There are times when being a news editor must be the worst job.

What ought to lead the news today? What should be the order of priority? Which is most important in its implications for the world?

  • The continuing brutality in Syria and the dangers of a wrong move leading to a regional or global conflict?
  • The apparently uncontrollable brutality meted out in Nairobi, with Muslims being separated out for life and non-Muslims for execution in a shopping centre?
  • The suicide bombings in Pakistan aimed specifically at Christians? (Oops, this one has already fallen off the front pages, so no link.)
  • Ongoing violence in Egypt and violence against Christians there?
  • The latest warnings by scientists about global warming and the debate about human causes of this?
  • Potential rapprochement between the USA and Iran?
  • The re-election of Angela Merkel as Federal Chancellor of Germany and the most powerful political leader in Europe?
  • The continuing oppression and slaughter in Darfur, Sudan? (Oh dear, not on any page – old news.)

The disappearance of Christian communities from Asia and the Middle East might not seem to everyone in liberal Britain to be the most important phenomenon in the world – especially to those who think religion is just a slightly embarrassing matter of mere individual private opinion. Not only is it a scandal, however, but it might turn out to bring a really significant change to the balance of world politics – and human co-existence in parts of the globe where diverse cultures have lived alongside each other for centuries.

The loudest news isn't necessarily the most important.

 

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Yesterday was an odd one. It was Yorkshire Day here in … er … Yorkshire – the annual celebration of the White Rose counties just south of 'Desolation'. It was also Swiss National Day – which caused me to say, at the start of an address in Skipton, that we should tip our hats to Toblerone and recognise that William Tell would never get a clean CRB for shooting a crossbow at an apple on the head of some kid.

But, if moving elegantly – if bizarrely – from lessons learned in my last two years in Yorkshire (including when it is unwise to go anywhere without a 'priest' and a 'condom') to the human vocation to be generous to outsiders (it all has to do with Deuteronomy 26, never forgetting your origins as homeless people, and making space for the strangers) seems odd, then have a look at today's news.

The US Secretary of State has called the military coup in Egypt “restoring democracy“. So, whatever we might think of its behaviour and policies in office, a democratically elected government is ousted by the armed forces and this is “restoring democracy”? Forgive the rest of us simpletons for having trouble with this notion – which sounds like it came out of 1984. This has nothing to do with Morsi's credentials or the Muslim Brotherhood's real intentions, but a lot to do with principles. How many other 'democracies' might be overturned by the military because they don't like who got freely elected – only to find this approved by the USA?

On the other hand, the US administration is furious at Russia's decision to grant Edward Snowden one year's asylum in their country – not one renowned for upholding human rights or freedom of information. But, if a Russian exposed what the Russian secret services were doing to bug the world's communications systems, would the US simply return him to Russia at Putin's request? 'Our' spies are always traitors; others' spies are always courageous heroes. And isn't there something profoundly undemocratic about a surveillance state harvesting electronic communications indiscriminately and without the sanction or knowledge of those who elected them?

However serious we need to be about having an intelligent and informed debate in the UK about immigration, the current output of the UK Government on Twitter (@ukhomeoffice) on the matter is disturbing. The feed regularly updates the number of people being arrested and where they are. You don't have to be a defender of illegal immigration to find this sort of reporting by a government department as worrying. If, for example, the Zimbabwean Government did a similar thing, would we find it acceptable – or deliberately intimidating? Campaigns of fear are questionable at best.

Which brings us back to the irony of Deuteronomy and the injunction to have rituals whereby we compel ourselves to remember where we have come from and that we are all transient in one way or another. I spoke at the service today in Yorkshire, a county that owes much of its industrial growth in previous generations to immigrants (in Bradford's case, from Ireland and Germany) and much of its entrepreneurial development now to newer generations of immigrants (from South Asia and beyond).

The terms in which we currently 'debate' immigration in the UK cast a dark moral shadow. It is a strange world we live in.

(And a 'priest' is the wooden thing you hit a fish with when you have caught it; a 'flying condom' is a spinner, apparently – although I erroneously called it a 'fly'. Just proves I am at heart a city boy.)

 

1. What do governments (and the rest of us, for that matter) think intelligence/espionage services really do with their time… and is there a clue in the title?

2. Was there a sadder face at Wimbledon than Laura Robson's today?

3. Is Edward Snowden so desperate that he thinks for one minute that Russia – the mighty, ruthlessly pragmatic and politically unsentimental Bear – might be a safe place to seek asylum from the USA?

4. Why were some of us dismissed when, during the Arab Spring, we urged a longer-term view (before declaring, as a US President once did, “Mission Accomplished!”) and suggested that pulling an existing system down is quicker and easier than establishing a viable alternative one?

5. What is the point of setting up an independent review body to determine MPs' pay, only to diss it on grounds of populist ideology?

 

Two weeks in and Mubarak is still hanging on to power in Egypt. The story is now already slipping down the columns of the newspapers and headline orders of the broadcast media. What is wrong those Egyptians – why are they keeping us waiting for a resolution of their revolution? Don’t they realise that we need something definite to happen or our attention will go elsewhere to whatever newer excitement seduces our imagination?

Well, I was in a radio discussion on Sunday with Dr Harry Hagopian and I was interested in his observations on the situation. He was asking for a longer-term, more intelligent and reflective approach by the West to a changing Middle Eastern situation. And he is right.

Two images came to my mind while discussing the helplessness many of us feel when the inspiring revolution seems to dissipate as the days go by and the powerful retain their palaces. Hope begins to wobble.

First is the day I stood at Oxford Circus in central London, unable to pass because a man was standing on the roof of a building and threatening to throw himself off. The police had closed the roads and the pavement. Bored of waiting, some guys behind me started to shout, ‘Jump!’ So sad that their entertainment wasn’t coming fast enough.

Second is the image that haunts me whenever I stop to think about it: Mary standing watching her son die a slow death on the gallows of Golgotha and helpless to do anything other than stay there. No solutions. No resolution. No intervention. No ‘helpful’ advice. No expediting the end for the sake of the victim and the observers.

Helpless observation is not something we crave. We like to intervene, make it right – or, at least, do something. But, history and experience teach us that the hardest times are when we cannot do anything other than watch. The powerlessness mocks our self-understanding as powerful agents. The scandal of inactivity embarrasses our need for heroism. If nature abhors a vacuum, then so do we abhor a silent waiting.

This is not an excuse for apathy or an apologia for selective disengagement in the matters of the world and its politics. It is the opposite, in fact. It is a call for more intelligent reflection instead of instant reaction. It appeals for study, learning and ‘deep’ comprehension rather than shallow, immediate and ill-informed reportage – the sort of commentary that is never an innocent bystander observing from a distance, but actually becomes part of the event by shaping perceptions and invoking activity (‘just do something’).

We have had to be disciplined in our diocesan relationships with Zimbabwe that we don’t do things that salve our feeble consciences while militating (with all the best motives) against the real needs of the people there. Doing something does not necessarily mean that something useful has been done.

We still await the exodus from Egyptian slavery to freedom in a promised land. But, even that association forces us to remember that the original exodus was followed by forty years of wandering (terrible waste of resources – why didn’t they just allow a woman to look at a map?) and the expiration of a generation of romanticisers. Most of the ‘liberated’ did not see the promised land. We need to learn from this something about the way history unrolls – and how long it takes.

I am coming to the end of a run on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. Picking Fridays was a good move: Chris has started getting guests in and, so, without any effort at all, I’ve managed to meet Elton John, Peter Kay, Rick Astley, David Walliams, Selina Scott and loads of others. And the production team is always generous, welcoming and open. It’s a good gig and gives me a window into a different world.

The problem with Pause for Thought is that the BBC won’t let me post the scripts on my own blog. They post them for seven days on the BBC website, but it’s not the same. So, I’ll paraphrase. The thing is, 320 words makes you think concisely about what is going on in the world (or, at least, in my head) and it’s a good discipline for someone like me who produces an awful lot of words (one way or another) during any day.

What has been running through my head during the last couple of weeks is how we explain what is going on in Tunisia, Egypt and the rest of the world. What is it that leads people to rebel now as opposed to three months ago or two years from now? Is it simply something to do with the confluence of events, economics and public mood?

I think that behind all that there is something about ‘imagination’.

I’m a great fan of John Lennon – an honest hypocrite, if ever there was one. (I have written more fully about him in my book Finding Faith: Stories of Music and Life.) But, Imagine is a load of nonsense: ‘Imagine no possessions’ he wrote on an expensive grand piano in a mansion worth millions. But, this doesn’t mean that the song doesn’t tell some truth.

What Lennon recognised is that it is the imagination that makes us human. We aren’t made simply to accept the status quo or to live fatalistically in the world as it presents itself. Rather, we are made to imagine a different way of being – a better way of shaping the world and its ways.

Imagination is not the same thing as fantasy. Imagination can become fantasy – especially if it doesn’t lead to action in any way. But, imagination can transcend fantasy and shape the way we see who and how we are in the world as it is and as it might become. Imagination shapes vision.

Without imagination – as I put it this morning:

The Berlin Wall would still be up. Tunisians and Egyptians would stay at home and make the tea. The corrupt and the powerful would rule the roost, hoping to anaesthetise people into believing that nothing can ever change.

But human beings are made with imagination. In the creation narratives of Genesis God has a ball imagining everything into being. The Old Testament prophets beg people to wake up and dare to believe that the powerful empires are transient. The poets and musicians awaken and keep alive the echoes of another world – ringing in the memory and minds of oppressed and depressed people. Jesus dares people to live now as if heaven were already here.

Jesus was no fantasist. His invitation to us to imagine, then inhabit and create a world that reflects God’s self-giving character, has never been a form of cheap seduction. Rather, it led him and his friends to a cross. It radically challenged (and continues to challenge) a world that believes that only the powerful can change things – usually in the interests of their hanging on to power. The naked man standing before the might of the violent Roman Empire might look absurd, but he messed with their heads and changed the world for ever.

Of course, the biggest challenge lies not with those who don’t ‘get’ Jesus and the Kingdom of God. It lies with those who claim his name, but show no sign of having been grasped by his imagination.

The Egyptians are demanding their own exodus. But, at the heart of all the brutality and uncertainty and sacrifice and struggle lies a battle for the imagination.

Empires come and go. The trouble is, they seem permanent when you are under them.

Most of the Old Testament prophets keep banging on (in the best possible sense, of course) about the need for God’s people to see the world through God’s eyes and not be taken in by the apparent power of the ’empire’. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Britain – they all came… and they all went. The thousand year Nazi Reich wasn’t even a toddler when it expired in a blaze of global horror.

And one of the constant themes to have come out of some Christian Churches in Europe in the last few decades has been the warning that the American Empire would also be time-limited… and the theologies that assumed its permanence (because blessed by God) would need some further attention in due course.

Now, in the Middle East, we see regimes tottering in the face of popular resentment and protest. It looks like the powerful dynasties are very worried while Iran looks on with a smile. The western-backed corrupt regimes are losing their grip and the script will have to be re-written in Washington and London. It feels like 1989 (the end of Communism in Europe) all over again, but a bit more worrying. And let’s hope Robert Mugabe is watching his telly and worrying about contagion.

It is easy to identify what we don’t like. It is not hard to complain about the things we don’t like and the injustices or inequities we resent. But, it is a little bit harder to put together something new and better than what has so quickly and easily been destroyed. (It’s like when people come to me with a problem and I ask them what their solution is…) It’s easier to direct blame and criticism than it is to constructively build something in its place.

And that is what will happen in those countries which now face radical change. They will also face radical disappointment – because these things never bring Utopia (or other fantasies).

I think we should always be suspicious of putting our hope in the apparent solidity or permanence of ‘worlds’ that we now know can change in a very short time. The walls fall down and it isn’t always clear what will be put up as an alternative. The empires come and go – we need to keep seeing through them and remembering their transience.

(And I am not convinced that Andy Carroll will replace Fernando Torres at Anfield. Silly money all round.)