This is the text of the 2022 annual lecture for the Council on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament (CCADD) of which I am a Vice-president. It was delivered on Wednesday 6 July 2022 at Westminster Abbey. The lecture was intended to feed into a discussion which, in the event, turned out to be very rich and challenging; it raised further and wider questions which are too long to go into here and now. I understand it was recorded, so a link might follow for the CCADD website.

I have only been to Sweden once. Following a big celebration of the thousandth anniversary of the Diocese of Skara, we returned to the hotel for a dinner with royalty and the great and the good. After dinner I was told (for the first time) that I was to give a speech and would follow the Bishop of Bavaria. Fair enough. The Bishop of Bavaria then disappointed me by concluding his speech in Swedish. All I could think to say at the beginning of mine – having allowed a significant silence – was that the only Swedish I know (excluding IKEA, of course) is: “Mamma mia”, “Gimme gimme gimme”, “Money money money” and “Dancing Queen”. They laughed – helpfully.

You will remember that ‘Mamma Mia’ is followed by the words: “Here we go again”. And this is the line – and the song – that spins around my head when I look at elements of the world we currently inhabit. If I turned it into a question, it would be: “Do we ever learn?”

You will remember George Santayana’s famous aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. This builds from Karl Marx’s assertion that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” I will leave it to the historians to debate whether either is demonstrably true, but I am suspicious of both. History – by definition – cannot repeat itself, but we can learn from it, if we choose to do so. Learning can clearly go in different ways – for example, it isn’t a given that we learn only positively from the mistakes or experiences of the past; we might learn how to do terrible things more efficiently in future – but learning should at the very least imply a serious and considered attempt not to recreate the negative conditions of the past which open the door to ‘bad stuff’ (as Donald Trump might put it).

This is why some observers are now pointing (with hindsight, it should be said) to the complacency of the West since the Second World War and, later, the collapse of the Soviet Union: that “never again” will we tolerate war on Europe’s soil and “never again” can there be genocide on our continent. Well, the Balkans disposed of the latter and Ukraine casts doubts on the former. Only three months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, dismissed the informed observations of his fellow MP Tobias Ellwood at the Liaison Committee meeting in Parliament on 17 November 2021: “We have to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European land mass are over, and there are other, better things we should be investing in, in FCAS, in the future combat air system, in cyber, this is how warfare in the future is going to be.” Well, that didn’t age well.

A similar problem can be found in the Integrated Review of 2021. Remember its subtitle: “Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, describes the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade and the action we will take to 2025.” The assumptions on which this review was built became exposed to reality only months after it was published. Barely a reference to our European neighbours in the European Union, but all eyes on China and the Pacific. And now, in 2022, we find ourselves in a changed world once again, probably with a need for a revised integrated review which checks some of the assumptions in the original. And we are nowhere near 2025.

(While writing this an argument is raging about cuts from 80,000 to 72,000 in army numbers at the same time as NATO is boosting the numbers of troops being mobilised on the eastern borders and we are being reminded of the threat from an aggressive Russia. The Cold War bipolar world gave way to a supposedly unipolar order … which is now giving way to a tripolar or even multipolar world, if we consider Russia, China, India, the European Union, USA to be increasingly singular agents. This must have an impact on any decisions made in and by the UK, dependent on a realistic appreciation of capacity.)

Is it possible, then, to learn from history when it comes to geopolitics and military defence? I do wonder when we see the Russian military using in Ukraine the same tactics (with the same rationale) as they did in World War Two and, in my personal experience, in their aborted Afghan campaign in the 1980s. This was a campaign running while I was a Russian linguist at GCHQ. What is even more curious for me personally is that the rhetoric the West aimed at the Soviet Union in the 1980s (“you can’t win a war in Afghanistan, and you’ll all go home in coffins”) was exactly the same rhetoric used by the Russians against the West when we moved into Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. The differing rationales behind the two invasions/occupations do not dispel the pragmatic problems of conducting such operations in such a place – something history tells us are fairly insurmountable.

But, the abrupt departure of the Western Allies from Afghanistan last year, the questionable ways in which this operation was conducted, and the way in which some of our moral obligations towards those left behind were neglected … all raise questions about the politics of forward planning in the light of past experience and the context of current exigencies. Could this withdrawal have been conducted differently? It is not for me, an observer, to say; but, many commentators who understand politics, diplomacy, military and humanitarian factors better than I do clearly think so.

What ,then, might be the preconditions for wise learning from history? I am no expert and am not a historian, but my possibly shallow thinking leads me to these for starters:

First, politicians need around them historians who can identify and articulate past phenomena that might educate us when making short-term decisions that will, inevitably, have long-term consequences. This is partly the classic ‘how do we get out of what we are about to get into?’ question. A good and fairly recent example of this is how German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her cabinet read Christopher Clark’s remarkable and readable 2013 book Sleepwalkers – on the origins of the First World War – and then set aside a day to engage on it with the author-historian. Not everybody likes Clark’s book, but the Germans are serious and intelligent enough to deal with argument and ideas and the importance of learning. Of course, historians will offer differing perspectives: that’s the point.

Secondly, we have to remember the nature of contingency. For every decision made, there is a context … which includes a complex set of human beings with limited vision and a propensity to seek immediate solutions to today’s threat or problem without preparing for the possible various consequences that might arise from them. At this point I will introduce a question that bothers me more generally and which we might want to discuss later: centralised authoritarian regimes like Russia and China are far better equipped to think strategically in the longer term than are western democracies where the political eye is always on the ball of the electoral cycle – therefore, the inability to guarantee that any longer-term strategy can be seen through to a conclusion … and hence the short-term tactical (rather than strategic) thinking that might win votes.

(I might add here, though we will come back to it later, that Russia is a single entity with a single government dominated by a single man, but he is dealing with an opposing coalition of interests, the cracks between whom can easily be opened and exploited, especially over the longer term when popular patience or tolerance wear thin. We have seen this with Putin’s twenty or thirty-year strategy to ‘reclaim and reunite’ Russia, centralising power, changing laws in order to reinforce his power, re-building and modernising his armed forces and their military hardware, interfering in Western democracies and their elections (using cyber and human agencies), assassinating on Western soil and getting minimal response, testing the West (Donbas, Lukhansk, Crimea) and getting little effective opposition. He is probably surprised by the unity and re-engagement of the west following the Ukraine invasion in February 2022, but he also knows that Western memories and passions are eminently exploitable.)

Thirdly, all decisions are made uniquely, despite past experience. The world keeps changing and so do the factors that shape how we see and think about it. This is why history cannot repeat itself any more than the water in a river can re-visit where it has just swept on from. Therefore, it is the principles that can be derived from history that have to be appropriated and considered when decisions of strategy are being made. Sorry if that sounds like a statement of the blindingly obvious.

We might, then, look at the current war in Ukraine to help us think this through. I want to preface this with two comments: first, that the Daily Telegraph’s report on 23/24 June (and lifted by the Times and Daily Mail), allegedly based on a background paper for a General Synod debate on 8 July, was erroneous and misleading (deliberately, I think … and described to me by a conservative acquaintance as “at best disingenuous, at worst deliberately mendacious” – I prefer “illiterate”); secondly, the debate at the General Synod is intended to do what it says on the tin: open thoughtful debate about how we think about Ukraine and how we as a church should respond to the various elements of the conflict – defending Ukraine, holding Putin’s government to account for its evils, and responding to humanitarian need. Issuing platitudinous slogans of support and condemnation respectively might make us feel better, but it won’t necessarily achieve very much effectively in either defending Ukraine or holding Russia to account for its intentions and crimes.

Let me absolutely clear: I want Ukraine to win its war, recover its territory and restore its independence and democratic institutions. I would like to see Putin in a War Crimes Tribunal and held accountable for the death and destruction he has ordered in a sovereign and independent neighbouring country. I would like to see this conflict end as soon as possible and with the least possible further bloodshed of military and civilian people. I will wave a flag, if that helps. But, none of what I have just said absolves any of us from doing the hard work of thinking through potential outcomes that might not accord with my desire, all of which will bring with them wider consequences for both short- and longer term political and economic settlements. So, just to avoid any misunderstanding – deliberate or otherwise – let me repeat: debating options is not the same thing as siding with one or betraying another. I hope that is clear as well as obvious.

What also needs to be clear is that questioning previous actions by the West does not equate to a justification of Putin’s aggression. Even where assumptions of American exceptionalism clash with notions of Russian exceptionalism, playing games of moral equivalence is dangerous territory. We must resist this increasingly polarised and binary thinking that sees every statement as a taking of sides rather than an attempt to face reality and navigate complexity in which moral or political intent is often compromised.

The challenges are many. For example, what happens if, in the end, Russia occupies half of Ukraine and fights to a stalemate? What then will be the grounds for negotiating a peace? Because unless one side utterly defeats the other, there will have to be some diplomatically negotiated settlement. That isn’t an opinion – it is a statement of the obvious. Future relationships still have to be developed, whatever the outcome of the bloody conflict. But, let’s think further: if Ukraine defeats Russia, what happens next … and in the following thirty years? The end of the war, however it happens, will not resolve for ever the problem of history, identity and territory. So, how will Ukraine and the West deal with a defeated Russia? This is where the options become complex (and distasteful), but if a future is to be imagined, it has to involve the building of a defeated country along lines which don’t embed deep nationalistic grievances which then nurture the claims and violences of the following century. Remember Versailles and Yalta?

Let’s remind ourselves of the key background issues in the current conflict. We might begin this with a question that bugs many such debates and conflicts: when did history begin? Vladimir Putin has been angling for years not for the restoration of the USSR, but for the renewal of the Holy Rus and the concept of Russkiy Mir. Every time he leaves the Kremlin he passes a statue of Vladimir the Great, the man who united Kiev, Moscow and Minsk – Ukraine, Russia and Belorussia – over a thousand years ago.

Now, historical ‘memory’ can be romanticised and shaped teleologically to justify current ideological preferences, but there is always a starting point from which any people charts the ‘living’ story of their people or nation or empire. In the case of Ukraine, is it the Holy Rus which the Orthodox Church and Russian nationalists date as the founding date? That is Putin’s (rather contorted) understanding of what he is trying to restore (in terms of ‘Russkiy Mir’), and he has corralled the Moscow Patriarchate into sacrificing both people and theology on this particular altar.

But, now read the most accessible history of Ukraine, Anna Reid’s excellent Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine. She illustrates clearly the challenge any modern Ukraine faces, viz. that it was not seen by its neighbours as a separate country until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1990-91. It was not a sovereign country until then and its democratic institutions and culture have been developed remarkably in only the thirty or so years since then. Reid puts the question bluntly: are Ukrainians  Central Europeans or a species of Russian? To Russians Ukraine was always part of Russia; but, to Poles it was part of Poland. Look at the shift of borders following two world wars in the twentieth century (which was not the beginning) and you will see the problem of working out which narrative (and from which people’s perspective) is to be the defining one.

Ukraine, of course, is not unique in this. Look at Israel-Palestine. Look at the former Soviet Union and the territories – if not nations and ethno-linguistic groups – it held together which, when the glue was dissolved, immediately drew apart and sought their unique identity. Look at the former Yugoslavia and its artificial uniting of ethnic nations which fell into violence once the authoritarian grip was loosened.

My point is simply (and painfully obviously, I fear) that solving one crisis or problem does not resolve any conflict for ever. I grew up in the post-war world reading maps that looked settled for the future. Yet, they have kept changing ever since the previous settlements were established ‘for ever’. So, I return to the challenging and unwelcome question: however and whenever this current conflict ends, there will have to be a way of securing peace and co-existence that takes seriously the costs and consequences of whatever settlement is arrived at. And, at this point in time, no one has any idea what that situation will look like or how any future settlement might be shaped. En route, the parties involved have to navigate the potential for tactical (if not strategic) miscalculation and escalation.

What we can say, however, is that passionate demands for Ukrainian total victory and total defeat for Putin and Russia will by definition create new problems and challenges. The end of one phase will bear the seeds of future conflicts, claims and demands. And these have to be prepared for now in order that the real costs of potential settlements, short-term solutions and longer-term determinations can be properly, transparently and intelligently assessed and engaged.

It worries me that the rhetoric of Western leaders seems to see a single desirable outcome (which I would also like to see) and eschew any discussion of actual and potential scenarios. For example, Boris Johnson said last week that he would resign if the UK could no longer supply Ukraine with what it needs in terms of financial or military support. If that scenario emerges – and remember that the MOD mentioned that the UK does not have sufficient ammunition to support a long-term war – what will the UK then do? Pool all resources with NATO? Or with the EU (which would be anathema for this government, regardless of wider realities)? Simply back off and leave Ukraine to its own fight? These questions have to be addressed now and not reacted to when events turn to a conclusion for which no one is prepared.

In other words, where is the scenario planning that takes post-conflict options and realities seriously? We can only hope that, despite the rhetoric of politicians, the diplomats and military are doing some serious thinking and planning. This is precisely where we need to learn from history: from Versailles and Yalta, from the Sudetenland and the Balkans, from Ireland and Africa, from the trenches of Flanders’ Fields to the trenches of Donbas and Odessa. What are the non-negotiables from any peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia (if such a thing is either desirable or possible): a Ukraine without Donbas? A Ukraine without Lukhansk? What about Crimea? (Crimea was gifted to Ukraine by Khruschev in 1954, before which it was an integral part of Russia in the Soviet Union.) And if, from a UK or Western perspective, all these territories are non-negotiable and are integral elements of Ukrainian territory for the future, why did we do nothing effective to deter Putin when he moved into these territories before and after 2014 and strategically mobilised ethnic Russians to gradually take control over a number of years before the military invasion in February 2022? We can’t say we didn’t know it was happening – even as we lauded oligarchs and sucked up their dirty money.

I want to open up a further relevant question at this point before concluding, and it derives from this notion of deterrence. We could say much more about the errors of the past and red lines that proved as definitive as the stripes on a covid test, but this might emerge during our discussion.

If you believe in the credibility and importance of nuclear deterrence, the Ukraine situation raises some uncomfortable questions. NATO made it clear – rightly – that nuclear weapons would not be used by their forces in this conflict. Russia kept the option open and continues to threaten their use – not only tactical battlefield engagement, but the obliteration of cities and countries (see his remarks about destroying the islands of the United Kingdom and London in particular – like swatting a fly). Now, regardless of the rhetoric and the possibly overblown and hubristic game-playing here, it might appear to some that the West has been deterred by Russia’s weapons and weaponisers, but Russia has not been at all deterred by the West’s. OK, we don’t know the end of the story and we don’t know what is going on behind the scenes; but, this at least raises interesting questions about the effectiveness of deterrence itself, if it doesn’t de facto deter. I throw that in as a discussion starter rather than as a conclusion.

I have said nothing so far about theology. There will be different theological insights into how we should see and conduct ourselves during conflicts such as this one. Any reading of the Scriptures would make it clear that an essential element of discussing any international dispute – however serious and complex or trivial and incidental – must be a commitment to both telling and hearing the truth. We need say nothing about Putin’s control of media and selective propaganda. But, it is vital that his opponents – especially in the ‘free press’ and media of the West – take care to report and comment carefully and truthfully. If Ukraine and Ukrainians matter, then we all have an obligation to the ninth Commandment: that we do not bear false witness against our neighbour, however passionate we feel about mustering our evidence and arguments for a particular end.

Secondly, peace making is harder than peace keeping. But, Christians cannot avoid the obligation to do the hard thinking and hard working of making peace amid the pragmatic complexities of unresolved conflict. Peace making is costly. It is not for Western Christians to decide what cost Ukrainian people should pay for this current war, but, like it or not, we are bound inextricably to Christians on other sides of the conflict and cannot avoid the strictures and demands imposed by this relationship. The challenge is not primarily about a peaceful conclusion to the war, but about how a peaceful post-conflict settlement, rooted in concepts of justice, accountability and sacrifice, can be achieved.

In his book on Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, Rowan Williams makes the point very clearly that the last word has never been spoken in this world. Once we say there is nothing further to say or hear, that conversation is now closed, that every argument has been either settled or concluded, then we have died and the world has ended. There is always more to be said and heard. This theme runs through Dostoyevsky’s fiction and we need to hold to it, too. Christian theology tells us clearly that death, violence and destruction do not have the last word: God does, and it is ‘resurrection’. However, the hard and costly task for Christians (and, I would suggest, for all people) is to work out what that might look like in terms of people and land and ‘stuff’.

At the outset of the conflict there was a quietly expressed fear that the limited conflict might spread, that there was a risk of strategic miscalculation inherent in its developing course of (Russian) action and (Western) reaction. Well, look at the energy crisis and the growing global food crisis that will add to the migration crisis that is rooted in the climate crisis. Any thinking about the future of Ukraine and Russia cannot avoid setting this in the context of global demands and relationships. Once again, as I argued earlier, it is not simply about kicking Russia out; whatever follows next will lead to a fresh set of questions, crises and conflicts.

I think we need to acknowledge that ultimately everyone will lose in this conflict, whoever eventually is deemed to have won. It seems that neither side is ready now for negotiations (although these will be going on through back-channels). But, the time will come, and all parties will need to be ready for the costs as well as the gains. We need to think about what a good peace will actually look like in reality.

I pray for the end of suffering and the establishment of a just peace. But, I have no illusions about what this might entail or what are the risks of getting it wrong. It will be evident from what I have said that the questions are easier to articulate than the answers. We might begin now, with humility and courage, to discuss this together.

Thank you for your attention.

This is the basic text of a sermon I preached this morning to the judges, magistrates and diverse lawyers of Bradford at the so-called Legal Service at Bradford Cathedral. Not many jokes. And, to those on Twitter who asked if all the other services I do are illegal, I just call for a moment’s silence…

LEGAL SERVICE BRADFORD

You don’t have to be a Christian or a Jew to recognise that the English legal system is based on and derived from the Judeao-Christian tradition seen in the Scriptures. Justice lies at the heart of God’s character and is measured by how the powerful and the powerless are treated in society.

If you break justice, you are left with just ice. So says Scouse poet and Radio 4 presenter Stewart Henderson. I am glad he has come to that realisation as one of my earliest memories of him was being beaten up by him and Billy Mason when I was nine. Not that it still hurts, you understand…

wpid-Photo-17-Aug-2011-2351.jpgThe point he makes in his poem is a suggestive one: it is a cold world where justice is a commodity to be bought and sold, or where lip service is paid to justice, but it has become a means of privilege to those who either are powerful or have the skill to manipulate it.

I speak here from experience – not here in Bradford, I hasten to add, or even in England. In my previous post as Bishop of Croydon in the Diocese of Southwark I had a close link with the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe. Some years ago the then Bishop of Harare, Dr Nolbert Kunonga, tried to take control of the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, was deposed from his post – and no longer recognised by the Anglican Communion as a bishop in the church – and, declaring UDI from the wider church, took possession of all the assets and finances of the Diocese of Harare. Of course, he didn’t do it alone: he used armed henchmen to attack anyone who tried to gain access to churches, threw out clergy and their families from their homes if they had not supported him, and, with unchallengeable hubris, declared war on the province, the Archbishop of Canterbury, all colonialism (which was defined as disagreeing with him) and anyone who stood in his way.

The problem with Dr Kunonga, however, was that he was backed by Robert Mugabe, who rewarded his faithfulness by awarding him expropriated white-owned farms and full support in the public sphere. And the public sphere included the system of law. Even when the courts found against Kunonga, the police and security services simply ignored the courts and defended the status quo.

It was evident, in all the complexities of my engagement with Zimbabwe, that no progress would or could be made in rebuilding the economy or renewing politics until the rule of law was re-established and allowed to stand at the heart of Zimbabwean life. To twist the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Where there is no justice, the people perish.”

wpid-Photo-15-Jan-2013-1056.jpgHaving moved from Croydon and a link with Zimbabwe, I am now in Bradford where our diocesan link is with the five dioceses of Sudan. I had hoped for somewhere like the Bahamas this time round, but Sudan is now beginning to make Zimbabwe look tame. My wife and I spent just over a week there this month. I discovered a couple of days ago that immediately after we had left the guesthouse where we had been staying in Khartoum – at one o’clock in the morning – the place was raided and everyone taken in for interrogation by the security services. The building has now, apparently, been held by the security services.

The rule of law, impartially administered, is clearly fundamental to any free society or system of justice. Both Zimbabwe and Sudan – where indigenous people are now being disappeared and foreigners expelled – demonstrate clearly what happens not only when justice is corrupted by the fear and greed of the powerful, but also when any anthropological undergirding of human value is diminished to the point of tyranny.

While in Sudan I was reflecting on a line written to Katkov by Fyodr Dostoyevsky: “Juridical punishment for crime scares a criminal far less than law-makers think, partly because the criminal himself requires it morally.” Isn’t that interesting? Dostoyevsky doesn’t see the need for justice and juridical punishment simply in terms of society’s need to keep the peace, deter the wrong-doers or fulfil a bureaucratic requirement in order to keep elected politicians happy with their harshness. Rather, he appeals to something far more fundamental: criminals require justice because only this takes seriously their humanity, their moral accountability, their very being as moral agents who have both rights and responsibilities in a human community of mutual obligation.

Now, in one sense, this shouldn’t need to be spelled out. But, in a society which is shaped by media headlines that scream for the blood of ‘people not like us’ – who remove criminals from the moral page by categorising them as ‘monsters’ – we have to keep reminding ourselves of the anthropological assumptions that underlie our practice of justice. What is a human being and why does anyone matter? Why, ultimately, does it matter that some people break the law and put themselves beyond the reach of mutual or civil society?

Which, I guess, is what unites us here today. Lawyers, magistrates, judges – all those involved or employed in the justice system assume certain fundamental things: that a good society is one that is properly ordered; that law is not sufficient of itself in securing an ordered society, but is indispensible to it; that the common good demands a common legal system that shows no favour and cannot be manipulated by those who would gain personal advantage at the cost of social integrity or coherence. However we might articulate it, we believe that good law is essential to justice and that justice does more than simply ‘keep things on the rails’. Justice demands more than mere pragmatism – it rests on an assumption about virtue being essential to human and societal character.

wpid-Photo-30-Oct-2012-1057.jpgI haven’t time – and this isn’t the place – to go into contemporary debates about what is called ‘virtue ethics’, but it starts from an understanding that rules and regulations are not enough to shape or guarantee ethics; virtue has to do with the making of character, and it is character that shapes behaviour and ethics… whatever the rules and regulations might actually be. I am assuming here that good ethics require just such virtue, if they are to be more than ‘rules of engagement’.

Perhaps surprising, then, that the reading from Job 28 speaks not of justice, but of wisdom. And, perhaps, surprising that a question asked three thousand years ago in a context of abject suffering in an obscure place in the Middle East should cry out to be heard even in Bradford in 2013: “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” This man, Job, whose world has fallen apart in every aspect, cries out here not for mere practical solutions to his problems, not for a quick way out of his predicament, not for an anaesthetic to dull the pain of apparent hopelessness, and not for a panacea imbued with the complexion of fantasy. No, he cries out for wisdom and understanding.

Now, I realise that this sounds weird to a generation brought up on instant gratification, fast knowledge, bewildering amounts of information and the wallpaper-like surroundings of immediate judgement and dramatic analysis. Why wait? Why dwell in a space of indeterminate questioning or unsatisfying waiting? Why not, as the credit card advert once tempted us, “take the waiting out of wanting”?

Well, wisdom is learned, not bought. And it is learned by paying attention to what makes the world what it is, what makes people who they are, what gives meaning to what appears to be formless and void, what makes sense of lived experience in community with others, many of whom have no interest in becoming wise at any price. Wisdom – which is more than the product of information plus knowledge plus judgement – lies at the heart of any consideration of justice… precisely because justice can never be subject to whim or trend or fashion or even mere popularity. If Benjamin Disraeli was right when he said, “Justice is truth in action”, then it must be truth driving the action and not simply action defining what is deemed to be true.

I am sorry if all this sounds a bit abstract or academic, but justice is not a simple thing which can be claimed without examination and argument. Justice has to be seen to have a deeper foundational rationale, rooted in and emanating from a clearly understood anthropology… which knows why it thinks people matter essentially. And I’d like to say briefly what this looks like in a Judaeo-Christian narrative – indeed, the very narrative which gave birth to and has shaped the system of justice developed in England over the centuries.

To do this I need to tell a story. Way back in the Hebrew Bible the people who saw themselves as God’s people lost the plot – in more senses than one. First they lost sight of the story that had shaped – and was intended to motivate – their common life and relationships. Then, second, they lost their place in the land they took for granted as their own, and found themselves learning the lessons that can only be learned in the desert of exile.

Yet, right at the outset of their settlement of the so-called Land of Promise, they had been instructed to actively and religiously re-tell the story of their liberation from oppression in Egypt. The year and the seasons were dotted with festivals during which the community and its constituent families would rehearse story-telling and ritual, all bound up in the production of food and the economics of trade. The point of these was not to make life miserable for them, trapping them in a dour-but-romanticised myth of past generations – a sort of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, vying with each other for how bad their childhoods had been. Rather, this active and costly re-telling was designed to hold the people to truths that wisdom depended upon: they themselves had been dispossessed and landless slaves – and so should treat the poor and destitute with kindness and generosity; they themselves had been captive and unable to save themselves – and so should set people free and give undeserved grace; that they themselves had had nothing to call their own – and so should never forget that the accumulation of stuff, the acquisition of status and the appropriation of land must never be ends in themselves, but a means of generous and wise common flourishing.

Bradford CathedralIn fact, one of the most vivid of these festivals is described (or perhaps prescribed) in Deuteronomy 26 where the first ten per cent of your harvested produce should be brought to the priest whereupon you would recite a creed. How exciting is that? And the creed would begin: “My father was a wandering peasant…” In other words, the opening line of the story is a blunt articulated reminder that none of us can simply depend on the very things we think give us meaning. (We behave differently towards the homeless if we remember that once we were homeless.) In other words, regularly check that you are building the foundations of your life on something durable and not the shifting sands of material stuff.

Now, the point of this is simple. What unites both judge and accused, advocate and prisoner, is a common humanity which, if morality is to mean anything and justice is to have any currency beyond the pragmatic, not only imbues the legal process with dignity – building toward the common good – but also establishes the moral value of every human being. Justice takes people seriously, refuses to make excuses, but sees the dignity beneath the flawed and often appalling surface of greed, cruelty or selfishness.

And for this to flourish – for people in a community to flourish – those who frame justice need to remember their story, the story of mortal human beings in a contingent world, and to look wisely and deeply into the assumptions that make us think the whole justice project is worth investing in in the first place.

In other words, we need to think deeply about what we believe makes justice matter, and not allow justice to be shaped by political whim, economic pressure or media fashion.

Now, you, like those of us who serve through the church, are often on the receiving end of the media’s ‘wisdom’ (which, being meant ironically, I put in inverted commas) – usually in those unusual cases where fine judgements are hard to explain in simple language. You, too, are subject to a public that doesn’t understand legal process and shows little consideration of the consequences of their opinions. For example, if we did lock ‘em up and throw away the key, someone somewhere will have to pay. Not seeking rehabilitation or re-education will probably end in recidivism where there is no incentive or opportunity for changing one’s life or company. But, like bishops – who apparently do nothing all day other than dress up and argue about sex – you have to press on with your vocation whether you are understood, respected or liked… or not.

This service is evidence of the value placed by both church and civic authorities on the work you do and the way you exercise wise judgement on behalf of the rest of us. We thank you for the service you do.

And I would join those who wish to remind you of the seriousness of your task, the import of maintaining and securing a system of justice that is never capricious, and the essential need to dig deep into our corporate memory where we find the foundational narratives that give our justice system its very meaning.

I also hope, of course, that the bloke we caught on CCTV burgling my house and nicking my car and computer last August will one day appear before you in order to discover afresh that wise lawyers and judges have a responsibility on behalf of the rest of us to give him his full moral value as a human being.

May God bless you and us as we serve the common good, rooted in a conviction that justice goes to the heart of the character of God himself and should, in one sense, be (pace Disraeli) God’s character in action.

I remember the days when I could write blog posts almost every day. But there seems to be a limit to how much writing I can do in the time available. This weeks has seen me writing radio scripts, a lecture four sermons and more besides. So, with another week looming and a full day out tomorrow, I simply ask five questions provoked by the last week:

 

1. Does James Murdoch have a future? His dad did a messianic drop-in to News International this week without the boss-boy and with boss-boy’s previously disconnected brother. Is James leaving the building?

2. Is Rupert serious about the Sun on Sunday? Probably. It all makes sense and was predicted when the News of the World shut down. But, the loin-girding bravado of Rupert’s presence and journalist-endorsing email might sound tough and supportive while being drowned in the swamp of arrests, suspicion and public outrage. Will the Sun survive?

3. Does anyone have any idea what is likely to happen with Iran as they send military ships through the Suez canal into the Mediterranean Sea for the first time since the revolution in 1979? Western policy in relation to Iran has not been… er… exactly inspiring during the Ahmadinejad years. In fact, Iran has been handled weirdly (in my humble opinion) ever since the revolution – especially when we backed Saddam Hussein’s ethical fight against Iran and in favour of democracy and human rights during the 1980s. What next for Iran – especially with Syria and the Falklands kicking off (in different ways, obviously)?

4. I am writing this while half-watching Keanu Reeves being persuaded to save the world in The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). But, my real question is whether Arsenal can be saved – along with the career of Arsene Wenger. I find this hard to say (as a Scouser), but I like Arsenal and admire Wenger. They were hopeless against Martin O’Neill’s resurgent and exciting Sunderland in the FA Cup today. But, Wenger hasn’t suddenly turned into a bad manager. I hope, for football’s sake, that he survives. Am I a romantic optimist?

5. Will I make any sense at all of the need for religious institutions to be open to change and challenge when I do my ‘Faith and the City‘ lecture at the University of Bradford on Monday? Entitled Questioning Faith: Religion, change and challenge, I manage to get Rowan Williams, Dostoyevsky, Critical Muslim and the Church of England into a questioning of ends and means, language and fearlessness. I’ll let you know after Monday.

The Keanu Reeves film has just finished. It was rubbish.

One of the reasons time has been too short for decent blogging (or, for that matter, indecent blogging) is my having taken on too many speaking engagements which required proper preparation. One of them was a contribution to a multidisciplinary conference on The Rhetorics of Moderation at the University of Huddersfield last night. I had been invited to deliver a keynote address at the final conference of a three-year project initiated by the Universities of Nottingham, Edinburgh and Huddersfield.

The draft text (not quite as delivered) is available on the Bradford diocesan website. But I will try to sum up the key bits here and see what sort (if any) of response it gets.

When I (finally) agreed to do this gig I wasn’t sure what the title of the series really meant: ‘The Rhetorics of Moderation’. I initially wondered if it might be an academic conference on how to talk about exam invigilation – clearly misunderstanding both ‘rhetoric’ and ‘moderation’. But, I eventually offered the title The Moderation of Rhetoric, so I could bang on about ‘language’ again. As a non-academic it is always a little intimidating going into such a context, but everyone was kind and the conversation was, I thought, quite stimulating.

My basic point – developing Helmut Schmidt’s argument (in Außer Dienst) that in order to understand your own culture you have to look at it through the lens of a different culture… and you can only do that if you understand something of the other language – was simple: language shapes both thought and behaviour. Therefore, language (or rhetoric) is not neutral. As  put it in my introduction:

So, my simple contention here is that language matters – that before reflecting on the ‘rhetorics of moderation’, we need to pay attention to the moderation of rhetoric and the ways in which we use language in our common human discourses in a complicated globalised world.

It is essential for good public discourse that interlocutors learn the language of ‘the other’ in order (a) to understand, (b) to know how to respond, (c) to see how this response will be heard and understood by ‘the other’, and (d) to keep the conversation going. This point is helpfully addressed by Rowan Williams in his brilliant book on Dostoyevsky where he writes about the corruption of language. Here are a couple of quotes from the Introduction to the book:

The novels [of Dostoyevsky] ask us, in effect, whether we can imagine a human community of language and feeling in which, even if we were incapable of fully realizing it, we knew what was due to each other; whether we could imagine living in the consciousness of a solidity or depth in each other which no amount of failure, suffering or desolation could eradicate.

[Dostoyevsky as narrator] sees language itself as the indisputable marker of freedom: confronted with what seeks to close down exchange or conflict, we discover that we can always say more… When we have nothing with which to engage, we stop speaking and stop developing.

Williams goes on to tie language and freedom to a responsive experience of ‘otherness’ and he challenges the Hegelian ‘freedom of the void’ – that is, as Williams puts it:

…the dream of a liberty completely without constraint from any other, human, subhuman or divine; because it has no “other”, it can also have no content. But this means that the hunger for such freedom can only manifest itself in destruction, flinging itself against existing limits… …the Dostoevskian novel is… an exercise in resisting the demonic and rescuing language.

So, Williams takes from Dostoyevsky the notion that language is not neutral, that human beings use language to close down or open up relationship, that language is the key to and fundamental expression of freedom… and that when we reach the end of ‘having something more to say’, we have constrained genuine freedom and closed down the possibility of development or coexistence. (Perhaps this also explains his approach to those contentious issues in the Anglican Communion where people want to close down conversation and force a conclusion that saves them from the pain of engaging with ‘the other’.)

I took from this that “we might derive the imperative (for human flourishing in a good society) of human beings and human communities learning the languages of ‘the other’, not as a virtuous end in itself, or even an altruistic means of keeping a relationship going, (or even for knowing which beer to order on holiday), but as a non-negotiable and essential feature of human freedom and dignity. We have to be multilingual (in the sense of paying attention to and learning to understand what is both being said and what is being heard) in order to survive, but also in order to thrive and enable ‘the other’ to thrive in a way that guarantees mutual flourishing. In other words, language at the very least provides the space in which relationship and responsibility can grow.”

I went on to illustrate (from personal experience of media, social media and interfaith dialogue) the importance of getting the language right. It won’t come as any surprise to readers of this blog that my unease with some of our media language got a run-around again. Not only do I think a strong democracy demands a strong, informed, intelligent and independent press, but I also think that those who hold the rest of us to account should themselves be held to account for the professionalism (or lack of it) with which they operate.

Finding people who have learned how to think about how to think – or how we know that we know what we know (epistemology, if you want the posh word) – is clearly becoming more rare. It is trivial engagement in creating conflict that drives the media agenda. Of course there are exceptions to this, but it is hard to pretend that democracy is served by what we are currently served up. The point is, however, that those who use language to persuade, influence and inform also need to be held to account for how they manipulate the powerful tool at their disposal.

My fear here is that the crass diminution of encouragement of and support for arts, humanities and social sciences in both school and university means that not only are we creating a culture that values mechanics, but doesn’t do ‘deep’ thinking. Not only are we in danger of depriving the current generation, but we are cutting off the expertise and enthusiasms we need for a future generation of teachers. We can lose in one generation what will take several generations (at least) to recover. To see the arts and humanities as ‘unproductive’ in terms of balance sheet bottom lines is more than myopic; it is dangerously and narrowly stupid.

My conclusion was not very startling:

If we take social cohesion seriously, we must pay attention to the language we use. Our rhetoric needs to be moderated, challenged, thought through. This is not pedantry or a form of distraction therapy; language shapes behaviour and shapes the lens through which different people see differently the different worlds within which we live. The diminution of attention to language – now seen in the paucity of language teaching and learning, the demotion of arts and humanities, does not augur well for having good public moderators of rhetoric in the decades to come. But the task will not go away.

It is worth considering that I delivered this address (and discussed questions arising from it in a stimulating Q & A session afterwards) immediately after visiting a Church of England primary school. The school serves one of the most challenging and deprived communities in Bradford and is outstanding in all respects. Contrary to the sloppy reporting in the media about ‘faith schools’ – either ignorant of or deliberately disregarding of the distinction between ‘faith schools’ and ‘church schools’ – this school works wonders for families, local communities and commands the determined loyalty of staff and governors. The headteacher told me she didn’t want moderately interested or interesting teachers or visitors to the school; she wants people who are passionate about what they do, how they think and what they believe. This school would be an inconvenient embarrassement to those who wish to pretend that church schools are divisive, privileged, sectarian or damaging.

Here again, the language is crucial.

Every time I hear a politician or journalist use the phrase ‘making your mind up’, awful memories of Buck’s Fizz come flooding into my memory. Not the rather tame (but refreshing on a hot day) drink, but the of-its-time pop group who defrocked themselves while singing the chorus.

Observing the election campaign, I am beginning to wonder whether people have actually already made their minds up and the next ten days will just get a bit tedious with the repeated mantras that are supposed to invade our subconscious and steer our hand in the ballot box next week. Labour sound defeated, the Tories sound panicky/desperate, and the Liberal Democrats sound confident about changing the political landscape in the UK.

What I can’t make my mind up about is precisely which ‘Britain’ is being remembered when the parties – Tories (mainly) and UKIP/BNP/English Democrats/etc (manically) – promise to restore to Britain the greatness that is its birthright. The BNP have even superimposed Nick Griffin (looking as if someone is squeezing his balls below the picture to make him look serious) on Sir Winston Churchill – a ludicrous association if ever there was one. But, my question is a serious one: when was the ‘golden age’ to which we might aspire to return or re-create?

Of course, this goes hand-in-hand with the other question around at the moment: are Christians being marginalised or persecuted? The link between this and the first question is that both make assumptions about the past and both indulge in a rather embarrassing (and baseless?) romanticism.

I am still wading through Dostoyevsky‘s The Brothers Karamazov: 400 pages so far and nothing has really happened. (Only another 600 to go…). Before dying at an appropriate moment, the elderly monk (Staretz) Zosima speaks about the decline of Russia and how Russia, destroyed by her leaders, will be saved by her Christian people. And the divine destiny of the great country will be restored and guaranteed as the old, corrupt order falls apart. The future, however, also contains threats that must be avoided. Published in 1880 (when Lenin was 10 years old), it is hard not to read it with half an eye on subsequent (and then unimaginable) developments in Russia and beyond. There is too much to quote here, but you could read some of this stuff and no one would blink if you applied it to today – the same old romanticism.

Why do we all do this? We romanticise the past, bringing a certain order out of the chaos that we actually lived through, and fear the ‘monsters’ that lie in wait for us in the future. Every generation fears it might be the last. Every generation worries that it has sold its inheritance and that everything is now in decline. “AND IT IS SOMEONE’S FAULT!” But, look back in England to the post-war years of growth, optimism and massive technological advance in just about every field – the promise that reconstruction brings and the energy it commands. But also look at what became known as ‘the permissive society’ and the obvious fact that we write the script of history as we go, not always clear about the implications until much later.

While on sabbatical a few months ago I did a quick, inexhaustive and not-very-thorough internet trawl of newspaper reports and headlines going back a century or so. Every headline seems to imply that the world/country/government/society/Church is going to the dogs and the world is about to fall apart. It hasn’t. I did the same for Germany and its world did fall apart on more than one occasion. Most Germans do not romanticise the past century or more; the Brits do. And it is mindless.

As I have noted before, I used to baptise people in a Norman font and drink wine (Communion) from an Elizabethan chalice every Sunday in my old parish. During the time people have been living their lives in that community there have been civil wars, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, European wars, colonial wars, the rise and demise of the British Empire, the birth and death of the Soviet Empire, and so on. When this chalice was first used, America didn’t exist (except for the Indians who already lived there, but apparently don’t count when it comes to remembering American history). This is the sort of perspective we need to recover – not some romantic notion of a golden age that never existed other than in our ideological or emotional ‘memories’.

The election candidates will continue to frighten us with the fearful future and promise a recovery of the elusive past. All nonsense. The more the leaders bang on about the dangers of a hung Parliament, the more I want one. Call it a ‘coalition government’, have a look at some of our European neighbours (Germany, for instance) and ask what the fuss is about? Maybe the fear is only in the minds of party leaders who fear losing control and having to argue their case for policy implementation. I’m beginning to think that might be far preferable to some of the alternatives.

Making my mind up? I’m getting there. But I’m also getting fed up with the self-regarding fear-mongering being put about. We could just grow up and try something different for a change. Which, actually, is what happens all the time, in every generation, in some part of life or other. We make it happen as we go. There is no other way.

Another year, another decade. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, it’s freezing cold and it might just be the beginning of Liverpool’s long post-Christmas unbeaten run to fourth place in the Premier League. (Well, I can dream…)

I was thinking yesterday about the past and the year to come and my mind turned to Dostoyevsky. This doesn’t happen often. I once told the Archbishop of Canterbury that I found Dostoyevsky boring and long-winded, only for Rowan to tell me that he was about to write a  book about the great writer. I decided that I should be a bit more intelligent next time we spoke about Russian literature and began to read all Dostoyevsky’s books. I am now on the The Brothers Karamazov – then I will read Rowan’s book on Dostoyevsky…

Near the beginning of The Brothers Karamazov there is an encounter in a monastery between the Elder (Starets) and a woman. The woman bewails her lack of faith and, in response, the Elder tells her of an intelligent and elderly man who once said the following to him:

I love mankind, … but I marvel at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love human beings in particular, separately, that is, as individual persons. In my dreams I would often arrive at fervent plans of devotion to mankind and might very possibly have gone to the Cross for human beings, had that been suddenly required of me, and yet I am unable to spend two days in the same room with someone else, and this I know from experience. No sooner is that someone else close to me than his personality crushes my self-esteem and hampers my freedom. In the space of a day and a night I am capable of coming to hate even the best of human beings… To compensate for this, however, it has always happened that the more I have hated human beings in particular, the more ardent has become my love for mankind in general.

Human history tells us that the old man was not alone. It is always easier to love in general and to hate in categories than to work these out with individuals. Read the Gospels, however, and Jesus seems to bring these together: loving humanity in general whilst making that love real for individuals. (That love also brought hard challenge for the haters and he paid the price for exercising a strong love.)

As I look to the year ahead – with all its uncertainties and unknowns, its threats and its promises – I think I want to work at bringing the general and the particular closer together: both personally and in the life of the Church. I am conscious of a million failures (often evident in this rather fallible blog), but the challenge is there for me and the Church.

Perhaps in the Church we can stop speaking of people in categories (‘gays’ are the obvious example) and have our easy generalities subjected to the sometimes embarrassing particularities that challenge our prejudices and self-defences.

A happy new year for me will be one in which I make some progress along the general-particular spectrum – one in which other people come to be judged less by my own imbalances and more by grace.