This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, written late last night.

To be surprised by events in Washington is to ignore the fragility of democracy. If Covid has taught us that both human life and a stable economy are vulnerable, then the incited mob attack on the Capitol must reinforce the vital need for democracy, the rule of law, and the peaceful transition of power to be treasured at all times.

I have shaken the hand of more than one dictator whose fall from power was swift. When it is stripped away, all that is left is the same mortal human being whose imperial clothes proved to be as thick as mist.

But, we don’t have to look far for wisdom at a time like this when the hint of a smile will be seen on the face of other dictators and power-merchants. The ancient wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures dig deeply into the cry for justice, generosity, peace and the common good. The prophets weep over how easily people can be seduced by words of strength or power or security that in the end undermine that very security itself.

I say this in the Christian season of Epiphany. Wise men travel from the familiarity and security of home to a place where, unlikely as it seems, they find hope in the scrap of humanity that is the baby Jesus. But, no sooner has the Christmas tree been cleared away than the violent King Herod sets his men in search of children to slaughter. The romance of the Christmas card crib gives way to the brutal reality of powerful people who are driven by fear and not drawn by hope or love or mercy.

According to this story – the one that has supposedly shaped those protestors carrying banners proclaiming ‘Jesus saves’ – strength and power have been powerfully reinterpreted in the scandal of a man on a cross. Not a man with a gun. This story challenges me to re-imagine what power looks like when coloured by love and mercy rather than entitlement and fear.

America is shocked today. But, the election to the Senate of Raphael Warnock, successor to Martin Luther King as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, offers an alternative vision. As a Christian, he knows that, “Jesus saves” us from ourselves. For the tradition of Jesus was rooted in people like Amos who, famously quoted by Martin Luther King, said: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Today might just hint at the beginning of a new awakening to the reality of the myths that power that great country. God bless America, maybe, but don’t just assume it.

Monday morning. Up in the darkness with my 3 year old grandson. I can't believe I was watching Shrek at 6.30am. But, I was.

Then I read one of the Psalms set for today in the lectionary (2) and it begins with a question:

Why are the nations in tumult, and why do the peoples devise a vain plot?

Good questions – especially when you have a look at the news headlines. It clearly isn't just in Far Far Away Land that characters have to negotiate their space and work out who their allies are in a contested place. Every people at every time has to deal with the particular realities of the people and places that have shaped them. Wishing the world was different might be a distraction, but it doesn't offer an escape.

But, things aren't always what they initially seem to be. Princess Fiona turns out to be a martial arts expert, Robin Hood and his Merry Men break into a spot of Riverdance. Dragons fall in love and princes turn out to be shallow. The powerful are driven by vanity and, when pressed, even the Gingerbread Man betrays the Muffin Man. We still need the capacity to be surprised – not simply locked in to the narrow world of our limited experience.

Apparently, Shrek is just a film.


It looks like Gaddafi is on the run with his sons – who must be feeling awfully cheated out of their inheritance. It has been clear for years that their father is – how can we put it politely?- delusional. Those journalists who have met him say that he is lucid one minute and ramblingly incomprehensible the next. (Mind you, he’s not alone in that…)

In his latest (and last) broadcast message to ‘his’ people he said he will fight to win or become a martyr. Interesting use of an over-used word: martyr.

The word comes from the Greek and means ‘a witness’ – that is, one who bears witness to truth that cannot be denied. So, what does Gaddafi think he is a witness of? To which values does he bear witness? To self-aggrandisement, power, hubris, cruelty, domination and rule by fear? Thus, a martyr to delusion and illusion?

Didn’t someone once say, “Blessed are the meek…”? Didn’t that same person grasp the truth that the truth sets you – and, therefore, everyone else – free? And didn’t he propose – against the ridicule of the power-merchants – that rejection of power for it’s own sake is essential… that a cross is preferable to feeding Number one by turning stones into bread for the sake of one’s own security?

I read (on Twitter, I think) that the draft constitution for the putative new Libya owes much to Jesus and Locke. I guess we’ll see.

However, whatever else happens, we need to recover the word ‘martyr’ from its religious misappropriation and its common cheapening in vernacular parlance. Simply dying to make a point is not in any sense ‘martyrdom’. It might be dramatic and it might even be thought heroic. But, if people like Gaddafi think that going down in a hail of bullets as someone ‘sincere’ or ‘passionately committed’ to his cause will somehow mark him down in history as a noble victim, he is going to get a bit of a shock. Posterity will ridicule misguided and hubristic tyranny, not venerate its sincerity.

It’s one of the odder aspects of today’s world that people still say that “as long as you believe in something with sincerity”, that’s OK. Think Stalin. Think Hitler. Think Saddam. Think Robert Mugabe. Think Gaddafi.

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So, Silvio Berlusconi is finally going to court. The abuse of power charge apparently relates to his procuring of prostitutes, some of whom were under-age.

What is amazing about this is that it is his sexual failures that have brought him to book (unless he manages to exert his usual patronage and power to escape once again) and not the big stuff about power.

For example, his massive ownership of media organs in Italy and the way this has enabled him to mediate information to his own benefit. This would be worrying enough were it not for the fact that someone in his position can occupy the position of ultimate political power in Italy. I worry about Murdoch, but at least he isn’t running to be Prime Minister or Queen.

Why does sexual misdemeanour count so heavily when other abuses of power are far more serious? This is not to say that his sexual life is irrelevant – and using power or money to buy teenagers for sex is a massive abuse of power. But, it seems that the value system is not too … er … ‘rightly balanced’ here.

Shouldn’t we be more alarmed by concentrated media ownership and its collusion with political power and patronage than about what Silvio does in bed (or to his remarkable hair)?

Just wondering.

Edit 21.09: The point I should have made clearer above is that there is no hierarchy of abuse – his sexual exploitation of girls is damnable. But it is clearly easier to get him nailed on this rather than the other stuff. That’s what is challenging.

Rome 2 026The Vatican Museums are brilliant, but deceptive. I don’t mean ‘deceptive’ in the sense that they are out to deceive you, of course. What I mean is that you get inside the building at the back of the Vatican City and a sign points to the Sistine Chapel (which was what I wanted to see). What it doesn’t really tell you is that you have to walk about ten miles through endless other galleries before you get to it. And once you are there, you are suffering from sensory overload – having had your eyes assaulted by classical riches on every surface of every room. It is wonderful, but overwhelming.

What struck me particularly on this journey (with aching feet) was the syncretism of so much of the religious art. I am sorry if this confirms my ignorance in the minds of the intelligentsia, but this stuff is not my forte. Biblical, Christian and classical mythological themes and characters are mixed up to such an extent that anyone coming to it cold could be forgiven for being somewhat confused.

The second striking thing (for me, at least) was the masculinity of the women in the Sistine Chapel frescoes. Everybody says Michelangelo ‘couldn’t do women’, but I hadn’t realised how true this is. It is as if he painted muscular blokes and then stuck odd-shaped breasts on their front. It is weird. Now, when I mentioned this to someone who knows more about such things than I do (which is not very hard…), he shrugged and suggested it was just one of those things – every genius has his weak spots. Well, I am not so sure. That is like suggesting that Mozart was a great musician, but that he could only read or write music in a few specific keys. It doesn’t add up.

I don’t go in for all the ‘da Vinci Code’ nonsense, but I am a bit perturbed by some aspects of what I saw in the Sistine Chapel.

  • Michelangelo could have painted women if he had wanted to: but he chose not to. Why?
  • Why is Satan showing us his bare bottom as he is being cast out of heaven?
  • And why does Adam have a belly-button?

I don’t want to push this too far, but the heart of the Vatican is full of naked flesh in very odd circumstances. And I wonder how that is dealt with theologically and ethically.

Rome 2 027

Perhaps the most shocking image for me was in the Constantine gallery – before getting to the Sistine Chapel. The ceiling has a powerful image of the shattered statue of the emperor lying in pieces on the floor while his place on the pedestal is taken by a crucified Christ. I understand this refers to the vision Constantine had prior to going into battle under the sign of the cross, but it left me disturbed for two reasons:

1. The power of God seen in Jesus Christ was not a simple substitute for political power as exercised by emperors and generals. The power of God in Christ is a scandal to the world of the military powermongers because it is apparently so weak: a man hanging on the gallows with his arms outstretched in welcome to whatever the world throws at him. This is an affront to power, not a substitute for it.

2. Yet it could also be seen as the ‘scandal of the cross’ standing in judgement over the broken transience of hubristic rulers.

It might be that I am confusing this crucified ‘Christ’ with the ‘Church’ here and not reading the ceiling properly. Whatever the case, there is something weird about the syncretism of the art overall and what some of it seems to be saying about God, the world and people.