her under his coat. Then he ran home, went up to his room, got out his pencil and paper and wrote: “If you wanna see your mother again, gimme the bike!”

But, Christmas tells us that we can’t bargain with God – and we certainly can’t threaten God. Because Christmas offends all sense of justice and tit-for-tat calculations of goodness. Read the gospels and see that Christmas is about grace and generosity – the light of God penetrating the darkness and refusing to be suppressed by misery, backstabbing, inducements or deals. No! Christmas makes the outrageous claim that however dark the world, however dark my life, however deep in the dirt I find myself, God refuses to distance himself from us, and comes to where we are.

In other words, it is physical. Christians talk about ‘incarnation’ – meaning that God declines to remain ‘a good idea somewhere out there’ and comes among us as one of us: human, flesh and blood, vulnerable as a baby in a mucky manger, subject to all the world can throw at any human being. No exemption from suffering and injustice, no protection from hard questions and tough temptations, no hiding place from reality. God among us – one of us.

Now, this could just remain a nice idea. Or it can take flesh in us. As we sing the carols and re-tell the story, we can let the snowball of hope melt our hardness and leave its mark on our life.

Happy Christmas!

This is the text of a commissioned article published in the excellent Yorkshire Post yesterday:

A quick story.

A little boy sat in his room trying to write his Christmas letter. He wrote: “Dear Jesus, I have been a really good boy this last year, so please can I have a bike for Christmas?” He knew this was a bit of a fib, so, he threw it in the bin and tried again: “Dear Jesus, I have tried really hard this year and have mostly been a good boy; so, please can I have a bike for Christmas?” Again, he knew this was pushing it a bit; so, in the bin it went, and then he wrote: “OK, Jesus, I haven’t been great this year, but I can try harder next year, … if you give me a bike for Christmas.” Then he threw it in the bin and gave up. “I need some fresh air,” he thought, and went out for a short walk before trying again. As he went around the corner, he glanced inside a garden and saw a large Nativity set near a neighbour’s front door. He checked no one was watching, nipped in, grabbed Mary, and hid her under his coat. Then he ran home, went up to his room, got out his pencil and paper and wrote: “If you wanna see your mother again, gimme the bike!”

At a time in our nation’s history when all the talk is of ‘deals’, it might be salutary to realise that deals are not everything. Christmas tells us that we can’t bargain with God and there are no deals to be done.

Does this sound a bit odd? Well, it should do. We now seem to live in a culture that values economics, money and trade above all else. Each time I ask (in the House of Lords, for instance) for whom the economy exists, I get blank looks. That the economy exists for the sake of people – and not vice versa – seems counter-cultural these days. Not everybody welcomes the question: what is the vision that Brexit is supposed to fulfil, and how do we quantify ‘the national interest’?

Christmas has something powerful to say to us as individuals – yes; but, it also challenges our social assumptions and rhetoric. Christmas says that people matter more than money, generosity more than the grasping of rights, love more than competition for advantage. Christmas whispers to an unsuspecting world that God comes into the ordinary and makes it extraordinary – not waiting until the world and our lives are all sorted, but coming among us as one of us and not open to bargaining, deal-making or competing.

This is why Christmas creeps up on us once a year, inviting us to put aside the truth claims of politicians, the power claims of those who have lost sight of dignity and social order, the pompous pretensions of those for whom status is everything. The baby of Bethlehem is born to parents whose relationship is socially questionable; born in obscurity in territory occupied by a military power; born to be hunted by a king and sent into exile for his own protection. A refugee as a toddler, he will lose his father by the age of 12, leave his family by 30, and be dead within two or three years.

And this is where the no-deals come in. The people who would respond to Jesus were those who knew they had no pretensions to uphold – that God comes to them anyway. And to those who assume that God is distant, standing remote from the muckiness of the world and keeping himself clean, Christmas says that God plunges into the heart of the real world – right into the places where the pain is most acute and life most bewildering or challenging. When I pray, this is a God who knows where I am and we are.

So, I will sing the carols of God’s free offering of himself in love to a complicated and sometimes brutal world. And I will still feel a little unease when the organ strikes up with Adeste Fideles and its glorious descants: I still think we should be singing “O come, all ye faithless”. For Christmas is the opening of God’s arms – and, therefore, of the arms of those who bear his name and claim faith in him – to a world that hasn’t asked for him, but longs for liberation and healing and redemption. No deals. No bargains. No competition. Just grace, mercy, generosity and the possibility of a new start and a different way.

Fantasy? Nonsense? Or a message that dares us to think again about who we want to be and how we want our society to be shaped?

Christmas can be sidelined into some religious compartment that we drag out once a year but keep tamed and away from real life. We can keep it as a remote and other-worldly fairy story … or we can dig deeper into the familiar story and ask what the God behind this story offers to people everywhere. For myself, I will consider again the response that Christmas – God surprising earth with heaven – invites from me: to follow the Jesus of the gospels, wherever this leads, whatever it costs, and however it challenges my assumptions about the way the world is.

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

Icelandic isn’t one of my languages, but I learned recently about something called Jolabokaflod. It literally means ‘Yule Book Flood’ – a tradition where Icelanders give each other books on Christmas Eve and then spend the night reading them.

Of course, what this Jolabokaflod tradition suggests is that reading is a good thing and worth investing in. Reading – especially fiction – awakens the imagination and has the capacity to get around the intellectual defences to reach the parts propositions don’t usually reach.

Former US President Barack Obama said in an interview with writer Marilynne Robinson: “The most important stuff I’ve learned I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy – with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to work for that.”

Clearly, there is something powerful about reading beyond your own experience and looking at the world through the eyes of characters who are different from yourself. It is how good stories work: opening us up and not closing down our capacity for reflection.

The Christmas story is no different. A million Nativity plays have the power to make the story of the birth of Jesus either remote and fanciful or just dulled by familiarity. It isn’t hard to see why some people assume the whole thing is a quaint fantasy. But, this is to miss the point. The Nativity smacks of real people, real human experience and the real world of politics, injustice and fear.

Jesus wasn’t born in a school hall or at the front of a church in England. Rather, he was born to bewildered and conflicted parents in a part of the Middle East occupied by the Roman Empire … who were not known for their philanthropy or human kindness. This was a world of violence in which life was cheap and survival everything.

And, yet, the gospel writers shine through this scene of childbirth-against-the-odds the light of hope and possibility. They suggest that light has shone in the darkness of a complex world and whispered a hint of newness into the human lives that we know – with all their pain and joy and doubt and confusion. The power mongers scheme to keep the world shaped in their own interest while a vulnerable baby breathes in the air of freedom – the freedom of one who will grow to challenge the powers, the ‘this is just how the world is’ merchants.

In other words, whatever dominates the news and crowds out our consciousness can be challenged by the leaking in of a different light. That’s Christmas. Is Jolabokaflod worth a go, even if I can’t quite pronounce it?

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. In the studio were Lee Mack, Paloma Faith, Tom Kerridge and Catherine Tate and the Kingdom Choir. Last time before Chris moves to Virgin after Christmas.

‘Tis the season to be joyful, ‘tis the time to be glad. Apparently. And so it should be, too. Christmas is about God surprising earth with heaven and leaking some hope into the stuff of human life.

A remote fairy tale? Some might think that, but the stories in the gospels tell of ordinary people – sometimes the unlikely people – finding light interrupting their darkness and opening up a new future.

So, ‘tis indeed the season to be joyful and a time to be glad. But, ‘tis also the season to have humdingers of arguments and family squabbles. How do I know this – when my own family exemplifies perpetual and imperturbable peace and harmony, (of course)?

I read in a newspaper on the train yesterday that it’s good to argue with your partner and bad to keep it all in. The article was actually about couples where one vents their feelings and irritations and the other keeps schtumm – keeping in what really needs to get out. It seems it’s bad for your health to do this.

And, as Christmas approaches with the speed of a kid running away from the sprouts, we all know that tensions rise and tempers flare. The pressures of money, time and relationships all pile on, and some people cope with it better than others.

I know people this Christmas who will be spending the day in a church or community centre with people who are alone, lonely or otherwise isolated. Many bishops will be going into prisons where ‘happy Christmas’ sounds a bit hollow. I will be in two cathedrals (because I am greedy and have three of the things in my Diocese), conscious that apparent joy can hide grief … and it needs someone to help it out.

So, ‘tis the season to look out for your neighbour – to look behind the tree and the tinsel to the flashes of pain and grief that might be lurking underneath. But, it’s also the time to belt out the carols – even the ones that have a baby who never cried – , be surprised by heaven, and to have your imagination grasped by a God who comes among us as one of us and whispers behind our defences: “I am with you, I am on your side.”

Ths is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme – delivered five minutes after the announcement that Tory MPs have triggered a vote of no confidence in Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party.

Today Russians are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their post-Soviet constitution. Russians tell a powerful and emotional story of their past – of their identity, the “soul of Russia” – a story that gives meaning and direction to who they are in the world today. For them, the idea of the Motherland is everything.

But, Russians aren’t unique. Every country, every community lives within a narrative – a story that shapes their unconscious worldview and directs their affections … for good or ill.

Christians inhabit a narrative that emerges from particular stories in their scriptures. The liberation theologians who sided with the poor in South and Central America in the 1970s onwards were fired by the story of Israel – held captive in Egypt for four hundred years before being liberated to freedom in a new land.

As these people prepared to start a new life there, they developed narratives and rituals to remind them of their fundamental story and identity. For example, they would always bring the first 10% of their future crop harvests to the priests and recite a creed that began with a founding statement: “My ancestors were homeless nomads.” So, inhabiting this story today, backed by ritual, should suggest how poor homeless people should be seen in the society being shaped.

Later, in the New Testament account, when Jesus invited his friends to share bread and wine in memory of himself – what we call Communion or the Eucharist – he did so knowing that they would filter this through the story of the exodus.

So, Motherland, Exodus, Communion: our guiding narratives grow out of what’s gone before and now shape our behaviour and values. But, what happens when stories collide or pass each other by? For example, the current mismatch between understandings in the UK and Europe of their shared history of the last century – particularly over the purpose and value of shared EU institutions. In a UK that itself comprises a number of national identities, we must ask if it is possible now to create a shared story that can challenge the clashing assumptions feeding our current confusions.

The thing about the Christian narratives I mentioned earlier is that they are spacious. That is, they demand human agency and commitment, and they do not remove moral accountability from those who claim or inhabit their narrative.

So, can the British agree on a story that will guide us in the future, reminding us where we have come from, who we are and who we want to be? Faced with a crisis that demands an immediate fix, it is probably this deeper story that will fire our affections and drive our allegiances.