When you get a bit Zoomed out (usually during a Zoom meeting, to be honest) distraction comes easily. For me it’s always songs that go around my head. It can be problematic.

Today has been complicated because there are two songs: one by REM and one by Bruce Cockburn.

’It’s the end of the world as we know it’ is the title of REM’s 1987 epic. It also chimes in with today and the uncertain future we all now face. I’ve always thought that obsessions with the end of the world are a clever way of avoiding the ending of lots of worlds – something that happens every day for someone somewhere.

What we are gong through now with Covid-19 is the ending of a way of life that we always assumed would just keep going and growing (like the economy). We can’t yet know what this death will give birth to because we can’t get to resurrection until we have done the loss of Friday and lived through the agonising emptiness of Saturday.  But, we will have to decide how to handle the disorientation of the ending of a world before we work out if or how to shape the world that might emerge from the ashes of our expectations.

This shouldn’t come as a shock. History tells us that the affluence of the West is abnormal and always precarious. Empires come and go, don’t they? Humility should trump hubris, but that might be wishful thinking.

Bruce Cockburn has been exploring the universe for decades and he has done so in the most beautiful poetry as well as the best guitar playing. (I know I keep banging on about him, but that’s just the way it is. Sorry.) yet, occasionally you get a bit of an oddity that is brilliant, but unexpected. One of these is ‘Anything Can Happen’ – a romantic tune, but killing words. Try this, the chorus:

Anything can happen
To put out the light,
Is it any wonder
I don’t want to say goodnight?

The verses rehearse some of the random and terrible things that might happen to anyone at any time. It is funny and sharp. But, it also questions our easy failure to face mortality and contingency – both fundamental to living in a material world which we can’t control.

This just makes the point that, despite our attempts at securing our security, we all actually live in the edge. Realising and accepting this is the beginning of human freedom. All the other questions then follow on.

It feels like the virus has compelled us to face what we otherwise suppress by busyness, distraction (“amusing ourselves to death”, as Neil Postman put it) or fear. (Today is also the 75th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s death by suicide – ending a war and opening up a different future beyond the destruction and death. But, that’s for another day.)

I have been reading some pieces by famous people about to whom they turn when isolated or stuck. I turn to Bruce Cockburn.

In March 2011 he released Small Source of Comfort and, as usual, it seeped beauty in its poetry and musicianship. He is still the best guitarist in the world. On a great album there is one song that stands out to me and speaks into the unforeseen pandemic world we inhabit and explore now: ‘Each One Lost’.

The story goes like this. He was in Afghanistan in 2009 with a charity and, while waiting for a flight from Kandahar, witnessed the loading of military coffins into the planes that would take the bodies home. It was the dignity and the pity that got to him. And out of this experience came a song of simplicity and beauty – almost a lullaby for the young people now ‘asleep’.

Under the big lights
shadows stretching long
the ramp is lowered gently to the tarmac
and all of us, we wait
in this sea of gravity
for the precious cargo to appear

Here come the dead boys
moving slowly past
the pipes and prayers and strained commanding voices
and the tears in our hearts
make an ocean we’re all in
all in this together don’t you know

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

And so it goes on. You can find it here.

Over 16,000 people have so far died in hospital in the UK of Covid-19. And, as we are daily reminded, each one is precious. Why? Just because the closely bereaved love and miss them? Well, yes. But also because amid the huge numbers we cannot let go of the trust that each one matters – each one, in the words of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is made in the image of God.

Being a society means that every loss is everybody’s loss.

The song is simple and beautiful. Grief rarely is. But, whatever the expression in words or emotion, each one lost is part of you and me.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2 (but from my office in Leeds).

Do you know what it’s like when you get an entire soundtrack running round your head? I do. Maybe it’s got something to do with the strange times in which we live. It’s as if loads of the music in my memory now finds the space to peep out of the undergrowth and sniff the fresh air.

My kids will probably raise their eyes at this, but the loudest echo belongs to one Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian singer-songwriter very few people have heard of. He’s written all sorts of stuff over the last fifty years or more and some of it is fairly gritty. Then he does one with the great line: “Don’t forget about delight.” When you find yourself in times of trouble – as someone else once sang – don’t lose sight of the nice stuff, the delight.

It’s not a bad idea is it? Because it’s too easy just to hear the bad news and find the imagination heading in the wrong direction. What the poets and musicians do is tease us to look at a wider horizon – to expand the range of possibilities beyond the ‘now’. The thing about poetry is that, if you give a bit of time to thinking about words, it opens space for the imagination to get working.

I would say this, wouldn’t I? I read the Bible every day. It’s full of poetry and songs in which the writers express what lies deep within them. They don’t care too much about whether what they say is watertight morally all the time; they just get it out of their system and into the fresh air. Then readers can engage what being a human being looks and feels like to the poet – even if the poet lived and died three thousand years ago.

Most of us are going to need some routine during the weeks ahead. But, we also have a chance to do something new for which there normally isn’t time or space. Like reading a poem each day, for example. Or, how about trying to write my own? Get it onto paper and play with the words? Because when the news is not great, don’t forget about delight.

This is the basic text of a lecture given at Bradford Cathedral on Sunday 16 February 2020, followed by a Q&A and a sermon (at Choral Evensong) on Revelation 4.

Introductory survey

”The world isn’t working. Things are unravelling, and most of us know it.” So begins the Introduction to Jim Wallis’s book The Soul of Politics. He goes on: “Our intuition tells us the depth of the crisis we face demands more than politics as usual.” He then cites Gandhi’s seven social sins: politics without principle; wealth without work; commerce without morality; pleasure without conscience; education without character; science without humanity; worship without sacrifice.

When did Wallis write this? 1994 – twenty six years ago when Bill Clinton was US President, John Major was Prime Minister, Helmut Kohl was German Chancellor, Mandela was elected as President of South Africa and, while the world was horrified by the Rwandan massacre, the Balkans reminded us that ethnic wipe-outs were not just the stuff of European history. The blurb on the back of the book helpfully says: “As the acquisitive eighties are left behind and we bask in the idea of the more ‘caring’ nineties, Jim Wallis’ book is both a sharp reminder of cold reality and an encouraging manifesto for change.” Remember the ‘caring’ nineties? They came before the nervous noughties and austerity teens, leading us into the world of Trump and Johnson, fake news and unaccountable demagoguery, brazen lying and morality-free manipulation of people and facts.

Well, in my own lifetime I have seen the colour of politics change. The ravages of the Second World War were even to be seen in the buildings and bombsites of Liverpool in the sixties when I went to school. The seventies saw battles for the economic life of this country, leading eventually to Thatcherism and the radical reordering – some would call it destruction – of many communities in the wake of social and economic engineering. And all this was going on while the bipolar world threatened nuclear war and global extinction – the Cold War turning into a very Hot War, as it were. Proxy wars were fought around the world as Right and Left, Capitalism and Communism, fought their corner in places where weapons were the most powerful currency. The eighties ended with the end of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, leaving a supposedly monopolar world in which liberal free-market Capitalism led an uncontested procession through financial deregulation, globalism and optimism (unless, of course, you lived somewhere that paid the price for all these marvellous benefits to the wealthy West).

The ‘caring’ nineties ended in Blairite optimism, facing a new millennium in which the planet could see only growth, peace and liberal ascendancy. 9/11 put an end to all that. The Twin Towers, almost a visual symbol of the dollar sign itself, collapsed under attack from a form of Islamism of which the world was largely ignorant (despite Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, and other riven countries) and for which the world was unprepared. Assumptions about the inevitability of liberal domination bled into the dust of New York, provoking an awakening awareness of what was going on in the shadows. Economic globalism opened the windows to globalised terrorism and experiences of brutality that most civilised people thought had gone out with the Romans – or, at least, with the horrors of the twentieth century and its Hitlers, Stalins and Pol Pots. Extremist politics began to breathe the fresh air of societies unprepared for the challenges of a brave new world in which migration, once seen in Europe as an economic necessity, turned into a mass movement of people driven by fear to escape oppression, bloody conflict and violence.

At the beginning of the new decade we see the Far Right rising in both west and east, re-running Weimar in an age desperate for nostalgic certainties, but forgetful of how democracies were undermined less than a century ago by demagogues who loved power more than truth, morality or integrity. Brexit has exposed much that we might have preferred to keep hidden beneath the complacent skin of a Europe that assumed its liberal credentials without ever really checking them. Nationalisms are growing, language is being corrupted, lies are deemed acceptable, and, in the USA, people who would have damned Obama for kissing the wrong woman excuse the amorality, stupidity, recklessness and incompetence of Donald Trump (who will probably get re-elected in November). I have said enough elsewhere about Brexit, Boris Johnson, the public discourse and the triumph of slogan over truth.

Where we are now

But, contemporary politics in the UK and wider western world face other challenges. The legitimacy of electoral systems, assumed until very recently to guarantee security and democratic accountability, is now being questioned. A referendum seemed a reasonable mechanism to use in gauging the mood of a nation until, too late, we realised that it has little or no place in a system of parliamentary democracy in which representatives (not delegates) are elected to make decisions together on our behalf. The stability of German political life is currently strained by the presence in both the Bundestag and state parliaments of the Far Right pro-nationalist Alternative für Deutschland – now evoking memories of Weimar: they are getting into power by electoral means, but their manifesto is one that, once in power, will undermine the very democracy that allowed them to be there in the first place. (As I discussed in a sermon in autumn 2019 at Manchester Cathedral for the start of the new legal year, democracy depends not on the rule of law, but the rule of good law.)

The 2019 general election in the UK made clear that, for now at least, old tribal identities and loyalties have been replaced by new alliances around eclectic identities and affections, often based on false associations. As I have said more than once in the House of Lords, the surgery of Brexit will not address the disease that ostensibly caused people to vote for it: most complaints about the EU had little or nothing to do with membership of the EU, but everything to do with Westminster, austerity (a choice of the UK government without any interference by Brussels) and metropolitical complacency. Wealthy Old-Etonian, Oxbridge-educated professionals, immune from any economic consequences of a bad Brexit, persuaded the rest of us that other people were the ‘elite’ ‘establishment’. How did that happen?

Behind this lies a feature of political life that certainly isn’t new. Those profiting now from the reordering of political life and discourse are those who know how to disrupt, cause chaos, kick the furniture around. While everyone else is either distracted or disorientated the disruptors exploit the chaos, capitalise on the collapse, and then proclaim themselves as the saviours from the chaos they caused, but for which they take no responsibility. Trump, Cummings, Salvini, Bolsonaro, Orban: I could go on.

Well, that’s all pretty miserable, isn’t it? And that is only a rather selective thumbnail sketch of where we are and how we got here. Others will see it differently and describe where we have got to as progress. And that is a debate for another time and another place. For today, however, I want to pose questions about the nature of good politics, healthy discourse, and accountable power.

Politics

Politics is simply the discourse of our public life – our common life. Bring two human beings together and you have politics: potentially two different perspectives, two understandings of what matters and what should be done, two parties to a power relationship, and so on. The negotiation of a common life and ordering of how we live is the stuff and raison d’etre of politics. It has to do with people, priorities and principles, praxis, personalities and power. (So many ‘p’s.) Rowan Williams puts it like this in his introduction to an excellent book edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin and entitled ‘God and Government’ (SPCK, 2009): “… if God’s purpose for humanity is a common purpose, not just a set of individual blueprints for escape from a disaster area, we have a duty to ask how the organising of society makes this purpose harder or easier, more or less attainable.”

This is why the rather tedious protestations that religious leaders should keep out of politics is so absurd as to defy rational discussion. (The establishment by law of the Church of England and the place of bishops in the House of Lords are up for debate, but in a completely different category: that of political ordering and democratic accountability.) Speaking for myself, Christian commitment is about human flourishing (the kingdom of God) rooted in a theological anthropology that holds sacred the infinite value of every human being and the need for mutual sacrifice in costly love in the interest of the common good for all in a particular society. Good politics, in this sense, places people and their essential dignity at the heart of the discourse. Made in the image of God. If politics is about people, it is hard to see how religion can have nothing to do with it. If religion is about people, it is hard to see how it can have nothing to do with politics.

You might be wondering where the title of this lecture came from. ‘Waiting for a Miracle‘ is the title of a 1987 song and album by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It recognises that people keep plugging away at making the world more just and more generous, but all the while waiting for a miracle. The task seems both endless and unachievable. The powermongers keep winning out. Like the lament of the Psalmists and the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, we long for heaven while being chained to earth where the poor suffer at the hands of the rich, the weak under the boot of the powerful, the meek in the shadow of the self-interested. But, waiting for a miracle – or someone else to ‘do something’ is an abdication of responsibility on the part of a citizen whose citizenship brings both privilege and obligation.

I remember a number of conversations with Zimbabweans during a visit to that beautiful country over a decade ago. Inflation was around 10,000%, the secret police were everywhere, there was no water in the city of Gweru (all four pumps into the city had broken beyond repair), food was scarce, and social infrastructure was in a state of collapse. And there was real fear. In addition to those who wanted me to give them a job in London (where I was serving as the Bishop of Croydon), others also suggested that “someone must shoot the President”. “We hope there will be change.” I would ask how this hope might be realised and received the same reply: “We pray that God will do something.” I would ask how they might be the answer to their own prayer – not in shooting the President, but in organising and acting to get him out. Somehow. No answer.

Now, I would never be critical of those who live in constant danger and for whom opposition can be hugely costly. My point is simply that hoping and praying should accompany action, not replace it. Citizenship brings responsibility and accountability and that inevitably has political expression because it involves the ordering of society, shaping it for the common good, and the promotion and defence of human flourishing. So, create the miracle, by all means, but don’t just hang around waiting for it. Work at it and for it, but with the patience of waiting.

Wisdom and faith

So, why speak of wisdom and faith in the same sentence as politics?

Well, as I touched on earlier, there is an oft-repeated expression in our society and media of the charge that Christians should stay out of politics – as if neutrality was ever a possibility. I have rehearsed this argument too many times before, so I am not going to flog it again now. But, there is no such thing as a neutral voice and there is no neutral space. Everyone comes at life and politics from a particular perspective, with a particular world view and associated values, and with particular interests at heart. A secular world view is no more neutral than a religious one. (This is something tackled head on, among others, by the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga as far back as the 1960s.)

Wisdom is something we derive from history and from experience. It comes from deep learning and the humility to admit the provisionality of knowledge. Wisdom depersonalises politics, seeks to understand both the polis and the populace, identifies where (and upon which values) integrity lies, discerns which moral framework cannot be negotiated away amid the pragmatic claims of political debate, and informs the reflective conscience that keeps hubris in check.

Which is why faith and wisdom cannot be separated in a consideration of the political task. Because faith is what every individual and society places on certain assumptions about, for example, why people matter, what actually constitutes a good society, what integrity looks like – what I call a ‘theological anthropology’.

Let’s begin to apply some of this to the politics of today. We can start at home, especially in the light of the political behaviour emanating from Downing Street this week. I will be categorical in my language, but you might choose to differ.

Our current Prime Minister is a man who has made a living out of lying. His personal as well as political/professional life betray a set of utilitarian values that revolve around and are oriented towards his own personal ambition, power and hubris. I refer to his admitted invention of stories aimed at misrepresenting and ridiculing the European Union in the Daily Telegraph; his behaviour towards two wives and an uncertain number of children; his deliberate use of misleading language during the 2016 referendum campaign and subsequently; the breaking of too many promises (playing the hero before the DUP, then agreeing a border down the Irish Sea, for example); and his willing subjugation to the strategic will of his Chief-of-Staff, Dominic Cummings.

“Get Brexit Done” was always a slogan disconnected from reality, as the UK will soon find out. “Unleash the potential” assumed that potential had been leashed – and saw the new Chancellor of the Exchequer state only a week or two ago that the UK would now be able to establish freeports for the first time, ignoring the fact that we could already do so and have done so as members of the EU (until we opted out in 2012). I am not arguing here that this is a reason for not leaving the EU; just that the electorate has been repeatedly misled.

Now, why might I be singling him out? Well, basically because the political discourse, so corrupted by the whole Brexit process, has diminished the importance of truth, reality and integrity in our public life. The reshuffle saw the sacking of the one man who has actually achieved anything and who commands the respect of all sides in a deeply divided Northern Ireland – Julian Smith. Threatened by competence? Needing to surround himself with sycophants who will not challenge him? Unwilling to hear what he does not want to hear? Afraid of anyone who might be honest about the costs of policy or who does detail? Fearful of being challenged by the junior prefects? I guess we will eventually find out. But, the point here is that big words and huge ambitions do not compensate for weak character, lack of attention to detail, or the re-discovery of some magic money tree that was absent for the poorest in UK society for a decade. Promises are reneged upon; commitments are laughed off; contradictions are ignored; in a previous age, any one of these would have seen outrage across the political spectrum, action within the party, and a campaign in the media to secure a resignation.

Not any longer. We have now sold the pass by accepting that amoral, immoral and hubristic language and behaviour are acceptable if they promise to deliver on a pragmatic solution to a different problem – whatever the cost, especially to our moral or political culture. It is easy to look across the Pond and mock the Toddler in the White House, marvelling at how, for the Republicans, love of power allows them to dismiss all those things that they would have railed against in a Democratic President. Imagine if Obama had had an affair or told a lie. Remember Clinton’s impeachment. Imagine the response by evangelicals if Clinton or Obama had said something misogynistic or deliberately and openly contradicted reality? But, Trump knows he can get away with anything because morality is selective and power trumps everything else.

The point here is that these guys get away with it because we collude in it. Someone recently complained to me about a ‘culture of deference’ in the Church. I don’t buy this; I think it is a cop-out. When we resort to blaming a ‘culture’ it can only be because we are denying our responsibility as agents who create that culture. A culture is constituted by the behaviour of those involved, and their behaviour is shaped by the choices they make as to how to act – or not act – within it. Not speaking up is a decision; you can’t blame ‘the culture’.

And so it is with politics. If we still value wisdom and accept the claims to responsible action that faith both assumes and imposes, then we must take responsibility for the culture we create. So, when we are told deliberate lies by those in public office (not to be mistaken for errors of information or interpretation), we either allow it to pass – shrugging our shoulders and saying that “this is just how things are” – or we call it out and refuse to bow at this altar of shame.

This is why it is so important for a critical scrutiny to be applied to current political developments. This week’s Church Times carries a commissioned article by me on the danger to democracy and its institutions when a government with a big majority decides to control its own narrative, declining to justify or explain its policies, absenting itself from interrogation by external experts on behalf of the public. In other words, prioritising propaganda over accountability. This is a slippery slope and, if the BBC becomes a casualty of this cultural slide, it will not be for reasons of economics or the vital-but-difficult role of a publicly-funded public service broadcaster, but for reasons of political vindictiveness and a dangerous tendency by the powerful to bypass scrutiny.

Political language, assumptions about the political task, and changes to our political culture all need to be taken more seriously than they are. It is not enough for leaders to ignore challenge in these areas with either hubristic ridicule or sweeping and patronising dismissal. Passivity on the part of the governed brings its own culpability. Visit the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin if you want to revisit how civil society is so easily corrupted by a gradual ceding of territory in language, culture and courage.

Reflections

So, before concluding these provocative reflections, I want to point the way a little further into what a good, ethical politics might look like, and what the place in it of faith and wisdom might be. And I want to do this by commending three books in particular: Rowan Williams, ‘Faith in the Public Square’ – a series of lectures, writings and addresses, some of them easier than others; Luke Bretherton, ‘Christ and the Common Life’ – a recently-published treatment of the theme by a British theologian living and working in the United States; and, briefly, Tom Holland, ‘Dominion’.

The Christian Church has since its beginning held claims against the power of the state. Caesar was not Lord; Jesus is. What Rowan Williams calls ‘procedural secularism’ “was born because Christians insisted that a distinction must be drawn between communities that understand themselves to be faithful to a sacred power and political communities whose task is to sustain the arguments necessary to balance and manage the inevitable differences that constitute our lives.” He goes on to say, effectively that Jesus did not come announcing that the Big Society was at hand.

In other words, the Christian Church – and, particularly, the Church of England established by law – has a responsibility in a democratic society to hold on with both theological and rational confidence to its narrative of the Kingdom of God, being clear how this shapes our understanding of what is either permissible or destructive in and of our particular society. If the narrative told by those in power – that lying is acceptable, that people can be patronised and corrupted by meaningless slogans, that revenge can be taken against judges because the rule of law is to be subjugated to the rule of power, for example – clashes with the narrative of justice, mercy, integrity and accountability, then a stand must be taken.

Hence the role of the Lords Spiritual in the UK Parliament: whether welcome or not, to shine a possibly unique light on matters of our common life and, without fear or favour, to hold power to account. Not with any sense of entitlement or moral superiority, but, rather, with the confident humility that light must be shone.

(I am always struck when in the chamber of the House of Lords that I ’inhabit’ there a remarkable constitution. When (in the Queen’s Speech) the Monarch reads her Government’s legislative agenda before the executive, the legislature and the judiciary – the three legs of a stable parliamentary democracy – she does so in the name of God. The three legs do their work in the name of the monarch who recognises her accountability to God. But, if she looks up, she will see the statues of the twelve barons who drafted the Magna Carta and held King John to account at Runnymede in 1215. That is the political space we inhabit, even if it is difficult to explain.)

So, for example, when we hear language or policies that reduce human beings to economic cogs in someone else’s machine, we need to pay attention and more. When we hear the world spoken of in terms that assume domination instead of dominion, exploitative control instead of accountable stewardship (especially accountability to those generations not yet born), then our voices must be raised in questioning challenge. As John Gray has pointed out (from an atheistic perspective), “The distinctive contribution of Christianity to morality – which is reflected in liberalism now – is that if you think back to the ancient Roman world, then one feature that came in with Christianity was the idea that human beings, reflecting the nature of a Christian god, had some responsibility for not being cruel or not even tolerating cruelty… So this aspect of modern liberal morality – don’t be cruel to people – is hardly found in pre-Christian morality. It’s a gift of Jewish inheritance that Christianity continued.”

Remember who said: “Politics have no relation to morals”? It was Machiavelli. Enough said.

Tom Holland, whose brilliant book ‘Dominion’ describes how the morality of the western world and beyond was uniquely shaped by Christianity, despite the many devastating failures by Christians to live out their distinctive theology, quotes Zhivago’s uncle in Dr Zhivago: “You have to remember that until the dawn of the Christian era, the Mediterranean world was a world of slave empires.” As the new Conservative MP for Devizes, Danny Kruger, implied in his maiden speech in the House of Commons earlier this month, the sort of wisdom that informs and shapes good politics might well be found in the past and not just in the pragmatic present. Good politics needs a good answer to a good question: what is a human being and why do we matter?

These are the matters with which Luke Bretherton wrestles in his book ‘Christ and the Common Life’. I concur with his important observation about secularism and its assumptions: “It is traditions with a cosmic imagery that have the resources to foster the plurality and sense of contingency that is necessary for a faithfully secular, democratic, common-life politics. Without them the state and market have no epistemic, social or institutional limits.”

As Bretherton says: “Sustaining a common life requires commitment to a vision of human flourishing.” Christians – Anglicans in particular – must not be shy in helping to shape that common life by conscious and deliberate engagement in political life as citizens of this world who are drawn by the demands, freedoms and obligations of their citizenship of God’s Kingdom.

This is the text of a commissioned article published today in the excellent Yorkshire Post.

Anything can happen. A statement of the obvious, maybe, but it is also the title of a song by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn in which he runs through some of the disasters that might hit if you as much as walk outside today. It also seems to be the dominant feeling around the country as we enter another week of political life in which what looks clear at breakfast is redundant by teatime. Things are moving quickly, and anything can happen.

However, there is one thing about which we can be fairly confident: there will be a general election some time during the autumn. If, like me, you are trying to organise a diary around so many uncertainties and unknowns, you will understand the anxieties this state of affairs can generate. We have no idea when the election might come, but we still need to prepare for it.

The first thing is to get people to register to vote. In a parliamentary democracy the people exercise their political preferences by voting in an election and putting in (or removing) their representatives in the House of Commons. As we have seen during the last three years, this moment of choice – whatever our particular convictions about the issues of the day or the content of a political manifesto – matters to the proper functioning of decision-making and the right ordering of society.

But, given the heat (if not light) ignited by Brexit, Boris Johnson and current political events, there are wider issues to be addressed in advance of any election. How, for example, is the campaign to be conducted? How far will we interrogate political statements and promises, not only from those we might instinctively oppose, but also from those we might naturally support? And what language will we use as the election campaign drives on?

These aren’t just hobbyhorse questions. Language goes to the heart of communication and we know how words can be deployed to distort, dehumanise and distract – either deliberately or incidentally. Truth matters and facts matter.

A couple of examples. When we are told that the proroguing of Parliament simply adds a few days to recess, so there is nothing to fuss about, what are we to think? Well, it isn’t a party-political dogma to insist to the electorate that this is a deliberate misrepresentation of reality. When Parliament goes into recess the work continues, the committees continue to meet, the scrutiny of government goes on. When Parliament is prorogued, everything stops. There is a fundamental difference, and the implications are clear (and serious). So, the public ought to be clear and then be able to challenge both the statement and the motive behind its iteration.

Secondly, and somewhat randomly, if a politician waves a kipper and tells us that the EU forces us in the UK to present it on a bed of ice – a shackle that must be cast off by leaving the EU – then we ought not to fear asking whether or not this is true. Of course, it isn’t.

I accept that these examples are easy and recent ones. However, they help to make the point that the public need to question political statements for their factual basis or truthfulness without resorting to ad hominem attack. Yes, having judged that we were told a fib, it is then reasonable to go on to questions the ethics of the person who said it. But, the first response should always be to the truthfulness of the statement or promise.

This is serious. In response to things I have written on current political phenomena I receive a quantity of negative reactions. That is the point of writing in the first place – to start or contribute to a debate during which I might learn something new or even change my mind. But, what interests me about most of the negative stuff I get is that it doesn’t address the points made; the abuse is directed at me as a person. It doesn’t usually worry me, and I don’t waste time on it. It does worry me, however, that demagoguery thrives on emotive attacks on people who say uncomfortable (or wrong) things without addressing the basic issue.

The great Christian apologist CS Lewis once said that if Christianity is true, then it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity. And he was exactly right. It can’t be true because it ‘works for me’ or ‘makes me feel better about myself or the world’; it can only be true if it is true. The same will apply when we get to an election.

The ninth commandment forbids misrepresentation (bearing false witness) of my neighbour. If we want light and not just heat, then we need to pay attention to this.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show:

I’ve just been away for three months on study leave. Apart from all the reading, writing, thinking, chatting and travelling, I also used the time to catch up on some long lost music. Crowded House, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen got a lot of space, but it was Bruce’s Dancing in the Dark, played loud during a massive thunder storm in Tennessee, that sticks in my memory.

I think part of the reason this one stuck was because a couple of months before I left the UK I had a bit of a stroke – in my brain, not of the cat. As many people know, when something like that happens and is beyond your control, you feel like you are in the dark a bit – even if dancing is the last thing you think of doing.

In my case, it wasn’t a huge deal. It was a minor blip, but it came with consequences. I had to cancel travel and engagements abroad. But, on the bright side, I now have documentary evidence that I do have a brain.

Springsteen might have been singing about a different experience, but I spent a couple of months sleeping a lot, reading a lot and reflecting on what it means to be alive. Because the truth is, we all live all the time in the dark – not in any miserable sense, but just that none of us knows what is going to happen next. Not everything is in my control. I can make plans and imagine a future, but I can’t guarantee it will happen. Tomorrow I will be speaking on the phone with the Bishop of Colombo in Sri Lanka – a more dramatic illustration of my point.

Another Bruce – singer-songwriter Cockburn – once wrote: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you; sometimes the darkness is your friend.” And I know what he means. I didn’t worry when my brain blipped, simply because, as Easter whispers to a mortal world, my trust is not ultimately in me or my own security – it is in the God of resurrection.

Anyway, I am fine, back to work, back to Radio 2, and promising never to dance in the light. If you’ve seen me, you’d know why.

 

 

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show:

A few years ago I found myself in the Foreign Ministry of a Middle Eastern country having what we would probably call a robust conversation with the deputy foreign minister of that state. At one point he stood up, banged the table and said: “Sometimes it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But, it is not because the light is not there – it is because the tunnel is not straight.”

I have never forgotten that. I admit that when I mentioned this recently someone responded by saying that the light in the tunnel might actually be the oncoming train. But, taking a more positive view, I think it is helpful to recognise that sometimes life is pretty complicated and messy, and that the present darkness isn’t the end of the story.

This month of all months this should be clear. Our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Hanukkah, and they do so with candles and lights. Christians are living through Advent – which, even in the word itself, is about waiting and not running out of the darkness in order merely to escape it.

There’s a great Bruce Cockburn song called ‘Closer to the light’ which actually focuses on the dark stuff. In a different song he says: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you; sometimes the darkness is your friend.” I think as I get older I understand this more and more. Rather than look for instant escapes from difficulty or challenge, I try to stay with the reality, trusting that even though the tunnel is not straight, … the light will come and, in the words of John’s gospel that will be read at Christmas, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

A different way of putting this was told to me by a guy who said: “When you’re in the desert, look for the flowers that grow only in the desert.” What he meant was: if you spend your time in the desert looking for daffodils, not only will you be disappointed, but, you will also miss out on what could be experienced or learned only in the desert.

This isn’t easy or romantic, is it? But, I do think it’s powerful.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show.

It’s that time of year again. For me August slows everything down and I finally get some space. But, it’s also the time for long car journeys … and that means loads of time to listen to music. The great thing about your kids having grown up is that no one argues with your choice of CDs.

Well, what you’ll find in my car this morning – I have just checked – is a strange mix of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Richard Ashcroft, Elbow and the wonderful Imelda May. I got back from a trip the other day feeling that my emotions had been shredded, listening to songs that seem to have been dragged out from the depths.

And that’s the power of music. Words on their own can pack a punch, but add a good tune and some decent backing and your guts go on a different journey.

There’s nothing new about this. One of the other things I do during August is read all 150 Psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures. Why? Simply because I get immersed in a song book that doesn’t always reflect my mood or circumstances, but does provide a vocabulary for times yet to come. Whether howling with complaint about the injustices in life, or laughing with joy at the wonderful enormity of the cosmos, or weeping alongside those whose lives have been torn apart, or encouraging your mates to stick with it regardless of the hindrances … the whole of life is in there and there’s a song for everyone at every time and in every place.

Just over a week ago I was talking to child refugees in the countryside outside Khartoum in Sudan. Kids whose family have disappeared and who find themselves abandoned or orphaned through the violence of others. Yet, they still hear the echoes of a haunting melody that whispers of hope as they are taken in and cared for by strangers who meet them where they are. Lament is coloured by laughter; memory does not just belong to the past, but is being created for tomorrow.

So, in all the twists and turns of a fragile life, it is still possible to detect the sound of a plea uttered by Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn: “Love that fires the sun keep me burning.”

This is the text of an article published in the Yorkshire Post today:

A couple of years ago a book was published that offers readings, prayers, poems and reflections for Remembrance. It is called ‘Hear My Cry’ – a repeated and heart-felt wrenching of the spirit taken from the Psalms.

But, it is the subtitle that grabs the attention: ‘Words for when there are no words’.

It sounds like a ridiculous paradox, yet anyone who has ever found themselves in despair will know exactly what it means. There are times in life – and always in the face of death – when we find ourselves empty and silent. As human beings we seem made to make shape out of chaos; but, bereavement can leave us simultaneously speechless and desperate for order. And we find we cannot control the grief or make it better.

In such circumstances we sometimes need the words of others when we have no words for ourselves. Someone else needs to provide the vocabulary for grief, the words for when we have no words and silence is too painful.

If this is true of most bereavements, it is particularly true when death is violent and distant. To lose a son or father or daughter or wife or husband in the course of military conflict brings a particular silence, a particular grief. The distance and the unknowing of the context makes the death more grievous – even if death is always death.

I have never lost anyone close to me in war, but my parents lived through the bombing of Liverpool during World War Two. I also took part in the intelligence support for British forces in the South Atlantic, and saw the consequences for those who were involved and had to live with the deaths of friends and colleagues.

If Remembrance Day did not exist, I think we would need to invent it. For two reasons:

First, we need to create a public event of remembering the people and events that have shaped the society to which we belong and in which we invest. Those whose loved-ones have died in conflict on our behalf need that public recognition of their loss. For their loss is our loss. Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn watched the coffins of slain Canadian troops being carried off a military aircraft in Afghanistan several years ago, and wrote a song about it. Having described in the most moving language the tragedy and dignity of what he had witnessed, he writes: “Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me”. That’s why need to remember publicly.

The second reason is that we simply cannot know who we are if we don’t remember where we have come from. It sounds obvious, but it isn’t easy to do. Our memories are selective and some memories do need to be left where they belong: in the past.

The story of Israel in the early chapters of the Bible is one in which public acts of remembering are integral. Prior to entering the Land of Promise the people are warned that they will too easily forget that once they had been migrants and slaves in a foreign land. Once they got their own land and built new lives they would prosper … and forget their own origins. Basically, they would then begin to treat other people as their slaves. So, the year was broken down into festivals that would compel the people to re-tell and re-enact their story, passing it on to their children and future generations. It would cost them the first and best ten percent of their harvest. And the edges of their fields would be left for homeless, hungry and sojourning people to find sustenance. That sounds like a twenty percent tax for starters.

Most religious communities shape the year similarly, celebrating festivals that shape our memory and remind us of what matters – especially that we are mortal, that we shall one day die, that a good society might be worth dying for. The loss of such festivals in secular society might be more costly than we realise.

The point is that we as a society need at least one day a year when we re-member – literally, put back together the parts (members) of our own story. We need to recall the cost that people have paid and continue to pay for preserving the freedoms we have. We need to recall with honesty and integrity those things which we should celebrate and those of which we should be ashamed – from which we might learn for the future.

That is where Remembrance Day fits in. Whether directly connected to the dead or bereaved, we come together in local communities to create space for remembering our common story. It stops the routine of life and creates silence in which we drop words for when words need to stop and silence reigns. We do it together, conscious of how fragile our lives are and how fragile our civilisation is.

It is said that we should know for what we would die. I think we should ask ourselves for what we, in the light of our mortality, will live for.

 

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

It is said we live in interesting times. Europe is on an uncertain political trajectory, the Middle East is challenging, Russia is flexing its muscles, and the United States are about to choose a new president whose influence will reach far beyond their own shores. Who'd be a leader?

But, what is interesting about what the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan called 'Modern Times' is how the arts play around with the world's big issues, shining different lights onto what we see in the news. Jude Law's new film series in which he plays the fictional first American pope appears to be less interested in the power politics of the Vatican and more in what religious power does to the people who wield it. Bruce Springsteen uses music to express protest against the lot of ordinary people in parts of America that are remote from Washington's eyes. Gospel music itself was a creative expression of lament, hope and confidence on the part of people suffering human injustice for generations.

I mention this because I suspect the world needs more poets and artists. And possibly fewer lawyers – although the lawyers I know are wonderful.

Hymn-writer extraordinaire Charles Wesley maintained that we learn our theology not from what we hear from the pulpit, but from what we sing. Put a good tune to it and we'll happily sing anything – occasionally even nonsense. So, he wrote hymns and songs in order to help Christians find a vocabulary for their experiences of God, the world and each other.

Bruce Cockburn, the award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter does a similar thing with words and music, though not to be murdered by a congregation. One song he wrote thirty years ago suggests that the poets and musicians shine a different light on experience and dare us to look differently in order to see and think differently. The chorus goes like this: “Male female slave or free / Peaceful or disorderly / Maybe you and he will not agree / But you need him to show you new ways to see.”

The prophets of the Old Testament got it straight away: use words, images and stories to expose reality and prompt the questions that easily get overlooked by those with the power to preserve.

Jesus got it, too. He told stories and used images that don't just prod the intellect, but scratch away at the imagination.

But, perhaps what this shows us is simply that political vision needs more music and poetry if it is to haunt the imagination and capture hearts. Argument and shouting won't do it. Or, as Byron put it: “What is poetry? – The feeling of a former world and future.”