So, we read yesterday that the Israeli government has given permission for another thousand settlement homes to be built. And the outside observer might be forgiven for wondering if peaceful coexistence between Israeli and Palestinian can ever be more than wishful thinking.

Or, to put it differently, is it ever possible for one generation, haunted by nurtured histories of enmity and mutual injustices, to choose to create a memory for the next generation that breaks the cycle of hatred, suspicion, provocation and self-justifying violence?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, noting the death of the last person to fight on the First World War (I think) once spoke about “when memory becomes history”. His point was basically that once the bearers of memory have died, we are left with history as a commodity to be re-shaped, traded and totemised. When there is no living witness to refute the nonsense, it is left to the ideologues to shape the history narrative in such a way as to justify current preoccupations or priorities.

(As an aside: when clergy move to a new post I encourage them to learn the history of the new parish, but to recognise that people there will speak and act from the memory – the newly-appointed priest might learn the history, but an not share the memory.)

I guess this is on my mind today because I have just finished reading Tony Horwitz's excellent pursuit of the American Civil War, 'The Confederates in the Attic'. Funny it may be, but there is something disturbing about the way we – and not just the people we think are mad – appropriate 'memories' regardless of the accuracy or propriety of doing so. Horwitz illustrates well how the myths about the Civil War are more powerful than the facts or the reality. (You'll have to read the book to see what I mean.)

As always, the language tells its own story. The Civil War is known in the South variously as 'the War of Northern Aggression', 'the Lost Cause' and 'the Recent Unpleasantness'. We write the 'history' in order to create a 'memory' that justifies who and how we behave now – especially in relation to those who (inconveniently) share 'our space'. Closer to (my) home, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland view the Battle of the Boyne in 16XX differently.

Anyway, I am now on to Sylvie Simmons' 2012 biography of Leonard Cohen. And what raises its head at the beginning of Cohen's story in Montreal, Canada? The segregation of French and English in Quebec. However, she does also quote Canadian poet Irving Layton, speaking about Cohen and defining 'genius' in the same way I have previously described a prophet: “the ability – a very rare ability – to see things as they actually are. You are not fooled.” (p.51) If a genius is rarely appreciated in these terms, a prophet is rarely welcome in his/her own home.

There is no escape. This is how tribal human beings are. We don't have to be. We can choose not to be. But, this demands a self-sacrificial decision to prioritise the future over the past and to create a reality that will prove to be a more hopeful and positive 'memory' for those who will inherit the history we are making now.

 

Killing four hours in Istanbul Airport isn't easy. The last time I was here, my connection (to Astana, Kazakhstan) had left here before we had even left London Heathrow. While waiting for a substitute flight with Air Astana we were given vouchers for a gourmet meal in Burger King. It wasn't funny.

This time I am doing some reading. Which brings me on to…

… two books I have read recently that have proved worth recommending.

Charlotte Methuen's Luther and Calvin: Religious Revolutionaries is a beautifully written introduction to the life, teaching and impact of two of the great European Reformers. Sometimes, when listening to English evangelicals talking about ' the Reformers' in awed tones, it might seem that these were paragons of orthodoxy, defenders of simple revealed truths about God and us. We quickly reduce them to simplistic-but-useful reinforcers of our own theological preferences. Sometimes it seems we award them the same authority as that claimed by the popes they opposed. Read the reality and a different picture emerges.

Of course, they were creatures of their time and they didn't know the end of their own story. But, their stories make it clear that their theology developed and changed, their theology was often driven by their politics, and their theology might well have developed even further if they had lived on (or in other times and contexts). We dig them into a framework that suits our own preferences and then quote them accordingly. It is always amusing to hear Hooker quoted by all sides in current Anglican debates…

Reality is always more ambiguous and more complex than our debating points would allow.

The full(er) picture is to be found in Diarmaid MacCulloch's magisterial Reformation, but Charlotte Methuen's concise book does the business. It is surely coincidental, but reading the book during the synodical debates on the Anglican Covenant and women bishops caused the ringing in my head of lots of bells.

The second book I finished on the plane from Manchester to Istanbul. I know of Mark Thomas only from the occasional telly programme and his very funny People's Manifesto. Extreme Rambling is a powerful, poignant and perceptive record of his walk along the length of the Barrier erected in Israel-Palestine. He walked it in three stages, meeting people along the way and asking lots of questions. It isn't an encouraging book unless you approve of Israel's treatment of Palestinians and think the illegal settlements are a really good idea. But, it is so well written – a personal narrative that takes you into the heart of some of the fundamental problems of this beautiful and tiny piece of land.

Having read up on the history and politics of Sudan, I am now on to William Boyd's Waiting for Sunrise. Ideal for a plane journey.

[Written Saturday 12 January, posted Monday 14th. Boyd book finished…]

 

Following my post on the resignation of UK Government Minister David Laws (in the light of Bishop Margot Käβmann’s resignation in February), there are two types of resignation in the spotlight today. I had intended to write something funny today, but the news got in the way.

Horst Köhler, President of Germany, has resigned only a year after securing a second term in office. He caused offence last week after suggesting that there can be a justification for Germany’s armed forces being involved in operations away from home in order to secure particular interests. The Left accused him of supporting ‘gunboat diplomacy’ (he doesn’t) and the Right left him to stew in his embarrassment. Today he resigned, saying he regretted that his comments could lead to a misunderstanding about a difficult question for the nation – viz Afghanistan.

So, German politics loses as its figurehead a good man with a good record because people are too stupid to listen intelligently to a comment and debate it seriously. What he said is contentious, but that is no reason for not saying it – even for a Head of State who has the best interests of his country at heart. German military involvement in Afghanistan is a hot potato in Germany right now and Margot Käβmann herself got into trouble in January when, as head of the EKD (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland), she called for a renewed debate over the withdrawal of troops when there was a lack of vision for the conflict.

Köhler will be replaced in the interim by Jens Böhrnsen (SPD), speaker of the Bundesrat (Upper House). What is remarkably odd about all this is simply that the debate about Afghanistan will still go on, yet Germany will have lost a very good Head of State. And – as I have aksed elsewhere – who has gained what by this resignation?

However, the second resignation is arguably more serious for the wider world. This is the sense of resignation felt across the globe that Israel can do what it likes and get away with it – that in the end no one will hold Israel to account. They can build their illegal settlements, flout UN Resolutions at will, refuse to cooperate with the wider world (eg. nuclear proliferation negotiations) and commit atrocities against vulnerable people – and apart from a few sharp words, they can then carry on business as usual.

So, today they have intercepted (in international waters) the flotilla of boats taking aid to Gaza and lives have been lost. Ambassadors have been called in to explain events and protests have broken out around the world. Our own Foreign Secretary has issued a call for Israel to stop the blockade of Gaza forthwith. Whistling in the wind?

The tragedy of this is (a) that Israel’s security depends on the security of its neighbours and friends, (b) that original victimhood cannot justify making victims of others, (c) that Israel’s legitimate complaint about the violence of others towards Israel is drowned out by the horrified complaints of those offended by Israel’s own oppressive actions.

That said, however, I guess many people around a horrified world will once again be resigned to the fact that Israel will simply ignore protests and present itself as the aggrieved victim. Others, however, will now find in this action yet another sanction for further violence and less understanding.

Psalm 122.6 implores:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…

But the peace of Jerusalem is never seen in isolation from the call of the prophets for God’s people to love justice, exercise mercy and walk humbly with God (and, therefore, with everyone else).

You have to stand around Jerusalem to see the offence of the settlements. The word ‘settlement’ sounds like a few houses clustered together – isolated and defenceless. But then you look over the valley and see hundreds of solid buildings, home to thousands of people who are occupying land that does not belong to them.

The problem is, however, that the settlers and their backers believe all the land is theirs, regardless of international agreements, legal ownership and humanitarian concern. Rights transcend justice, mercy is trumped by power.

When even the American Vice-President is complaining openly about Israeli behaviour, you know the patience is running thin. No doubt he will now incur the wrath of those who accuse of anti-semitism anyone who dares to question Israeli policy. But the provocative permission for the building of 1,600 homes on Palestinian land, agreed while Joe Biden is visiting the country and in the face of tentative moves towards talks about ‘peace’, looks like a deliberate gesture of power.

I have had several conversations with people recently who believe that God has given Israel the land – all of it – and that, therefore, the notion of ‘illegality’ in relation to occupation is a semantic nonsense. If the Israelis build a settlement in Palestinian territory, then this is their right and no one can complain without complaining about God himself.

So, what of God and justice and humility and the vocation of God’s people?

The complaint of the Hebrew Bible’s prophets against the people was that they took God for granted. They compromised their vocation to be the people who ‘look like’ God by looking nothing like the God they claimed to worship. Read Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos. ‘You can’t claim God’s name in your worship and then trample on the heads of the poor; you can’t pretend to love God and then treat justice as a product to be bought and owned; you can’t claim the favour of God and at the same time show none of the mercy that characterises your God.’

The warning of the prophets is clear: empires come and go. God will not be taken for granted. Justice will be brought against those who deny justice to others. Those who bear God’s name must reflect the character of God – who claims to be the liberator of those who suffer injustice. And judgement (not just charity) begins at home.

The tragedy of all this is that the legitimate case for Israeli integrity and security is undermined by the injustices to which they subject their neighbours. But, it seems that even their friends are too afraid to warn them and defiance of world opinion continues brazenly – apparently without fear of challenge.

Maybe Joe Biden is about to change that?

Yesterday I addressed a group of people at a law firm in the City about Zimbabwe. These wonderful people have an ‘austerity lunch’ of bread and cheese and donate to the ‘project’ under discussion – which, yesterday, was Zimbabwe. I was invited because the Diocese of Southwark is deeply involved with the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe and I have been out there on my own and leading a group visit.

It was a good coincidence that I got home in the evening to hear that the Zimbabwean Dollar has been dumped and that foreign currencies are now allowed across the economy. This is only legalising what has been happening anyway – the parallel market has been operating in US dollars for years. Then, today, I heard that the MDC has voted to enter government with Zanu PF. This is precarious and we will have to wait and see what actually happens as plans are taken forward during the next two weeks. The MDC could find itself compromised and then more easily discarded by Mugabe later.

Yet, despite this news, I still get almost daily reports of human rights activists going missing, torture and abuse of prisoners, intimidation of MDC and Church people, and corruption at every level. The vital prerequisite for any improvement in the lives of Zimbabwe and her people is the restoration of the rule of law. Court judgements in respect of ownership of finances, accounts and property made against the ousted Anglican Bishop of Harare, Dr Nolbert Kunonga, have not been implemented  – and Kunonga, with the backing of Mugabe’s men, continues to steal money, retain possession of churches, intimidate anyone who denies him support and makes a mockery of justice.

The law firm people I addressed have asked to donate £1000 towards important projects in Central Zimbabwe. Wonderful stuff that will make a real difference now that foreign currency can be used and we don’t have to do dodgy things with currencies.

Today has also seen the publication of a statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the launch of the ‘Faiths Working Together’ Fund for rebuilding civilian lives in Gaza and relieving suffering in Israel through the work of Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. This is surely a sensitive and laudable attempt by Christians, Jews and Muslims in this country to address the humanitarian need without regard for causes of conflict, ethnicity or status. The link also gives advice on how to donate.

Why set this up when DEC is already doing the business? Well, I guess it is in order to demonstrate what many secularists prefer to ignore: people of different religions working together for the common good and going beyond the arguments that sometimes appear to sterilise effective action. Good stuff.

The BBC website makes interesting reading today. Although ITV, Channel Four and Five have decided to break ranks and show the Disaster Emergency Committee’s appeal for humanitarian relief in Gaza, the BBC is maintaining its refusal on the grounds that it might compromise its impartiality.

“After consultation with senior news editors, we concluded that to broadcast a free-standing appeal, no matter how carefully couched, ran the risk of calling into question the public’s confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in its coverage of the story as a whole.” That was the statement by Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC. He added: “We will continue to broadcast news about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and, if appropriate, to cover the work of the UK NGOs (non-governmental organisations) on the ground.”

I don’t know the answer to this question, so I’ll ask it directly: does the BBC only broadcast appeals when humanitarian aid is needed because of ‘natural disasters’ (the tsunami, for example) or also when the human need is caused by the political or military action of powerful people? Would the BBC broadcast an appeal for the suffering people of Zimbabwe or would that be considered anti-Mugabe and, therefore, not ‘impartial’. Did the BBC broadcast appeals for support after 9/11 – or would that have been considered ‘partial’?

What worries me about this is the understanding of ‘impartiality’ being held. BBC coverage of the war in Gaza was seriously limited by the exclusion of BBC journalists and cameras from Gaza itself. I cannot now remember if we heard disclaimers on news bulletins that the picture being given was bound to be ‘partial’ because access to Gaza was denied and ‘news’ was managed by the Israeli propaganda machine.

I realise that this is not the same issue as the BBC giving airtime for a humanitarian appeal. But it raises the question of whether the BBC, by denying such an appeal, is actually being partial to Israel and its view of the world.

It is perhaps not surprising that increasing numbers of journalists are questioning the possibility of impartiality on the part of journalists in any situation. The pictures they broadcast, the words they use, the worldview that shapes their perception of what is ‘normal’ (let alone what is seen to be deviating from the norm – which is what ‘news’ seems to be), the assumed criteria they use for editing material in or out (in order to create a meaningful narrative and inform an audience) – all these involve the journalist and editor as committed agents and not impartial observers.

The BBC’s dilemma is an uncomfortable one and it is not hard to see the problem they face. But I hope the BBC will broadcast the appeal along with other broadcasters. Not because sides should be taken with either Israel or Hamas, but because people are suffering enormously and no one can remain ‘impartial’ in the face of it, whatever its cause.

This matter is not unconnected to the myth of neutrality espoused by uncritical secular humanists whereby (a) there is a neutral/impartial way of seeing the world and events (which, of course, is where their own assumptions are – conveniently – thought to lie and (b) there is a dangerous loonyland where religious or other ‘committed’ people load the agenda and conspire to destroy. It is a philosophical battle that needs to be fought rationally in the public arena. It is a debate that is important because we see this nonsense working its way out when a film crew covers up a cross in a church when filming a soap opera ‘in case it causes offence’, when government departments see ‘community cohesion’ as the absence of tension between faith communities and their leaders, and when media people decide what is ‘news’ and what counts as ‘impartial’.

Some people clearly just don’t get it.

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.)

In the summer of 2008 I went to a day of lectures at the University of Cambridge to commemorate the ecumenical visit of a group of Germans to England in 1908 (reciprocated in 1909). The morning lecture was just brilliant: the retired German theologian Jurgen Moltmann giving an overview of German theology from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. Now this might not sound the most exciting way to spend a hot summer day, but this elderly academic, speaking in superb, faultless English, was interesting, funny, wise and perceptive. To anyone interested in theological development in the last century it was a unique opportunity to hear the great man do his stuff.

Over lunch I mentioned to him that I would like to read his autobiography, but wanted to read it in German and not English. I immediately forgot the title of the book and thereafter kept forgetting to order it.

A couple of months later I was with a group of bishops at Lambeth Palace for a theology day with the Archbishop of Canterbury – another brilliant, stimulating and challenging day. After lunch I approached the Archbishop with a query I had been too embarrassed to ask Moltmann in Cambridge. During his lecture Moltmann had suddenly quoted something that sounded deep and ‘old’. I wanted to ask where it came from, but thought I would look conspicuously ignorant among a load of keen Cambridge academics. So, I asked Rowan if he knew where this had come from – the Desert Fathers perhaps? It went like this:

God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.

Rowan thought about it for a moment and then said: ‘I think he was probably quoting himself.’

Was I embarrassed? Of course I was! But at least I learned something. Anyway, I finally got a copy of the book when I was at a theological conference near Dusseldorf last November. And the German title of the book? ‘Weite Raum’ – Wide Space. Rowan was right… and I am hopelessly ignorant.

But I love the description of God that Moltmann gives. We often try to narrow God down so that he reflects our own limited experience, expectations or prejudices. But God, as can be seen in the biblical narratives, occupies the wide spaces which offer uncertainty and threat as well as the fearful hints of his presence. It seems that God strides about in the wide spaces and won’t be pinned down by our own small-mindedness. But it also chimes in with the stuff I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ which refuses to hold back from God the contradictory realities of human/Christian life from God: we offer both the ‘broken and the holy hallelujah’ (missed out in the Alexandra Burke version).

Perhaps it is only people who are open to the wide spaces that truly enjoy God. Perhaps it is only such people who can find the wide spaces for seeking imaginative and bold potential resolutions of conflicts such as that in Israel and Gaza. Perhaps the frenzied protection of narrow self-interest is the natural and unavoidable fruit of abandoning the ‘wide space’ of God.

The world is in financial and economic recession. Israel continues its violence against Gaza – to what possible end? Mugabe continues to disregard the world’s horror at his corruption and scorn for his people. Climate change cannot be ignored. There is a lot going on and everywhere I go people are asking hard questions about the future.

I was in a church in Croydon this morning and tried to bring together the insecurities of the real world into which ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ and the one we inhabit. Wise men travelled to find what God’s own people missed and, at what we call Epiphany, allowed the light of a star to shine into the darkness of oppression, violence, paranoia and mendacity. (Read Matthew 2:1-12) We don’t know what 2009 will hold, but we do know there will have to be changes not only in the ways we live and the choices we make, but also in the values that drive us. The ‘blind growth’ view of economics is being weighed in the balance. And people feel very insecure about themselves, their ‘normality’ and the future of the world itself.

So, it might be timely to recall that Christian hope is rooted not in a system or a prognosis, but in a person. The God who came among us in Jesus of Nazareth is one who is unashamed to live with vulnerability and insecurity (a baby born in an obscure part of the Roman-occupied Middle East) and is unafraid to show the wounds of real life when the risen Christ holds up wounded hands and invites the world to touch them. This God is one who has refused to let the violence, destruction and death of the world have the final word – God has the final word and it sounds like ‘resurrection’.

This sober rumination has just reminded me of the great Beautiful South song that exposes:

A plastic world and we’re all plastic too
Just a couple of different faces in a dead man’s queue
The world is turning Disney and there’s nothing you can do
You’re trying to walk like giants but you’re wearing Pluto’s shoes

And the answers fall easier from the barrel of a gun
Than it does from the lips of the beautiful and the dumb
The world won’t end in darkness, it’ll end in family fun
With Coca Cola clouds behind a Big Mac sun.

Epiphany whispers light into a dark world and invites us to look for the God of substance beneath the veneers of security we crave.

This certainly puts into perspective matters such as the future of the Anglican Communion and those internal churchy matters which seem to fill some people’s lives and internet preoccupations. Having blogged the entire two weeks back in July/August 2008, I have just written a review of the Lambeth Conference six months on and it will appear on the Fulcrum website in the next couple of days. I will provide the link when I know what it is. But it all needs to be kept in sharp perspective as the sideshow it is to the real stuff of the Kingdom of God.

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.