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

I have no idea how I would handle watching children being brought into a makeshift hospital following a chemical attack. Or anyone caught up in war, for that matter. Mark de Rond is an ethnographer who got himself embedded with a medical unit at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan in 2012, and his book ‘Doctors at War’ is a raw, honest account of his experiences watching surgeons at work. Two things came over to me: first, the questions raised about mortality and meaning when senseless human brutality is all around, and secondly, the challenge – interspersed with sheer boredom – of not being in control of the dramas when casualties are brought in.

On Good Friday Christians stare into the eyes of helpless cruelty and loss, and are forced to live with it. But, it perhaps shines an appropriate light onto the experience of those first followers of Jesus of Nazareth who found their hopes of liberation and deliverance bleeding from a cross into the dirt.

Good Friday is not for the squeamish – however over-familiar we might be with its story of suffering. Yet, the world is not for the squeamish either. According to the Institute for Strategic Studies nearly half a million people have died in conflict in the last couple of years. Add to them the fact that the world now has nearly 22 million refugees – half of them under eighteen – and you can see the problem.

For a huge proportion of the world’s population life means suffering, struggle, pain and loss. For many there is little or no hope of return or resolution. I have just spent a week with bishops from places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Sudan whose stories sometimes are hard to hear.

Good Friday compels me to look the reality of such suffering in the eye and urges me not to be distracted from the uncomfortable questions it poses. And this is why Christians must not rush from the agony of Friday to the joy of Sunday’s resurrection. We can’t control the pain or the process. We still have to wake up on Saturday with the emptiness of loss and the harrowing recognition that it wasn’t all just a bad dream. We have to live with it and face it.

This isn’t easy. It isn’t comfortable. But, it is necessary if we are to begin to comprehend the lived experience of too many people for whom hope has evaporated in loss or suffering. Christians would add that the cross also offers a lens through which to approach the real world where God makes himself no stranger to all that can be thrown at him – or at us. And this is why the forgiveness of the cross is never cheap, never romantic, never merely notional. It asks us not to look away.

Today I will decide how to respond to the challenge to make Friday good.

Just about to pack up for the night and a last glance at the news websites messes it all up.

Tony Blair has written in the Observer today about the need for the world’s political leaders to recognise and address the religious roots and nature of this century’s big conflicts. Well, he isn’t the first to do this; but, his voice will instantly wind up all the usual suspects who can’t get beyond the demonic mention of his name to engage with the fundamental issue. Letting loose the Iraq debacle doesn’t mean that everything he says about anything must, by definition, be disingenuous.

What is interesting about his latest outing is not immediately obvious.

Yesterday morning (Saturday) I dedicated a new war memorial in Bradford. On it is engraved the names of those local men who have fallen since 1947 – including in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such concrete memorials are important not because they glamourise or romanticise war, but because they do the opposite. They bring us face to face (or hand to stone) with mortality: these names belong to young men who have mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers – and with loss, bereavement and pain.

We need such memorials in order to hold our cultural memory: we don’t know who we are (or why we are who we have become) if we don’t recognise where we have come from – for good and ill; and if we don’t know who we are or how we got here, we can’t shape our future or what we shall become. They don’t tell the whole story, of course; but, they rip the veneer of self-justification from our selective sensibilities and leave us naked before human fragility and failure.

And this is where we come back to Tony Blair’s reported observations. Conflict is always rooted in history; it always finds what William Blake called a ‘human dress’ – a cultural manifestation that gives flesh to wounds inflicted by ideologies and base human greed and cruelty. When people mock the Bible for being bloodthirsty, they don’t always turn the same judgement on media reportage: just today we see

  • The Syrian bloodshed
  • Egypt in turmoil
  • The Arab Spring hijacked by Islamist extremists
  • Revolt in the Ukraine now being fired by extreme right forces
  • South Sudan
  • Central African Republic
  • Pakistan

And so on.

If religion wasn’t the ‘dress’, something else would be. Human beings seem bent on violence and attestations of ‘progress’ seem exaggerated, to say the least. This is not pessimistic; it is realistic. It isn’t the final word, but the human propensity to do appalling things cannot simply be wished away.

If Blair’s argument is to be taken seriously – and the religious roots of conflict be addressed – religion must first be understood (which is what the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is working at)… and not simply sneered at by those who think they are above such things.

[Postscript: The sentencing in Pakistan of a mentally ill man also illustrates how not every culture buys into the self-evidently obvious assumptions some in the west make about the universal desirability of ‘democracy’. Pakistan needs to be seriously challenged about such legal processes/judgments as this one, but it is symptomatic of a deeper challenge that will not be addressed in any effective way by sneering or shouting.]

There is something about English culture that is self-destructive. We are expert at missing the point and getting proportion wrong. The BBC is one of the most respected news organisation in the world, but we just love pulling it down. And some of those gleefully doing the demolition are precisely those who couldn’t command respect if it was nailed to them.

So, George Entwistle falls on his sword after only 54 days in the top job. Maybe, for pragmatic reasons, he was wise to go. But, it must be obvious that anyone coming into what he had dumped on him was going to struggle to keep the show going – especially as a major part of his brief was to oversee substantial change in the way the BBC is run. Almost every voice today combines horror at Newsnight‘s disastrous editorial choices (something to do with removing the top editor recently?) with total respect for a good, competent and honourable man.

So, what good has been done by his resignation? And do we really think that the rolling of further heads will do anything to resolve the problems and strengthen BBC editorial processes – rather than simply create further lacunae in both structure and confidence?

Of course, all this is put into context by today’s acts of remembrance. The narrative against which we measure our honourability as a society is a mixed one of conflict and peace, success and failure. No one can look back honestly at British history without recognising both glory and dishonour – violence runs through it like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock. If we didn’t have Remembrance Day, we would have to invent it – because we need to step back at least one day each year and remember our story, how we came to be where we are, and the cost (in every respect) of getting here.

In Bradford this morning we stood around the Cenotaph under cloudless blue skies and watched in silence as the families of those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan came forward and placed wreaths and crosses against photographs of their young men. The poignancy of that kiss transferred from a mother’s lips to the face of a son who will never grow old or weary. It was almost too much. These aren’t just names etched into stone or bronze; these are too immediate, too present in their absence.

Getting these events right is not easy. How do we remember the fallen and those who sacrificed so much so long ago… whilst avoiding any romanticism, blind patriotism, escapist fantasy or fictionalising of history? We did it through prayers of sorrow and recognition, pledges of commitment to peace and human flourishing, statements of reconciliation and mutuality. Easily spoken, hard to do.

The point for me in all this (which is why I am recording it here for the sake of my own memory) is that reconciliation can only come from a courageously honest recognition of the messed-up-ness of human life and history. I served on the intelligence side of the Falklands War in 1982 and still have memories of the moral ambiguities involved in that. But, the narrative I (as a Christian) am held to is one that calls us to give up our life in order that the world might see who and how God is – lived out in the flesh and blood of those who bear his name (and, therefore, his character). It is shaped like a cross.

The BBC will survive because there are enough sensible people around who take a long-term view and see the detail of the current aberration only in the context of the enormous canvas of good the BBC does and is. And Remembrance Day will also drag our consciousness away from romanticism and escapism into the brutally real facing up to what human beings do to each other in the complicated name of ‘power’.

Some years ago, when we were camping in Normandy, I took my then young (and younger) son to visit a huge World War One cemetery. We both sat in silence before the enormity of death laid out over silent acres. It isn’t good poetry, but this is what I wrote on a scrap of paper while sitting on the wall:

A field of white stones

and simple crosses

with wishful words

and solemn epitaphs.

Known unto God means

we hadn’t a clue who he was.

Just another mangled inconnu

in a field of bloody might-have-beens.

Rest in peace sounds like an apology

for the hostility and brutality

of his untimely death.

I did not know him,

nor do I know those who miss him,

who still, half a world away,

miss the sound of his voice

and hear the agony of his eternal silence.

But I, also an inconnu, a nobody,

whisper an apology at his space,

and pray silently

for never again

and not for mine.