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

When I got back from the Easter celebrations in Wakefield Cathedral yesterday I had no idea what was about to happen in Lahore with the deliberate targeting of Christians in a Taliban suicide bombing. The contrast between the celebrations here and the cost for those in Pakistan could not be stronger: death and resurrection are not just theological notions, but lived realities. However, what had been on my mind up to then was Karl Marx. He talked about the cost of turning people into commodities, making people and ideas into things.

What triggered this line of musing was the report that Easter is becoming the new Christmas. Apparently, increasing numbers of people are now sending Easter cards, buying and exchanging Easter gifts, and, while seeming to reject notions of resurrection or God, seem happy to deify a bunny rabbit with eggs in a basket. As they say, it's a funny old world.

What struck me about this was summed up in a media report I read following the Archbishop of Canterbury's statements about fixing the date of Easter itself. The responses seem to refer only to the impact that this might have on shopping and the sales of stuff. Everything has a price and everything ultimately gets reduced to its economic value or usefulness as a cog in the economic machine. I guess this is the final outworking of a language that replaces the social market with a market economy.

But, I am not sure this is ultimately helpful to us as individuals or as a society. People must surely be worth more than the mere economic value they represent either as producers or consumers, even if a couple of extra days holiday – perhaps even shopping – are welcome. Christians celebrate Easter as the day the promise of Christmas became surprisingly real: that the light that has come into the world cannot be extinguished even by death or violence or destruction. Yet, as I have walked with Jesus and his friends through Holy Week to death and resurrection, the light has looked pretty dim in a world in which the power brokers flex their military and economic muscles to keep the small people in check.

Easter is an invitation to face the darkness, to stare into the empty tomb to where death is supposed to be an end, and is the opposite of escapism or fantasy. Resurrection does not deny the power of destruction or evil; rather, it looks it in the eye and goes beyond it to new life. If Christmas represents – as one songwriter put it – “earth surprised by heaven”, then Easter surprises us with the whispered hint that there is more to life than death, and more to death than destruction.

Jesus objected to people being used as mere cogs in anyone's machine – even for their own theological purposes – and, so, met his bewildered friends in their abject darkness, met them where they were. They were surprised to find that their future was open, that they could be free even when oppressed. And that is what Christians call hope.

Going to university back in 1976 opened a new world to me. Never really having the confidence to read widely or expand my interests beyond finding intellectual endorsement for my evangelical faith, I was compelled to read books I had not previously encountered.

My German teacher – probably deeply irritated by me, my seriousness and my questions – had got me to read Dante's Inferno and, with a group of German Assistent/innen, to see a Bertolt Brecht play in Manchester. It was The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, a powerful parody of the rise of Hitler, and a play I would return to many times. But, that was probably as far as I went.

In my first year in Bradford, really wanting to concentrate on becoming a translator, I opted for a course on European Literature and Thought. This opened me up to writers such as Sigmund Freud, Guiseppe di Lampedusa, Arthur Koestler, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Günther Grass, and many others. The text that gripped me, however, was The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

My knowledge of history was neither deep nor wide. It still isn't, but I am trying…

It did seem striking, though, that 1848 was a pivotal year in European and, therefore, world history. Among many other things – such as revolutions in parts of Europe (and the Enlightenment bedding in following more than half a century after the French Revolution) – various types of slavery were being both challenged and protected… and both on grounds of economics, property and a perverse anthropology.

Marx and Engels berated the commodification of human beings in the industrialising worlds of mass-production, challenging the right of a capitalist elite to protect its own interests by enslaving the proletariat – those who actually made the stuff despite being alienated from it – in meaningless work from which they derived no profit and yet which imprisoned them in soulless and degrading labour.

At the same time Abraham Lincoln (yes, I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Lincoln) made his first public political move against slavery in the United States, recognising that thus far “he had not delivered a single speech on the issue of slavery or initiated anything to promote the issue” (p.127). He subsequently drafted a proposal for the gradual emancipation of slaves in Washington DC. He eventually lost, remarking with pragmatic political realism: “Finding that I was abandoned by my former backers and having little personal influence, I dropped the matter knowing it was useless to prosecute the business at that time.” (P.129)

Slavery takes many forms and is always conditioned by the particular cultural, political and economic shape of particular societies. In the US it was the issue that was dividing the country and would lead to the bloodshed of the Civil War only a few years later. Yet, most proponents of slavery there argued in favour of their proprietorial economic rights to own and trade people as commodities. In Europe it looked different. But, in both contexts the economics and politics were undergirded by often unarticulated anthropologies – maybe theological anthropologies – that made assumptions about the nature of human beings whilst avoiding facing the consequences of those assumptions.

Now, this is not to read back into past times the wise hindsight of the present. It is, however, to recognise that if such battles were being fought on different continents – and I haven't space to get on to the British Empire – over the nature of what is means to be human, then progress made in some quarters has not diminished the continuing importance of the fundamental question even today.

The 'rights' culture we now inhabit is both positive and negative. It poses some of the right questions whilst running into the sand when it comes to taking seriously the consistency of implications – for example, in establishing which rights have priority when the rights of different people clash directly. It is a lawyer's dream. Yet, underlying this is the nagging question of why we think that people matter in the first place. If the ethical tenet of “you can't get an 'ought' from an 'is' holds water, then the mere fact of human existence cannot of itself demand any moral imperative. That is to say, the mere fact of human existence cannot of itself – clear of un-argued for assumptions about why – demand a particular crediting of human life with inherent value or significance. We simply import other assumptions in reaching a conclusion with which we have actually started.

1848 was a pivotal year. There must be a book somewhere that looks at that year synchronously across the globe, recognising the contingencies of political, economic and anthropological (and theological) thought and argument. If not, someone should write one. (If I had Internet access while writing this, I would google it and look cleverer than I am. But, I don't!)

What is clear, however, is that the same questions that racked people like Marx, Engels and Lincoln – although they could not be thought to share the same political ground – have not gone away. If you think they have, then ask a trafficked East European teenager who finds herself in the lands of the free traded for sex, money and power.

 

Croydon is often thought of as a modern (i.e. post-war) town. The plethora of new building in the post-war years has served to hide some of the glories of the place and obscure a fascinating history.

Addington PalaceCroydon used to be the home of Archbishops of Canterbury. What is now the Old Palace School was where Cranmer had his library while writing the Book of Common Prayer. In those days you could sail from the Old Palace down the River Wandle to the Thames and along to Lambeth Palace. A couple of miles away Addington Palace (built in the 1770s) was the country home of the Archbishops from 1807 – bought by an Act of Parliament and financed by the sale of the Old Palace, it being “in so low and unwholesome a situation”.  Six archbishops lived at Addington Palace; five of them are buried in St Mary’s churchyard. The Palace was sold in 1898.

I was at St Mary’s, Addington, this morning. I always find it a little unnerving to be presiding at Communion while standing next to the tomb of a dead Archbishop of Canterbury. Facing the congregation, I looked to the right and read the inscription on the tomb of Archbishop William Howley (1766–1848) – I’d never heard of him before and I know nothing about him. What I noticed was that he died on 11 February 1848 – and that got me thinking about ‘time’ again, especially in the light of today’s great crises (tomorrow will bring something else to preoccupy us).

Communist-manifestoHowley died ten days before the publication by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels of the Manifest der Kommunistische Partei – the Communist Manifesto. It was the year of revolutions in Europe, with the earthquake of the French Revolution reverberating across national boundaries. There were epidemics (cholera in New York, for example) and ferments among groups that were eager for political and economic change. The Enlightenment project was working its way through the psyche of European societies, challenging the status quo and received ways of understanding the world.

So, just as Howley was dying – and probably thinking the whole world order was collapsing in front of his eyes anyway – the world was moving on. Howley never saw (and probably could not have imagined) the world that would develop after his demise: the Communist revolution in Russia, two World Wars, the beginning and end of European colonialism, the explosion of technology, etc. Locked into the possibilities of his own world and his own experience, he would have needed a good eschatology to keep his faith going in the wake of the threats to the world order going on around him.

I wonder if this sense of perspective is needed now? We always think that what happens in the world now is the most important and the ultimate reality. But, the truth is that whatever happens now, life will continue and will develop in the light of what has gone before. Leaving aside for a moment the ecological crisis and the nuclear threat (!) – which do have the potential to bring an ultimate end to things – the banking crises and political crises of today will be the topics of historical discussion and curiosity of our great-grandchildren’s generation. The seriousness with which we take some matters now will probably look rather curious in 100 years time. How we ever allowed the fantasies of the late 20th/early 21st century banking and debt cultures to develop will be a source of incredulity – especislly while half the world starved. Capitalism might one day look like a blip in the world’s economic history – as transient as the USSR and the Marxism-Leninism that seemed so powerful for so many decades.

This makes me look back to the Old Testament prophets. While things were looking good (politically, economically, militarily and religiously), no one would listen to the warnings of the prophets that God would not be taken for granted and security would be shaken if change did not come soon. The prophets had the insight to spot the medium to long-term consequences of political alliances and social injustices, but their warnings (rooted in a long-term view and a long-term perspective) were not heeded by people who could not see beyond the ‘today’ and their own immediate interests.

William-HowleyWe cannot predict what the world will look like for a our great-grandchildren. But we can be sure that they will read our story and our choices with more than simple curiosity – because the challenges they will face will derive from the decisions we have made and the challenges we have ducked.

I almost wish I hadn’t noticed the tomb of Archbishop William Howley.