This is the text of my introductory speech on Friday 8 July 2022 to a debate on Ukraine. The text of the motion follows the script. This should be read in the context also of (a) a debate I moderated at the Bradford Literature Festival with two academics on Sunday 3 July on the theme: Russia: Expansionist or Opportunist? and (b) my lecture to CCADD on Wednesday 6 July at Westminster Abbey here.

I am grateful to the Business Committee for making time for this topical debate which opens up a number of challenging questions and calls the Church to prayer, listening and action.

It is important for the Synod to debate this as (a) the conflict is impacting the whole world (energy resources, economics, migrations and humanitarian catastrophes, food security, and so on), and (b) there is an unavoidable church element to the conflict (the Moscow Patriarchate’s uncritical support of Putin’s ideological vision and nationalist dogma, noting also the impact on chaplaincies in the Diocese in Europe and our partner churches in the region). It is also inevitably about politics. Politics, however, is about people, the right ordering of society and the distribution of power – all issues that go to the heart of the Judeo-Christian scriptures and tradition.

There might be disagreement as to the specificity of particular policy recommendations, but that should not discourage us from a necessary engagement with matters of people and place that sit at the heart of any incarnational obligation. The Church exists for the sake of the world, not the other way round.

For the sake of this debate, our understanding of neighbour is both local – those affected in our own congregations by the effects of this war (immigration of Ukrainian refugees, high energy bills, food shortages, for example) – and global, including those fighting on the front line in the Donbas or seeking safety in a makeshift air raid centre in Kyiv or Russians seeking respite from and truthful understanding of President Putin’s authoritarian regime.

We have a responsibility to provide generous refuge to those displaced by this conflict – and I hope we hear more about this remarkable work in the debate that follows. But, we must also engage with the causes of their displacement – both the immediate, Russian aggression, and the more long term, including wider missteps in the West’s relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War.  

We also have a responsibility to think through how this war affects those in other parts of the world. Tens of millions of people are now at risk of famine in parts of Africa and Asia, even though they are not party to the conflict. Against this background, the decision to cut Britain’s overseas development budget continues to look short sighted. The cutting of numbers in our Army raises other questions, too.

Beyond the humanitarian fall out, we are all conscious that the risks of strategic miscalculation are very real – threatening not only human life on a scale unimaginable a few months ago, but also the very integrity of God’s creation.

This war requires us to rethink what it means to be peacemakers in an age of global disorder. The conceptual frameworks of the 70 year post-war global settlement have fallen apart in a very short time and the world is now a different place. It requires us to use all the resources at our disposal, and that includes our relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, to try to navigate a way through this crisis. 

In an age when many politicians appear to have lost their moral compass, it is important that we do not doubt the reason why issues like this matter and why we get involved in the way we do.  

Our starting point, our obedience to God, is very different from that of governments and others. It leads us to take a much wider and a theologically searching moral view.

Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that we sometimes find ourselves at odds with government.

To do otherwise, to take a different starting point, is to run the risk of Archbishops and Bishops becoming the ‘altar boys’ to this and future governments – a charge that others have made of the Russian Orthodox Church’s relations with the Russian Government.

Synod, the briefing paper that accompanies this debate attempts to help us think through the war in Ukraine in a serious and integrated way from Christian foundations. 

Contrary to what you might have read in the Press recently, this paper, produced by the newly formed Faith and Public Life Division, does not articulate a fixed position. What it does do is raise from first principles questions that need to be grappled with and the consequences that need to be considered. In doing so, it recognises that it is the politician, not the bishop, who has to make decisions and to bear responsibility for the consequences. 

Loosely put, the questions mirror those that arise from the set of criteria known as the Just War principles. 

To avoid confusion or uncertainty, let me be crystal clear. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes an act of evil that cannot go unchallenged.  Ukraine has a legitimate right to self-defence and a right to seek assistance from others in doing so. 

The Government and the wider international community must stand with Ukraine and provide financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support as part of its broader efforts to uphold international law and the norms underpinning the international community.

Yet, as the MOD suggested last week, such support cannot realistically be unlimited and this war cannot be waged without restraint.

The focus of our efforts must be bringing this conflict to an end in a way that respects Ukraine’s independent sovereign status. 

This objective risks being thwarted by the lack of clarity amongst states as to whether the aim of Western actions is the upholding of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, weakening Russia, or regime change in Moscow.  Such ambiguity invites mission creep and increases the risks of strategic miscalculation.

It is these broader objectives that risk Britain becoming embroiled in a protracted and proxy war in the Ukraine. It is for Ukraine to decide if, how and when the war might be ended … and on what terms. It would be morally problematic to oppose a conclusion to the war that would save Ukraine from further devastation in the hope that we might secure wider geo-strategic advantage, if Ukraine so decides. 

Military force has utility; but, it does not follow that military force alone will be sufficient to reverse the territorial gains that Russia has secured since February 2022 or even 2014 when Putin’s money was flowing through the sewers of London. 

The risks of this conflict spreading beyond its current borders are real. It is therefore reassuring that the armaments that the UK has provided are of a defensive rather than offensive nature.  Britain’s support must remain proportionate to the ends we are seeking and those owned by Ukraine itself. 

We know that atrocities have been committed in this conflict – the full horrors of which will probably only be known well after this war ends. It is incumbent on all parties to the conflict to uphold the principles of discrimination and non-combatant immunity.

Where atrocities have been committed, these should be documented and those responsible held accountable, even if that is at a much, much later date. It should not be forgotten that earlier this year, the International Criminal Court opened its trial against those considered responsible for war crimes committed in Darfur over two decades ago.

The principles of discrimination and non-combatant immunity do, whether we like it or not, invite questions as to the efficacy of the sanctions regime assembled against Russia. It is clear that Russians have limited access to truthful media and are subject to authoritarian propaganda. Which is why many politicians and commentators have been clear to distinguish between ‘Russia” and ‘Putin’s government’.

We should not be so naïve as to think that sanctions, as a form of political intervention, do not cause serious human damage, and therefore do not also raise pressing ethical questions. If we conclude that they are morally justifiable (whether effective in securing appropriate ends or not), then we must also be open-eyed about their costs and consequences.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has descended into a brutal war of attrition, with outstanding questions over how long Ukraine’s forces can continue to resist Russian advances. The geopolitical and security implications of the conflict for Europe have already been profound, from German militarisation to accelerated NATO expansion: these will continue. Global ramifications will only become known over the long term. 

Synod, in a world which looks more dangerous and unstable, we need to look again at what it means to work for the reconciliation of humanity to God. We do so with prayer and humility. I suspect that this will not be the last time that we reflect on this conflict and the issues arising from it.

I look forward to the debate.

WAR IN UKRAINE (GS 2259)

Bishop of Leeds to move:

  1.  ‘That this Synod, committed in Christ to support peacemakers and to work for the reconciliation of humanity to God in a world marked by division and conflict:
    1. (a)  lament Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the suffering and terror experienced by Ukrainians and the repercussions and anxiety felt globally for our common future;
    2. (b)  urge all Christians and people of faith to pray that the war in Ukraine be ended justly, that the risk of strategic miscalculation between conflicting parties be avoided and that the Russian people find respite from an authoritarian government;
    3. (c)  call on each diocese and each parish to work towards providing long term refuge and hospitality to refugees from Ukraine and other conflicts and forms of danger, and to contribute to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukraine Appeal or the appeal organised by USPG and the Diocese in Europe;
    4. (d)  call on Her Majesty’s Government to work to secure a just peace that provides for the flourishing of relations in Ukraine and between nations in Europe and to provide a generous response to those seeking refuge from the conflict.’

This is the text of the 2022 annual lecture for the Council on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament (CCADD) of which I am a Vice-president. It was delivered on Wednesday 6 July 2022 at Westminster Abbey. The lecture was intended to feed into a discussion which, in the event, turned out to be very rich and challenging; it raised further and wider questions which are too long to go into here and now. I understand it was recorded, so a link might follow for the CCADD website.

I have only been to Sweden once. Following a big celebration of the thousandth anniversary of the Diocese of Skara, we returned to the hotel for a dinner with royalty and the great and the good. After dinner I was told (for the first time) that I was to give a speech and would follow the Bishop of Bavaria. Fair enough. The Bishop of Bavaria then disappointed me by concluding his speech in Swedish. All I could think to say at the beginning of mine – having allowed a significant silence – was that the only Swedish I know (excluding IKEA, of course) is: “Mamma mia”, “Gimme gimme gimme”, “Money money money” and “Dancing Queen”. They laughed – helpfully.

You will remember that ‘Mamma Mia’ is followed by the words: “Here we go again”. And this is the line – and the song – that spins around my head when I look at elements of the world we currently inhabit. If I turned it into a question, it would be: “Do we ever learn?”

You will remember George Santayana’s famous aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. This builds from Karl Marx’s assertion that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” I will leave it to the historians to debate whether either is demonstrably true, but I am suspicious of both. History – by definition – cannot repeat itself, but we can learn from it, if we choose to do so. Learning can clearly go in different ways – for example, it isn’t a given that we learn only positively from the mistakes or experiences of the past; we might learn how to do terrible things more efficiently in future – but learning should at the very least imply a serious and considered attempt not to recreate the negative conditions of the past which open the door to ‘bad stuff’ (as Donald Trump might put it).

This is why some observers are now pointing (with hindsight, it should be said) to the complacency of the West since the Second World War and, later, the collapse of the Soviet Union: that “never again” will we tolerate war on Europe’s soil and “never again” can there be genocide on our continent. Well, the Balkans disposed of the latter and Ukraine casts doubts on the former. Only three months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, dismissed the informed observations of his fellow MP Tobias Ellwood at the Liaison Committee meeting in Parliament on 17 November 2021: “We have to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European land mass are over, and there are other, better things we should be investing in, in FCAS, in the future combat air system, in cyber, this is how warfare in the future is going to be.” Well, that didn’t age well.

A similar problem can be found in the Integrated Review of 2021. Remember its subtitle: “Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, describes the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade and the action we will take to 2025.” The assumptions on which this review was built became exposed to reality only months after it was published. Barely a reference to our European neighbours in the European Union, but all eyes on China and the Pacific. And now, in 2022, we find ourselves in a changed world once again, probably with a need for a revised integrated review which checks some of the assumptions in the original. And we are nowhere near 2025.

(While writing this an argument is raging about cuts from 80,000 to 72,000 in army numbers at the same time as NATO is boosting the numbers of troops being mobilised on the eastern borders and we are being reminded of the threat from an aggressive Russia. The Cold War bipolar world gave way to a supposedly unipolar order … which is now giving way to a tripolar or even multipolar world, if we consider Russia, China, India, the European Union, USA to be increasingly singular agents. This must have an impact on any decisions made in and by the UK, dependent on a realistic appreciation of capacity.)

Is it possible, then, to learn from history when it comes to geopolitics and military defence? I do wonder when we see the Russian military using in Ukraine the same tactics (with the same rationale) as they did in World War Two and, in my personal experience, in their aborted Afghan campaign in the 1980s. This was a campaign running while I was a Russian linguist at GCHQ. What is even more curious for me personally is that the rhetoric the West aimed at the Soviet Union in the 1980s (“you can’t win a war in Afghanistan, and you’ll all go home in coffins”) was exactly the same rhetoric used by the Russians against the West when we moved into Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. The differing rationales behind the two invasions/occupations do not dispel the pragmatic problems of conducting such operations in such a place – something history tells us are fairly insurmountable.

But, the abrupt departure of the Western Allies from Afghanistan last year, the questionable ways in which this operation was conducted, and the way in which some of our moral obligations towards those left behind were neglected … all raise questions about the politics of forward planning in the light of past experience and the context of current exigencies. Could this withdrawal have been conducted differently? It is not for me, an observer, to say; but, many commentators who understand politics, diplomacy, military and humanitarian factors better than I do clearly think so.

What ,then, might be the preconditions for wise learning from history? I am no expert and am not a historian, but my possibly shallow thinking leads me to these for starters:

First, politicians need around them historians who can identify and articulate past phenomena that might educate us when making short-term decisions that will, inevitably, have long-term consequences. This is partly the classic ‘how do we get out of what we are about to get into?’ question. A good and fairly recent example of this is how German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her cabinet read Christopher Clark’s remarkable and readable 2013 book Sleepwalkers – on the origins of the First World War – and then set aside a day to engage on it with the author-historian. Not everybody likes Clark’s book, but the Germans are serious and intelligent enough to deal with argument and ideas and the importance of learning. Of course, historians will offer differing perspectives: that’s the point.

Secondly, we have to remember the nature of contingency. For every decision made, there is a context … which includes a complex set of human beings with limited vision and a propensity to seek immediate solutions to today’s threat or problem without preparing for the possible various consequences that might arise from them. At this point I will introduce a question that bothers me more generally and which we might want to discuss later: centralised authoritarian regimes like Russia and China are far better equipped to think strategically in the longer term than are western democracies where the political eye is always on the ball of the electoral cycle – therefore, the inability to guarantee that any longer-term strategy can be seen through to a conclusion … and hence the short-term tactical (rather than strategic) thinking that might win votes.

(I might add here, though we will come back to it later, that Russia is a single entity with a single government dominated by a single man, but he is dealing with an opposing coalition of interests, the cracks between whom can easily be opened and exploited, especially over the longer term when popular patience or tolerance wear thin. We have seen this with Putin’s twenty or thirty-year strategy to ‘reclaim and reunite’ Russia, centralising power, changing laws in order to reinforce his power, re-building and modernising his armed forces and their military hardware, interfering in Western democracies and their elections (using cyber and human agencies), assassinating on Western soil and getting minimal response, testing the West (Donbas, Lukhansk, Crimea) and getting little effective opposition. He is probably surprised by the unity and re-engagement of the west following the Ukraine invasion in February 2022, but he also knows that Western memories and passions are eminently exploitable.)

Thirdly, all decisions are made uniquely, despite past experience. The world keeps changing and so do the factors that shape how we see and think about it. This is why history cannot repeat itself any more than the water in a river can re-visit where it has just swept on from. Therefore, it is the principles that can be derived from history that have to be appropriated and considered when decisions of strategy are being made. Sorry if that sounds like a statement of the blindingly obvious.

We might, then, look at the current war in Ukraine to help us think this through. I want to preface this with two comments: first, that the Daily Telegraph’s report on 23/24 June (and lifted by the Times and Daily Mail), allegedly based on a background paper for a General Synod debate on 8 July, was erroneous and misleading (deliberately, I think … and described to me by a conservative acquaintance as “at best disingenuous, at worst deliberately mendacious” – I prefer “illiterate”); secondly, the debate at the General Synod is intended to do what it says on the tin: open thoughtful debate about how we think about Ukraine and how we as a church should respond to the various elements of the conflict – defending Ukraine, holding Putin’s government to account for its evils, and responding to humanitarian need. Issuing platitudinous slogans of support and condemnation respectively might make us feel better, but it won’t necessarily achieve very much effectively in either defending Ukraine or holding Russia to account for its intentions and crimes.

Let me absolutely clear: I want Ukraine to win its war, recover its territory and restore its independence and democratic institutions. I would like to see Putin in a War Crimes Tribunal and held accountable for the death and destruction he has ordered in a sovereign and independent neighbouring country. I would like to see this conflict end as soon as possible and with the least possible further bloodshed of military and civilian people. I will wave a flag, if that helps. But, none of what I have just said absolves any of us from doing the hard work of thinking through potential outcomes that might not accord with my desire, all of which will bring with them wider consequences for both short- and longer term political and economic settlements. So, just to avoid any misunderstanding – deliberate or otherwise – let me repeat: debating options is not the same thing as siding with one or betraying another. I hope that is clear as well as obvious.

What also needs to be clear is that questioning previous actions by the West does not equate to a justification of Putin’s aggression. Even where assumptions of American exceptionalism clash with notions of Russian exceptionalism, playing games of moral equivalence is dangerous territory. We must resist this increasingly polarised and binary thinking that sees every statement as a taking of sides rather than an attempt to face reality and navigate complexity in which moral or political intent is often compromised.

The challenges are many. For example, what happens if, in the end, Russia occupies half of Ukraine and fights to a stalemate? What then will be the grounds for negotiating a peace? Because unless one side utterly defeats the other, there will have to be some diplomatically negotiated settlement. That isn’t an opinion – it is a statement of the obvious. Future relationships still have to be developed, whatever the outcome of the bloody conflict. But, let’s think further: if Ukraine defeats Russia, what happens next … and in the following thirty years? The end of the war, however it happens, will not resolve for ever the problem of history, identity and territory. So, how will Ukraine and the West deal with a defeated Russia? This is where the options become complex (and distasteful), but if a future is to be imagined, it has to involve the building of a defeated country along lines which don’t embed deep nationalistic grievances which then nurture the claims and violences of the following century. Remember Versailles and Yalta?

Let’s remind ourselves of the key background issues in the current conflict. We might begin this with a question that bugs many such debates and conflicts: when did history begin? Vladimir Putin has been angling for years not for the restoration of the USSR, but for the renewal of the Holy Rus and the concept of Russkiy Mir. Every time he leaves the Kremlin he passes a statue of Vladimir the Great, the man who united Kiev, Moscow and Minsk – Ukraine, Russia and Belorussia – over a thousand years ago.

Now, historical ‘memory’ can be romanticised and shaped teleologically to justify current ideological preferences, but there is always a starting point from which any people charts the ‘living’ story of their people or nation or empire. In the case of Ukraine, is it the Holy Rus which the Orthodox Church and Russian nationalists date as the founding date? That is Putin’s (rather contorted) understanding of what he is trying to restore (in terms of ‘Russkiy Mir’), and he has corralled the Moscow Patriarchate into sacrificing both people and theology on this particular altar.

But, now read the most accessible history of Ukraine, Anna Reid’s excellent Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine. She illustrates clearly the challenge any modern Ukraine faces, viz. that it was not seen by its neighbours as a separate country until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1990-91. It was not a sovereign country until then and its democratic institutions and culture have been developed remarkably in only the thirty or so years since then. Reid puts the question bluntly: are Ukrainians  Central Europeans or a species of Russian? To Russians Ukraine was always part of Russia; but, to Poles it was part of Poland. Look at the shift of borders following two world wars in the twentieth century (which was not the beginning) and you will see the problem of working out which narrative (and from which people’s perspective) is to be the defining one.

Ukraine, of course, is not unique in this. Look at Israel-Palestine. Look at the former Soviet Union and the territories – if not nations and ethno-linguistic groups – it held together which, when the glue was dissolved, immediately drew apart and sought their unique identity. Look at the former Yugoslavia and its artificial uniting of ethnic nations which fell into violence once the authoritarian grip was loosened.

My point is simply (and painfully obviously, I fear) that solving one crisis or problem does not resolve any conflict for ever. I grew up in the post-war world reading maps that looked settled for the future. Yet, they have kept changing ever since the previous settlements were established ‘for ever’. So, I return to the challenging and unwelcome question: however and whenever this current conflict ends, there will have to be a way of securing peace and co-existence that takes seriously the costs and consequences of whatever settlement is arrived at. And, at this point in time, no one has any idea what that situation will look like or how any future settlement might be shaped. En route, the parties involved have to navigate the potential for tactical (if not strategic) miscalculation and escalation.

What we can say, however, is that passionate demands for Ukrainian total victory and total defeat for Putin and Russia will by definition create new problems and challenges. The end of one phase will bear the seeds of future conflicts, claims and demands. And these have to be prepared for now in order that the real costs of potential settlements, short-term solutions and longer-term determinations can be properly, transparently and intelligently assessed and engaged.

It worries me that the rhetoric of Western leaders seems to see a single desirable outcome (which I would also like to see) and eschew any discussion of actual and potential scenarios. For example, Boris Johnson said last week that he would resign if the UK could no longer supply Ukraine with what it needs in terms of financial or military support. If that scenario emerges – and remember that the MOD mentioned that the UK does not have sufficient ammunition to support a long-term war – what will the UK then do? Pool all resources with NATO? Or with the EU (which would be anathema for this government, regardless of wider realities)? Simply back off and leave Ukraine to its own fight? These questions have to be addressed now and not reacted to when events turn to a conclusion for which no one is prepared.

In other words, where is the scenario planning that takes post-conflict options and realities seriously? We can only hope that, despite the rhetoric of politicians, the diplomats and military are doing some serious thinking and planning. This is precisely where we need to learn from history: from Versailles and Yalta, from the Sudetenland and the Balkans, from Ireland and Africa, from the trenches of Flanders’ Fields to the trenches of Donbas and Odessa. What are the non-negotiables from any peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia (if such a thing is either desirable or possible): a Ukraine without Donbas? A Ukraine without Lukhansk? What about Crimea? (Crimea was gifted to Ukraine by Khruschev in 1954, before which it was an integral part of Russia in the Soviet Union.) And if, from a UK or Western perspective, all these territories are non-negotiable and are integral elements of Ukrainian territory for the future, why did we do nothing effective to deter Putin when he moved into these territories before and after 2014 and strategically mobilised ethnic Russians to gradually take control over a number of years before the military invasion in February 2022? We can’t say we didn’t know it was happening – even as we lauded oligarchs and sucked up their dirty money.

I want to open up a further relevant question at this point before concluding, and it derives from this notion of deterrence. We could say much more about the errors of the past and red lines that proved as definitive as the stripes on a covid test, but this might emerge during our discussion.

If you believe in the credibility and importance of nuclear deterrence, the Ukraine situation raises some uncomfortable questions. NATO made it clear – rightly – that nuclear weapons would not be used by their forces in this conflict. Russia kept the option open and continues to threaten their use – not only tactical battlefield engagement, but the obliteration of cities and countries (see his remarks about destroying the islands of the United Kingdom and London in particular – like swatting a fly). Now, regardless of the rhetoric and the possibly overblown and hubristic game-playing here, it might appear to some that the West has been deterred by Russia’s weapons and weaponisers, but Russia has not been at all deterred by the West’s. OK, we don’t know the end of the story and we don’t know what is going on behind the scenes; but, this at least raises interesting questions about the effectiveness of deterrence itself, if it doesn’t de facto deter. I throw that in as a discussion starter rather than as a conclusion.

I have said nothing so far about theology. There will be different theological insights into how we should see and conduct ourselves during conflicts such as this one. Any reading of the Scriptures would make it clear that an essential element of discussing any international dispute – however serious and complex or trivial and incidental – must be a commitment to both telling and hearing the truth. We need say nothing about Putin’s control of media and selective propaganda. But, it is vital that his opponents – especially in the ‘free press’ and media of the West – take care to report and comment carefully and truthfully. If Ukraine and Ukrainians matter, then we all have an obligation to the ninth Commandment: that we do not bear false witness against our neighbour, however passionate we feel about mustering our evidence and arguments for a particular end.

Secondly, peace making is harder than peace keeping. But, Christians cannot avoid the obligation to do the hard thinking and hard working of making peace amid the pragmatic complexities of unresolved conflict. Peace making is costly. It is not for Western Christians to decide what cost Ukrainian people should pay for this current war, but, like it or not, we are bound inextricably to Christians on other sides of the conflict and cannot avoid the strictures and demands imposed by this relationship. The challenge is not primarily about a peaceful conclusion to the war, but about how a peaceful post-conflict settlement, rooted in concepts of justice, accountability and sacrifice, can be achieved.

In his book on Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, Rowan Williams makes the point very clearly that the last word has never been spoken in this world. Once we say there is nothing further to say or hear, that conversation is now closed, that every argument has been either settled or concluded, then we have died and the world has ended. There is always more to be said and heard. This theme runs through Dostoyevsky’s fiction and we need to hold to it, too. Christian theology tells us clearly that death, violence and destruction do not have the last word: God does, and it is ‘resurrection’. However, the hard and costly task for Christians (and, I would suggest, for all people) is to work out what that might look like in terms of people and land and ‘stuff’.

At the outset of the conflict there was a quietly expressed fear that the limited conflict might spread, that there was a risk of strategic miscalculation inherent in its developing course of (Russian) action and (Western) reaction. Well, look at the energy crisis and the growing global food crisis that will add to the migration crisis that is rooted in the climate crisis. Any thinking about the future of Ukraine and Russia cannot avoid setting this in the context of global demands and relationships. Once again, as I argued earlier, it is not simply about kicking Russia out; whatever follows next will lead to a fresh set of questions, crises and conflicts.

I think we need to acknowledge that ultimately everyone will lose in this conflict, whoever eventually is deemed to have won. It seems that neither side is ready now for negotiations (although these will be going on through back-channels). But, the time will come, and all parties will need to be ready for the costs as well as the gains. We need to think about what a good peace will actually look like in reality.

I pray for the end of suffering and the establishment of a just peace. But, I have no illusions about what this might entail or what are the risks of getting it wrong. It will be evident from what I have said that the questions are easier to articulate than the answers. We might begin now, with humility and courage, to discuss this together.

Thank you for your attention.

This is the text of the sermon broadcast from Leeds Minster this morning on BBC1 television.

John 20:1-18

It was early and it was dark. And a woman stands weeping in a cemetery.

Her name is Mary of Magdala, but it could easily be Natasha of Kharkiv or Lyudmilla of Bucha or Magda of Mariupol. Standing in the ruins of a life and community, ruptured by violence and fear, is – tragically – not a rare experience in the world in which we live. ‘Normality’ has been torn apart and an anticipated future looks shredded in the dirt of destruction. Just watch the television and this fearful horror is everywhere in Ukraine and Syria and Yemen.

And women – it usually is women – stand weeping in the ruins of the world.

If we have the imagination to put ourselves – even slightly – into the skin of those women, we might glimpse just briefly and inadequately what it means to lose everything and fear what might lie around the corner. Violence terrorises and always seems to win in a world in which might is propagated as right and virtues such as humility, integrity and love are seen as feeble.

But, this Easter Day offers to shine a different light into this darkness. And this woman, Mary Magdalene, stands alone for now, bereft, but about to embark on a hitherto unimagined and unimaginable journey. Resurrection is the start, not the end.

One of the funniest books I have read recently is Jonas Jonasson’s Anders the Hitman and the Meaning of It All. One character printed a shedload of Bibles, but, having fallen out with the Christians, added a line after the final verse of the final book of the New Testament: Revelation. He added: “And they all lived happily ever after”, thus, of course, rendering the Bibles useless.

Because the characters involved with Jesus of Nazareth knew there was nothing romantic or fanciful about their story. Here there was no comforting ‘happily ever after’ fantasy. They had put their hopes into the wandering Galilean who had helped them to see God, the world and themselves through different eyes. They had followed him, staked everything on him, and now they have watched it all bleed into the dirt of Calvary – a world ended in violence and injustice. And they might be next.

No wonder, then, that the discovery of an empty tomb didn’t provoke joy or excitement. It simply added to the fear and bewilderment, the horror and the loss.

So, what changes everything? After all, the men had simply gone home to what was familiar and relatively safe. But, the woman – this woman – stays and weeps. Helpless. No agency. No hope.

What changes is a question and the sound of her name. The risen Jesus doesn’t present her with an explanation; rather, he asks why she is weeping and for whom she is looking. Blinded by grief, she then hears her name spoken amid the dereliction within and around her. “Mary.”

Answers to the uncertainties and horrors of life cannot be reached before the questions have been asked of us: “For whom – for what – am I looking?” If our common life is all about the accumulation of security and stuff, then who am I when it is all stripped away … or buried in the street as the tanks withdraw and the reporters point their cameras? And who are we – collectively – when death and mortality place a large question mark over our society, our common life, our priorities, our way of living and being together? Pandemic – conflict – loss.

Easter Day should be fearful before it is joyful. Resurrection has to be met with facing the questions and hearing our name spoken quietly in the darkness.

Names matter. Mary discovers she is known. Jesus’s recognition of her matters more than her grasp of him. She might struggle to use his name; but, light shines when she knows that she is loved and known, right here in the darkness.

And the women of Bucha and Mariupol? It is so important that the names of the lost and abused people of Ukraine are remembered and spoken and not forgotten – even among the ruins of their homes. While states fuel the violence and missiles destroy cities, the quiet defiance of hope – of resurrection, even – dare to suggest that death, violence and destruction will not have the final word. Death might be everywhere; but, the quiet whisper of our name means that the journey has not finished – the destination has not yet been reached. This is the love that will not let us go – that compels us to challenge any social order that kills and demeans and diminishes any people. Racism, antisemitism, imposed poverty, industries that enslave and drugs that steal people’s souls, politics that prioritise ideology over people and sacrifice truth on the altar of power.

We can generously offer that same resurrection hope that surprised and bewildered Mary in the garden on the first Easter Day … when we enable bereft people to hear the whisper of their name, knowing they are known and loved and held – by God and by us.

Indeed, Christian faith is no fantasy. But, it proclaims quietly that we need not be driven by fear, but can be drawn by hope. In our search for light and love, for a future through and beyond the now. And in our commitment to those who fear their name has been forgotten.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2 on the day they announced that September will see Radio 2 Live in Leeds.

Did you know that today is National Read a Roadmap Day? No? Nor did I. Who dreams up these things?

I use satnav all the time, but I do recognise that technology changes the way you see the world. If you look at a map – on paper – you know which way you’re facing and where you are in relation to other places; with satnav you just follow a line ‘forwards’.

When we had just moved to Leeds eight years ago I really struggled with the road system. The city centre loop means that you sometimes find you’re driving in the opposite direction to the one you think you should be on. So, you have to trust your screen or map and suspend your instincts. It’s not comfortable, but it works.

And, given one or two disorientating driving experiences here, I always hear the echo of some lines by Bruce Cockburn in a beautiful song called ‘Pacing the Cage’. He says: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you; you can’t see what’s round the bend. Sometimes the road leads through dark places; sometimes the darkness is your friend.” Does that sound odd?

Well, none of us needs any lessons today about uncertainty or dark places, do we? Nearly five million people are on the move from just Ukraine. They have no idea what lies around the next corner, but are all too familiar with dark places … as they long for light and the warmth of love.

This is why refugees from war will arrive traumatised by experiences most of us can barely imagine. Yet, the darkness of loss can be illuminated by the light of love and mercy and friendship and hospitality. The Psalms of the Old Testament give frequent voice to the reality of terror and hope. As he approaches his probable execution in Jerusalem, Jesus knows that violence will not have the last word.

And just as many people here in Leeds are reaching out in compassion and mercy to individuals and families for whom the darkness is fearful, they shine a light that cannot be extinguished. Like the loop system, you get there in the end.

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

I remember hearing the late great Leonard Cohen explain how he delved into drugs and religion to alleviate his distress; but, he said, “joy kept breaking through.” I remembered this while watching a couple of videos from Ukraine this week.

One was a young woman in her coat and backpack, outside the railway station in Kyiv, playing the piano while the air raid sirens howl across the fearful city. The calm beauty of music defying the threat and the violence – music that, if silenced here by bombs, will be played somewhere else by someone else. The fragile but persistent beauty of music challenged the fear and threat in the air.

The second showed a group of soldiers playing instruments and dancing during a break from the grimness. The small crowd loved it – an interval of joy.

But, you might ask what’s the point? Is it defiance? Or sheer bloody mindedness? A gesture of order against a landscape of chaos?

Well, I’m not sure it really matters. What they do in these simple acts is point us through or beyond the immediate to a barely imaginable future. They light a fire that cannot be extinguished. They are gestures of hope. When things are closing in, they open us up – like a flower opening to the light of the sun which keeps burning anyway.

And there is a long tradition behind them. Three thousand years ago a prophet called Jeremiah was about to be sent off into exile with his people. Military defeat had led to loss and humiliation for a people who thought God had been on their side and couldn’t now understand the abandonment they felt. And, as loss dominated everything – as life seemed to be ending – Jeremiah bought a field. Pointless – the exile in Babylon might last for decades or, even, centuries? Stupid? Misguided by fantasy? Or brutally realistic and hopeful?

Jeremiah had no illusions about suffering, but he was also able to imagine a different future. I guess many of his friends – if he had any by then – thought he was deluded or making a pointless gesture. But, he was drawn by a vision of God and life that saw beyond the immediate, convinced that endings never end – that out of the trauma and out of the destruction new life will come. So, he buys a field that someone else might one day cultivate to feed a community or start an economy.

Jeremiah refused to let violence have the last word. So do the Ukrainian soldiers and the young pianist. In this sense, hope has a melody and life has a rhythm that makes us dance.

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

They say that radio wins over television because the pictures are better. Indeed, words can open up the imagination in ways that a photo or video cannot. But, some images leave me speechless.

I remember going into the cathedral in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a few years after it had been restored for its original purpose after decades of Soviet iconoclasm. It was the icons that moved me. Icons are meant to be looked through and not looked at. A glimpse is not enough; you have to stay with it, look deeply and go beyond superficial significance.

So, it is appropriately shocking that one icon doing the rounds at the moment has Mary Magdalene holding a Javelin missile launcher – an image not of comfort or piety, but a juxtaposition of redemption and violence. Mary Magdalene is the friend of Jesus who – as legend has it, at least – lived a morally questionable life who found new life, new hope, new identity and a new belonging in the company of the wandering Galilaean. Having found peace, here she holds a weapon of war.

It is right that this should shock. Anodyne statements about peace evaporate when an image confronts me with the moral dilemma facing so many people today: what place violence finds in shaping peace – and how redemption can involve such terror.

Two things come to mind. One is a line by the novelist Francis Spufford who wrote: “Some people ask what kind of religion it is that chooses an instrument of torture for its symbol, as if the cross on churches must represent some kind of endorsement.The answer is: one that takes the existence of suffering seriously.” In other words, even if we have become inured by familiarity to the offence of the cross as an image, it stands amid the smoke of destroyed lives and landscapes as a recognition of violent reality; but, this cross holds a man whose arms are open to the world as it is, offering a redemption that sees beyond the violence to a future in which love wins through. No romance; just brutal reality.

The second thing it evokes for me are the words of President Zelensky when he said at his inauguration: “I don’t want my pictures in your offices, for the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait.Hang your kids’ photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.”

So, I am left haunted by two images, two icons: redemptive suffering … and the eyes of my children and grandchildren as I help shape the world they will inherit.

This is the text of an article, commissioned and written early this morning, and published in the Yorkshire Post just now.

The Ukrainian national anthem begins: “Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and freedom”.

This might sound a bit hollow as we digest the news that war has returned to Europe and Ukraine is being invaded by the Russian bear from next door. Ukrainians have vowed to defend their country, to shed their blood if they have to, and to defend their identity as well as their territory. Vladimir Putin will learn that simply declaring a state to be invalid or ‘fake’ does not render it so.

Ukrainians are no strangers to conflict or sacrifice. This is a land which saw millions killed under the jackboot of a dictator who, to echo Putin’s line, had no greater obligation than to “defend the security interests of our own people”. Of course, the false pretexts of Hitler were no more convincing then than are the pretexts of the Russian dictator today.

Yet, his false prospectus, built on lies, fabrication and propaganda/disinformation, has been trailed for more than two decades. In contrast with many leaders in the West, Putin took a long term view decades ago and has strategically worked up to today. Conceived in shame (at the meek collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991) and born in ruthlessness, his imperial drive has been observed by Russia-watchers with increasing concern, but little action. The West has watched, sometimes colluded, often ignored what was before our eyes.

A small cameo: I recently met the Russian ambassador in a couple of meetings in the House of Lords. It was obvious that he was subject to a different reality from the rest of us. Watching the humiliation of Putin’s security council as they had, one at a time, to stand and unequivocally agree with him, it became clear that the behaviours displayed in the film The Death of Stalin are not merely satirical. They certainly aren’t funny.

There are many tragedies at play here. One is that, contrary to the words used by our own Prime Minister just a few days ago, Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was never to come as a “shock” to anyone. You don’t move half your military to the border of a neighbouring country without intent. Threats to apply sanctions against Putin’s people and his economy do not stand up as powerful when the memory of twenty million dead in the Second World War is kept alive every day. Sacrifice flows through Russian veins like an oligarch’s money through London. This invasion is not a shock and politicians should not pretend it is.

A second tragedy is that Ukraine stands alone. The country is not in NATO, so cannot invoke the obligation of NATO partners to defend each other militarily. So, as President Zelensky has made absolutely clear in his recent dignified and powerful speeches, defending his people and country with words and sanctions will not save the lives of the people who will soon be too dead to defend. We are watching with our own eyes what we thought had been consigned to bloody history in the 1930s when Hitler used similar language and pretexts to occupy other countries; think Poland and the Sudetenland for starters.

History never repeats itself, but echoes can be felt for generations. Think of the children of Ukraine and the conflicts of the future that are being born in them today.

So, what to do while western governments think about stopping individuals from shopping in London or New York or Paris – or banking processes are curtailed, causing an as yet unknown impact on the world and its markets (which ultimately means ‘ordinary people’s lives’)? What to do while Putin sheds blood in a country that is not his and knows that Ukraine will not be defended militarily by its wordy neighbours?

Two things come to mind. First, we must put pressure on our own government to defend Ukraine and shut off completely the wholly immoral flood of corrupt money that flows through London. And that includes money paid to political parties here “by people registered to vote”. It has been evident for more than two decades that economic sanctions alone will not move Vladimir Putin.

Secondly, we can join with those in Ukraine itself in praying with and for those standing alone in fear and suffering an indescribable fate. I am not stupid: some people will describe prayer as pointless wordiness that achieves nothing. Well, prayer is not just about bringing our fears and hopes and dreads and concerns to God, but it is also about learning to look through the eyes of God who loves justice, condemns lying and misrepresentation, and abhors the violence of the powerful. (If you don’t believe me, read the book.) Prayer changes us before it changes anything else. Common prayer shuts us up, opens us up, reframes our priorities and calls us to a practical solidarity with those who suffer.

Christians across Europe – including in the Anglican community in Kyiv itself – will be joining in prayer on Tuesday at 18.00 GMT and this will be streamed.

These are dangerous times. The invasion, though not remotely surprising, is evil. “Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and freedom.” But, the suffering is real.

Apart from posting scripts and personal stuff, I haven't had time to get back to the sort of blogging that provokes or responds or interprets.

The latest personal news is today's receipt of an Honorary Fellowship awarded by Bradford College. Following on from an Honorary Doctorate from the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena last Tuesday (and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bradford last December), this is a great honour, and the ceremony was very generous. I love seeing students getting their academic awards – the fruit of their labours emanating in pride and celebration. This college is doing excellent work in an excellent city, and it's new main building has to be seen – an icon of confidence.

But, here are three points about what is going on in the wider world:

1. Ukraine remains on the brink and the rouble is plummeting. But, Russia is made of people who are not afraid of sacrifice – indeed they see their history almost entirely in terms of suffering and sacrifice. I am not convinced they will cave in to material deprivation driven from the West.

2. Gordon Brown is standing down as an MP next May. Watching him has been like watching a Shakespeare drama: the prophetic moral courage of a brave man compromised by the sort of “vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself” (Macbeth). To hear him speak about poverty and international injustice was like listening to an Amos or Jeremiah: articulate passion, acute judgement. Parliament will be poorer without him.

3. When the media's attention moves on, the money also seems to dry up. 1.7 million Syrians face hunger because the UN funds are drying up. When the next photogenic massacres or horror stories hit the screens, no doubt we will all wake up again. (At least the base and dehumanising consumerism that was 'Black Friday' demonstrates that horribleness runs close to the surface of most human beings – wherever they are…)

OK, that's enough. Having just read Do No Harm (brilliant account of brain surgery) and Stasiland (brilliant account of life in and under the Stasi in the GDR), I am now reading Rochus Misch's account of his life as Hitler's telephonist, courier and body guard: Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness). And Neil MacGregor's Germany. And a million papers for work.

Goodnight.

 

I remember reading a paper once in which the writer kept using the word 'insulation' when he meant 'isolation'. And now I wonder if I am seeing the same thing when I listen to Western political leaders claiming that Putin and Russia will be 'isolated' because of the annexation of Crimea.

Will western threats turn out to be, in fact, the very moves that insulate Putin within his own 'bloc' and cement his position? And will such insulation/isolation actually render any possible negotiation or policy amendment impossible?

These are questions more eloquently put by Dr Charles Reed in his good and clear post today.

They are also the sort of questions lurking behind my original post on Ukraine and subsequent linking in to this of reflections on the events behind the sleepwalking into World War One in 1914. Some intended actions turn out to have unintended consequences – but it is not the politicians who pay the price (unless in terms of the loss of a job later).

Running under all this stuff is also the question of memory – and whose narrative is allowed to become 'official'. As this article in today's Observer illustrates tragically and seriously, attempts to rewrite 1990s history in Serbia and Bosnia is not just of academic interest … especially to those who see the physical world around them being shaped to tell a lie.

And where did World War One begin…?

 

One of the reasons I wanted to read Christopher Clark's epic book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914 was its rampant popularity in Germany. Why, when Germany is keeping the 2014 centenary fairly low key, is a detailed history book such as this so popular there?

Well, one reason is that the book explains the complexity of events, relationships, myths, commitments and errors that led to the bloodbath, and makes it clear what Germany's role actually was. To put it really simply: how did Austria's need for revenge against Serbia for the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife turn into a wider conflict that killed millions and ended up with the blame being pinned solely on Germany. This is Clark's question, too. The Treaty of Versailles reads differently in the light of this treatment. Clark says:

We need to distinguish between the objective factors acting on the decision-makers and the stories they told themselves and each other about what they thought they were doing and why they were doing it. All the key actors in our story filtered the world through narratives that were built from pieces of experience glued together with fears, projections and interests masquerading as maxims. (p.558)

He then concludes:

… the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.

The 'they' he refers to are the politicians. But, there are, of course, others. And of particular interest are the media. Newspapers were used by the political classes to propagate the myths the politicians wanted developed, and they also propagated the myths they themselves wanted to believe in – a greater Serbdom, the German monster, etc. Nothing new here, then. But, this reinforces a point I have made many times – one that irritates the hell out of some journalists – which is that the media do not only hold the powerful to account, but need to be held to account themselves because they are also a 'power'. Which is why the Daily Mail's myth-building about immigrants (for example) is not somehow neutral, but shapes myths that lead to preferences and actions that take on a self-justifying life of their own. (Clark refers at one point to how 'the public interest' actually means 'published interest'.)

The other element of Clark's book that disturbs is one I mentioned earlier: blame. In his narrative – which is so detailed it can give you a headache – it is clear that the essential conflict was between Serbia (which lied through its teeth and was supported in its fantasy by Russia) and Austria-Hungary. Caught between Russia and France, Germany had to sort out its own alignments and see where the alliance bloc axes might fall in the event of conflict between Serbia and the Habsburgs. Until very late on, the conflict was not about Germany, and Germany was trying not to get involved.

But, we need someone to blame. Germany got nailed with the whole shebang, which led to its own gnawing sense of injustice, which sowed the seeds of further conflict, which just shows that the only outcome worth going for is one of justice and not simply triumph. So, what happened to the guilt of the French, the Russians and the British? Or, which was where the whole thing began, of the Serbs?

There is much that could be said, but Clark's book is essential reading in 2014 as we begin to remember the events of 1914. Selective remembering in a way that simply accords with the particular myths we want to preserve (usually in order to address current realities) is tempting, but ultimately inadequate. If Europe's great powers, blinded by the assumed demands of their complex alliances, sleepwalked a world into its bloodiest war (using the latest technology to devise ever better ways of killing people – and laying waste to the Myth of Progress tied in with assumptions about the triumph of science… divorced, of course, from the base realities of human failure), shouldn't any commemoration do justice to the facts and be shaped around penitence?

Perhaps each act of commemoration should include politicians admitting their limitations and failings and asking for understanding and forgiveness from the people? Perhaps those who shape our worldview by their representation in the media should admit their place as 'powers' and myth-builders and confess to their limitations and weaknesses? And then the rest of us should ask forgiveness for believing the stuff that is poured upon us and for denying our responsibility to understand the interplay of politics, media and myth?

This isn't a gripe. It is a real concern arising from a reading of history that cannot but leave anyone with their brain engaged and conscience alive feeling disturbed. As I wrote in my last post, how does this bear on our understanding of Russia's resurgence and its machinations in the Crimea and other parts of its old empire?

These questions do not go away. The forms might change (1914 did not have television or the Internet), but the substance doesn't. Human beings are collective myth-builders and responsibility-deniers, shapers of events and re-shapers of the stories of those events. That is how we are. I guess I am asking that we just publicly admit it.

[Addendum: A crucial sentence got lost when I posted this earlier. It reads: “And religious leaders should renounce the 'God on our side' game that gives violence a rationale that cannot be justified.”]