This is the text of an article I published in the Yorkshire Post yesterday.

Every English teenager should be required to go with me to Berlin and take a 100 metre walk from the Brandenburg Gate up Unter den Linden. Within that short stretch we would walk the human history of great culture and dreadful tragedy, the heights of wisdom and the depths of corruption, the terror of captivity and the euphoria of liberation.

Of course, no one has offered to take me up on this proposal, but Berlin offers something unique in the world. And there could be no better – more poignant or instructive – day to do my walk than 9 November – a date that haunts Germans for different reasons. This year Remembrance Day falls on this day.

Berlin 1To remember means, literally, to re-member – that is, to put the memories back together in some order. So, make of this what you will: 9 November 1918 saw the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II; 9 November 1938 was Kristallnacht; 9 November 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin Wall. Within 70 years this date marked the end of the First World War which sowed the seeds of the Second which destroyed and then divided Europe and which then brought down the Soviet Empire.

It is hard to overstate the trauma suffered by Germans and made visible in the wall that tore apart a city and a world for 27 years. The German Democratic Republic proclaimed freedom from Nazi fascism, but then created a society riddled with secrecy, fantasy and suspicion – an estimated 25% of its population somehow corrupted or compromised by the secret police (the Stasi).

But, the Berlin Wall became a symbol of much more than political or social division. It became a metaphor for all sorts of ruptures between people and societies. It even became a metaphor for the spiritual imprisonments to which we allow ourselves to be subject: including to the consumerism that dominated on the western side of the Wall, but which did not ultimately satisfy the yearnings for freedom that those ‘liberated’ on 9 November 1989 imagined it would.

The fall of the Wall was, however, remarkable. I was working as a Russian linguist and Soviet specialist during the first half of the 1980s. Although the Soviet system was ultimately unsustainable – for lots of reasons – there was no sign that it would fall within a few short years. The idea that the Empire would collapse so quickly would have been thought ridiculous. History teaches us to be open to surprise.

When US President Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate and challenged the Soviet President to “tear down this wall”, it seemed a prophetic and bold act. Yet, now we learn (through German news sources) that Mikhail Gorbachev was already talking in 1987 about pulling it down as a fruit of glasnost. The popular ‘revolution’ in East Germany was already beginning in and through the churches. In Leipzig particularly it was the churches that provided the space for free debate and open expression of dissent.

Berlin 2Berlin is now a different place – my favourite city in Europe. The wastelands and minefields have been replaced by vast and expensive building sites. The city bursts with confidence and life. Yet, everywhere you look there is the haunting memory of sadness. Look left from the Brandenburg Gate and you see the Reichstag, the building that sat at the heart of violence, political corruption and nationalistic hubris; look to the right and you see the enormous and moving Holocaust Memorial. Look a little further and you will find the new Topography of Terror museum, sitting close to the site of the Gestapo HQ where so much dehumanising horror was generated. The Wall ran through this landscape, dividing east from west, capitalism from socialism, but never protecting from the realities of past decades.

So, in fact, the fall of the Wall in 1989 exposed past glories and horrors to renewed scrutiny. The euphoria of 9 November 1989 can never escape from the shadow of 9 November 1938. Re-membering, if it is to be remotely true, cannot wipe out what is inconvenient or uncomfortable. The eventual reunification of Germany simply meant that Germany had to shape yet another new role for itself in the world. How could it heal the lingering wounds of the past while vast material and economic inequalities existed between east and west? And how would German society handle the disillusionment of those from the east who would soon discover that capitalism does not mean a Mercedes or a mansion for everyone?

The fall of the Wall brought freedom and hope. But, it also brought into focus the harder question: what are we to be set free for?

Whenever I preach in the Berliner Dom (cathedral) I am struck by the inscription below the great dome: “Be reconciled to God”. It is as if this building, that has witnessed empire, fascism, communism and now capitalism, whispers into each generation the hint that reconciliation between people requires a bigger vision than the offer of mere consumerism.

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio4's Today programme.

A month or two ago I had a coffee in London with a friend who has her own business coaching high-level executives. Her speciality is resilience – helping business leaders to hang on in there and develop a long-term perspective on decision-making in a competitive and challenging world. I asked her what her basic approach was and she spoke about such things as realism, recognition, forgiveness, resolution, and so on. Listening to her explain this dynamic, I thought the concepts all sounded very familiar. And when I asked where this language came from, she said it was standard HR vocabulary. She seemed a little surprised when I suggested that it was born several thousand years before HR was invented and is profoundly religious.

To speak of a leader facing reality, re-shaping their understanding and view of the world, then moving on in a new light with a clear resolve, is what Christians mean when they use the old-fashioned word 'repentance'.

The Greek word from which it is taken – metanoia – means, literally, 'change of mind'; that is, to use a different metaphor, that we allow the lens behind our eyes – the one through which we filter our experience of the world out there and why it is the way it is – to be re-ground … re-shaped so that we look and see and think and, then, live differently.

Of course, it is social death to use the word repentance unless shouting it out through a megaphone at Oxford Circus – which, I suppose, is evidence of social death, anyway.

But, the word – or, at least, the concept it encapsulates – lies at the heart of a crucial political conundrum that, although it has an immediate application, is as ancient as human life itself. It is the conflict between society's need for long-term political thinking and planning and people's demand for instant gratification. And the Internet has exacerbated this conflict because we have got used to instant information, quick decisions and what might be called 'now-ism'.

I said this isn't new. The prophets of the Old Testament, speaking in the eighth and sixth centuries BC, countered the prevailing longing for the security of quick military and economic alliances with warnings that such short-term thinking can lead to long-term problems. Populism doesn't always represent wisdom.

In a very brave sermon preached in the wake of Kristallnacht in November 1938 in Berlin, Helmut Gollwitzer stated: “Where repentance stops, inhumanity begins.” As relatively few others did, he looked beyond the events of that initial pogrom and saw where short-term compromise might lead. OK, it's a dramatic example. But, it does show that the need to be open to changing our mind and thinking in the long term is vital in every area of life, not just HR or politics.


Margot KaessmannIt is hard to describe an arena filled with around 10,000 people listening to a Bible study. I thought there would be no problem getting in to hear Margot Kaessmann, Bishop of Hannover, taking us through the Good Samaritan. My money is on her to get elected as Chair of the Council of the EKD in the autumn in succession to the excellent Wolfgang Huber.

kaessmannMargot Kaessmann (MK) is one of the best communicators in the German Church today. She is brilliant with the media and she has the rare gift of being as good in print as she is with the spoken word. It is not surprising that her preaching attracts huge crowds and that she is immensely popular. She is unafraid to tackle tough subjects, but does so with a directness and generosity that is very attractive. And, in case you think I am being an uncritical fan, I need to confess that she wrote the foreword to the German edition of my book Finding Faith (launched this month).

She recognised at the outset that some biblical texts become over-familiar with repetition and that it can become hard to get behind them in a fresh way. But, she said, the context in which the texts are being read does keep changing – and this presents the challenge of how to read and expound the text at different times and in different places. She then took the parable in three stages and drew from it implications for the church in the world, called to prove its love for God by ‘love of neighbour’.

Without going through her address systematically, I’ll just note several points:

Kristallnacht_19381. She told the story of how on Kristallnacht a synagogue (in Hannover or Hamburg – I didn’t catch that bit) burned down. The fire brigade stood back and let it burn. The synagogue was located next door to the Church Office (the equivalent of our diocesan offices). As it wasn’t a church that was burning, the business of the Church Office just continued the next day without interruption. Quoting some scary anti-semitic propaganda from the NPD (neo-Nazis), she asked if we are a church that loves our neighbour and reaches the wider world, or one that is preoccupied with internal churchy reform at the expense of the world.

2. Challenging the cynical appeal of former free-market capitalists for social protection (when the markets let them down and their own lives were affected), she questioned whether love of neighbour allows us to continue to assume that ‘cheap is good’. She raised the interesting question of who decides when someone becomes ‘handicapped’? Is there a scale according to which when some reaches a particular point they qualify as ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled’? Who decides which criteria apply?

3. She identified generosity as characteristic of Christian love. She concluded (among other things) that the church will only be renewed by looking outwards and being less concerned with its own internal business.

What is notable (but impossible to convey) is the massive affection and respect in which bishops like MK are held here. There is a deep humanity about MK which comes over: a woman small in stature and tall in theological and spiritual integrity. It was a privilege to be there, even though I have heard her severla times before today.

I went from there to be interviewed by the EKD Media on what they call ‘the Red Sofa’. The interview revolved around my two books in German and the place of contemporary music in the church’s engagement with culture. It was a stimulating conversation with a good audience and good interviewer – even though my German let me down a couple of times in the half-hour we were talking.

The evening took us to the other side of Bremen for a Meissen Service at which I was preaching in English. The church was packed, the music was great and the host pastor wonderful. We worshipped together and then experienced the generous hospitality that we had been told earlier is characteristic of genuine Christian love: food and beer. It made the miserable weather seem brighter and warmer for a while.

So, no great revelations. Just the sort of day the Kirchentag allows: variety, stimulation, fun and serious conversation with friends and strangers.