A meeting of bishops from the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Churches is coming to an end here in Birmingham. It has been a stimulating, encouraging, challenging and good time together. In brief, we have looked at the international scene, the European scene, prayer and evangelisation, and where we go from here together.

Haunting the meeting is the spectre of a Trumpian revolution in the United States – with considerable implications for the rest of the world – and the debate about Brexit.

One of the interesting features of debate about the USA and Brexit is the constant attempts to close down debate on detail on the grounds that “we won, so shut up and let the winners get on with it”.

Politics cannot be run only by politicians. Politics is about people who hold different views, different values and have different priorities. In other words, all of us. A vote does not end the conversation. Had the UK voted to remain in the European Union, there is little chance that those who ‘lost’ would be accepting the status quo and going quiet; nor should they.

The referendum on membership of the EU delivered a decision to leave. However, almost half of those who voted did not vote that way. It was not overwhelming or decisive (as has often been stated). The country is divided – almost in two – over the matter. So, how we proceed from here must take seriously the concerns of the half the country that does/did not want to leave the EU. How we leave matters. The language we use in the course of the debate (on how to leave) matters.

From my own experience – and despite some of the public posturing – some of those in government take the 48% seriously and understand the need to hold the country together.

I have not changed my view that much of the language of certainty and promise is at least speculative and at worst fantasy. This means that we have to be prepared for huge disillusionment and further resentment when many of the Brexit promises turn out to be unfulfilled. Yes, the gains must be identified, too, it is the deficits that will provoke the reaction.

Donald Trump might well be doing what he said he would do – which is his prerogative – but democracy means that the debate continues. If lies are told, this matters; and the nature of the lies must (if we believe truth has any value) be named. However, not everything inconvenient to my preferences are necessarily lies.

It is right that serious questions are asked about policy from any democratically elected government. Protest must be legitimate. The questions we must ask about the questions raised pertain to very basic stuff: what is a human being? why do people matter? what is a good society? from what (theological) anthropology do our values and moral judgments derive? what responsibility do I take as a citizen for shaping our collective common life?

For Christians the answers will be rooted in the nature of the world as God’s creation, people as made in the image of this creator God, and neighbourliness being rooted in more than seeing others as commodities or merely economic entities.

 

So, the new year has begun. In with a bang, or with a whimper of fear and hesitation?

I was reminded this morning (while preparing for a radio interview) of the entry for New Year’s Day 1917 in the diary of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia: “The year 1916 was cursed; 1917 will surely be better!” Well, the Somme might have been appalling, but the Russian Revolution was to take the lives of Nicholas and his family (and, consequently and ultimately, millions of others) less than a year after writing his diary.

Wishful thinking is not the same as hope. Hope – which has to be vested in a vision – commits the hopeful to work towards the fulfilment of that vision. Hope has little to do with optimism: whereas optimism looks for the bright side in what happens, hope looks reality in the eye and is not diminished when that reality renders optimism as fantasy.

2017 will see the centenary of the Russian Revolution and the quincentenary of the Reformation. Both revolutions set Europe and the world ablaze. The language of freedom and a new world order exploded as an old order was challenged and assumptions (about why the world is the way it is) were questioned. And they remain pertinent as we move from 2016 into 2017.

2016 saw the rocking of an established order as the UK voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump was elected President of the USA. Further elections in France and Germany in 2017 have the potential to further reshape Europe and the international relationships that have held the world together since the Second World War. ‘Populism’ is the word of the day – either an accolade or a term of derision, depending on whether you approve of the what the populace asked for. Whatever the choice, we face two questions: (a) 2016 showed us how easy it is to bring down; 2017 will show us whether we know how to build up. (b) we are where we are (regardless of how we got here), so how can we commit to shaping the future rather than bemoaning the past?

Photo-20161129151817817.jpgIt takes centuries to build a culture and a community; it takes minutes to destroy it. Look at Aleppo. If the commentariat is correct in judging that Brexit and Trump represent a rejection of ‘establishment’ and ‘elites’ (that is, we know what we are against), then what are we for? Put to one side the worrying irony that the articulators and leaders of the anti-establishment and anti-elitist movements are themselves the epitome of establishment and elitism, we have to ask what we wish to replace the current establishment with. My guess is that those who found common cause in ‘breaking down’ will struggle to find common cause in what they wish to see ‘built up’.

I come back to the distinction between wishful thinking and hope – the former leaving it to others to shape (as it is easier constantly to criticise and pick holes in those who try to bring about change) whilst the latter invest themselves sacrificially in making a positive difference even where this might be diminished or rejected. This is why, following Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified for it, Christians are drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

We do not know what 2017 will bring. We can fear for a (worryingly narcissistic) Trump presidency and we can come to terms with the sheer complexity of what Brexit might turn out to look like (with “the best deal” not being achievable?), but, ultimately, we will have to face the consequences of the decisions we have made whilst committing ourselves to shaping a common future in which the poor and marginalised are not left behind. Brexit is usually defined in terms of economics, trade and finance; it has to be about people, society, values and the common good of the whole nation.

We don’t know how the future might look. We do not know whether further Aleppos will curse our global humanity in 2017 – or whether revolutions might come where they have not come before. We cannot be sure what the impact of Trumpian protectionism and disregard for the environment will be. We must join in the argument as adults who take responsibility, even when the decisions do not go their way.

A reading of history makes clear that ‘now’ is never ultimate. Tomorrow will come. We must, as a people of hope, live in the reality of the day, learning from the past but drawn by a vision for and from the future, committed to shaping and not just complaining. “The Word became flesh (and dwelled among us)”, wrote John in the prologue of his gospel; our words will become flesh – one way or another – and we must take responsibility for them. Then we must use them to shape a vision that captures the imagination
and is not swayed by events, fears, conflict or destruction.

It is not enough to know what we are against, and to be angry about it; we must know what we are for, and commit ourselves to making it happen. Building up is always harder than breaking down.

It is infinitely amazing how instantly we all jump to judgement. Analyses of Donald Trump's win were pouring out even before it had been formally declared. So many words, so much opinion, so much assertion in the face of actual ignorance.

So, I decided not to write anything yesterday. I couldn't see the point of adding to the voices.

Today, having reflected on the Trump triumph, I simply offer the following pegs for my own thinking:

1. Like Brexit, the content of the campaign will probably bear little relation to the reality that will follow. Slogans might abound, but promises are almost always empty or cannot be delivered anyway. If Donald Trump does one tenth of what he promised he would do on Day One of his presidency, he is going to have a very busy day – not least setting up the Grand Jury to get Hillary “great public servant to whom we owe a great debt” Clinton into jail. We live in what is being called a “post-factual” world. What it really means is that we accept our politicians lying through their teeth to us during a campaign, knowing that this lying doesn't matter. That is the world we have chosen to accept.

2. Today is tomorrow's yesterday. Time will tell whether a Trump presidency is dangerous or not. It will certainly shift the parameters of what is possible and how international relationships are recalibrated. The truth is, we have no idea what will happen when he takes over from an intelligent, articulate, cultured, plitically experienced president who was thwarted throughout his presidency by a Congress determined to stop him doing anything.

3. We now enter a new and unpredictable world. We also do not know what impact this phenomenon will have on the French and German elections next year. An era of reactive populism across Europe will shift all the plates across the planet, but we don't know. We felt the same when Ronald Reagan took up the reins in the White House, but although his presidency brought elements of “worry”, the world survived; furthermore, the chemistry between him and Gorbachev provoked change that might not have been possible with other characters. (Of course, this led to Putin…)

So, it is too early to make judgements or even prophecies (although this won't stop people trying).

I am a Christian. I don't think Christians should ever be surprised by anything that happens. We get on with reality, whatever complexion that reality adopts. We are committed to the world, but fired by a vision of how that world might be different. So, even if the world goes mad, we will stay stuck in – trying to shape it, yes, but also engaging with it whether it looks good or bad.

We'll see…

What is it about politicians that encourages them to make absurd pitches for power? During the EU Referendum campaign we saw ridiculous promises, based on dodgy assumptions, made with a confidence and certainty that defied reality. In the USA we see it in Donald Trump's campaign slogan: 'Make America great again.'

No definition of 'great'. No real definition of 'America' – by the time you've excluded all the people Donald doesn't like, it isn't clear who is left to enjoy the 'land of the free'.

Anyway, I am only thinking about this because on holiday earlier this month I read five books (including Elvis Costello, Tom Wright and Sam Wells), two of which haunt me: Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar' and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 'Romulus der Große'. I have already written very briefly about the first (brilliant book), but it is the latter that comes to mind just now in the context of Trump and other matters.

Not many Brits have heard of Dürrenmatt. A Swiss novelist and playwright, he describes 'Romulus der Große' as an “ungeschichtliche historische Komödie” (an unhistorical historic comedy). Written in 1950, it shows the demise of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, with the action taking place during the day of (and the day following) the Ides of March, 476. The Empire is about to collapse under the invasion of the greatly feared Germans and Romulus awaits its – and his – demise calmly. His family, ministers and courtiers try to force him to act decisively against the catastrophic and imminent Germanic invasion, but Romulus prefers to stay at home breeding domesticated chickens and doing nothing in response to the threat.

The ending is surprising and very civilised.

It is very clever, very funny, and needs to be rediscovered nearly seventy years after its initial production. Written in the aftermath of the German catastrophe of the twentieth century, it has much to say to us today in the aftermath of Iraq/Afghanistan, Brexit and America. Here are a few quotes (my translation as I only have the text in German):

Even the worst news sounds quite pleasant when spoken by someone who has rested well, has bathed and shaved, and has had a good meal.

It is not about the content of the language…

ZENO: “Now we must save our culture.” ROMULUS: “In what way is culture something that can be saved?”

Echoing elements of George Orwell's 1984, Romulus and Zeno (Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and escaped from Constantinople) come up with slogans they might use to counter the German invaders:

“For freedom and servitude!” “For slavery and justice!” “For caprice against barbarism!”

Rea, the daughter of Romulus, argues with her father that he must give everything to save the fatherland:

REA: “Our unconditional love for the Fatherland is what made Rome great.” ROMULUS: “But our love did not make Rome good.”

Which is where Trump comes in. Has greatness solely to do with power? Or success? Or self-protection? Where does “making America good” come in? Or the UK, for that matter?

I could quote other bits that resonate still, but that will do for now. Read the play – it isn't long. I have no idea if it is available in English, but the German is powerful even today. Under the humour and the satire there is a powerful punch.

 

Donald Trump plays into that bizarre American obsession with 'safety'. You paint America as a dangerous place where before even catching a train you have to be persuaded that it is a safe thing to do. You then demand a president who will make America safe as well as 'great' again.

Which means what? What would it look like for America to be 'great' again? Or 'safe' again? We don't get answers – just the usual perversity when it comes to asserting that more accessibility to more guns will magically make everyone safer.

Well, Americans will have to do their own business in the face of its Faustian pact with democracy in November. But, this impacts on the UK, too. Before leaving for a break I did an interview with BBC Radio 5Live in the wake of the murder by IS crazies of an elderly priest in France. Not exactly heroic, these criminals, are they? I mean, choose your targets.

The line of questioning put to me was that churches in England will now have to increase their security. What advice would I now be giving to my churches? I think my response must have been very disappointing. Increase vigilance and learn to look differently at what is going on around us, but don't go mad, start erecting fences or putting sentries on our churches. As if.

Isn't this what terrorists want us to do – be terrorised?

But, the main reason for rejecting some vast increase in security of buildings is that, as I think I put it, you can't legislate for total security. Furthermore, no one has the resources of money, time or people to provide anything remotely approximating total security. In the end, total safety is not something anyone can secure. Not even Donald Trump.

Our churches should open their doors and welcome people in. Yes, as happens already, someone should keep aware of who is there and who might be lurking around outside – especially if they are carrying knives and have their face covered. Yes, anything suspicious should be noted and, if necessary, the police alerted. That is common sense.

But, the first casualty of the current horrors should be the lie of total safety. History is littered with demagogues who promised safety and security along with renewed greatness. Their names are known to us. While understandable that in times of great fear and uncertainty people look for security and the promise of simple certainty, we should beware of the disillusionment and destructiveness that can follow when the empty and unachievable promises are seen for what they really are: a fantasy.