During our recent trip to Iraq with Christian Aid, we had a difficult evening with a Christian priest who accused us (on behalf of the Western church) of completing the work of ISIS by encouraging Christians to leave Iraq and Syria.

Giles Fraser has thought further about this and published his observations in today's Guardian. It can be read here.

 

The Reimagining Europe blog continues to provide space for a different sort of conversation about the future of Europe ahead of the UK referendum in 2017.

2017 is, of course, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg). And, of course, you can't understand the shape of Europe or its history without understanding the Reformation.

So, I have posted a piece about the need to remember well, even when this might offend our prejudices or ideological interests. All in the interests of promoting the debate.

 

One of the burdens of having written a blog for some years is that when you stop for a while people read into it something that isn't there. Apparently, silence about urgent world events – or, in my case, developments in the church – means I am a coward or unwilling to commit (despite regular media engagement on these issues). It is always interesting to me that the first (rather than the last) assumption is my obvious lack of integrity.

The real reason, of course, is more prosaic: I have not had the time or head space to hit the keys. Starting a new role in less-than-ideal circumstances, then moving house and settling into a new one (most of which is office or 'public' space), shifts the immediate priorities.

So, here is a bullet point observation on some of the things that have gone on recently, or are going on now:

  • The Gaza crisis will not be solved without Hamas ceasing its indiscriminate rocketing of Israel. Israel's response has been appallingly disproportionate, but responsibility is shared. In the end, a negotiated settlement will be needed, but by then the next couple of generations of mutual enmities and grievances will have been firmly established. In the end, this sort of violence resolves nothing.
  • The UK government should open our doors to those Christians and other minorities seeking asylum from persecution in Iraq and Syria. Numbers won't be great, but we have a moral obligation to rescue those whose situation has been generated by our interventions. Germany and France have led the way – there has so far been silence on this matter from home.
  • Rescuing Iraqis will not address the religiocide in Iraq and Syria. It is staggering that we would invade to oust Saddam, but hold back from stopping the shockingly brutal violence deliberately being inflicted on large communities of vulnerable people.
  • Jon Henley in the Guardian reports a massive rise in antisemitism in Europe and observes: “Across Europe, the conflict in Gaza is breathing new life into some very old, and very ugly, demons.” Interesting use of language. Jesus once exposed the idiocy of cleaning out one demon, leaving a vacuum, then being surprised when the gap is filled by loads of demons – most of them far worse than the one they got rid of in the first place.
  • The rise of antisemitism itself demonstrates that the supposedly rational European societies are neither as rational nor discriminating as they would claim to be. When opposition to Israeli policy is turned into intimidation of Jews in England, Germany or France, there has clearly been a breach in the synapses somewhere. Or, perhaps, it just reinforces the fact that even people who claim to be rational actually react from deeper emotions rooted in unarticulated prejudices.
  • Clear out one demon, leave a power vacuum, and all you have done is clear the way for power-hungry demons to occupy the space. I am taken back to the historian (I think it was Niall Ferguson) who suggested that if you are an empire, you must behave like one and not pretend to be 'nicer'. In relation to Iraq, this means you can't just pop in, proclaim “Mission Accomplished” and satisfy domestic political concern by leaving quickly. He suggests that you have to be prepared to bed down for thirty years, change the infrastructure, let a generation go through, embed systems that work and allow the space for indigenous power to develop. Imperial? Yes. Patronising? Probably. But, the point is: don't do an 'Iraq' unless you are prepared to see it through … however uncomfortable this might make you at home.

And, in all of these cases, the ground will have shifted again by tomorrow.

 

 

Yesterday's overarching theme was: Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne (Religion and secularism in the modern world). The theme of the second day of the symposium in Cadenabbia is: Religion im Spiegel der Öffentlichkeit. The contributions are very academic and intense – inevitable, given that the contributors are university academics.

The first paper this morning was given in English by Professor Gabriel Motzkin, Director of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, on the theme of Die Suche nach Gott: Zwischen Fundamentalismus und Säkularismus. His starting point was that fundamentalism is possible only where there are texts – text-based communities then use other texts to discuss (and understand) the base text. Fundamentalism replaces the world/nature with a text, this differentiating it from secularism. Therefore, the conflict between fundamentalism and secularism has essentially to do with the possibility or admissability of authoritative texts. Motzkin went on to discuss how human beings “create God”, but concluded that secularists end up with more problems here than the fundamentalists who go beyond mere human agency in the world. This was fast and furious and the ensuing discussion was rich, but it rested on a contentious assumption about terminology and (as I questioned) a confusion between 'secularism'/'atheism' and 'fundamentalism'/'theism'.

The second paper, by Dr Ahmad Milad Karimi (lecturer at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster), addressed the theme: Die Suche nach Gott: Zwischen westlichem und islamischen Denken. This one was in German and I didn't follow some of the complexity of terminology or argument – again, I need the text. However, the key discussion was around problems of transcendence and immanence in a context in which there is a contested assumption about revelation and/or experience.

We then moved on to Gott als Chiffre in der modernen Welt (Professor Dr Traugott Jähnichen from the Ruhr-Universität in Bochum). He basically addressed the problems and legitimacy of 'God language' in political discourse, ranging from John Locke through the (failed) preamble Lisbon Treaty to the statement that we still haven't found a form of discourse that will compensate adequately for that represented by God-talk. Speech about God (which the church must not give away) (a) imposes limits to hubris, (b) owns up to fallibility and leads to the taking of responsibility, and (c) engenders humility.

Spiritualität ohne Gott saw Professor Dr Thomas Schärtl (Universität Augsburg) define – from a philosophical perspective – both 'spirituality' (“the way in which an individual sees/commits himself to the totality of existence within the framework of meaning”) and 'religion' (“how the finite stands in relation to eternity”). He went on to offer diagnostic elements for understanding what shapes spirituality, citing such phenomena as emancipation, immanentism, expansion of choices/options, and consumerism, before looking at Christian concepts such as sin, grace and salvation.

Thinking ahead to my paper tomorrow, I am concerned about two matters that impact on how we address these concerns in the world beyond the academic/conceptual: (a) the context in Europe of common philosophical assumptions about 'neutrality' in the public square, and (b) the need for translation in a pluralist society from the language of one worldview/praxis to those of others.

I need lunch…

 

I didn’t want to see news pictures of a soldier being murdered in Woolwich this week. I didn’t want to see film of violent brutality and, whilst being aware of the dilemma for news organisations and the moral questions about ‘facing reality’, was not sure that the coverage should have been so graphic. Try seeing it through the eyes of his family. It feels voyeuristic.

That said, however, while trying to flip over one photo in a newspaper, I noticed the road sign close to where the soldier’s body lay. It said: ‘signals timing changed’. Despite it referring to the traffic lights, it seemed perversely apposite.

Much of the reporting of this appalling crime rests on iconic images and language. This is what makes it so powerful: it creates associations in the mind of the viewer, not all of which might be healthy. Debate continues to rage over the radicalisation of young Muslim men in England – and a study of media articles between 2000-08 found only 2% framed Muslims positively. Just as newspapers’ use of ‘invasion’ to describe the arrival of around 150,000 Germans in London for last night’s Champions League Final between Germany and Bayern Munich (that’s a little joke for the Germans), so do images of and language about Muslims shape the way we see them.

Yes, the Muslim communities in England face some challenges – including addressing the poisonous rhetoric of some powerful preachers. But, they will not be helped by the perpetuation of purely negative associations.

I was at the Meissen Delegation Visit in Leicester this last few days. This brought a group of German bishops and church leaders to engage with us on how we do interfaith work in a multicultural city like Leicester. (Curiously, the English delegation, which I did not choose, served up three bishops – Bradford, Woolwich and Pontefract – who all served their time in the Diocese of Leicester.) Events in Woolwich, coupled with the long-planned visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Meissen group, brought a brutal relevance to our discussions and debates. In our discussions with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, we found no ducking the hard questions, no hiding behind a victim mentality, and only a little hiding the particular behind the general. We met openness and generosity.

This has been playing on my mind while waiting for flights today. I read a piece in the Wall Street Journal about the SPD (German Socialist opposition party) celebrating its 150th anniversary in Leipzig last Thursday in the surprising presence of Angela Merkel. The party is struggling ahead of the forthcoming general election in September this year and the commentators suggest that the problem lies in the lack of a clear alternative narrative for Germany’s future in the light of the current economic and fiscal challenges across Europe. So, they look to the past – and it’s reassuring glories – in the absence of a vision that might drive them into creating a different future.

The SPD is not alone in this. It sometimes feels as if Europe is paralysed. The sterile and increasingly febrile debate about Europe in the UK offers no escape. If Europe needs a new narrative – one that relies less on the dynamics derived from twentieth century wars and seeks to create a new narrative that will fire up a new generation of people who see something worth building – then so does England. Muddling through crisis after crisis, reacting to the stimulus provided by a cacophony of voices, lurching between ideological intuitions, making statements about terrorism and ‘our way of life’ – none of this can replace the need for leadership that knows who we are, what we are about and where we are going. As Jeremy Paxman once pointed out in his book The English, we don’t know who we are and, so, cannot know who we want to become.

Reactions to Lee Rigby’s murder have demonstrated again that we have no guiding narrative any longer. As Philip Blond argued on BBC Radio 4 this morning, a culture that obsesses about rights without a fundamental (I use the word advisedly) or radical (again, I use the word advisedly) anthropology that knows why it thinks people matter will simply end up as a victim to the loudest or most powerful ideological competitor. It is the lack of such an anthropology that is the problem.

To cut a long argument short, England’s Christian amnesia has left us with just this problem. The church has not helped promote the memory (partly by complaining about all the wrong things), but it will not have to go far to recover its basic driving narrative and hold it out as one worth recovering for the future. Why? Because at least we know why people matter, why morality matters, why loving your neighbour is not a mere option for the romantic, why losing your life is the only way to gain it, why the common good is worth serving, why “no man is an island, entire of itself”, and why failure is not the end.

The signals timing keeps changing. I think we need to pay attention to how it is changing and what it is saying.

I am in Leicester from yesterday until Saturday night leading a Meissen Delegation Visit. The EKD is focusing this year on 'tolerance' and interfaith issues, so we have a group of English and Germans learning about (and experiencing) interfaith co-existence in an English city.

Very pertinent that we arrived here as the murder of a soldier in Woolwich continues to shock. Yesterday we introduced the Germans to the 'Leicester story' – with quite a lot about Richard III – and ended the day in a Sikh gurdwara.

Today we will be joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the EKD at the St Philip's Centre in Evington – a centre setting the pace for faiths working together (not just talking) in this complex city.

It is purely coincidental that we set the theme of the Meissen Delegation Visit a year or two back and we were only able to tie in the Archbishop of Canterbury once he had been appointed and agreed it. The murder in Woolwich changed the context in so far as the Christian response to it and to the fears of the Muslim community are concerned. Our primary concern has to be for the victim, his family and friends, those serving in our armed forces who do the will of our political leaders, and the community who witnessed these shocking events in Woolwich – the desecration of 'home space'.

But, Muslims have responded with unequivocal outrage to this murder. Yes, there is a fear of copy-cat behaviour on the part of other unhinged fanatics; and yes, there will be some who perversely see such brutality as justifiable in the name of some bizarre jihad. But, the response of Muslims has been immediate and straight – and this needs to be strongly encouraged.

Several newspapers this morning are urging Muslim leaders to be more proactive in addressing hate-preaching and the radicalisation of Muslim young people. They are being exhorted to take more responsibility for addressing some of the serious issues in their own communities. And that is OK. The question, however, is whether the rest of us will encourage them practically as they face this task, standing alongside them in these difficult and challenging circumstances.

The coincidence of the Woolwich murder with this Meissen Delegation Visit sadly adds an immediate emphasis to looking at what we are doing in the field of interfaith work in England – our response offering a cases study in how the English church responds to the immediate in the context of our long-term commitment to the common good.

The rest of today will help us look at both English and German interfaith perspectives. No hard questions will be ducked and the talking will, as always, be generous and straight.

 

A soldier is attacked in Woolwich and brutally murdered. The men who did it seem determined to be caught. Seeing the footage, they look familiar – speaking with the same deluded dysfunctionality that is not uncommon in some inner-urban areas. Criminal.

But, why is this being deemed a terrorist attack? If someone did something similar whilst shouting about being Jesus, would it be seen as criminal or terrorist? And would the EDL response – to attack mosques – be paralleled by attacks on churches by angry atheists? And would anyone try to legitimise or explain it, rather than simply condemn it outright?

The labels we attach, the language we use and the framework within which we understand such phenomena are shaped by the unarticulated assumptions we bring. Does anyone seriously think these guys are motivated by Islam any more than the Provisional IRA or the UDA were motivated by a rational reading of the Gospels?

In a week framed by Muslims taking responsibility for crimes such as child sexual exploitation in their own communities and the appalling murder of this soldier in Woolwich, it might be worth pausing to examine the assumptions behind the language and the judgements of those politicians and reporters who are doing their best to articulate what this attack represents – and to question whether another narrative might be more appropriate. At a time such as this we need wisdom.

In the meantime, behind the horror, we pray for the family of the murdered soldier, the people who witnessed this dreadful, violent crime, and those now dealing with it both socially and politically.