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.

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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 Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in the wake of the UK’s political situation.

The Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan once wrote “the times they are a-changing”. I think he was probably thinking of the particular times in which he was living. But, it now sounds like a statement of the obvious. Time is always changing. That’s the point of it.

But, an equally famous hymn, often sung at Cup Finals and funerals, contains the miserable line: “Change and decay in all around I see,” implying that the two go together – that change is inevitably sad.

Well, events of the last few years should really put this into perspective. A week or two ago I was in Germany, taking part in events in what – not so long ago – was the Communist East. The bipolar post-war world I and my German friends grew up with seemed “just the way the world is”. Yet, now, Germany is united, the Soviet Union has gone, Donald Trump is in the White House, we are leaving the European Union, migration has changed everything, stability has become a fantasy for most people, and the future looks fragile and uncertain.
Which just shows that reality trumps certainty every time. And the promise of certainty often proves to be a fantasy.

I can never escape this. The starting point of Christian faith is a coming to terms with mortality. From dust we have come, and to dust we shall return. All life is like the grass that grows and gets blown away by the wind. Everything has its season, so don’t get caught up in the vain pursuit of … er … vanity. Faith is not an escapist holding on to a way of seeing the world that defies reality; rather, it can be described as a lens through which reality is recognised and faced – without fear.

In other words, we need to live with humility in the face of what might be possible – as what might be possible does not always coincide with what we might find desirable or convenient. Change is a constant, and an achievable vision has to be able to respond to it.

So, the hard question has to do with what roots us while we and everything around us changes? If my life is the relentless chasing after security or perpetuity – what someone called “gaining the world but losing one’s soul” – I might well be very disappointed. Jesus never seduced anyone into following him, but invited them to go with him on a journey that could lead anywhere – even to a cross.

One theologian wrote: “God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.” We don’t know what the future holds. It is uncertainty that is normal. We have to learn to embrace it.

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

Just about a year ago I skirted the Isis stronghold of Mosul in Iraq. I was out there with colleagues visiting refugees, internally displaced people, church leaders and politicians in Kurdistan – particularly in and around Erbil and Dohuk. We spent time with Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, hearing harrowing stories of loss and fear and hope.

Yet, Mosul, so solid a base for Isis only a year or so ago, is now seeing the possibility of release and relief. How the mighty fall.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise. After all, this is the part of the world where civilisation as we know it actually began. When you read the narratives of three thousand years ago which we call the Old Testament, the events recorded took place here – between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Here we find the ruins of the most ancient societies – where human beings brought order out of chaos and the first empires were built.

And this is what the story of Iraq teaches us. Now is not the end. There was a time when mention of the words Babylon, Assyria, Egypt or Rome struck fear into the hearts of ordinary people – not least those conquered by the apparently invincible powers. Living in what is often called ‘the ultimate Now’, it is hard to see beyond the suffering or success of the present day – to hang on to the possibility of freedom or the defeat of the empire which controls life and death now.

So, when we read texts like those of the Old Testament – their poetry, their protest and passion – the point is clear: empires come and go; the powerful will be brought down and the meek raised up; tomorrow will not always look like today.

But, such a perspective demands a rare discipline. We have to be able to see the present as transient – not the defining reality. Put differently, we have to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear. Our central core as individuals and as a society has to be rooted in a clear understanding of what makes a human being and what makes a humane society. Christians would say that whatever the state of the world now, wherever power is seated, it is the God of resurrection who draws us into a future that is not held captive to the past. It is a vision drawn from a reading of history and scriptures that keeps power and suffering in perspective – that death, violence and destruction do not actually have the final word.

Now, not everyone will be fired by the same conviction. But, the warning to Babylon, to Isis, to global military, economic and political powers, has not changed since human society emerged in what is now Iraq: you won’t be here for ever and you might be called to account.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in which dementia was one of the themes chosen by guest editor Carey Mulligan:

When I was a Vicar in Leicestershire I was constantly surprised by visits to elderly people who suffered from some form of dementia. Now usually silent, play a harvest hymn or sing a Christmas carol and they would join in. I well remember the agony of a wife no longer recognised by her husband, and her bemusement when he broke his silence and started singing.

With dementia it seems as if the person we love has entered a different world, and it is those who remember all too well who feel the deep sense of loss and bereavement.

Some things go very deep. And when all else has become submerged into a different sort of consciousness, a vestige of deeper identity sometimes survives. Is it just the poetry? Or the tune? Or what?
These are not insignificant questions for anyone coping consciously with the onset of their own dementia or the almost-disappearance of someone they have loved for decades. When our memory has gone, who are we? And, I might add, why do we still matter?

Memory is so important to our sense of who we are that the loss of it is always going to be grievous. So, there are two responses that I as a Christian would venture in the face of this experience.
First, the creation narratives in Genesis (which address ‘why’ questions and not ‘how’ questions) state simply that human beings are made in the image of God. All Christian ethics emerge from this. That is why every human being is ultimately valuable, worth loving and capable of redemption. So, losing my own sense of identity does not reduce my intrinsic worth. If I forget God, God does not forget me. Or, as the prophet Isaiah put it to a people who feared for their future, “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

Secondly, the liturgical shaping of the year by festivals like Christmas is designed to instil deep within us – from cradle to grave – a sense of individual and communal identity. The people of Israel entering the land of promise were required to tell stories that would be handed down the generations, accompanied by simple rituals involving stuff and action – no disembodied spirituality here. This ensured that the memory was formed and recalled. It was also so that people inhabited the memory of who they were and where they had come from; it wasn’t just that life rolled on in some formless way without the waymarkers of identity.

Dementia raises big questions. But, maybe the carols get sung by the silent because they grew up hearing, telling and living the narrative of God who never forgets his people. In an age when so many rituals and the repetition of stories are losing their grip, this faces us with the question of what will form our generation’s children and root their sense of meaning and value.

I have a weird life.

Last Monday I chaired a Bishop's Staff Meeting in Leeds before getting the train to London to record BBC Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage (Christmas special) with Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox. I got the first train back to Leeds for the formal opening of our new diocesan office on Tuesday morning. Wednesday saw me back on the train to London for the House of Lords (also on Thursday) covering a number of issues facing the country and the world. Thursday evening I was on a panel at City University, London, on the ethics of migration – with some excellent panellists that made me want to do more academic work again. Friday morning I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 (always a privilege) before having coaching and then doing a shed load of emails and other work. Saturday and Sunday were spent at Limehouse with my cell group, and Monday I spent in bed feeling like death. Today was the House of Bishops at Lambeth Palace, followed by a meeting with the government's Lord Bourne on faith issues'. Now I am back on the train to Leeds.

Me and Nick Baines

Why do I tell you that? Well, few people get an idea of what a bishop does – or the range of stuff that he/she is expected to cover. Simply illustrative. Back in Leeds, I start at 8am tomorrow and have meetings all day in the Diocese. Never boring.

But, while all this is going on the world bleeds.

One of the recurring conversations at the moment is whether democracy works. Well, of course it does. It delivers what people vote for. However, it is not necessarily truthful, intelligent or wise. It does not necessarily deliver what people thought they were voting for. Nothing new there. But, one of the glaringly bizarre questions emerging from both Brexit and Trump is why people didn't question the language used by the elite who led the campaigns. For example, who exactly is “the establishment” if it isn't the very people who were slagging off the establishment? How is “the elite”, if it isn't hugely privileged and economically comfortable people who will not suffer one iota from the consequences of what they persuaded people to vote for!

How many billionaires are there in the Trump administration? Why is President Putin so happy?

And all this finds focus in the cries of the children of Aleppo. While the blood flows today in the final brutality of war, the rest of us are confronted with an unpalatable challenge: we tell our government not to apply military power in Syria … only to complain that the Russian/Assad violence on our screens has been exercised without opposition. The West doesn't know what it believes. No wonder Sergei Lavrov (Russian Foreign Minister) was quoted on Twitter this afternoon as saying: ” We are fed up with the constant whining of our American colleagues.”

We will see what happens. In the meantime, Christians will find a vocabulary in the Psalms for the conflicted cries of “how long?” and “why do the poor suffer?” and “why are we so rubbish at getting things right for the sake of the weak and vulnerable?” (which,I admit, is a rough translation).

As I mentioned in a debate in the House of Lords some weeks ago (on the admission to the UK of unaccompanied Syrian refugee children from Calais), the generation of children who suffer from our inactivity will not forget what we did not do for them. The seeds of the next three or four generations' violence are being sown now.

And we cannot pretend ignorance.

 

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

This week we have heard two stories about violence and extremism that raise questions about how it is possible to move on from terrible trauma into a new future. One involves Christians who have fled from their villages in Iraq and now refuse to return. They are too afraid of violence and no longer see their houses or communities as 'home'. They are driven by fear and suspicion – and it doesn't take too much imagination to work out why. After centuries of living side by side with people of different religious commitment and ethnic identity, these societies are now fragmented, divided and shredded of trust.

The second is the conviction and sentencing yesterday of Thomas Mair for the murder of MP Jo Cox. The sheer dignity of her family in the face of this violence has been remarkable. But, now they have to reconcile themselves to a lifetime without the woman who was their mother, wife, daughter and sister, and so on. Shaping a new future in the light of such loss is not an easy task.

So, two events – one far away in Iraq where I visited refugees earlier this year, and one in my own diocese – where we see the human and social consequences of extremism which leads to isolation and violence, and where reconciliation looks hard to find. But, giving up on the possibility of reconciliation only condemns people to further isolation, fear, distrust and suspicion.

Words like “peace and reconciliation” can appear bland; but the task of reconciling is demanding and costly. It's about trying to hold together people whose experience has torn them apart. The whole point of it is that already divided, damaged and conflicted people can choose to break the cycle of hatred.

The symbol of Christianity is a cross – a man nailed to it with arms open, exposed to all that the world can throw at him, but not throwing it back. Open arms can represent welcome to all-comers; they can also hold together those at extremes who otherwise might pull apart into different worlds. And there's the risk that those doing the reconciling find themselves being pulled apart in the process.

In her first Commons speech Jo Cox said: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me … is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

Hearing this again, I am haunted rather than comforted by the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”