Abba is best known as the Swedish poppers who at least gave us singalongamammamia. But, it is also the way Christians pray – abba being the intimate term of address Jesus told his friends to use when praying to God who is their father.

Not such an off-the-wall thought while the world burns tonight. I am in the diocese of Skara in Sweden to celebrate tomorrow the 1000th anniversary of its existence. Skara was linked with the historic diocese of Wakefield which is now part of the new diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales, and this is my fist visit – although technically I am here to represent the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The abba bit has crept up because not long after I arrived this evening I was invited to a closed-door conversation about the Middle East with bishops and others. The conversation was led by the Lutheran Bishop of Jordan and the Holy Land and an Egyptian Coptic Orthodox bishop. It was frank and robust.

I don’t intend to breach the implicit confidentiality of the discussion. Some conversations are only possible because confidentiality can be trusted. However, I am at liberty to make one or two observations on the back of it. Next week – particularly if I still have had no response from my letter to the Prime Minister about comprehensive strategy – I will come back to the questions I raised three weeks ago.

  • Churches outside the Middle East need to be working with and through the churches in the Middle East, and not simply channeling their support through NGOs. Christian leaders and communities on the ground know the reality and have the channels that work. (This applied also to places like Zimbabwe when I was involved some years ago.)
  • Churches outside the Middle East need to convey in multiple and varied ways the message and the reality that our brothers and sisters are not alone in their dire struggle. Relationship has to be demonstrated in multiple expressions that together build a picture.
  • Churches in the Middle East have enough statements made – they need a strategy for long-term survival. It is widely recognised that the loss of Christians from (for example) the Holy Land leaves the space to polarised conflict between two enemies. The presence of Christians brings a different set of relationships and allows ‘enemies’ to be held in the same space. Christians need to be in their lands for the benefit of others.
  • The West needs to let go of its paralysing guilt and develop a strategy that will hold in the long-term.
  • In the midst of the massive propaganda war over Gaza and Iraq/Syria – mediated by selective representation – it is murderously difficult to identify ‘truth’. But, how we address these questions has implications not only for people in conflict areas, but also for communities closer to home. See the rise in anti-semitism in England and wider afield in Europe – but also hear the voice of the Muslims who ask my how they can protect their Jewish neighbours and the synagogues in West Yorkshire.
  • The 1000 year history of the diocese of Skara in Sweden covers periods of success, disaster, war, oppression, fear, jubilation, and every other phenomenon that goes to make up life in the real world. Nothing romantic about it. But, it reinforces the commitment of Christian churches to place and territory – not to lord it over others, but to stay when others go, to serve when the world seems to be falling apart around us. In it for the duration.

Which, of course, is the hard question facing us in the Middle East: how do we enable Christians to stay in their lands and thrive into the longer-term future.

I am not saying this is the last word. Rather, I am simply ruminating on a difficult discussion this evening.

The timing is terrible. The furore over my letter to the Prime Minister has exploded on the day I begin a family holiday in a place with no mobile signal and intermittent wifi. Sky sent a satellite truck to the middle of nowhere and, so, got their interview (although I struggled to hear the questions in my earpiece and, therefore, probably sounded incoherent). Otherwise, it is almost impossible to do interviews.

I think one or two comments of explanation are due:

  • My letter is neither “bitter” not an “attack” on the Prime Minister. That was journalese. My letter simply tries to ask questions many people are asking, but to which we are not getting answers. I wrote reasonably and respectfully.
  • The Prime Minister is in a difficult position and I bet even Ed Miliband is grateful not to have to attempt to bring some order out of the chaos of crises around the globe this month. Prioritising cannot be simple, given the complexity of the issues to hand.
  • Asking questions of “coherence” should not imply that there is none (even if there isn't); it does ask for any coherence to be articulated. We are all implicated in our Government's decisions and should, therefore, be able to understand the big picture into which the reactive details fit.
  • There is no implied hierarchy of suffering in my letter. Asking questions about the lack of attention to the Chritsians in Iraq cannot imply a rejection of the focus on the suffering of others. It is a specific question about silence.
  • It has become clear that many people have written to their MPs (including ministers) about their concerns, and often not even had a reply. Perhaps giving these questions a higher profile might help.
  • I do not expect the Prime Minister or his colleagues to reply immediately to my questions. Indeed, I would prefer to wait and receive a considered response that indicates how these concerns are being addressed holistically than to get a reactive response that doesn't take us further.
  • The central point (backed up by some quoted military leaders) is that there must be some overarching vision about what we want to see happen in the Middle East – the “we” being not just individual governments in isolation from each other. The strategy is the 'plumbing' that gets us there. If a strategy is to be at all coherent, then it must serve the 'end' to which that strategy is the means. It is this that needs to be seriously debated and agreed – as we will then have to accept the price we are prepared to pay in order to make it happen. (For example, if it meant us staying in Iraq for thirty years, rather than ten, will we do it?)
  • I doubt if the Prime Minister will have me on his Christmas card list after this. But, the letter was not an attack on him; it was a questioning of policy and practice. There needs to be a distinction between the letter and the reporting around it.

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, written in the face of the horrors of Gaza, Syria, Ukraine and all the other bloody conflicts filling the news screens, and with a strict word limit.

Way back in 1978 Boney M did a terrible thing: they took a song of desperate lament and turned it into a disco dance hit. ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ was a boppy little number with a very catchy tune, but the music bore no relation to the content or the meaning of the words.

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept… How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” This song – which is taken from Psalm 137 – is wrenched out of the guts of a people whose world has been lost – possibly for ever. Here they sit in exile, expelled from their homeland, being mocked by their captors while they weep in humiliation. After all, how can they sing songs of praise to their God when the evidence of their desperate experience tells them it has all been a big mistake?

Well, Boney M aren’t the only culprits when it comes to putting words to inappropriate music. But, this is the song that comes to my mind when I see the images brought to us from just about every corner of the globe by hugely brave journalists and film crews. Attempts to rationalize the immensity of human suffering in the world today must surely come second to some attempt at empathy. Our brains might be engaged, but our first response must be the surge of emotional horror and lament that is dragged from deep within us as we see the human suffering laid bare before us.

Now, Psalm 137 is not a comfortable song; nor is it a song for the comfortable. It ends with a shrill cry of pain and hatred: “God, I wish you’d take the children of my enemies and smash their heads against the rocks.” But, it isn’t there to justify an ethic. It isn’t there to suggest it is right to think such awful things of other people’s children. It is there for two reasons: first, to confront us with the reality of how deep our own human hatred can go, and, secondly, to tell us not to lie to God (thinking he can’t handle that reality or the depths of human despair).

If we thought the twentieth century of bloodshed and slaughter was bad enough, the twenty first is already proving pretty grim. Like everybody else, I have views on what is happening in the Middle East and closer to home in Ukraine – including the persecution of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere. And, having grown up in Liverpool in the aftermath of the Second World War with grandparents who well remembered the First, I am haunted by the human propensity for what historian Christopher Clark has called the “sleepwalking” into global conflict. Where does all this leave the myth of human progress?

“By the rivers of Babylon” perhaps gives us a vocabulary for times such as this – admitting the horror and the helplessness, but surrounded by other songs that compel compassionate response and action that is rooted in hope of a better future.

This last sentence is a reference to the fact that the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures tackle the hard task of imagining a future where one looks impossible.

 

I am coming to the end of a run on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. Picking Fridays was a good move: Chris has started getting guests in and, so, without any effort at all, I’ve managed to meet Elton John, Peter Kay, Rick Astley, David Walliams, Selina Scott and loads of others. And the production team is always generous, welcoming and open. It’s a good gig and gives me a window into a different world.

The problem with Pause for Thought is that the BBC won’t let me post the scripts on my own blog. They post them for seven days on the BBC website, but it’s not the same. So, I’ll paraphrase. The thing is, 320 words makes you think concisely about what is going on in the world (or, at least, in my head) and it’s a good discipline for someone like me who produces an awful lot of words (one way or another) during any day.

What has been running through my head during the last couple of weeks is how we explain what is going on in Tunisia, Egypt and the rest of the world. What is it that leads people to rebel now as opposed to three months ago or two years from now? Is it simply something to do with the confluence of events, economics and public mood?

I think that behind all that there is something about ‘imagination’.

I’m a great fan of John Lennon – an honest hypocrite, if ever there was one. (I have written more fully about him in my book Finding Faith: Stories of Music and Life.) But, Imagine is a load of nonsense: ‘Imagine no possessions’ he wrote on an expensive grand piano in a mansion worth millions. But, this doesn’t mean that the song doesn’t tell some truth.

What Lennon recognised is that it is the imagination that makes us human. We aren’t made simply to accept the status quo or to live fatalistically in the world as it presents itself. Rather, we are made to imagine a different way of being – a better way of shaping the world and its ways.

Imagination is not the same thing as fantasy. Imagination can become fantasy – especially if it doesn’t lead to action in any way. But, imagination can transcend fantasy and shape the way we see who and how we are in the world as it is and as it might become. Imagination shapes vision.

Without imagination – as I put it this morning:

The Berlin Wall would still be up. Tunisians and Egyptians would stay at home and make the tea. The corrupt and the powerful would rule the roost, hoping to anaesthetise people into believing that nothing can ever change.

But human beings are made with imagination. In the creation narratives of Genesis God has a ball imagining everything into being. The Old Testament prophets beg people to wake up and dare to believe that the powerful empires are transient. The poets and musicians awaken and keep alive the echoes of another world – ringing in the memory and minds of oppressed and depressed people. Jesus dares people to live now as if heaven were already here.

Jesus was no fantasist. His invitation to us to imagine, then inhabit and create a world that reflects God’s self-giving character, has never been a form of cheap seduction. Rather, it led him and his friends to a cross. It radically challenged (and continues to challenge) a world that believes that only the powerful can change things – usually in the interests of their hanging on to power. The naked man standing before the might of the violent Roman Empire might look absurd, but he messed with their heads and changed the world for ever.

Of course, the biggest challenge lies not with those who don’t ‘get’ Jesus and the Kingdom of God. It lies with those who claim his name, but show no sign of having been grasped by his imagination.

The Egyptians are demanding their own exodus. But, at the heart of all the brutality and uncertainty and sacrifice and struggle lies a battle for the imagination.

Empires come and go. The trouble is, they seem permanent when you are under them.

Most of the Old Testament prophets keep banging on (in the best possible sense, of course) about the need for God’s people to see the world through God’s eyes and not be taken in by the apparent power of the ’empire’. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Britain – they all came… and they all went. The thousand year Nazi Reich wasn’t even a toddler when it expired in a blaze of global horror.

And one of the constant themes to have come out of some Christian Churches in Europe in the last few decades has been the warning that the American Empire would also be time-limited… and the theologies that assumed its permanence (because blessed by God) would need some further attention in due course.

Now, in the Middle East, we see regimes tottering in the face of popular resentment and protest. It looks like the powerful dynasties are very worried while Iran looks on with a smile. The western-backed corrupt regimes are losing their grip and the script will have to be re-written in Washington and London. It feels like 1989 (the end of Communism in Europe) all over again, but a bit more worrying. And let’s hope Robert Mugabe is watching his telly and worrying about contagion.

It is easy to identify what we don’t like. It is not hard to complain about the things we don’t like and the injustices or inequities we resent. But, it is a little bit harder to put together something new and better than what has so quickly and easily been destroyed. (It’s like when people come to me with a problem and I ask them what their solution is…) It’s easier to direct blame and criticism than it is to constructively build something in its place.

And that is what will happen in those countries which now face radical change. They will also face radical disappointment – because these things never bring Utopia (or other fantasies).

I think we should always be suspicious of putting our hope in the apparent solidity or permanence of ‘worlds’ that we now know can change in a very short time. The walls fall down and it isn’t always clear what will be put up as an alternative. The empires come and go – we need to keep seeing through them and remembering their transience.

(And I am not convinced that Andy Carroll will replace Fernando Torres at Anfield. Silly money all round.)