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

Just about a year ago I skirted the Isis stronghold of Mosul in Iraq. I was out there with colleagues visiting refugees, internally displaced people, church leaders and politicians in Kurdistan – particularly in and around Erbil and Dohuk. We spent time with Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, hearing harrowing stories of loss and fear and hope.

Yet, Mosul, so solid a base for Isis only a year or so ago, is now seeing the possibility of release and relief. How the mighty fall.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise. After all, this is the part of the world where civilisation as we know it actually began. When you read the narratives of three thousand years ago which we call the Old Testament, the events recorded took place here – between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Here we find the ruins of the most ancient societies – where human beings brought order out of chaos and the first empires were built.

And this is what the story of Iraq teaches us. Now is not the end. There was a time when mention of the words Babylon, Assyria, Egypt or Rome struck fear into the hearts of ordinary people – not least those conquered by the apparently invincible powers. Living in what is often called ‘the ultimate Now’, it is hard to see beyond the suffering or success of the present day – to hang on to the possibility of freedom or the defeat of the empire which controls life and death now.

So, when we read texts like those of the Old Testament – their poetry, their protest and passion – the point is clear: empires come and go; the powerful will be brought down and the meek raised up; tomorrow will not always look like today.

But, such a perspective demands a rare discipline. We have to be able to see the present as transient – not the defining reality. Put differently, we have to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear. Our central core as individuals and as a society has to be rooted in a clear understanding of what makes a human being and what makes a humane society. Christians would say that whatever the state of the world now, wherever power is seated, it is the God of resurrection who draws us into a future that is not held captive to the past. It is a vision drawn from a reading of history and scriptures that keeps power and suffering in perspective – that death, violence and destruction do not actually have the final word.

Now, not everyone will be fired by the same conviction. But, the warning to Babylon, to Isis, to global military, economic and political powers, has not changed since human society emerged in what is now Iraq: you won’t be here for ever and you might be called to account.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

luiz-felipe-scolariSchadenfreude is a terrible thing. But it is a little hard to resist when the mighty are brought low and the powerful lose their strength. Those of us who deplored the way Roman Abramovich was able to use his dodgy billions to buy Chelsea, price everyone else out of the market, win the Premiership and crow over the clubs lower down the table, have at least been able to watch the whole show begin to fall apart. Or, at least. to weaken.

Today saw the dismissal of Chelsea’s third manager in two years. It was ‘the Special One’, Jose Mourinho, who produced the champions who gloated about their money and strength and success. Avram Grant passed the time reasonably well. Then the Portuguese saviour arrived, Luiz Felipe Scolari. Seven months later and he’s gone. Chelsea are fourth and losing their gloss. Well, I am a Liverpool man and have had to endure a couple of decades of gloating from Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea fans after we graciously stood down from three decades of football dominance in England and Europe and let the little clubs have their chance.

I know I keep coming back to this, but it seems really important to have a proper perspective on ‘time’. As Mary’s Song, Magnificat, makes clear with uncompromising and worldly candour, the mighty will fall and what looks solid and permanent will one day collapse. Whether it be political and military empires, the global banking system or football clubs, the louder they shout and the harder it is to catch the sound of crumbling underneath the noise. Empires come and go, hubris leads to nemesis and the world can change in previously inconceivable ways.

Scolari might not be encouraged by this, but he is an actor in a play that provides a metaphor for the way the world is: the victim of people who have believed a myth and cannot bear to see the end of the fantasy they thought would be permanent. But life moves on and the mighty fall and the meek get raised up. The weak appear to be the strong ones and the fools turn out to be the wise ones.

I realise this is a bit of a leap, but this makes me reflect on the Church. It is always great to see ‘success’, but the edifice of ‘success’ (numbers, wealth, resources or noisiness) can seduce us into thinking that God must be on our side and approving/blessing all we think and believe and do. Yet history is littered with those who claim numbers and strength to validate their views over against those who differ – and, as time rolls on, are shown to have been wrong, unbiblical or to have found the right answer to the wrong question.

Surely the proper response to ‘success’ is that humility – rooted in the conviction that time will eat away at the powerful edifice – that knows its place and recognises that it might be wrong. One day I am going to write a book called ‘Towards a Confident Humility’ and work this one out in more detail. But, in the meantime, I’ll just wonder how many more managers Chelsea will go through in the next two or three years. And, of course, I’ll continue to hope that Liverpool doesn’t go the same way.

cormac-murphy-oconnor1Incidentally, I know I should be writing something sensible about the opening of the General Synod this afternoon and the speech by the soon-to-retire Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, but I am not on the Synod, was busy in London and have only read George Pitcher’s intelligent and concise reading of the speech. So, I’m left with Chelsea. And my schadenfreude. And, of course, the guilt this induces in me.

Like many other people, my mind is preoccupied with the horrors of Gaza and, despite the current lack of media attention, the appalling situation in Zimbabwe. Israel-Palestine is somewhere I have visited several times and will visit again next year. Zimbabwe is a country I have grown to love because of a strong link between the Diocese of Southwark and four of the Zimbabwean Anglican dioceses. The Croydon Episcopal Area is linked with the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe and we know Bishop Ishmael Mukuwanda and his people very well.

I have been to Zimbabwe several times and Ishmael and his wife have stayed with us several times during the last five years or so. It is in this relationship that we learn to see through different eyes and think through different frameworks. If my theology only ‘works’ in Wimbledon, but would be embarrassing if expressed in Harare or Gweru, then it is not a theology worth having. And to go to such places is to have your theology seriously tested.

And yet even in places of suffering and injustice there is a sense of deja vu – of seeing played out a situation that has been experienced many times before in the long history of humanity. Powerful people become paranoid and oppress others in order to compound their own security. Mugabe is trapped in his own weakness and paranoia – and they will lead to his undoing. As I observed in an earlier post, history teaches us that empires come and go and that power is a gift, not a right.

This might seem an odd diversion, but yesterday I was reading the speech by Franklin D Roosevelt on 4 March 1933 after being sworn in as President of the United States of America. I read it in the Guardian’s Great Speeches of the 20th Century. The introduction is written by the Prime Minister Gordon Brown who in retrospect must surely wish he hadn’t agreed to do it. Roosevelt, speaking of the dire economic straits of 1930s America, could have been writing today. Try this, for example:

‘…we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunk to fantastic levels: taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; and the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

And yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered, because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply.

Primarily, this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True, they have tried. But their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

Yes, the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilisation. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of that restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy, the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves, to our fellow men.

Recognition of that falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honour, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, and on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.

Delivered almost 76 years ago, his words resonate powerfully even now in a world of economic embarrassment and moral fickleness. Roosevelt was writing of America, yet while he was speaking on his side of the Atlantic Ocean Adolf Hitler was enjoying the first months of his rule of a Germany that had no idea what it was walking into.

America re-grew its economic, military and political power and ultimately became the ultimate superpower. But those days are passing even now – just as the thousand-year Reich collapsed after only a decade and a half of catastrophic hubris.

Empires come and go. The Bible tells us so. We’ve seen it all before. Time to learn the lessons. (But I doubt we will.)

I was going to launch into a ‘Happy New Year’ ramble when I got called away from my laptop (by my wife) and went into London to see the fantastic Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy. Now I have a problem – the usual result of thinking too much about history and time. As the writer of Ecclesiastes had clearly worked out, there is nothing new under the sun. History seems to have a habit of repeating itself and we never seem to learn the lessons or spot the repetitions. So, now I don’t know how to greet 2009: ‘new year’, ‘old year (again – sort of)’, ‘just another year’ or what.

There were two things that struck me afresh at the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Firstly, – and I was reminded of this while reading the introductory guide over a cup of coffee before going into the exhibition itself – empires come and go. According to the blurb (written by a ‘professor’), the reign of Justinian (527-65) ‘marked the end of an era of confidence and expansion… The rise of Islam in the seventh century changed the power profile of the Middle East, and Egypt, the Holy Land and Syria moved out of the sphere of Byzantine influence’. Within a couple of generations the power balance of the world shifted in ways that would have been considered unimaginable by those who believed that God was on their side and had proved himself (the evidence being the success of the enterprise) to be the guarantor of the natural order of the world. It seems to be a feature of collective human nature that we regard the present as the ultimate rather than a stage along the way – and, maybe, a bad stage at that.

Nothing new here, then. Read the Old Testament prophets and see how people cannot hear words of threat or warning when everything is going well and life seems to be – politically or economically, at least – secure. Yet the empires kept coming and going: Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, etc. Only after everything had fallen apart for Israel in the eighth and sixth centuries BC, leading to varying degrees of loss and exile, were people able to consider how they had got to where they were. Only then could the warnings of the prophets be heard: don’t take God, his favour, his allegiance or his generosity for granted – he might re-direct them in favour of the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalised and those who have been told with great confidence by the ‘people of God’ that they are of no account.

There is a contemporary resonance here with the response by politicians and media commentators to the comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops in England about the global economic problems and their origins in a form of idolatry. The truth is that bishops have been saying this for years. In fact, I came across sermons of my own while I was a Vicar in the Diocese of Leicester in which I questioned the arrogance of a culture which fails to question the moral basis of its economic success and fails to keep any short-term boom in a proper temporal perspective. I wasn’t being clever – I was just reading the Old Testament prophets and wondering why no one listened to them. I think people listen to the Archbishop now because the ‘security’ of confidence has evaporated and material success can be seen to be temporary, illusory and unsatisfactory when built on unjust or flimsy foundations.

So it is that every ’empire’ is in danger of believing its own propaganda and drowning in its own hubris. Not only does the USA (in global historical terms like a toddler running round with a nuclear arsenal) need to read the prophets and heed their warnings, but the nascent empires should take heed, too. China and India might well feel that their time is coming. But they should read their history books and consider how even recent empires have collapsed in on themselves almost without warning: the Soviet Union, for example.

A Christian who reads the Bible will see pretty quickly that it is humility and not hubris that such a reading provokes.

The second thing to strike me at the Byzantium exhibition was the clarity with which religion is misunderstood by the secular cultural elite. This exhibition, wonderful though it is, is shot through with an assumption that what we are looking at is a mere historico-cultural phenomenon and not the stuff of people’s lives and worldviews. Again I quote from the guide: ‘… Easter, when the Crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday and his Resurrection on Easter Sunday were symbolically commemorated.’ ‘Symbolically commemorated’?!

Had it not occurred to the eminent professor who wrote this stuff that what was going on in these Byzantine churches was not a ‘symbolic commemoration’, bu the living worship by a living people of a God they believed to be alive and active in the real world? The point of the resurrection was that God had raised Christ from the dead – and so there is hope for everyone else. This was and is no ‘symbolic commemoration’ (such as Guy Fawkes Night), but a living and re-living act of worship by a people who live in the wake of the events (and God) being celebrated as world-changing. It is evident in just the two words quoted that the contemporary cultural elite view both history and religion through a particular lens – one that is, I would suggest, both ignorant and arrogant. It claims an objective neutrality that cannot be claimed with any ‘objective’ confidence. It is another form of hubris.

However, these observations should encourage people to visit the exhibition (with their brain engaged) and witness the product of generations of Christians in a changing world who sought to serve God within the imperfect and often dodgy parameters allowed by their particular time and place. They were writing the next Act of the play in the same way we do now.

This does all have a bearing on the conversation between me and Mark B in previous posts. And it still begs the question of what Israel thinks it can achieve in the long term by this short-term (and, in terms of Just War theory, disproportionate) violence. I leave it to others to engage Mark further.

Happy new year – may we learn not to repeat the errors of the old years, but to live with humility and not hubris.