This evening I am going to listen to a lecture at the Theologische Fakultät of the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena where I am staying for two weeks. The lecture will address the response to National Socialism by the university during the 1930s and ‘40s. Apparently, it isn’t a happy story; but, I will await the detail.

History is easy with hindsight, isn’t it? It all looks obvious – or destined. Well, yesterday I had lunch with a wonderful PhD student from the university who is starting her research into ‘collective guilt in the Old Testament’. In our conversation we roamed over 20thcentury German history and the rise and demise of the British Empire, asking at what point does responsibility – collective or personal – cease to apply. Intergenerational guilt has to be held in tension with the consequences of the choices and actions of our ancestors. History is not so easily reckoned with, after all.

So, this morning I sat in a bookshop and read a lecture by Amos Oz, given in Berlin a couple of years ago, but published in 2018 and seemingly only available in German. Judas und Jesus, with reference to his novel Judas, tries to understand the character and motivation of Judas and make sense of a story in the gospels that he says is unnecessary to the gospel narrative. It is a quick, but arresting read, recounting the thinking behind the novel. The text of the lecture is followed by a description of Jewish-Christian relations by a Jewish academic and rabbi.

The immediate pertinence of these three events – the lecture later this evening, the conversation with the student, and the Amos Oz book – is that all are run through by charges of treachery, traitors and betrayal. But, without the benefit of hindsight: who/what did the theologians of Jena think they were betraying if they supported (or didn’t support) Nazism; or who did the Empire-builders think were the traitors to the cause while they were busy exporting Anglicanism to the world and looting the colonies of their riches; or did Judas feel that it was Jesus who had betrayed him by failing to bring in the kingdom of God in the way he had expected or been led to believe?

I ask the question because, although delivered from the burden of emails for a while, I am following the news from a German perspective – not least Brexit. It isn’t a happy exercise. The language and discourse of Brexit is shocking, but also surprising to the Germans who are eager to speak about it (some are, frankly, too embarrassed). When Donald Tusk wondered yesterday which special place in hell has been reserved for those who led Brexit without any plan for how to do it, the emphasis was on the lack of a plan – the sheer recklessness of demagoguery without strategy or vision that knew what it wanted to be free from but no idea of what it wanted to be free for (‘free’ being the word they use for the final destination of Brexitannia). Contra the (utterly predictable) snowflakey screaming in the media, he did not condemn Brexiteers or those who voted for Brexit. He rightly put the responsibility on those who led and promised and then abdicated responsibility for the consequences.

It seems everyone is a traitor. Brexiteers have betrayed the best economic interests of the United Kingdom; Remainers have betrayed democracy and the ‘people’ (das Volk, as they say here); Parliament has betrayed its function; the media (particularly the BBC) have betrayed everyone unless they can be interpreted as saying what any particular group wants to hear them say.

It is an easy accusation to make of anyone whose opinion or judgement differs from mine. It usually bears little scrutiny. I guess history will tell who betrayed whom … and whether or not they knew what they were doing … and whether or not the language of betrayal was even remotely appropriate at the time. In the meantime, the dialogue of the deaf will no doubt continue, and we will perfect the art of self-exculpating blame-throwing. As Donald Trump might say: “SAD!”

(Now for Dostoyevsky for whom the theme and experience of betrayal were no stranger.)

Having returned on Thursday evening from Sudan I left agin in the early hours of Saturday for Jena in Germany. This forms the real beginning of my sabbatical leave and gives the opportunity to read, write, think, meet people and, most importantly, gain a fresh perspective on life, the universe and everything. Somehow, being outside the UK, looking through a different lens and listening through a different language and culture, helps to make space for (what I think I want to call) newly refracted lines of looking, seeing and reflecting.

I am staying with a friend who is a professor in the Theologische Fakultät at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena. This is where Hegel taught, and where Schiller met Goethe. Martin Luther spent time here, too. And it is the place where I have already come across thinkers I hadn’t encountered before.

I have on the table before me six books by Manfred Josuttis. Six of them are books of sermons, but it is the title of the other one that grabbed me: ‘Petrus, die Kirche und die verdammte Macht’ (‘Peter, the Church and Damned Power’). I am about to start reading it – and, yes, I probably should have read it before writing about it – but it was the title that arrested my attention. Jesus promised to build his church on the rock that was Peter, but the rock turned out to be more limestone than granite. Power might be damnable, but it is unavoidable in the real world … and that means in the real church. The question is: how do we handle power and in whose interests is power exercised?

Although it is good to be away from the UK for a time, the UK does not disappear. Nor does Brexit. Nor does the complex interplay of truth, power, victimhood and exploitation. If Brexit is bringing out the worst in us Brits, Germany is facing challenges with the Alternative für Deutschland and similar abuse of truth, fact and reality. Wherever we see this phenomenon – it is tempting just to shorthand it with the word ‘Trumpian’ – danger lies in waiting.

I recognise that this is a tenuous link, but Jesus’s friend Peter had to undergo a dreadful, world-shattering loss of personal illusion and confidence. After his denial of even knowing Jesus (just prior to the crucifixion), Peter watched his illusions of  brave new world bleed real blood into the dirt of Calvary. He had to live through the emptiness of Saturday … only to find himself bewildered by the events of Easter Day. Subsequently, he was compelled to wrestle with the other friends of Jesus, with public authorities and political leaders, and with questions of how to lead and shape a church made up of people like and unlike himself. If he didn’t welcome power, he certainly had to face responsibility, costly choices, personality clashes and hard decisions that were bound to divide as well as unite.

So it is with politics. Power – to be exercised with responsibility and humility in the interests of the common good – is a hard business. Decisions will always disappoint someone. Leadership can be very lonely, even in the best of teams. But, it always exposes the truth about character. Our handling of power displays the reality of our character. If we merely resort to lies, game-playing and manipulation in the service of ideology, then the truth about our character, virtue and motivation will become evident quickly. And this, I suggest, is worrying. For, the evidence shows that I am usually the last person to see what everybody else sees quickly and clearly.

Looking at the news from a distance, and seeing it through the eyes of ‘outsiders’, it is evident that we in Britain cannot see how we are being perceived from outside. The news that Nissan will not be investing further in Sunderland is terrible; but, the executive who is reported to have said privately that no one is going to be investing in Britain because we are now toxic (or words to that effect) has put his/her finger on the true cost of Brexit for the UK. Regardless of whether I want or do not want Brexit, the process and the people who have been prominent in it have shown that we are a people who are limited in our insight, still maintain dreams of empire, cannot face reality, like to hear what we want to hear (regardless of facts), and cannot be trusted to be competence. If counterparts in EU countries initially couldn’t believe our decision to leave the EU, they have long past that and are now incredulous about our sheer incompetence as a parliamentary democracy.

I can understand the ideological commitment to leave the EU. Questions of sovereignty, EU values and the bureaucratic machine in Brussels and Strasbourg make some sense to those who want some semblance of independence as a nation state. But, this commitment has to be earthed in relationships, processes, agreements, and future-orientated realities. Wanting to “get out” without paying attention to how to do it (and at what cost) is both ridiculous and dangerous. So, we see rich and powerful people leading the charge, making promises to which they will not be held, and knowing that they will not suffer at all if it all goes wrong for the UK. Poor people in challenging communities will pay the price – as they have been doing during the so-called ‘austerity years’ – and the powerful will exercise their power by maximising and protecting their own benefits … all while blaming everyone else for the ills that follow. We can’t all take our businesses to Singapore or Ireland.

Brexit will bring disillusionment – probably on all sides. Brexit won’t lead to economic or social nirvana for Leavers, and Remainers will continue to resist its consequences. Just as Faragistes never accepted the decision to join (what became) the EU, so many will immediately start the campaign to rejoin the EU one day. Brexit has not, could not and will not resolve the issue on these islands. But, it has exposed our deeper divisions (many of which have nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit or the EU), the poverty of our political culture (how can Labour still be six points behind the Tories in today’s polling?), the weakness of our national character, and our willingness to tell, hear and believe lies.

To return to Peter, his process of disillusionment was bitter, but necessary. Only by going through this and facing the truth about his own self could he grow to be the limestone leader he later became. In this sense, he bids us to do the same collectively: to grow up, lose our need to big ourselves up, see ourselves as we are seen from the outside, and value truth above illusion. The power – however damned – for this lies with us, and we can’t blame anyone else (Tories, Jeremy Corbyn, the EU) if we decline to use it.

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.

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.

This is the Hansard transcript of my speech in the House of Lords yesterday (39 out of 180) in the take-note debate on the EU Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.

My Lords, I wish that I could pack as much into a single speech as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, but I defy the challenge.

It is perhaps not a bad idea at this stage in the debate just to take a step back and to remember what the point of all this is. I was doing “Thought for the Day” on Radio 4 this morning and picked up on three words from the title of a Theos think-tank report on resilience in the north-east of England—people, place and purpose. They are three words that offer us a lens through which to see what all this is about. I endorse what the most reverend Primate said this morning in his speech.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, one of the legacies of the Brexit process thus far is, as I have said before, a corruption of public discourse, polarisation between people and communities, and a too frequent reduction of the polity to the merely economic. People are now too often categorised as either Punch or Judy; argument and nuance are dismissed in favour of emotive ad hominem judgment.

I understand that the withdrawal agreement is necessarily a technical means of achieving a political end, but the political declaration is aspirational in its language without offering a big vision for a society that is more than an economic market. Aspiration is good, but it needs to be accompanied by some articulated obligations and accountabilities. Therefore, I repeat the question that has come out in this debate: what is the big vision for British society, not just trade relationships, into which the technical agreement fits as a mechanism? What is the vision, and what is the future that we are asking our young people to build?

To be biblical for a moment, when Moses led the people of Israel out of captivity after 400 years in Egypt, they did not go straight to the promised land; they spent 40 years in the desert. There, a whole generation of romanticisers about the past died out. That is the point. You have to let a generation go in order to have a new generation that can envision and build a new society fired by their own imagination and not something that they were simply required to inherit from their forebears. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, that today we are talking about process and not event. I, along with my right reverend colleagues in this place, see deep divisions and significant challenges every day in our communities, and they will not be resolved immediately. In fact, they might define the next generation while we go through a sort of desert and all this gets sorted out. However, I do not believe that all this will evaporate merely by coming to a conclusion. This is not a zero-sum game and it must not become that.

The deal before us has the virtue of being a compromise. Compromise is often spoken of pejoratively, but it is a good thing because it assumes that people have listened to opposing arguments. They have weighed things up in the balance. They know that there might not be a perfect answer but they weigh things up and come to a judgment, and then together try to work out what is best for the common good. I may be naive but I do not believe that anyone could have got a better deal because, frankly, the people they were negotiating with would have been the same and the maths would have been the same, and we would have ended up with the same narrow criteria having to be worked through. It is a fantasy to say that someone else could have come up with a better compromise. That does not address the question of whether this compromise is acceptable but the options were never vast, even if some of the fantasies about Brexit were ridiculous. It was clear from the beginning that some circles were never capable of being squared, and the Government should have been honest about that from the word go.

I confess to being bewildered. I have heard some very powerful speeches today and in one sense I could go either way. I want to vote against an agreement that leaves the country poorer and possibly more isolated. I want to vote against a deal that commands so little support across the country or even in this building but is being pushed as a binary choice. Yet I also want to vote for it, mainly because a compromise was always going to be costly and this one gives both sides something, if not everything, that they wished for. However, I also want to abstain, as I think that the choice before us compels a short-term decision that might have medium to longer-term negative consequences. “No deal” is a failure to deal. This deal reduces the sovereignty—or control—that Brexit was supposed to recover and simply loses us the rather good deal that we already have within the EU. Another referendum is a risk, but it cannot be said to diminish parliamentary democracy any more than the first referendum did—that pass was sold in 2016.

I am in a difficult place, so I will carry on listening to the debate and then make my mind up on Monday. However, assuming, as I do, that there is no ideal outcome—that whatever outcome we come to will have us poorer than we are at the moment—in conclusion I would like to address two or three principles that might be getting lost but which might be worth bearing in mind as we go forward.

First, whatever the outcome of this process, how are we to take responsibility for what we have done and for shaping the United Kingdom and the Europe of the future? We do not just sail off into the sunset and say, “Now that’s all up to them”. I have no doubt that the United Kingdom, if it remains intact, will grow a younger generation who will create a prosperous and creative future for our islands, even if we suffer short-term loss. But the generation that has led us into this mess—my generation—might have to make way for those who can shape a new narrative for our collective future, and they will not be helped by self-exonerating blame games by those of us who can see ourselves only as victims. A new sort of leadership will be needed in future that can rise above the divisions and seeks to reconcile and unite people around a common vision for more than trade and economics.

Secondly, when we speak of “we” and “us”, that must include the EU 27. The demonisation of those remaining in the EU is infantile, counterproductive and unhelpful. If our language reflects who we are, then we are going to have a problem encouraging the next generation to speak, relate and behave like adults.

Finally, very briefly, whatever Brexit looks like in the end, we will still be left with the massive challenges of poverty, homelessness, debt, food banks, poor health among too many people, challenges in education when children come to school hungry, and so on—I could go on and on. We must move on to face the challenges of the NHS, castrated local authorities, transport failures, infrastructure and other consequences of a decade of austerity. The EU cannot be blamed for that lot.

If a divided people are once again to know that they belong—whichever way they voted in the referendum—they will need to hear from this place an articulation of vision, hope and reconciliation: that people in all places have a common purpose that is worth adopting.

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

Some years ago a Church of England report confidently asserted that people increasingly live in networks rather than localities. According to this thinking, people relate to people with similar interests and commitments rather than being constrained by geography. The growing power of the internet and the massive explosion of social media communication enabled us to transcend mere physicality and the limits of place.

Of course, this is questionable. Although we can now communicate across the globe instantly and with people we have never met, human beings still have bodies and – as Neddy Seagoon* once put it – “everybody gotta be somewhere”. In other words, place still matters.

This notion lies at the heart of a recent report from the think tank Theos. It is called People, Place and Purpose – three words that encapsulate what it means to live well as individuals in community. The report is based on research done in the North East of England, but the title offers a lens through which to look at any community – recognising that even those who prioritise social networks still live in a physical place.

You have to be pretty well off to ignore your immediate environment. One of the lessons to be learned from the whole Brexit experience is that communities who feel ignored, left behind or deliberately disadvantaged will eventually remind the complacent secure that place matters to those who are privileged or condemned to live in it.

This is hardly new. Way back in the Hebrew Scriptures a simple ethical dynamic lay at the heart of social order and religious ritual, and we might describe it like this: human beings live in particular communities that find their common life shaped by the physical environment and the people who inhabit it; their common purpose is aimed at mutual thriving with the freedoms and responsibilities that make it work. Being realistic about human nature, these scriptures don’t hide from the need for restriction or sanction if all in a community are to flourish. And this is why the Ten Commandments still make moral sense – they take people seriously and recognise reality with all its fragilities and failures. It’s why many of the seemingly obscure rituals of this community make sense when you start to think about how we might create a society that works for everyone.

What I learn from this is that if people, place and purpose are reduced to slogans or political categories, then we begin to lose the plot. If political purpose reduces people to mere economic consumers, human identity is diminished.

Amid the loud voices claiming attention in the week ahead, we could do worse than to defy any kind of reductionism and insist on the priority of real people in real places seeking real purpose for our common life.

*It wasn’t (as many pointed out) – it was Eccles.

This is the basic text of my speech in the House of Lords in today’s debate on the Prime Minster’s Statement on Brexit last week.

 

House of Lords

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Brexit: Debate on the Prime Minster’s Statement

My Lords, only four months remain before we walk arm in arm to the sunlit uplands where the easiest deal in history will have been made … and everybody will be happy.

Except, my Lords, we know this is not the case. Other noble Lords will concentrate on the details of the ‘deal’ (a word that reduces an existential question simply to a matter of trade and transaction) and the position in which it leaves us. I want to pick up on one line of the Prime Minister’s Statement to the House last week – the line I questioned in the short debate on Thursday.“If we get behind a deal, we can bring our country back together and seize the opportunities that lie ahead.”

I asked if the promise to “bring our country back together” is credible and achievable and, if so, how this is to be done. The answer was simply a repeat of mantras about ‘the deal’. I thought I was being helpful to the government by inviting a response such as: “The country is split down the middle and the language and behaviour around Brexit have become toxic – even in this Parliament. So, it is not going to be easy to reconcile people and parties in the wake of such a divisive issue. But, in acknowledging the size of the task, we intend to pay attention in due course to the language, symbolism and mechanisms of reconciliation.”

Because this is the challenge here. The government, by virtue of being the government, has a primary duty to pay attention to such reconciliation – to the healing of relationships that have been fractured by this process and the restoration of trust as a public value.

I am not making a case for leaving, remaining, wishful thinking or dreaming. The referendum happened, the rest is history (in the making). However, the factual phenomenon of Brexit, its language and behaviours, its polarising aggression and its destructive reductionism are not going to be addressed by statements about getting behind a deal and people romantically falling back into line. That line has been crossed in our public discourse, and I think two things have exacerbated it: first, the repeated implication that “the will of the people” is immutable and clear; and, secondly, that the nature of the split down the centre of the United Kingdom is being ignored.

This, my Lords, raises a question of honesty – honesty with the people of this nation. Now, to ask for honesty is not to accuse anyone of dishonesty. But, we hear little or no acknowledgement of the fracture that polarises our people – a fracture that will neither be addressed nor healed by the repetition of mantras about a glorious future.

This is not about Brexit as a choice; rather, it is about Brexit as a cultural phenomenon – what has happened as a consequence of the referendum. Social media is not the most edifying place to seek enlightenment and calm reflection; you have to wade through acres of muck to find any gems. But, where the gems are to be found is precisely where adults behave like adults, face reality (whether or not reality reflects their own preferences), moderate their language in order to prioritise relationship and values over conflict, and show a willingness to listen before speaking and an ability to look through the eyes of my interlocutor.

My Lords, I admire the committed resilience of the Prime Minister and the remarkable expertise of our civil servants. But, I appeal again for those engaged in this debate to take seriously the language of the discourse – not least in how we speak of those in the EU with whom we deal. And I appeal again to the government not to dismiss with easy words the crying need for an honesty of discourse that actually sets people free to grow up, own the truth about the deep challenges we face, and offer the people to whom we are accountable and whom we are called to serve a model for reconciliation and hope.

My Lords, whatever happens, the Church is committed to stand with and serve those who suffer, especially poor, marginalised and disenfranchised people in our communities. But, we need an articulation of political vision that goes beyond economics and trade. So, what will those in power do to offer language and symbols of reconciliation and hope in practical ways that recognise the divisions and take seriously the need to bring our country – and our Union – back together?