I am in Erfurt, Germany, to preach at the Reformation Day service in the Augustinerkirche where Martin Luther studied at the university and became a monk. Having arrived on Friday, we have had a packed programme, including a brilliant (though largely incomprehensible) concert in the Michaeliskirche last night – great guitar playing, especially), meetings with groups of people, a visit to a 'pilgrim church' at Schmira, a day in Weimar, and a visit to the former Stasi prison in the Andreasstraße in Erfurt today.

Yesterday was my first visit to Weimar. This is the place where in 1919 the constitution was drawn up that gave its name to the republic that was created in the humiliating aftermath of defeat in World War One. Yet it is also the place where Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Nietzsche spent their finest and most productive years. Here the culture of what became known as the Enlightenment flourished.

(An aside: one of the best stories we heard was of the pastor of the church in the centre where we attended the morning service. In the sacristy there is a portrait of him. His name was Wessel and he came from an upper-class line of distinguished clergy and military officers. When during the War the poor of Weimar couldn't afford a Christmas tree or presents for their children, he put a “tree for everyone” on the steps of the church and got gifts for the children of the town. He supported Hitler at the beginning, but gradually saw where it was all heading. He resisted and eventually was sent to Buchenwald. He survived only because Hitler pardoned him, leaving him to return to Weimar a da totally broken man. Why did Hitler pardon him? Because he was related to Horst Wessel, whose song – the Horst Wessel Lied – became almost the national anthem of the Nazis. Resistance was brutal and costly.)

The Enlightenment flourished partly as a reaction to the horrendous bloodshed in conflicts that were rooted in the sorts of religious and political power games that emanated from the Reformation. Never again should religion be allowed space in the political sphere: reason and rationality should thenceforth define genuine humanity and humanism. It is not hard to follow the logic and the sentiment. Speaking of Martin Luther today in the Augustinerkirche, there also had to be an acknowledgement of the less-than-gracious elements of his character, to say nothing of his appalling antisemitism. (Like his bowel problems, it got worse as he got older.)

Yet, getting rid of religion in favour of faith in rationalism did not quite go according to plan, did it.

The train from Erfurt to Weimar takes you past Buchenwald. Just around the corner from the famous statue of Goethe and Schiller in front of the theatre in Weimar is the hotel where Adolf Hitler was greeted by the idolatrous crowds that claimed the poets and Herder as their intellectual and cultural heritage.

My point is simple. The problem of the human bias to destructiveness is evidenced in religious conflict and the lust for power at any level. It is not cured by rationalism. How is that the culture, philosophy and idealism of Goethe, Schiller, Herder, etc. was so easily corrupted within a century or less by a populace drawn to populism, fascism and mass slaughter?

If the bloodbaths of religious wars in Europe led to a better way, then that better way also led to Buchenwald and the Stasi. Now listen to the rhetoric of the far right wing groups springing up in Germany and across Europe, blending the language of dehumanising hate under the guise of “cultural realism”.

 

I am preaching in the Berliner Dom this evening in a Lent series of sermons under the general theme of 'Reformation and Politics'. I was given the theme: 'To whom does the city belong?' and prepared the text (in German) before being given the biblical text on whcih to base it. So, it will possibly be a little tangential…

Sitting in the Dom this morning I was struck again by the text engraved above the chancel steps: “Lasset Euch versöhnen mit Gott” – “Be reconciled to God”.

This – along with all other texts inside and outside the building – was chosen by Kaiser Wilhelm II. I wonder what he understood reconciliation with God to mean. What did he expect people to do when they read this text above a crucifix on the altar of this grand cathedral church?

I ask the question because the answer simply isn't obvious. We always filter our understandings (and the assumptions that generate them) through the worldview we inhabit and the experiences we enjoy or endure at a particular time, as part of a particular culture in the context of the particular period of history in which we live. In other words, the practical outworking of reconciliation with God – it can never be simply an individual pietistic act of the spirit – involves real other people in real places and at real times. It can never be disembodied.

So, as Germany found itself heading towards war in 1914, how was this text read by those who worshipped in the Dom? Or, again, during the Weimar Republic? Or, again, between 1933-45 when the Third Reich adopted a particular view of religion and Christian identity? Or, again, during the Communist dictatorship of the GDR between 1949-89? Was 'reconciliation with God' an act of conformity to a private piety, or an invitation to political and ethical rebellion… at inevitable personal cost?

When I stand in the pulpit this evening I will do so with the humility that comes from recognising the complexity of history and context. Even though I will preach in German, I cannot know how I will be 'heard' by a congregation whose historical associations and personal, social or familial memories are different from those such as mine that have been shaped by an island existence.

In other words, things aren't simple.

I am writing this with the Archbishop of Canterbury's references to gay marriage and the suffering of Christians in Africa in the background. Some ethical questions look clear and simple when seen from one clear perspective. However, look through different eyes and the clarity gets dulled by complexity. Some of us need not worry too much about what happens to Christians in Africa if the Archbishop of Canterbury expresses support for gay marriage (let's drop the 'equal' word as it isn't); the Archbishop has to worry. When there is a direct link between what one says and what happens to other people, words have to be chosen carefully and with a very big pause.

The problem here is that there are two evils: oppression of homosexuals (particularly in parts of Africa and the Middle East) and oppression of Christians by those who will use gay identity or approval as sanction for brutality. Working out the ethics here is not simple: if one has an equal obligation to both – and a responsibility not to contribute to the victimisation of either – then how does one decide what to say to whom and when?

I am not writing this to defend the Archbishop or his critics. But, I am defending the complexity of his position. It is a heavy burden to bear knowing that if you say something in England it can lead directly (in practical terms, not in terms of moral causation) to the murder of innocent people in Pakistan or Nigeria. And simply saying that we should abandon the Anglican Communion does not address the dilemma.

Yesterday I got the tram out to Hohenschönhausen to visit the former Stasi prison where thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured and abused – first by the Soviet occupying forces from 1945, then from 1950 by the security ministry of the German Democratic Republic. It finally closed in 1990 and is now preserved as a national memorial to those who suffered under the Communist dictatorship.

There are too many stories to tell. And it feels somehow cheap to stand as a tourist in a cell where people were once interrogated or held in terrible conditions, often not knowing their crime and usually not knowing where they were or for how long they would be there.

The brilliant film The Lives of Others illustrates the soullessness of this oppressive GDR culture. Life was cheap. And just as the film brings home the power of oppression by relating the personal stories of individuals, so it is the stories that impress when you stand one of the interrogation cells at Hohenschönhausen. We can generalise about politics and the cruelties of governments. We can academically abstract from places like this a penetrating critique of Marxist-Leninist dehumanisation and corruption. We can make clever points about resistance – from a place where to do so costs me nothing. But, it is the stories that haunt.

For each individual incarcerated, humiliated and abused here, there were families, friends, lovers, communities affected, torn apart, corrupted and dehumanised. Relationships were distorted, trust was compromised and identity questioned. And for each individual damaged here, others were responsible by what they did or didn't say, by what they did or didn't do.

The story of someone who has suffered innocently is hard to hear, even if a hard ethical choice had to be made which led to that person's suffering. The phenomenon is as important as the ethical content.

Abuse of individuals and groups is absolutely wrong always. Oppression of minorities is always wrong – whatever the context. But the complexity of balancing rights and obligations in matters of life and death is not to be rendered simplistic by turning such conflicts of obligation into a form of competitive ethics.

Those who say that the Archbishop should be opposing all forms of oppression and proclaiming 'love for all' – as if he were doing the opposite – are right. But, how? If we can't agree with him, at least understand the dilemma (as I think Andrew Brown does here).

Now, for the Dom…

 

The sceptical side of me kicked in the other day when I read that the new coalition government in the UK had proposed allowing the public to choose which laws ought to get dumped in the brave new ConDemNation. My scepticism is awakened any time I hear the word ‘choice’ used where there is no choice – or where the power of choice doesn’t lie where it sounds like it is supposed to be. Would any government really agree to dump laws such as those covering national security just because people wanted them to? I think we should be more honest. (And it is possible that the word ‘choice’ was a media interpretation of an idea in which the word itself was not used by the politicians themselves – but I have been away and am trying to catch up quickly.)

A good example of this is education. For thirty years we have been told that there is such a thing as ‘parental choice’ – that parents can choose the school to which their children should be sent. This has always been nonsense, but it has raised among parents expectations that cannot be met. The most parents can hope for is to ‘express a preference’. It is governors and the local authority who will choose. It isn’t hard to work out that if everybody wants their child to go to the best schools, some aren’t going to be able to get their way.

However, I have now read the BBC’s digest of the new government’s agreed programme and my heart is cheered in one or two significant respects: the banking levy, consumer protection, alcohol, energy, government transparency and so on. But, the most significant element of the programme comes under the header ‘Civil Liberties’. Mention the word ‘morality’ and everybody thinks of sex (especially in church), but I have argued elsewhere that one of the biggest moral issues facing us is the creeping surveillance culture we have allowed to grow.

One of the most interesting books about this is Timothy Garton Ash’s excellent The File. Having lived and worked in the German Democratic Republic, he decided to ask to see the file kept on him by the Stasi. The book is a record of his personal story of being spied upon and being asked to spy for the Brits (which he declined on more than one occasion). Towards the end of the book he grapples with the moral ambiguity of utilitarianism (ends justifying means) and whether spying on neighbours and friends can ever be justified – even when you think you are on the ‘right side’.

In the context of the recent judgement that an al-Qaida leader in the UK cannot be deported to Pakistan because he might get tortured there, this poses a very immediate dilemma. During his trial evidence from intercepted emails and phone calls was used, but neither the defendant nor his lawyer were allowed to know what that evidence was. Calls for intercept evidence to be used in trials will now get louder – on the grounds that security is not compromised by such disclosure, but a legal system designed to ensure justice must be transparently just.

So, given fears about the all-pervading and seemingly unaccountable surveillance culture in Britain (in London it is estimated that you get photographed around 350 times each day), we can only applaud plans to introduce a Freedom Bill (depending, of course, what it aims to do, how it aims to do it and how far it reaches), scrap ID cards, ditch the National Identity register and the ContactPoint database, and halt the next generation of biometric passports. However did a Labour regime ever allow such illiberal monstrosities to grow?  The finger-printing of children at school without parental permission is also to be banned – which begs the question of how it ever came to be allowed in the first place. Other plans include more protections for DNA database, protection of trial by jury, restoration of rights to non-violent protest, a review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech, introduction of safeguards against misuse of anti-terrorism legislation, regulation of CCTV, and a mechanism to prevent the proliferation of “unnecessary” new criminal offences.

The media will no doubt be pleased to see an expansion in the scope of Freedom of Information Act. Wrestling with the morality of exposing and naming those who spied on him, Timothy Garton Ash makes a warning comment in this respect also: that apart from intrusive, but clandestine, security services, the media also transgress the boundary between legitimate reportage and prurient snooping on individuals with the aim of exposing them to public shame. And this from a journalist.

Of all the books I have read on the intelligence world, Garton Ash’s is the best: personal, reflective, questioning and realistic – realistic about human frailty, the impact of circumstance on morality and the subjectivity of moral judgement that is shaped by assumptions of moral objectivity.

As we scrap ID cards and address the other matters of civil liberties, this is an accessible introduction to the issues at hand.