FW de Klerk

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

As I get older I discover that people and events that were crucial to my own experience and understanding of the world are unknown to a younger generation. I guess that the death of FW de Klerk fits in that category.

For my generation the curse of Apartheid and the cry for the liberation of oppressed people rang out from South Africa. Shaped by a particular Christian theology and an ideological commitment to a particular form of the nation state, white Afrikaaners fought to defend the land they dominated. Just as many of us caught up in the Cold War could not envisage how change might come, so did the South African regime seem impregnable.

Yet, change can come quickly. When de Klerk succeeded PW Botha as head of the National Party in 1989 few would have imagined what was to follow. This ideologically conservative white man recognised that the need for peace and justice transcended even deeply-held and culturally-entrenched worldviews. Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, multiracial elections took place in 1994, Mandela became President … but de Klerk continued to serve with him as a Vice-President.

I think I learn two things from this remarkable transition of power and culture: the first is about what I would call ‘repentance’; the second is about the nature and demands of leadership.

The word ‘repentance’ comes from a Greek verb meaning ‘to change your mind’. It basically means changing the way I look at God, the world and us in order to change the way I see God, the world and us in order to change the way I think about God, the world and us in order to change the way I live in the world with God and everyone else. It takes immense courage to repent – not least because, especially for a leading politician, this will invite abuse, opprobrium, and charges of betrayal. But, integrity and wisdom sometimes demand such courage. Christian theology certainly does.

Leadership is not for the romantic. At the heart of good leadership lie the virtues of ethical integrity and moral courage. In dismantling not only a political culture, but also a theologically underpinned cultural construct, de Klerk challenged the very foundational myths of a people … and did so knowing there might be a high price to pay.

He apologised for the effects of Apartheid, but not for Apartheid itself. He wasn’t perfect; but, given that leadership has to be exercised by real, complex and conflicted human beings, he had the courage to repent in action and open the door to a new generation and a new, more just world.

His death might evoke mixed memories for some. But repentance and courageous leadership should not be ignored.

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

Chatting recently to an academic who leads a leadership consultancy, I was a little surprised when he said: “The two things that the high-powered business people who come here can't talk about are failure and death.” I replied: “Oh. That's where we start.”

Christian faith begins not with a running away from failure and death, but rather with a totally realistic appraisal – based, of course, on experience – of human failure, and the facing of mortality. Come to terms with these two beasts and the rest begins to fall into place. To paraphrase Martin Luther King: what we might be wanting to live for will be determined by what we are prepared to die for.

I have been thinking about this while wondering what is going on during the last week or so in the mind of the failed US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. She has spoken about wanting to curl up with a good book and not go out of the house. To have been so close for so long to the seat of power and then to lose it in a flash cannot be anything but hard to handle. Anyone with a shred of empathy – whatever their politics – must surely be able to comprehend this.

Is it not true that the measure of the man or woman is not how they handle victory, but how they handle defeat? Living with failure can be a gift in that it dismantles pretensions, dismisses illusions and disables hubris? Think of St Peter – protesting that he would stand by Jesus of Nazareth whatever happened … before running away when identified as one of his friends from Up North. Peter's self-image bled into the soil beneath the cross where Jesus died … but, he found a renewed future in a conversation with the risen Christ back on the beach where he worked as a fisherman.

This is not romantic nonsense – a sweetening of the bitter pill of defeat. Rather, it is realism born of the experience of people throughout the generations. Defeat can be humiliating, embarrassing and painful – especially in the light of the great claims to power made during an election campaign. Yet, it can bring freedom, release and the possibility of a new start in a new world in which we are no longer measured by our trophies, but by our humanity. Confronted afresh by our mortality, defeat can give us the opportunity to strip away the illusions and face the truth.

One word for this is 'repentance' – in the Greek this means literally 'to change your mind'. It means daring to look differently at the world and ourselves in order to see differently in order to think differently in order to live differently. Or, to put it differently, to snatch hope from the jaws of defeat.

One of the questions constantly raised about the term “freedom of religion or belief” is that “belief” is assumed to be synonymous with “blind assumption”, “mere opinion” or “wishful thinking”. Having just finished with the IPPFORB in Berlin – read Angela Merkel's speech from yesterday in the Reichstag here but only in German – the matter is current.

One way of illustrating what really constitutes “belief” is to look at Mark's Gospel – the shortest of the four in the New Testament. The key to understanding Mark's narrative is found in verses 14-15 of the first chapter:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Right at the outset of his public ministry Jesus sets out his stall – against which he will be held accountable. So, what does he mean by these four phrases?

The people have been longing and praying for the time when the Roman occupying forces will be expelled and the people (of God) will get their land, their worship and their freedom back. Jesus boldly states that the time has come – that the presence of God is now among them again. But, the evidence of their eyes tells them that he can't be – because the Romans are still there. And the holy God cannot be contaminated by being present among the blasphemous heathen.

So, Jesus tells them to repent: not to grovel in humility at the recognition of their sinfulness, but, literally, to “change their mind” ('metanoia' in the Greek). Here repentance means changing the way they think about God, the world and us. So, the logic of the fourfold statement is this: change the way you (a) look at God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (b) see God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (c) think about God, the world and us, in order then to commit yourself to what you now see and think about differently. Here, “believe in the good news…” means to commit yourself – body, mind and spirit – to what you now see differently … in this case the possibility that God might dare to confound our expectations and expose himself to the world as it is, contaminating it with love and mercy and grace.

I think this is a simple illustration of what is involved in believing. It isn't merely giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions about God and the world; rather, it means committing oneself to a world now seen differently.

It is this element that our culture too easily ignores. It is now possible simultaneously to believe several mutually contradictory things about life and human meaning without being embarrassed, because we have lost the link between belief and commitment (with all its consequences for good or I'll) to the subject/object of that belief.

And it is this inconvenient commitment that is causing too many people to be persecuted and oppressed in the twenty first century. You generally don't get crucified for hosting a weird private idea that makes no difference to the real world.


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

In the middle of last week I got back from a ten-day visit to Tanzania. Not only are my feet still moving to the rhythms of the music and the energy of the dancing – in schools as well as churches – but I have come home looking differently at what had previously been familiar.

My experience reminded me of the late German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who wrote a book several years ago in which he kindly offered his advice to anyone thinking of standing for election to the German Bundestag: don't even think about it unless you speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. Why? Well, because, he says, you can't understand your own culture unless you look through the lens of another culture – and to do that you have to know something of (or, better, 'inhabit') the language. After all, language goes deep and some things can't be translated; they have to be intuited.

Well, I don't speak Swahili, but this is partly what was going on for me in Tanzania: not everyone sees the world as I do. For example, how are we to understand the significance of the first meeting in a thousand years between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow last week? Seen through an English lens, it might look merely odd. Seen through the eyes of a people whose religious memory goes deeper into centuries of division, and it will resonate more profoundly.

Or, politically, where the resurgence of Putin's Russia appears threatening in the West, but has a different complexion when seen by Russians whose recent history of collapse has been crying out for re-empowerment. Tensions over Syria, for example, have to be seen through Russian eyes, not just our own, if we are to see more clearly what is going on there.

None of this is new. Listening to Tanzanians describing their experience of life and loss, I could not help but look through their eyes at my own. And this exposes the limitations of my own imagination and understanding of the world – even my world. My mind was being changed.

This is what is referred to in the Bible as 'repentance' – the freedom to change one's mind – or, to put it more visually, to re-grind the lens behind the eyes that shapes the way we see God, the world and us.

It is no surprise, then, that for Christians this period of Lent is intended partly to clear away the stuff that stops us repenting. It creates the space in which we can once again, in humility, submit our perceptions, our convictions and our prejudices to the searching eye of love and justice and mercy and generosity. Or, for Christians like me, to have the courage not just to give up chocolate for a few weeks, but to dare to look and see differently that with which we had become comfortable or familiar.


This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show with guests: Len Goodman, Danny Boyle, Idris Elba, Kirstie Allsopp and James Bay.

Did you know that today is the 43rd anniversary of the last time we landed a man on the moon? Yes, 11 December 1972 was the day and Apollo 17 was the mission.

I only note this because I was thinking about Steve Jobs and wondering what it is that makes the difference between people who trundle on through life consuming what other people create … and those who keep breaking the boundaries and creating new things.

Or, to put it differently, what's the difference between people who look at the moon and think it looks lovely … and those who look at it and wonder how to get there?

If I'm honest, I think the same when I watch Strictly and think about dancing with two left feet. Or when I admire a ruin that used to be a lovely home and then see someone imagine a new future for it. It's something about the way we see.

Now, I know that someone like Steve Jobs was fired by a driven curiosity. Problems were there to be solved and technology was there to be stretched. He once said: “What a computer is to me is the most remarkable tool that we have ever come up with. It's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” Well, some would say it has become a sports car for our minds, given the speed of development.

I respect people who see differently. Or – and this might surprise you – who repent. The word for repentance in the New Testament literally means 'changing your mind' – or, in this context, seeing the potential others are blind to. Like feeling you're trapped and have no future, but daring to believe that this is not the end – that there is hope of what one writer called “newness after loss”.

When we get there this is what Christmas will be about. Down to the wire in a mucky world, but still looking to change it. On the ground, but looking up at the stars. Down to earth, but not bound by earth.

It's a while since we walked on the moon – something my kids read about in history books. But, I hope we can never forget that that was simply one small step for humanity. There might yet be greater leaps ahead.


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

There's an oft-repeated story that St Francis of Assisi told his Friars to “go out and preach the gospel – use words if you have to”. Like many famous sayings, however, there is no evidence that he ever actually said it. And if he did, then he was wrong. Language is as important as lifestyle in telling the truth about who we really are and what we really think matters.

Well, a week on from the appalling events in Paris it is interesting that in times of tragedy or challenge, the most unlikely people resort effortlessly to the language of prayer. “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims,” we've heard; and we've seen people kneeling, praying before makeshift shrines and at packed services in the Notre Dame cathedral. But, prayer to whom? And with what content or intention, we might ask?

Well, language is rarely reducible to a single meaning that is immediately obvious. So, when people ask for prayers for a particular person or situation, perhaps it doesn't need to be factually broken down into substantive parts, but can be taken as evidence of an emotional need to look beyond ourselves for order or meaning – or even rescue. After all, in the Christian tradition prayer is not about presenting shopping lists of requests to a god whose job it is to make life comfortable, convenient or secure for us. Rather, prayer is that exercise that, bringing us into the presence of God, gradually exposes us to the mind of God towards ourselves and the world where we are. Inevitably, this then exposes us to the need to change so that we gradually see God, the world and ourselves through God's eyes.

Now, I realise that there are people who think prayer is a bit of a weird and esoteric practice for people who like that sort of thing. Put like this, however, it is not surprising that it is open for anyone. Prayer invites us to be open and honest with God and one another – to tell the truth about our fears and anxieties as well as about the things that make us scream with joy. It's like being stripped back so that we see as we are seen.

There is a word for this process, but it is a word that is often misunderstood. 'Repentance' does not refer to some abjectly miserable confession of moral guilt, but – literally from the Greek word 'metanoia' – to 'change your mind'. It's a bit like having the lens behind our eyes – sometimes called our worldview – re-ground or re-shaped so that we see everything differently.

If any word is useful in these days of anxiety and fear, then 'metanoia' isn't a bad one. It allows for the possibility that the present situation does not have the final word, and that we will be able to see differently. No wonder Jesus told people to not be afraid – before shining a new light on their fearful experience and opening up the possibility of what one writer has called 'newness after loss'. That there is hope.

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.


The former Bishop of Sheffield, Jack Nicholls, is a wonderful man. While sitting on a commission with him (and others) for two years at the end of the 1990s, I learned a huge amount about humility, humanity and humour from him.

Jack NichollsHe is speaking at the Southwark Diocesan Clergy Conference at Swanwick and he has already made a huge impression on people here. This evening he spoke – as requested to do so – about what has sustained him through 42 years of ordained ministry in the Church of England. He did so by citing six people who have shaped him and one in particular is going to get to a wider audience now.

A now-deceased nun told him many years ago that there are only three things to be involved with as a priest:

  • the praise of God
  • the pain of the world
  • the repentance of the church.

He went on to say that the place and purpose of prayer is to locate us at the place where the love of God and the pain of the world meet … which happens to be where the cross is to be found.

Churches that emphasise their praise of God without being rooted in and brought into the pain of the world and its people are living the sort of fantasy that the prophet Amos railed against in the Old Testament. The church needs to be constantly repentant because we keep focusing on the wrong things and failing to resemble the one whose name we bear: the Jesus we read about in the gospels. As I said in Berlin yesterday: if the church does not look, sound and feel like the Jesus of the gospels, then we are a fraud and a lie.

Jack clearly built his ministry on those three blocks. So, should the rest of us?

In the Anglican calendar today is the celebration of the Conversion of St Paul. It also happens to be the climax of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I will be preaching at a service this evening (and, therefore, missing the end of the Liverpool-Everton FA Cup game…) and will be tackling the hard questions about Christian Unity. After all, Paul himself was not averse to alienating some Christians and giving a hard time to those whom he felt were wobbly in their faith and adherence to him.

What does go to the heart of Paul’s writing is the need for Christians to ‘repent’ – which literally means ‘change your mind’ (from the Greek ‘metanoia’). In Romans 12 he writes of the ‘renewal of your mind’ as part of the commitment of mind, body and spirit involved in being a Christian. It is blindingly obvious that Christians must lead the way in changing their mind in relation to other Christians (and God and the world) in order to demonstrate that conversion is an active process rather than a magic event.

This is particularly poignant when considering Christian unity in a world where such unity looks more like a remote fantasy than an achievable vision. But we could also see the diversity within the Christian Church as something to celebrate. As long as humanity exists there will be different (and developing) cultures, languages, traditions, stories, histories and understandings of identity – and that is not just obvious, it is also wonderful.

At a press conference in Kazakhstan in 2003 a young Russian television journalist asked me if I could foresee the day when there would be a single world religion and everybody would live in peace. I responded by saying that such a ‘totalitarian’ vision was not very attractive! The post-Soviet younger generation was still harbouring romantic notions of ‘unity’ without reflecting on what it might actually involve.

I cannot imagine what Christian unity might actually look like. Certainly not uniformity of culture, liturgy, language, governance, etc. I am not sure that I can even want to see a unity of hermeneutics – a single way of reading the Bible and interpreting it afresh in each new generation. What would that involve in practical terms and what would it look like to the watching world? (It seems to me that inspiration of the Bible must include a recognition of its hermeneutical difficulties and the ‘wide space’ it gives to difference; that is, form matters as well as content.)

But, like Paul in Romans 8, I can see unity being worked out in a guiding vision that is not fixated on the Church, but a plethora of Christian communities displaying enormous differences of culture, etc, but grasped by a common vision that the Church exists for the sake of the world and not for its own sake. Christian unity must surely be a means for the world to see what the character of God is about – reconciling love, rooted in costly forgiveness and joyful defiance of all that kills and destroys (resurrection by the God of our hope), and able to love one another despite difference as well as because of it.

Paul insists that Christians must model how to ‘repent’ and change our minds… in the humble pursuit of becoming Christlike. Christians who repel others who think differently may have to ask what ‘mind changes’ are necessary if the prayer for unity is to be answered. Of course the Christian Church has limits on what counts as Christian and argument should be robust and clear; but winning the argument should not be the ultimate goal and confident humility should describe the mode of debate.

I simply don’t see that the Christian Church – in any of its dressings – has an ounce of credibility in the eyes of a suspicious world if it pretends to a gospel of reconciliation while treating its own brothers and sisters as if they were enemies. I don’t dare ask anyone else to ‘repent’ unless I first am willing to subject my own mind to a change. Which, actually, is exactly what Paul did in the three years after his conversion when his worldview underwent the most agonising transformation.

I remember the Archbishop of Canterbury saying that when people ask him to ‘lead’, they usually mean: ‘say very loudly what I want to hear you say’. The same is true of repentance and unity: we often unconsciously want everyone else to change their mind to conform to mine and want unity that has everyone doing it/believing it my way.