This year’s Kirchentag ended yesterday as tens of thousands of people got fried under the sun at Martin Luther’s Wittenberg.

I am staying on for a further week in Berlin (with my wife and friends who live here). So, today we went to visit the house where the infamous Wannsee Conference was held on 20 January 1942 – the meeting of Nazi leaders where they formulated the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ (die Endlösung zur jüdischen Frage).

It is a beautiful and peaceful place. One of the Nazi leaders present went by the name of Dr Martin Luther. Irony was not something with which the Nazis were familiar or comfortable.

The theme of the Kirchentag was the words of the slave woman Hagar, mother of Ishmael, spoken in the desolation of the desert, having been banished by her husband’s wife: “You see me”.

The Wannsee Conference is what happens when people think they are not seen – that they are unaccountable and can get away with murder. Literally.

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This is the text of an article published today (and written in haste) in the Yorkshire Post following the attack in Berlin last night:

Any pretence at optimism about the world must surely lie bleeding in the ruins of the Christmas market at the Breitscheidplatz in Berlin. If the assassination – live on social media – of the Russian ambassador to Turkey was not shocking enough, the blood continued to flow in Germany. Remarkably, even before facts were known, the commentariat leapt to judgement on the causes of this latest atrocity.

I know Berlin well. I walked across the Breitscheidplatz only a few weeks ago while attending a conference on freedom of religion and belief. It adjoins the iconic church (the Gedächtniskirche) recognised around the world as a symbol of destruction and reconciliation in the 1940s. Yet, here, in a place of celebration and mercy a lorry is driven into crowds of innocent people, bringing death and injury. What are we to make of this?

Well, it demonstrates that there is no escape from a globalised world. That is to say, the small planet does not provide any private annexe for people who wish to live in a way that is disconnected from the lives of others. What happens in Syria impacts on Ankara and Berlin; what happens in Iraq and Yemen impacts powerfully on Italy and France. What happens in Pakistan impacts on Bradford and Dewsbury. Whether we like it or not, there are no hiding places in an interconnected world.

But, what is sobering about the latest attack (following on from the atrocities in France since the Charlie Hebdo shootings) is that conclusions were being drawn before facts were known. The suspect is a Pakistani asylum seeker … or have the police arrested the wrong man? They are unsure if the man arrested is the right one. Which means that the murderer is still at large. He might be an asylum seeker and might be an Islamist terrorist, but we don’t know. Yet, there is an explosion of assumptions. In a post-truth era it appears that any opinion will do.

Anyway, whatever the identity and motive of the perpetrator in this case, here is a sobering fact: if he is an asylum seeker who entered Germany last year when Angela Merkel opened the doors, that still leaves another million asylum seekers who have not committed a crime or abused the hospitality of the host country. What conclusions should we draw from that?

The violence in Berlin does raise other questions, however. What are we to make of people who are willing to inflict misery on others in pursuit of very particular ends? And how are we to address our own fears in the face of such shocking events – where people going about their Christmas business are mown down indiscriminately? (Discriminate murder would be no less morally offensive, of course.)

There is little comfort to be given in a world in which we are deeply connected but often in ways we don’t understand. We can cope with watching violence on the screen when it is happening far away; but, when it happens to us on the streets of our own cities we struggle to understand. Yet, if you are on the receiving end of British-made cluster bombs in Yemen or a rogue lorry in Berlin, the misery and injustice of it all seems indifferent. I suspect there will be more to come – grievances go deep across the planet, and they last for a long time.

So, is there anything to be said that doesn’t just resort to platitude or escapist wishful-thinking? I think there is.

I am a Christian – that is, a follower of Jesus Christ. Some people assume this is a bit feeble in the modern world. But, there is nothing feeble or romantic about a baby born into political and military oppression under the heel of the Roman Empire. There is nothing sentimental about growing up, firstly, as a refugee in a place that represents everything you ever wanted to escape from (Egypt) and, secondly, getting abused and ultimately executed for loving the wrong people and saying the wrong things.

Christmas brings this home. Christmas is about God opting into the world as it is with all its violence and contradiction, and not exempting himself from it. We shall move from the manger in Bethlehem to a cross at Easter and find ourselves challenged by an invitation that looks ridiculous if put in a religious box and removed from the real world: we can be driven by fear or drawn by hope. Christian hope comes to us and grasps our imagination. It comes from a God who is no stranger to suffering and who doesn’t turn his face from horror. It is a hope rooted in a refusal to see death and violence and destruction as having the final word. And we are invited/challenged to commit ourselves to being this sort of hope-bearers in the face of all the misery and fear.

I suspect we might have to cope with more atrocities as the world has become a more dangerous place. How we respond will determine whether we are agents of hope or not.

I pray for the people of Berlin. And Turkey. And Russia. And Syria. And England. And so on. But, it is prayer that commits me not to withdraw, but to engage with the mess of it all.

A quick link to the speech by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at this morning's opening session of the IPPFoRB conference at the Reichstag in Berlin. More will follow.

 

Following my post last night on the corrosive nature of promises (as opposed to conjectures or wish lists) that can't be made, by people who have no right or authority to make them and who are unaccountable for what happens when they remain unfulfilled, here is another link to the context in which I write.

The conference of the International Panel of Parliamentariians for Freedom of Religion and Belief (snappily known by its friends as IPPFoRB) ended last night in Berlin. Today we meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a one-day conference at the Bundestag.

Among the important themes that emerged among the sixty or so national parliaments represented here in sessions yesterday was the discrepancy in many countries between what is written in law and how that law is either implemented/applied or ignored. In many places it is a triumph just to get freedom of religion (among other freedoms – this isn't hierarchical) enshrined in writing. However, what matters is what then is done about it.

One eminent speaker made it dead simple: (a) make good laws; (b) repeal bad laws; (c) hold governments to account on what the law says and demands. Given that everyone here is a parliamentarian, this is clear, applicable and achievable. It doesn't guarantee success, but it clarifies the task.

What emerged from several parts of the world is the pressure under which freedom of religion and religious expression is coming. Attempts to exclude God/religious world views from the public square are not unique to the secular West, but the spurious assumptions behind them seem to have one thing in common: that secular humanism (for want of a better term) is neutral and occupies the neutral place in the public discourse. It is self-evidently true and is purely 'scientific' – that is to say, needs not to make its case for credibility because that case is obvious. The outcome – put briefly – is that liberalising societies demand the right for 'tolerance' unless asked to tolerate views that are inconvenient to its assumptions of what is tolerable. One delegate explained how attempts are being made in his country to shout down any expression of traditional family values or articulation of a conservative view of ethics that derives from religious commitment.

That is not – as the speaker emphasised – to argue the case for the rightness of his views, but, rather, to insist that these views must be allowable if his society is to be truly tolerant (an awful, lowest common denominator word).

So, enshrining rights in law is not enough. Making promises on the back of that law is not enough. It is the implementation of that law that counts, and it is the discourse surrounding debate about that implementation that demands intellectual as well as moral integrity.

 

I am writing this in Berlin while attending an international inter-parliamentary conference on freedom of religion and belief. Parliamentarians have come from all over the world and from every continent bar Australia. And the question put to me by almost everyone I meet? Brexit. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't think the UK has been either mad or stupid.

My own position is that of the realist: the decision has been made (in a non-binding referendum that now puts a wider question over the nature of parliamentary democracy), the boat has sailed (with some enormous holes in it), and, even if we wanted to go back on the referendum result, our position is now seen as having moved in the eyes of our interlocutors in Europe and beyond. So, we now have to get on with it and shape the future, whatever this might bring.

In a session this morning Ján Figel (Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU, and chair of the Christian Democratic Movement in Slovakia) remarked that there are three types of people: commentators, lamentators or doers. How pertinent. We can comment, lament or act. It is a choice.

So, what I go on to write now does not ignore the Brexit vote, but it does pay attention to some of the phenomena arising from it that need to be taken seriously because of the impact they have on our culture and the nature of our discourse. I'll put the point in the form of a question.

Is a promise still a promise even when the person doing the promising has no authority to make the promise, no responsibility for fulfilling the promise made, or bears no accountability for the consequences of the promise not being kept?

Well, we know that £350 million is not going to go into the NHS, despite what was written on the side of a bus and vigorously defended in the media by its authors. Actually, it was never going to happen. The only question is why so many people ever believed it. It was not costed, it had already been promised three times over, and none of those who promised it had any authority to do so. Yet, to question it was deemed disloyal or unimaginative.

Yesterday the Sun called the EU spiteful for suggesting that Brits might need to pay for a visa to visit countries such as Germany of France. Well, what did they think would happen? The EU isn't a benevolent society for people who have slagged them off for decades as corrupt, lazy and incompetent. Maybe we will learn what our £350 million actually bought us – like free movement and easy/cheap travel.

How would you answer those international MPs who ask what preparations were done in order to enable Brexit to happen? Given that the answer is 'none', and that no one in Whitehall or Downing Street seems able to answer simple questions about what Brexit will (or, even, might) actually look like, saying limply that “we have taken back control” sounds a bit feeble and empty of content.

So, we still hear politicians telling us that we “will” get great deals, that we can forge our way in the world with other countries simply giving us the best on offer – their best interests miraculously coinciding with ours. Not “might” or “hopefully will”, but “will”. A promise. A promise made by people who cannot deliver on it. A promise with no content. And still people seem to believe the promises.

I am beginning to wonder if we might have needed (and should have heeded) experts, after all.

 

This is the text of an article I published in the Yorkshire Post yesterday.

Every English teenager should be required to go with me to Berlin and take a 100 metre walk from the Brandenburg Gate up Unter den Linden. Within that short stretch we would walk the human history of great culture and dreadful tragedy, the heights of wisdom and the depths of corruption, the terror of captivity and the euphoria of liberation.

Of course, no one has offered to take me up on this proposal, but Berlin offers something unique in the world. And there could be no better – more poignant or instructive – day to do my walk than 9 November – a date that haunts Germans for different reasons. This year Remembrance Day falls on this day.

Berlin 1To remember means, literally, to re-member – that is, to put the memories back together in some order. So, make of this what you will: 9 November 1918 saw the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II; 9 November 1938 was Kristallnacht; 9 November 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin Wall. Within 70 years this date marked the end of the First World War which sowed the seeds of the Second which destroyed and then divided Europe and which then brought down the Soviet Empire.

It is hard to overstate the trauma suffered by Germans and made visible in the wall that tore apart a city and a world for 27 years. The German Democratic Republic proclaimed freedom from Nazi fascism, but then created a society riddled with secrecy, fantasy and suspicion – an estimated 25% of its population somehow corrupted or compromised by the secret police (the Stasi).

But, the Berlin Wall became a symbol of much more than political or social division. It became a metaphor for all sorts of ruptures between people and societies. It even became a metaphor for the spiritual imprisonments to which we allow ourselves to be subject: including to the consumerism that dominated on the western side of the Wall, but which did not ultimately satisfy the yearnings for freedom that those ‘liberated’ on 9 November 1989 imagined it would.

The fall of the Wall was, however, remarkable. I was working as a Russian linguist and Soviet specialist during the first half of the 1980s. Although the Soviet system was ultimately unsustainable – for lots of reasons – there was no sign that it would fall within a few short years. The idea that the Empire would collapse so quickly would have been thought ridiculous. History teaches us to be open to surprise.

When US President Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate and challenged the Soviet President to “tear down this wall”, it seemed a prophetic and bold act. Yet, now we learn (through German news sources) that Mikhail Gorbachev was already talking in 1987 about pulling it down as a fruit of glasnost. The popular ‘revolution’ in East Germany was already beginning in and through the churches. In Leipzig particularly it was the churches that provided the space for free debate and open expression of dissent.

Berlin 2Berlin is now a different place – my favourite city in Europe. The wastelands and minefields have been replaced by vast and expensive building sites. The city bursts with confidence and life. Yet, everywhere you look there is the haunting memory of sadness. Look left from the Brandenburg Gate and you see the Reichstag, the building that sat at the heart of violence, political corruption and nationalistic hubris; look to the right and you see the enormous and moving Holocaust Memorial. Look a little further and you will find the new Topography of Terror museum, sitting close to the site of the Gestapo HQ where so much dehumanising horror was generated. The Wall ran through this landscape, dividing east from west, capitalism from socialism, but never protecting from the realities of past decades.

So, in fact, the fall of the Wall in 1989 exposed past glories and horrors to renewed scrutiny. The euphoria of 9 November 1989 can never escape from the shadow of 9 November 1938. Re-membering, if it is to be remotely true, cannot wipe out what is inconvenient or uncomfortable. The eventual reunification of Germany simply meant that Germany had to shape yet another new role for itself in the world. How could it heal the lingering wounds of the past while vast material and economic inequalities existed between east and west? And how would German society handle the disillusionment of those from the east who would soon discover that capitalism does not mean a Mercedes or a mansion for everyone?

The fall of the Wall brought freedom and hope. But, it also brought into focus the harder question: what are we to be set free for?

Whenever I preach in the Berliner Dom (cathedral) I am struck by the inscription below the great dome: “Be reconciled to God”. It is as if this building, that has witnessed empire, fascism, communism and now capitalism, whispers into each generation the hint that reconciliation between people requires a bigger vision than the offer of mere consumerism.

One of these days I'll get back to posting about what's going on in the world. In the meantime, however, here is the script for this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2:

I've just been to Berlin for the weekend – and not for a stag do. I was actually there to preach in the Cathedral on Sunday.

Now, if you ever get the chance to go there, go in not as a tourist, but for a service and sit down and look up. At the edge of the huge dome is an inscription in gold and it says: “Be reconciled with God”. In German, obviously. It was chosen by Kaiser Wilhelm II – the one in charge when the world walked into war in 1914.

Now, I know I should have been concentrating on the service, but my mind got stuck on that inscription. During the last hundred years people have sat there and looked at those words – “Be reconciled to God” – and assumed they knew what they meant. But, what did they mean during World War One? Or the mad years that led to Hitler taking control in 1933? Or during the Nazi era of dehumanising violence? Or during the forty years of Communist dictatorship when God was officially squeezed out and ignored?

What I'm getting at here is that reconciliation with God is meaningless unless it is worked out in flesh and blood with other people. And the point about reconciliation is that – by definition – you only need to do it with people who are difficult. In other words, it's really hard to do. So, for example, you couldn't be reconciled to God in 1943 and ignore the cries of persecuted Jews, homosexuals or people with the wrong political views. Reconciliation with God must have demanded a refusal to be reconciled with inhumanity.

While they were breaking up the Beatles sang 'Come together', and made it sound easy. I'm not sure I have it in my power to reconcile warring countries or stop Nazis from genocide, but I can start where I am with those with whom I find myself in conflict.

Or, to put it differently, having looked up at the dome of the cathedral in Berlin and seen beautiful words, I must look around at the people around me and offer them what God offers me.