A few days holiday allow space for recording a few books read recently.

Doctors at War, ethnographer Professor Mark de Rond’s powerful record of his time embedded with a medical unit at Camp Bastian in Afghanistan, provokes much thought and emotion. It is clear that exposure to the sheer unnecessary and seemingly random suffering of ordinary people as well as combatants raises questions of theodicy. This disturbs Mark’s own faith questions, and leads him ultimately to an expression of atheism. Reading the book, however, provoked in me a different question: not how we account for suffering and evil, but, rather, how we account for joy in a world of such suffering? This is not glib; I would love to see a further discussion of it.

At the other end of the scale is Simon Jenkins’ entertaining romp
through Christian faith and its oddities, Jumble Sales of the Apocalypse. The book comprises columns Simon published in the United Reformed Church (not ‘Reform’ as it says in the book itself) magazine Reform. Making theology simple and accessible is not as easy as Simon makes it look. He shines an unusual light from an unusual angle to open up our thinking and not close it down. As I know from years of writing scripts for Radio 2, this isn’t always an obvious or simple task.

Sitting here in Berlin waiting for a thunder storm to break, it is worth
recommending James Hawes breathless race through the entire history of Germany. The Shortest History of Germany is excellent and enlightening, but it is clear he neither likes nor trusts Prussians. A better overview of Europe’s most important country you will not find – and in these days of Brexit and Trump, with a German election coming up later this year, it is worth the quick read.

Finally for now, Tom Fletcher’s book about the impac of digital change on international diplomacy, The Naked Diplomat, is excellent. Again, an easy read, it says a lot about communication, leadership and handling change. It also contains the most memorable quote about diplomacy – inevitably from Winston Churchill: “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”

Discuss.

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

I have no idea how I would handle watching children being brought into a makeshift hospital following a chemical attack. Or anyone caught up in war, for that matter. Mark de Rond is an ethnographer who got himself embedded with a medical unit at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan in 2012, and his book ‘Doctors at War’ is a raw, honest account of his experiences watching surgeons at work. Two things came over to me: first, the questions raised about mortality and meaning when senseless human brutality is all around, and secondly, the challenge – interspersed with sheer boredom – of not being in control of the dramas when casualties are brought in.

On Good Friday Christians stare into the eyes of helpless cruelty and loss, and are forced to live with it. But, it perhaps shines an appropriate light onto the experience of those first followers of Jesus of Nazareth who found their hopes of liberation and deliverance bleeding from a cross into the dirt.

Good Friday is not for the squeamish – however over-familiar we might be with its story of suffering. Yet, the world is not for the squeamish either. According to the Institute for Strategic Studies nearly half a million people have died in conflict in the last couple of years. Add to them the fact that the world now has nearly 22 million refugees – half of them under eighteen – and you can see the problem.

For a huge proportion of the world’s population life means suffering, struggle, pain and loss. For many there is little or no hope of return or resolution. I have just spent a week with bishops from places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Sudan whose stories sometimes are hard to hear.

Good Friday compels me to look the reality of such suffering in the eye and urges me not to be distracted from the uncomfortable questions it poses. And this is why Christians must not rush from the agony of Friday to the joy of Sunday’s resurrection. We can’t control the pain or the process. We still have to wake up on Saturday with the emptiness of loss and the harrowing recognition that it wasn’t all just a bad dream. We have to live with it and face it.

This isn’t easy. It isn’t comfortable. But, it is necessary if we are to begin to comprehend the lived experience of too many people for whom hope has evaporated in loss or suffering. Christians would add that the cross also offers a lens through which to approach the real world where God makes himself no stranger to all that can be thrown at him – or at us. And this is why the forgiveness of the cross is never cheap, never romantic, never merely notional. It asks us not to look away.

Today I will decide how to respond to the challenge to make Friday good.

Globalisation is the word we keep hearing. Indeed, the world has shrunk and contact with people of different cultures and contexts can be immediate. News is instant and judgements are quick (even if ludicrously limited or wild). But, despite HSBC’s claim to be ‘the world’s local bank’, it is the ‘uniquely local’ that always matters most. Here in Bradford one question that nags away at me (as a relative newcomer) is: how does this city become uniquely Bradford and not simply a competitor with somewhere else (like Leeds)?

One of the privileges of being a bishop is that you get out and about a lot – visiting real people in real local places, hearing local stories, learning about the uniquely local realities, and seeing one ‘locality’ through the lens of another. For example, whenever we grapple with inner-urban issues (both challenges and opportunities) we do so partly by looking at them through the lens of the rural and suburban. And, of course, vice versa. This means that there is always another perspective – a different light to shine on one reality/context – that inevitably questions our assumptions, checks our excuses and compels us to look more broadly.

This doesn’t just apply to geography and demography. In my travels around the diocese I also try to help people to read the Bible in this way: seeing the particular reading in the light of the whole narrative and allowing assumptions or prejudices to be challenged by looking at the text from a different perspective. It is like looking at a cropped fragment of a painting or photograph, working out what is is about, then drawing back to the wider canvas and – on seeing the true, fuller picture – revising our prior judgement in the light of what we now see.

Yesterday’s budget by the Chancellor in London is no doubt causing a lot of sound and fury around the country. I haven’t had time to look at it as all day every day seems to be filled with people and work at the moment – all good stuff and the stuff of the real world. But, as well as asking what impact the budget will have on people locally – especially poor, sick and vulnerable people – yesterday saw the bodies of the six (five from Yorkshire) soldiers killed recently in Afghanistan repatriated to England. I was asked recently on the telly how the people of Bradford were coping with the news of their tragic deaths – as if I should know how everyone is thinking or feeling! Yet, the question is valid in the sense that a soldier from Bradford has a connection (at lots of levels: identity, locality, commonality of environment and experience) that a soldier from Brighton does not and cannot have.

Identity and association work at different levels. When I am abroad I am fiercely English/British; in England I am Scouse; in Yorkshire I am Bradfordian; in Bradford I am… er… trying to learn what ‘Bradford’ is and what ‘Bradfordian’ means. Which I love.

Being positive about locality is not about being blind to its challenges. But, it does mean (in Christian terms) taking ‘presence and engagement’ seriously. Christianity is inherently incarnational: we see God in the person of Jesus who then sees us as his body, called with a single mandate, therefore, to reflect the Jesus we read about in the gospels. And this means paying attention to the local, the small, the parochial, the relatively insignificant, the everyday realities that shape the lives (for good or ill) of people in every community. Which is what the Church of England tries to do, using its clergy, people, buildings, ‘purchasing power’, and down-to-earth commitment to transform both the way we live and the way we see – from the inside out and from the outside in.

Today I am meeting nine curates, one after the other, for interviews about their future ministerial deployment. Conversation about their ministry has with it huge consequences for spouses, children, families, schooling, employment, etc. It is easy to take this commitment for granted, but it is frequently remarkable and humbling. And it always takes place in the context of trying to hold the individual in the light of the common and the local in the light of the wider church and world.

It is never boring.

Given the awful news in the last week of deaths in Afghanistan (6 British soldiers and then 16 Afghan civilians), I wasn’t sure what to write for Pause for Thought on this morning’s Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. How do we address something like this in a couple of minutes in the context of a lively, fun show?

 

I immediately thought of the blues – I was downloading an Eric Clapton CD to my iPad at the time. Whihc is why I began my script as follows:

 

You know what it’s like when you listen to an album time and time again, but you never really take any notice of the song titles – and then you have a look at the back of the CD box… and you wonder what you’ve been listening to? Well, I was getting an Eric Clapton album onto my computer (Me and Mr Johnson, if you must know) and, apart from the epic They’re Red Hot (er… let’s not go there), the one that caught my eye was the intriguing Milkcow’s Calf Blues. I still don’t know if this refers to the baby cow born to the milkcow, or the lower rear leg muscle of the cow itself…


The blues often have odd titles. When I was a teenager I played trumpet in a jazz group and one of my favourite tunes was St James Infirmary Blues – a Louis Armstrong classic. I have no idea which St James Infirmary it referred to, but I guess it wasn’t the one in Leeds.


The thing about the blues is that they always dig deep into human experience and the everyday stuff of our lives. Like the Psalms of the Old Testament, they lend a vocabulary to the profoundest – and often most painful experiences of loss and love and longing. They give a voice to those bits of life we find it hardest to express – especially if such expression makes us sound weak or miserable or, worst of all, a failure.

 

I have written about the blues elsewhere. The power of the blues is in the raw honesty, the lack of fear of exposure or ridicule. They often strip away the veneers of human self-sufficiency. They go deep. Try listening to Clapton’s River of Tears (on Pilgrim) and you hear the music weeping.

 

Anyway, how should we apply this briefly to events of the last week – especially as the news came in this morning of an appalling tragedy in Switzerland in which 28 Belgian people were killed in a coach crash, 22 of them children?

 

In a week in which six soldiers were killed in Afghanistan – five of them from West Yorkshire – and a rogue American soldier systematically killed 16 innocent people in Kandahar, and the dreadful news from Switzerland this morning, perhaps we need the blues to give us a voice. Otherwise, how do we say something useful about such horrors and the agony of sudden loss?


There is a time for simply voicing the pain – not trying to make some sense out of it. The psalmists cry out at the injustice of this world – the same now as it was three thousand years ago – and tell us that God invites us to be honest, not correct.

 

It doesn’t exactly nail theodicy. But it is a rather feeble example of how to try to say something useful when rationalising is inappropriate, but something needs to be said that shines some light on our reaction to events that tear at our heart. The context shapes the content.

One of the benefits of not living in London is that traveling to London allows time to read. My Inbox is empty, my desk is clear, correspondence is all done and I am ready for Christmas. And now the’s just catch-up to play with the books, papers, articles and briefings that haven’t quite found their way to the top of the pile.
 
So, coming down to London (I’m doing Pause for Thought on the BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Show and then meetings tomorrow before getting back to speak at the Bradford City FC Carol Service at Bradford Cathedral in the evening) got me reading a pile of papers. All very important and worthy stuff and I feel better for having read it all. But, I got to my hotel and stuck the telly on… and that’s where the perspective changed.
 
I don’t usually watch awards shows, but this one captured me. I switched straight in to ITV’s A Night of Heroes: The Military Awards 2011 and listened to the story of a reservist paramedic who saved the life of a soldier in Afghanistan who had been shot in the head by a Taleban sniper. This was followed by four seriously injured soldiers who raised funds for charity by walking unaided to the North Pole (with Prince Harry).
 
I have to admit to a deep unease with the way in which the word ‘heroes’ is being used in relation to our military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. From the safety of comfortable England I wouldn’t be so insensitive as to question the language used to draw attention to the people who don’t have the luxury of sitting in an armchair and doing semantic criticism. But, watching this awards ceremony makes it clearer than ever that people are not heroes for simply being in a place of conflict – that’s what they signed up for. Heroism comes in when people, with disregard to their own survival, put their life on the line to save someone else. To do this when people are shooting at you is one thing – you can hear from the stories how the adrenalin cuts in and you do something extraordinary. But, to do it again and again – conscious of the real fear and the potential cost – that is heroism.
 
These stories are astonishing. Seeing the human emotion in relationships forged by shocking violence is powerful.
 
But, the contrasts are also there to be seen on the screen. The audience includes glamorous telly stars and footballers (OK, I spotted Frank Lampard, Jeremy Clarkson and some dancer from Strictly Come Dancing)… but I just wonder how the pay of these extraordinary soldiers and medics compares with the pay of the media stars.
 
I’m not being bitchy. I just wonder what it says about our values and how we reward those who do the ‘harder’ job. Silly question, I know. But, it seems wrong that soldiers who have given life and limb at the command of politicians have to rely on charities to support them when they return to what we loosely call ‘civilisation’.
 
For the first time I feel we are watching real heroes… without having to quibble with the wording. These stories put the trivia of most of our superficial culture into perspective. (And I still hope the Military Wives get the number one spot at Christmas.)

And there’s the problem.

Osama bin Laden is no hero of mine and no hero of most people in the Western world. But he is a hero to many others and his death will, I suspect, lead to more trouble rather than less.

Right at the end of Bertold Brecht’s satire on the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, the actor playing the now dead ‘Cauliflower King’ Ui comes onto the blacked-out stage, rips off his false moustache and says (bluntly):

The bastard may be dead, but the bitch is back on heat.

Or something to that effect. Bin Laden might be dead, but he will continue to be an icon of violent resistance to those who need him to justify their fear and anger and self-justifying sense of victimhood.

The lesson for the West must surely be to adopt policies around the world which are ‘right’ and promote justice… and not simply use wealth and military power to promote our own political or economic expediency. I remember well covering the original Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, during which Bin Laden was deemed someone to support. Remember Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of the early 1980s and how the least worst dictator could be equipped for what turned out to be a rather short-term benefit. Remember Libya. Or Egypt.

Bin Laden should be remembered primarily for committing the biggest sin of all: using God to justify actions which deny the very character of God. If God is all-merciful, then his people had better show mercy. To brutalise and destroy human life (including those whose minds get wilfully perverted) denies the fundamental nature of God himself – the one who creates and gives life.

Despite the euphoria in the USA today, I suspect celebration might not the best response to the death of Bin Laden. Humble reflection might be more appropriate once the immediate shock has died down. And this was the message I heard from a young Muslim leader on TV this evening: bin Laden has been a disaster for most Muslims who have experienced some degree of Islamophobia in the West; but jubilation on the streets will not ultimately prove to be very helpful. Obama might think ‘justice has been done’; but, despite overtones of ‘atonement’, we might reflect that vengeance isn’t necessarily the same as justice.

As we are about to begin the haunting journey through Holy Week (which needs to be lived as if we didn’t know the outcome), I have been doing two things: listening to the new Bruce Cockburn album and reading Tony Blair‘s A Journey.

Holy Week takes us with Jesus and his friends through places of apparent confusion to a place of dereliction and apparent abandonment. Some time ago Jesus ‘set his face to Jerusalem’ and knowingly entered the heart of political and religious power. This place in which God is blasphemed, his people exploited and political integrity compromised is the place you go to if you have a death-wish… or a point to make or a change to bring. The rubbish dump outside the city is riddled with the gallows used to humiliatingly execute those who dare to challenge Rome.

Read the Gospel accounts and it is clear that Jesus knew where he was going and what was likely to happen there; but, his friends travel with an optimistic misconception about their enterprise. And, ultimately, instead of their hero doing the stuff of religious vindication and political victory, he seems to walk directly into the trap set by the imperialists and their puppets. Why does he do this and why doesn’t he explain himself to his friends? Why doesn’t he avoid the personal pain and suffering and the radical disappointment and disillusionment of those who might now feel conned?

Well, part of the answer lies earlier in the Gospels when Jesus, immediately prior to his public ministry, faces up with ruthless honesty to the most fundamental questions of his character and motivation. In the desert, away from distraction, he cannot escape the questions: Are you in this for the power and glory? Are you really prepared to deny your own material needs in order to stick to your course? Do you really have to walk the way of pain and suffering – surely there must be another way? If you really are the Messiah, why must you walk this way and suffer such an apparently futile fate?

All of this goes against ‘normal’ assumptions about power, rights, purpose and value. Having faced it in the desert, now Jesus faces the reality as he walks towards the place where his commitments will be tested and he will discover whether or not he has been deluding himself.

Yet, his friends just don’t get it. He doesn’t try to tell them what they won’t understand. He knows that they will have to learn their own way – that there is no short-cut to re-shaping their world view or their fundamental assumptions about who and how God is. He has to let them do this in their way and in their time – and he can’t spare them the pain of it all. No short-cuts, no easy explanations, no false comforts, no escapism. (And we must resist the urge to leap too quickly from Good Friday to Easter Day without living – and enabling others to live – through the sheer bewildering emptiness and horror of Saturday. Sunday makes no sense without the experience of that desolation and sense of deep disappointment.

But, where do Tony Blair and Bruce Cockburn fit into this? The answer is: indirectly and tangentially, but interestingly.

I deliberately waited to read Blair’s book until the rather tedious and predictable judgements on it and him had gone away. There was little in the immediate criticism of the book that was enlightening. As Blair himself recognises (repeatedly) in the book, prejudices about him – his motives and the nature of particular events – are not going to be changed by Blair’s own account. Views are too entrenched. However, the best he can hope for is that people will understand why he took the decisions he did – particularly in relation to Afghanistan and Iraq – and on the basis of what information. He asks for comprehension, not agreement.

What has surprised me in the book is Blair’s honesty about the failures and his generosity to those who made his life and work difficult. And I now wonder whether my resistance to his defence of George Bush’s intelligence and integrity actually says more about me than it does either of them.

However, what I have found most intriguing is the way Blair draws lessons of leadership from his experience – albeit with the benefit of hindsight. The most explicit discourse on this comes in the chapter on the Northern Ireland conflict and the Good Friday Agreement. But, he illustrates well the loneliness of leadership and the agonising nature of decison-making when the loud voices around you want you to decide differently. Even if a million people march against you and accuse you of lying, how do you do what you believe to be right rather than what is either popular or expedient?

Now, I am not defending his decisions regarding Iraq; that’s for him to do. (And just to nobble those who might selectively quote me and accuse me of associating Blair with Jesus… it is the phenomenon of leadership demands that I am thinking about, not the nature of the messianic!) What I am interested in here is the matter of authentic leadership when the heat is on. What sort of leadership is it that prefers not to face the challenges of action (as opposed to loud words and empty threats) and looks to political expediency or electoral popularity as their principal guide when taking far-reaching decisions? In Blair’s case, he recognises the charge of the ‘messiah complex’ and does seem very sure of his own rightness. But, that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t right to make some of the decisions he did. As he states, only he could make them and make them he did.

I don’t know Tony Blair. I only met him once and our conversation got interrupted before it had got going. But, I feel more intrigued now to understand more about his motivation than I did before reading the book. I am not sure I have changed my mind on key elements of the decisions made, but I understand better why he made them. And, ultimately, regardless of whether or not those around him agree or understand, he still had to decide what he thought was right and not what might be merely expedient in the short-term.

And Bruce Cockburn? Back in 2004 he wrote a song called This is Baghdad. On the Life Short Call Now album, he rails against the misery and destruction in Iraq:

Everything’s broken in the birthplace of law / As Generation Two tries on his magic flaw

Carbombed and carjacked and kidnapped and shot / How do you like it, this freedom we brought? / We packed all the ordnance but the thing we forgot / Was a plan in case it didn’t turn out quite like we thought. / This is Baghdad…

It is angry and horrified and yet offers no solutions. Fair enough. The poet’s job is to illuminate, not resolve.

But, in his wonderful new acoustic studio album Small Source of Comfort he has two songs about Afghanistan. One – The Comets of Kandahar – is a guitar piece about the sight of jet fighters taking off after dark, invisisble apart from the purple flame from the tailpipe. The second is a powerfully moving elegy to dead soldiers. He was about to board a plane at Camp Mirage, a Canadian staging post in the Middle East, when he found himself part of a Ramp Ceremony in which the remains of two Canadian casualties were honoured before being repatriated. He says in the sleeve notes: “One of the saddest and most moving scenes I’ve been privileged to witness… this song is dedicated to the memory of Major Yannick Pepin and Corporal Jean-Francois Drouin”.

The song needs to be heard rather than the lyrics simply read. Like a good Psalm of lament, it is drawn beautifully and tragically from the bowels of the poet:

Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see / each one lost is a vital part of you and me.

Cockburn’s anger about the conflict is not enough to prevent him seeing beauty in the darkness or compassion in the particular. He also allows prejudice to be challenged by experience.

Discuss…