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

The Dalai Lama was at Glastonbury yesterday, but not for the music. Twice he described human beings killing each other as “unthinkable”.

However, events of the last few days have, once again, demonstrated that human cruelty is all too thinkable. It has proved impossible not to be scarred by the images and sounds of violence in Tunisia, France and Kuwait. And they are simply the latest in a litany of horror and destruction.

I think it is easy to try to block out such images. Yet, the very human stories began to come through very quickly: of fear amid the silence, of desperation in trying to get information when there might not actually be any to get, of loss and shock. And now, as inescapable reality sinks in for those involved, the pain and grief can only grow in power.

And many of us wonder again what sense is to be made of this human propensity for violence – the nihilism that explodes into killing, whether it be dressed up in the clothing of religion, politics or tribalism. Maybe, we need to start by recognising that what William Blake admiringly called ‘the human dress’ has a fitting that also distorts and destroys. The policeman who shot the Tunisian gunman says that the killer had stopped shooting and was praying when he himself was shot. And we rightly ask: to whom was he praying and about what? And what sort of madness is it that makes God in the image of our most depraved imaginings?

Well, two images have imposed themselves on my own mind since the mayhem of the weekend. The first was the President of the United States singing the hymn written by a former slave trader who had been surprised by what CS Lewis called ‘joy': Amazing Grace. Obama went on to name each of those killed in the racist attack in Charleston, asserting that they had that grace. Not a grace that takes us out of the real world, but one that plunges us into the heart of both its joys and agonies. This, in the light of the forgiveness offered by those bereaved, defies the violence and denies it the end it seeks: a new cycle of destruction and vengeance.

The second image was one I read in the Hebrew Bible. The prophet Jeremiah buys a field … whilst besieged by the forces that will shortly occupy the land and drive the people into an interminable exile. In buying that field he invests in a future that cannot now be imagined. It looks ridiculous and wasteful. But, that small act of hope took the power away from the terrorists of the day.

It will be in such small visionary gestures that the demons of violence will be stripped of their crazed power, and a future opened up.

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

Prince Charles in Ireland

Prince Charles's speeches in Ireland this week have been profoundly moving. It seems to me that he did three things.

Firstly, he identified with the suffering of Ireland over centuries and, particularly, more recently. He said simply that the island of Ireland “has had more than its fair share of turbulence and troubles.” Secondly, he set his own personal suffering in the context of a complex mix of politics, economics, tribalism and nationalisms. And, thirdly, he recognised the reality of pain and grief – borne by so many – whilst opening up the possibility of what an American theologian calls “newness after loss”.

The murder of Lord Mountbatten in 1979 struck to the heart of the British establishment, but for those involved in the bereavement, it was always more than a political matter. As Prince Charles put it: “It seemed as if the foundations of all that we held dear in life had been torn apart irreparably.” He had already spoken of the “anguish of such deep loss.”

This is the conundrum, isn't it? The political and the global collide with the individual and the private. Which is how grief always works – often biting through the veneers of self-sufficiency we paint on to the scars of bereavement and helplessness, and awakening the pain of personal loss in the face of a community's need to move on.

I think what the events of this week suggest is that the only way to tackle grief and the rage of injustice is for us to face those who were a part of it. In the famous Yad Vashem memorial to the Warsaw Uprising during World War Two one of the bronze reliefs depicts the Nazi guards without faces – apparently because to have given them faces would have meant humanising them. But, I thought that was actually the point. It was human beings – with faces and stories and families and hopes and dreams and regrets – who caused unimaginable pain to people who could not defend themselves. It is what we are seeing in Syria and Iraq as IS target innocent people with extreme violence and inhumane brutality.

What Tuesday's meeting demonstrated – backing up words with handshakes – was that violence and death do not have to have the final word. Realistic forgiveness – however long it takes and however immense the personal or communal cost – opens the door for all parties to be set free for a future that looked closed. Which is why, in the Lord's Prayer, any expectation of forgiveness by God is inextricably linked to my forgiving those who have grieved me.

Reconciliation is not easy and is never cost-free. The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer cried against notions of what he called “cheap grace”. But, it is in the cost of looking a person in the eye that freedom is secured – freedom to live again.

Nelson Mandela is dead.

Words are inadequate to celebrate such a man.

He is being quoted extensively across the Twittersphere.

If only those who admire, revere and quote him could emulate him. It is easier to admire him than it is to live like him – justice with mercy, hope with realism, generosity with responsibility. He liberated his oppressors by forgiving them – if we really take him seriously, we must ask how we can liberate our 'oppressors' or opponents? Easy to admire, hard to do.

I wrote and recorded an obituary for the great man several years ago. I will post it in a day or two (once I know if it has been used by the BBC.

jade-goodyToday Jade Goody and her two boys were baptised in the chapel of the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. Media comment is, inevitably, ubiquitous. So is the inevitable sneering from those who think baptism is all voodoo anyway. So, what is there to say?

Baptism is fundamentally about (a) God’s generosity to us and (b) our response to God – worked out in our response to each other. Baptism involves acknowledging the love of God – something that is simply offered and not something that can be claimed as a ‘right’. It marks us with the sign of the cross, the evidence of God’s identification with real humanity, living and suffering in the real world. Baptism is, therefore, primarily about what God does and not primarily about what we do. Only then can we respond with openness and gratitude.

But that response involves a public recognition that we are in need – and that is offensive to many people. Baptism involves saying I need to turn away from what is wrong and walk a new path – not with everything resolved, but in humility as one who has no illusions about my own fragility or need. It is that recognition that then characterises and shapes my relationships with and attitudes towards others.

fontSo, baptism is not about ‘thinking I am better than anyone else’. Nor is is about buying an insurance policy from God. Nor does it depend on my understanding the complete theology of baptism. It is a gift and it is for God to sort out with each one of us. But, the key, I think, is in this: God does it – we simply respond to what God does. The rest is detail.

So, I am glad Jade Goody has been baptised and has brought her boys to baptism. I hope the boys will grow up to explore and own what baptism has begun in and for them. And I hope that now Jade can go to her death in privacy and in the confidence that the love of God offered in baptism is a love that nothing can overcome – not even death itself.

Enough now.

In the Anglican calendar today is the celebration of the Conversion of St Paul. It also happens to be the climax of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I will be preaching at a service this evening (and, therefore, missing the end of the Liverpool-Everton FA Cup game…) and will be tackling the hard questions about Christian Unity. After all, Paul himself was not averse to alienating some Christians and giving a hard time to those whom he felt were wobbly in their faith and adherence to him.

What does go to the heart of Paul’s writing is the need for Christians to ‘repent’ – which literally means ‘change your mind’ (from the Greek ‘metanoia’). In Romans 12 he writes of the ‘renewal of your mind’ as part of the commitment of mind, body and spirit involved in being a Christian. It is blindingly obvious that Christians must lead the way in changing their mind in relation to other Christians (and God and the world) in order to demonstrate that conversion is an active process rather than a magic event.

This is particularly poignant when considering Christian unity in a world where such unity looks more like a remote fantasy than an achievable vision. But we could also see the diversity within the Christian Church as something to celebrate. As long as humanity exists there will be different (and developing) cultures, languages, traditions, stories, histories and understandings of identity – and that is not just obvious, it is also wonderful.

At a press conference in Kazakhstan in 2003 a young Russian television journalist asked me if I could foresee the day when there would be a single world religion and everybody would live in peace. I responded by saying that such a ‘totalitarian’ vision was not very attractive! The post-Soviet younger generation was still harbouring romantic notions of ‘unity’ without reflecting on what it might actually involve.

I cannot imagine what Christian unity might actually look like. Certainly not uniformity of culture, liturgy, language, governance, etc. I am not sure that I can even want to see a unity of hermeneutics – a single way of reading the Bible and interpreting it afresh in each new generation. What would that involve in practical terms and what would it look like to the watching world? (It seems to me that inspiration of the Bible must include a recognition of its hermeneutical difficulties and the ‘wide space’ it gives to difference; that is, form matters as well as content.)

But, like Paul in Romans 8, I can see unity being worked out in a guiding vision that is not fixated on the Church, but a plethora of Christian communities displaying enormous differences of culture, etc, but grasped by a common vision that the Church exists for the sake of the world and not for its own sake. Christian unity must surely be a means for the world to see what the character of God is about – reconciling love, rooted in costly forgiveness and joyful defiance of all that kills and destroys (resurrection by the God of our hope), and able to love one another despite difference as well as because of it.

Paul insists that Christians must model how to ‘repent’ and change our minds… in the humble pursuit of becoming Christlike. Christians who repel others who think differently may have to ask what ‘mind changes’ are necessary if the prayer for unity is to be answered. Of course the Christian Church has limits on what counts as Christian and argument should be robust and clear; but winning the argument should not be the ultimate goal and confident humility should describe the mode of debate.

I simply don’t see that the Christian Church – in any of its dressings – has an ounce of credibility in the eyes of a suspicious world if it pretends to a gospel of reconciliation while treating its own brothers and sisters as if they were enemies. I don’t dare ask anyone else to ‘repent’ unless I first am willing to subject my own mind to a change. Which, actually, is exactly what Paul did in the three years after his conversion when his worldview underwent the most agonising transformation.

I remember the Archbishop of Canterbury saying that when people ask him to ‘lead’, they usually mean: ‘say very loudly what I want to hear you say’. The same is true of repentance and unity: we often unconsciously want everyone else to change their mind to conform to mine and want unity that has everyone doing it/believing it my way.

Tomorrow (Monday) is a bad day to be issuing a press notice about this blog. I am driving down to Lee Abbey in Devon to speak at a conference there until Friday. Now, that is very nice because Lee Abbey is set in a wonderfully beautiful environment where nature is at its wildest best. But it is also a place where there is no mobile phone signal and no wireless broadband internet access. So, I’ll be driving up the hill once a day to get phone and text messages – and I’ll have to find a way to get my emails and do some blogging.

The theme of the week is based on the earlier title of one of my books: Jesus and People Like Us (now re-issued as Scandal of Grace). It follows Jesus and his friends along a journey that is sometimes missed by people who read the gospels with a prejudiced eye. The Church is sometimes good at taking ‘heroes’ of the faith, putting plates around their head in stained-glass windows and calling them saints. At one stroke we make them people who are not like us.

But read the Bible and it is full of people who mess life up a million times and still find God on their side. The disciples of Jesus discover this as they journey from the hills of the north to a gallows outside the city walls of Jerusalem and an empty tomb in a garden. Life is transformed for them, but there is nothing religiously romantic about it.

This week at Lee Abbey will be an attempt to encourage people in their Christian faith by taking a fresh look at the gospels and the people in them – who are just like us. If I can get online during the week, I will explain more as we go along. Furthermore, I will do so in the context of Obama’s inauguration in the USA…

I am thinking of offering a daily prize for the most obvious and shameless media breach of the Ninth Commandment.

 Last  night I was watching Sky News and their coverage of the funerals of the Foster family who were killed by the father before all their property and possessions were burned. The funerals had been conducted by The Venerable Tony Sadler and he was interviewed by the news presenter. Despite what he had actually said in the sermon (the relevant parts of which were broadcast) and what he said in the interview, the ‘headlines’ repeated by the presenter claimed: ‘Priest says forgiveness would be a step too far’. So, the story is that a priest urges people not to forgive Mr Foster for killing his wife and daughter and then himself.

Now, that might be an understandable reaction. But it isn’t what Tony Sadler said and it could not be inferred from what he did say unless whoever wrote the headline was either deliberately misrepresenting the point or was so ignorant he/she should not be employed in a communications medium. Sadler actually said that Christians have to forgive and can do no other. However, for some people at this point, this might be step too far. In other words, he was recognising and giving voice to what some people might be feeling – but he wasn’t commending it or re-writing Christian theology. This is more than just a matter of semantic distinction. The priest did not say that ‘forgiveness would be a step too far’.

But, it seems to me, Sadler was recognising what is often misunderstood when it comes to the matter of forgiveness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German pastor and theologian who was hanged at Flossenburg in April 1945 for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler, began his book The Cost of Discipleship with an excoriating rejection of what he called ‘billige Gnade’ (‘cheap grace’). In the context of forgiveness ‘cheap grace’ involves a form of religious behaviour that costs nothing – an easy theology that avoids the pain and the offence. Cheap forgiveness involves saying you forgive when you actually do not – or trying to forgive before you are ready to do so. Even worse, forgiveness must never be a form of escapism – a way of avoiding the pain of the offence by refusing to engage with it. This lay at the heart of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Surely the epitome of forgiveness is to be seen on the Cross. But here, at the place where the world’s violence is seen to be exacted on the innocent sufferer, forgiveness is not easy and is not sentimental – or simply a means to an end. Rather, forgiveness involves looking the offence (and the offender) in the eye and naming it for what it is. This is no escapism and it can’t be seen as cheap.

Forgiveness sets both the offender and the victim free – that is true. But it can’t be fabricated or played with. Forgiveness can only be offered when the offended is ready to do so honestly. That is what Tony Sadler was getting so right during his sensitive sermon. It is patently what the journalists at Sky News either did not understand or deliberately sacrificed for the sake of a more arresting headline.

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