Breaking up is hard to do. So went the song. But, whereas that might apply to love and relationships, it clearly is less so when it comes to politics.

The EU referendum debate has so far been … er … pathetic – the trading of unsubstantiated prophetic claims on both sides, accompanied by ‘selective’ representations of European history and the pursuit of personal vendettas by people who seemed – on other matters, at least – to be on the same side.

But, one aspect has, to my mind, not been adequately explored. It is quick and easy to break down institutions and relationships, but long and difficult to build them up. In recent memory, just witness the collapse of the USSR and the ground it prepared for Vladimir Putin, resurgent nationalism rooted in hurt pride, and a fascism that has fed similar tendencies in Eastern Europe and beyond. The winter of the Arab Spring should teach us something.

In this respect, consideration must be given to how Brexit might well fuel the disturbing nationalist fires in other parts of Europe and how further fragmentation of the EU might lead to new political associations over which we will have no control and even less influence. Remaining in the EU must raise questions about how the resentments, racism and romanticisms of some member states can be resisted with the sort of moral clarity and courage that gave rise to the post-war European project in the first place.

A couple of weeks ago a former Archbishop of Canterbury compared Brexit to Noah leading the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt and to freedom in the Promised Land. (I kid you not: I was asked to comment on a draft.) Of course, where the case falls is that the exodus was followed by forty years – a generation of romanticists – in the desert and a good deal of violent ethnic cleansing thereafter. Promises of effortless and cost-free deliverance are usually fantasy, and those who do the promising know this very well.

So, whether one wishes to see the UK remain in the EU or leave it behind, promises of political or economic (to say nothing of diplomatic) nirvana should be placed on the ‘fantasy’ pile – or, as I prefer to think of it, the ‘lying’ pile. (As should the rhetoric that cites only the ‘costs’ to us of UK membership of the EU without asking once what we bring to the European consensus.)

This is pertinent because, as most of Europe looks on in bewilderment at the nature of our debate thus far, we are asking the British people to make a decision that will have both intended and unintended consequences for us. We simply cannot say whether Brexit will make travel and other conveniences less convenient – other EU countries might well help us to recall what membership granted by removing some of the conveniences we have rejected. We simply cannot pretend that the negotiations in which we will hope to engage will end up benefiting us in the way suggested – especially when we will be negotiating (among others) with those whom we have spent many words and gestures insulting and rejecting (either explicitly or implicitly) during this campaign.

The tragedy of the referendum campaign – to my mind, at least – is the appeal to purely national self-interest over against what we might bring to the common good. Democracy – claimed by some to be the primary victim of EU membership – means compromise in the interests of the common good, but only following debate and consensus. Do we really think democracy can be reduced to only being valid when everyone else agrees with us and we guarantee our own interests?

Clearly, remaining will bring challenges. Leaving will bring others. That is reality, and we can’t predict the future. But, we can weigh up the probabilities of each option and vote accordingly on 23 June.

Nevertheless, one thing that has struggled to get through this debate is that the easy conflation of the EU and Europe is less than helpful. The institution is not the same as the continent. The EU is a construct that can be reshaped and reimagined; the continent has seen a constantly changing shaping of cultures, nations and politico-economic allegiances. The question is: will remaining in the EU or leaving it be more likely to shape the continent for the better in the next century, or will it contribute to a disintegration and the unintended consequences this might bring?

After all, the history will only be written a century after the events – something of which we are acutely aware as we commemorate the catastrophe that turned into the First World War a hundred years ago.

(At least the Guardian – probably the only national newspaper that would entertain this – allowed an amusing dispute between Giles Fraser and Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch on whether the Reformation should push us to stay or go. I don’t see a distinctive theological line on the question that is not selective to some extent; but, history too easily becomes a commodity which we trade in the interests of our own arguments or preferences. Yet, more of that sort of intelligent exchange would be welcome – and certainly more enlightening than the hyperbolic lobbing of political grenades from the trenches.)

 

Advertisements

We left Erbil in the early hours of Friday morning and got back to the UK later that day. Flying into Istanbul in the morning sun, the city looked like it always does: beautiful, mysterious, calm. Looking out of the window I wondered what the future is for Turkey in general and this city in particular.

It is hard to imagine how any deal can be done between Turkey and the European Union on entry when Turkey falls so far short of standards in religious and media freedom (to cite just two problems). Recent tightening of the grip from Erdogan cannot have come as a surprise. Yet, despite the suicide bombing in Ankara last week and recent violence in Istanbul itself, it didn't occur to me that a bombing might take place there today. These conflicts are interconnected.

Who was it who said “travels narrows the mind”? OK, that wasn't the original. But, although travel broadens the mind to a wider world and the complexities within it, it can simultaneously narrow the mind by compelling the traveler to think that they have now understood it. There is a danger in me thinking I now have a 'take' on the situation in Iraq, both politically and in humanitarian terms, but this is bound to be confounded or complemented by the experience of others.

For example, we hear the story of how Yazidis were helped to escape from Sanjin Mountain by the Peshmerga. Giles Fraser referenced this in his article in the Guardian written during the visit. On our return we then hear other stories of not-so-noble actions by the Peshmerga, including the threat to shoot Yazidis who got in their way. The whole picture is neither simple nor comprehensible in consistent categories.

Five days in Iraq brought our group, organised and brilliantly led by Christian Aid, face to face with the political and the personal. Stories told by people sitting in front of you cannot be denied. The statistics and rhetoric of politicians cannot simply be dismissed because they are not rooted in the personal stories of individuals and families (although you do come away thinking that some politicians ought to get out more). If anything, the situation becomes more complex, more difficult to comprehend, than before.

In our five days we heard stories of horror and kindness, of cruelty and mercy, of despair and hope, of wishful optimism and hopeful realism. Yet, these stories were not the totality – they did not tell the whole story.

For example, the Syrian refugees we met were Sunni Muslim. So, where does their react meant by Daesh/ISIS fit into rhetoric about genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shias? It is clear that Daesh brutality is meted out against anyone, and not purely targeted against non-Muslims. Indeed, it is hard to see what is religious about Daesh at all. I think those analysts are right who say the world is hitting the wrong target by thinking Daesh has anything to do with religion at all, but everything to do with sadism and power.

The abiding preoccupation for my own mind in the light of this trip (and the return to the political rhetoric of the UK) is twofold: (a) can – or should – Iraq be held together as a single country, given the evaporation of trust between communities and the inequitable distribution of finance and resources between Baghdad and, for example, Erbil? (b) the need for humanitarian aid to be provided in considerably greater quantities even if the answer to the political question above is 'no'.

A much-repeated phrase used by a UK government official in Erbil at the beginning of our visit (when we were even more ignorant than we are now) was that the Iraqis “have to sort this out themselves”. That phrase has nagged me all week. Why is it their responsibility to sort out what they did not create? Why did that thinking not hold sway when outsiders were considering bombing the place to bits? And, in that context, why is the amount of money being spent on reconstruction and humanitarian assistance such a tiny fraction of what was spent on the military campaigns?

Yes, I know that the idea of people taking responsibility for their future – especially given that any future depends on trust, relationships, common vision, etc. – is important and, in this context, more cultural than political. But, Iraqis bereft of money, homes, work, education, social infrastructure and (in some cases) hope are now being told they hold their future in their hands. It doesn't quite wash. Look at the numbers: only 9% of humanitarian aid money promised by governments has been paid.

So, Philip Hammond (UK Foreign Secretary) had talks in Baghdad and Erbil on Thursday – we found out from his Twitter feed while there – and he is very positive about the UK's contribution. He might be right. But, the story looks different when listened to through the ears of those on the ground where political rhetoric can look a little imaginative.

The prism through which I now reflect on the experience in Iraq is more multifaceted than before I went. Any judgements must be coloured by humility and the knowledge that impressions are partial. However, the abiding question is one I and colleagues will need to pursue further now we are back home is this: what credibility does a policy off enabling people (Syrian refugees and Iraqi internally displaced people) to “return to their homes” when their homes no longer exist, when the social infrastructure (including health, education and society) has broken down, when communities can no longer trust each other, and when such unspeakable violence has been done not just to people, but to hope itself?

Mercy, hope and generosity are being seen in the sheer humanitarian care being taken of such vulnerable people and communities by religious bodies – we met UK Sikhs delivering aid to Muslims and Yazidis in Duhok – who do not discriminate in whom they help. We saw this particularly in a clinic run by a church in Erbil. But, reconciliation will be hard won when the common enemy of Daesh has been removed.

 

The Guardian newspaper today publishes what might have been Seamus Heaney's last poem, written for an anthology to commemorate the centenary in 2014 of the outbreak of the First World War. Written as a response to Edward Thomas's poem As the Team's Head Brass, Heaney's In a Field is powerfully and yet quietly evocative.

I am not a poet, but I do remember sitting with my youngest son on the wall of a massive war cemetery at Bayeux in Normandy and writing the following:

A field of white stones

and simple crosses

with wishful words

and solemn epitaphs.

Known unto God means

we hadn’t a clue who he was.

Just another mangled inconnu

in a field of bloody might-have-beens.

Rest in peace sounds like an apology

for the hostility and brutality

of his untimely death.

I did not know him,

nor do I know those who miss him,

who still, half a world away,

miss the sound of his voice

and hear the agony of his eternal silence.

But I, also an inconnu, a nobody,

whisper an apology at his space,

and pray silently

for never again

and not for mine.

Sitting here in Finland, with its own century of slaughters and burnings, there is always a poignancy to the remembrance of how civilised people so easily turn to extreme and systematic violence… and to how even such violence cannot silence the beauty of poetry or language that quietly subverts the horrors.

Death, destruction and violence do not have the final word in this world.

 

Still away on holiday, I get back to wifi-land and get pointed to an article in yesterday's Observer newspaper. It seems that language learning in England, rather than getting stronger, is melting like snow. And all that those responsible for UK universities can say in response is that this is the way the market works: supply and demand.

So, fewer children learn a foreign language. Fewer take examinations in a foreign language at GCSE and A Level. The number of universities offering degree courses in modern languages will have halved in just over a decade. And the UK is shamelessly unembarrassed about producing generations of people who speak only their own native language. This is shocking.

I bang on about this stuff frequently – just put “language” in the search on this blog to find them. Not because I think I think language learning should be privileged over other disciplines, but because, if access to all disciplines is through the medium of language, then language learning is hugely important.

I am about to go out, so here is the Observer's report from yesterday and here a comment piece from David Bellos. I would simply add the following at this point:

  • Not learning a foreign language deprives people of a whole dimension of culture: communication, arts, translation 'depth';
  • We ignore the Schmidt doctrine: that we can only understand our own culture if we look through the lens of another culture… and that means knowing something of the other's language;
  • Losing our linguists seriously disadvantages the UK economically and politically – we never know what they are really saying behind our backs;
  • We reveal ourselves to be culturally arrogant;

Add to this the following and you begin to see the problem:

  • Do we really believe that every discipline should simply be left to the market in shaping what sort of country we are and what sort of people we think we should be growing through our education system? Are we really that random? Are we really that culturally illiterate already?

Yes, I would say this, wouldn't I?

But, I have also just spent a week with great Swiss friends who easily move between several languages; go into any bar or restaurant in obscure little northern Italian villages and the local waitresses will move between languages without show or embarrassment.

We should be ashamed. More to the point, however, we should be deeply worried about where we are heading and why.

 

While in the USA this week I only picked up the odd headline about the Archbishop of Canterbury and Wonga. Now I am back I am rather surprised and encouraged at what is going on.

First, it is encouraging that the Archbishop of Canterbury is taking a shameless lead in addressing the cancer that such businesses as Wonga represent. Go on to any English urban estate and see the havoc created by desperate people needing immediate cash. Yes, some of them might be 'chaotic' (to quote Iain Duncan Smith), but almost all of them will find current government policy regarding welfare cuts (but not banking reform, obviously) existentially challenging.

The iniquity of pay-day loan sharks has been oft iterated, yet rarely heeded. Such a socially destructive and corrosive business is allowed to continue because (a) most people don't want to face up to it and (b) the implications of tackling it will also cast doubt on the ethical propriety of other elements of our social systems. It is all as corrupting as the win-at-all-costs loadsamoney greed culture mocked by comedians during Thatcher's eighties, but now rooted in our current polarised culture in England.

It was further encouraging that the Archbishop, on discovering that the Church Commissioners invest indirectly in Wonga, went straight into the radio studios, faced the world and pointed out the obvious: that the is no 'clean' money in a complex capitalist world that depends for its pension funds (for example) on investments from sources that will give the highest returns. At least, because of his immediate response, the Archbishop has ensured that this current business will open up deeper questions than simply the adequacy of credit unions for providing alternatives to the spivs.

The two best responses to all this are by the wonderful Marina Hyde in the Guardian and Dr Luke Bretherton on an Australian website.

The task now is to make sure that the debate does not go away when the media's attention shifts elsewhere, and that the deeper questions about “what is money for” and “is society really to be simply a market directed by profit and fantasies of endless growth” get addressed seriously by politicians as well as churches.

I am pleased that in the midst of all this there is a quiet – reluctant, maybe – recognition that the Church is ahead of the game in addressing debt (why do we keep calling it 'credit'?) both at local and regional level. Credit unions are being set up all around the country.

 

Having a brief holiday, I thought I'd give my blog a miss for a week. Then I belatedly saw the Daily Mail's front page judgement on the appalling Philpott story.

I rarely get shocked by anything. In various life and work contexts I have seen and heard and read too much. And I can't bring myself to do 'mock shock'. But, this I do find shocking.

The Philpott story is dreadful. But, to use it shamelessly to categorise and damn people who receive from the welfare state is in itself shocking. Why? Because we have seen this sort of generalising categorisation before. I remember reading it in Der Stürmer. Even those who think the welfare reforms are right and justified should be worried about the language and approach of the Mail and the new direction it takes us in: generalised categorisation and vilification of certain groups of people.

Try this from the headline: 'Vile product of Welfare UK'. So, the welfare system produces utterly corrupt people – without distinction?

Or this: 'Man who bred 17 babies…' – as opposed to non-welfare recipients who 'have' children rather than 'breed' them? Animals breed…

Philpott's lifestyle is indefensible. His morality is damnable – although people not in receipt of welfare might also share some of his values. Yes, there are people who take welfare for a ride. Yes, the system needs reform – as does the system for rewarding the wealthy at the other end of the scale. But, something deeply corrupting is going on in our culture if the language of Osborne and the Daily Mail become common currency.

The Mail follows George Osborne's division of people between 'strivers' and 'skivers', shamelessly categorising people without for one minute questioning the basis for it – most welfare recipients work and work far too hard for the good of themselves or their families.

Do the Mail journalists take any responsibility for the remaining children of the Philpotts who, presumably, will now have to continue to live with the stigma generated by this reporting? Haven't they already suffered? But, the current onslaught against 'welfare' pays no attention to the children, making them suffer for the sins of the parents the children didn't choose. 'Suffer the little children', said Jesus; it looks like we read that wrongly and will make damned sure they suffer.

One day we shall be ashamed of this period in our history.

(Having written this, I then read the Guardian's intelligent and apposite editorial and Zoe Williams' excellent and pointed response to the Mail.)

I was asked by a young child recently what I would do if I wasn't a bishop. I think I waffled unconvincingly. this question was as unexpected as another one I was asked by a five year old in a primary school: “Have you got a dog?” This followed, “What's that big cross for?” Weird.

The truth is, I'd love to be a headline writer for The Onion. They just make me laugh. One of the best today reads:

God Freaks Self Out By Lying Awake Contemplating Own Immortality

It might be funny, but it also makes me wonder if I am missing something.

I wondered if a similar joke was at work this morning when the Guardian proclaimed:

Britain's religious right is on the rise

I seriously must be missing something here… because the report it was reporting on said the opposite. Theos, the excellent think tank that has published the report, says this:

Claims of a British 'Religious Right' are misleading

And the Church Times both comments and commends it here.

Do the sub-editors actually read the articles before inventing the headlines?

Anyway, another week is done and the Bradford Legal Service awaits at Bradford Cathedral on Sunday morning. I will be preaching about 'justice' and thinking of the still un-caught lad who burgled my house last August and nicked my computer and car.

Then I have to get my head round a series of addresses in German for a conference in Hannover in a couple of weeks time.

Of course, the challenge is to make sure that the content meets the theme described in the headlines. Oh dear…