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…]

 

Empires come and go. That’s what history teaches us. It also teaches us that those empires that focus on their longevity as their primary goal eventually implode. This is why the repeated and resounding message of the Old Testament is that the people who call themselves ‘God’s people’ must focus on justice, mercy and faithfulness – longevity might or might not be the result, but that is not important.

Empires that make their own security their primary goal will usually compromise justice, mercy and faithfulness and the empire will find its days numbered – however strong and powerful it looks to be at the moment. Hubris carries within its womb the seed of its own destruction.

This is one of the conversations running today as our group of visitors to Israel-Palestine continues to explore the land of Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Amos and Jesus. But there are also encouragements to be found in sometimes surprising places and for sometimes surprising reasons.

The Princess Basma Hospital sits on top of the Mount of Olives in territory that is indisputably Palestinian. The hospital (which also comprises a school) does brilliant work with disabled children and their families. Children are admitted with their mother for anything between two weeks to two months. The mothers are taught to reject the shame of bearing a ‘not-perfect’ child, while also being given programmes and routines for the caring and nurturing of their child once back at home. They do particularly good work with hearing-impaired children, but they also have a workshop for making artificial limbs.

The hospital is now suffering from diminished interest from Christians and the restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and the difficulty of movement. It costs $120 per day per child, but only some of the money comes from the Palestinian Authority and insurance.

The encouragement comes from the fact that the Israelis and the Palestinians have to cooperate to some extent for the sake of these children. The children can’t be schooled in Israeli schools (where Hebrew is the main language), so the Israelis assist with medical procedures and enable the Palestinians to provide the schooling.

Another case of the children (the most vulnerable) forcing the adults to work together?

Today was a day of contrasts. The relative peace of Gethsemane – and the place where Jesus looked over to Jerusalem and wept at its blindness to its vocation and its fate – to the messy disordered order of the Church of the Resurrection (known in the Western churches as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – do a theological deconstruction of that and the implications of the choice of emphasis…).

Yet, everywhere you go the paths are worn and the steps polished by the feet of people trying to connect somehow with the God who in Jesus entered the mess of it all, walking and weeping in these places. As long as this earth continues, people will still come here, treading the dust, feeling rocks and living with the mystery of the Incarnation in a place of occupation and ambiguous justice.

Our conversations are, however, haunted by the injustice of Israeli ‘creep’ in land that they know is not theirs. The Jewish graves are taking land up the side of the Mount of Olives – land that will not readily be ceded in any future ‘peace’ process: you don’t surrender the places where your dead are buried (unless, like the Palestinians, you have no choice). Secondly, Israeli settlements are being established in places that are clearly not Israeli – a claim to place that will be hard to dislodge, whatever is agreed on high.

The settlement below is just a bit further down the road from Princess Basma Hospital – firmly in Palestinian territory. Its flag can be seen from everywhere in Jerusalem.

The weeping over Jerusalem is set to continue where justice and mercy and faithfulness are made subservient to the craving for longevity.

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.

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.

Mark B still hasn’t addressed the questions I put!

I am not going to get drawn in to a discussion of the etymological or ideological roots of anti-Semitism – Mark and I will clearly disagree. I will simply rebutt the notion that ‘Antisemitismus’ and ‘Judenhass’ are synonymous.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and others have made statements – links are:

Archbishop’s statement on Gaza

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has made the following statement regarding the current situation in Gaza:

The spiralling violence in Gaza tragically illustrates the fact that the cycle of mutual threat and retaliation have no lasting effect except to reinforce the misery and insecurity of everyone in the region. I want to express my grief and sympathy for the innocent lives lost in this latest phase of violence.  People of all faiths in this country will want to join their voices to the statements of the Christian Muslim Forum and the Council of Christians and Jews in urging a return to the ceasefire and efforts to secure a lasting peace.  We must unite in urging all those who have the power to halt this spiral of violence to do so. 

Those raising the stakes through the continuation of indiscriminate violence seem to have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. It must surely be clear that, whilst peace will not wipe out the memory of all past wrongs, it is the only basis for the future flourishing of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. The recent statement by the Patriarchs and Heads of Church in Jerusalem reflects a clear awareness that there can be no winners if the current situation is allowed to persist.  Its continuation can only condemn ordinary Palestinian and Israeli citizens to the prospect of another year of fear and suffering.

Urgent humanitarian needs have arisen through the attacks on Gaza and Israel and they demand a generous response to local appeals for support, such as that issued by the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem for its hospital in Gaza.  But this humanitarian response, both local and international, needs to be matched by redoubled efforts in the political sphere.

The prophet Zechariah declared, “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit says the Lord of Hosts”.  The New Year is an opportunity for a new initiative that will set the tone for what lies ahead. Religious leaders, most particularly those of the region, have an urgent responsibility in supporting the search for peace and reconciliation.  But it is the political leaders and opinion-formers who hold the key to implementing the necessary changes that can bring hope.  Can they not agree a period of truce as the New Year begins, so that the communities of the Holy Land may once again explore how common security might at last begin to replace the mechanical rhythms of mutual threat?  Might the outgoing and incoming Presidents of the USA combine to make such an appeal and pursue its implementation?  

The Anglican Communion worldwide stands alongside other religious communities and humanitarian organisations in its commitment to supporting any such initiative. Without such a sign of hope, the future for the Holy Land and the whole region is one of more fear, innocent suffering and destruction.

The statement by Imam Dr Musharraf Hussain and The Rt Revd Dr Richard Cheetham, Co-Chairs of the ‘Christian Muslim Forum’ is available at: http://www.christianmuslimforum.org/subpage.asp?id=325

The statement by The Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, Chair of the ‘Council of Christians and Jews’ is available at: http://www.ccj.org.uk/

The statement by the Patriarchs and Heads of Church in Jerusalem is available at: http://www.lpj.org/newsite2006/news/2008/12/gaza-message-en-headschrches2008.html

The statement by the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem about Al Ahli Arab Hospital is available at: http://www.j-diocese.org/newsdetail.php?id=3386