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

The first time I went into the Foreign Office in London I was somewhat taken aback by the sight of murals depicting renowned military victories of the British Empire – scenes that now provoke embarrassment or shame even though they belong to their time and to a particular colonial narrative of national identity.

How do we deal honestly with conflicted histories?

Well, this is a question that is dividing America as pressure grows to remove statues of Confederate leaders who 150 years ago fought a civil war over the rights to enslave other human beings. And the problem is this: how are we to remember the past with honesty and courage, not celebrating, but remembering and learning?

This is not a new problem. Walk around some German cities and you find yourself treading on small brass plates set in the pavement, recording the names and dates of Jews who had lived there before being deported and exterminated. More powerful than some huge memorial covered in names, these so-called ‘stumbling blocks’ (Stolpersteine) have a massive impact as you realise that they are everywhere.

In fact, Germany has form here. Look up beneath the roof outside the east end of the Stadtkirche in Martin Luther’s Wittenberg and you see a mediaeval engraving of a Jew being baited in a pig sty. Exposed during restoration after German reunification, rather than put it in a museum or cover it up, they shone a light from a memorial placed beneath it to the fallen Jews of Wittenberg during the Holocaust.
Somehow this faces the horrors of the past in a way that draws a line to the present and educates those whose memory doesn’t stretch that far back.

The German approach is partly informed by its Christian culture which itself is shaped by Jewish notions of memory. To re-member means, literally, to put back together the elements of a story in a way that is healthy and true. The people of Israel, having been liberated from over 400 years of oppression in Egypt and 40 years in a desert (allowing the romanticises of history to die off), prepare to enter the land of promise. And they are warned: as time goes by you will quickly forget that once you were slaves. Then you will start treating other people as your slaves. If you forget this, you will one day lose everything.

So, they shaped the year around rituals and festivals that even today re-tell that story and militate against cultural or religious amnesia.

Maybe this offers a clue not only to Americans wondering what to do with statues of Confederates, but also to the rest of us who have to wrestle with ambiguous or shameful histories. Face it, but with the humility that remembers rightly. Not “forgive and forget”, but “remember and forgive”.

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Words are marvellous, aren’t they? Even Humpty Dumpty recognised that those who make words mean whatever they want them to mean have power.

We witness the President of the United States using language in a very particular way. His hypocrisy is boundary-free. It is not proving hard to find tweets from his past that condemn him in the present – for example, his criticism of Obama for playing golf and taking holidays have not stopped him from exceeding Obama in both. Yet, it is as if whatever was said in the past can now be magically forgotten or ignored. And the only reason this corruption of language and political discourse is possible is because we allow it to be so.

That is why protest is so important.

Right wing or left wing models of social or economic policy broadly offer people different approaches to a similar end: the common good and the prospering of a people.But, what we are seeing now is of a different order. The corruption of language and meaning, the dismissal of truth, the casual yet deliberate assertion of fantasy as fact, all these contribute to a dangerous normalisation of lying, misrepresentation and hypocrisy.

What’s new, you ask? Hasn’t it always been thus? Well, yes. But, it has also been protested against, found unacceptable, and held to be shameful. The fact of past general corruption does not legitimise contemporary specific corruption, nor should it excuse us from naming what is wrong now.

As an Englishman it is uncomfortable enough watching the disgraceful Trumpian drama unfolding across the Atlantic. But, I am also reading Shashi Tharoor‘s polemic against the crimes and sins of the British in his recently published Inglorious Empire. Polemical it may be, but it shines a light on Britain and its not-so-distant past that contributes to British self-identity as it gets re-shaped for a post-Brexit world. In other words, offering a critique of Trump and the USA must come with a huge accompanying dose of humility and realism about our own history. And that realism should compel us to demand better from our present in order to ameliorate what might lie in the future.

So, going back to questions of language and our descriptions of truth, today David Davis MP described the British approach to negotiating a customs relationship with the European Union as one of “constructive ambiguity”. Which means what? Constructive from whose perspective? Constructive in terms of building what – clear understanding? Ambiguity in terms of keeping options open? Or an inability or unwillingness to commit?

These are questions, not statements. The point is that language is used in such a way as to imply cleverness when, in reality, it might suggest ignorance or incompetence. (It might be useful just once if the British could entertain the imaginative exercise of looking through EU eyes at ourselves, and listening through ears shaped by other languages to the language we use of them and ourselves. I won’t hold my breath.)

The common factor in all this is the popular acceptance of a corrupt public and political discourse. The fact that alternative power-mongers (Hillary Clinton, for example) might be equally or more corrupt does nothing to address our responsibility for demanding truthfulness, honesty and realism from those who actually have accountable power. Valuing democracy means more than ticking a box every few years.

There is usually a tune going around my head. This week it is The Who’s ‘We won’t get fooled again’. The trouble is, we all too easily get fooled again. Just read history.

I have never quite understood the concept of the ‘American Dream’. This is partly because whatever the dream might be for some, it is clearly a nightmare for others. Look, for example, at the statistics for gun crime, health inequalities and the gulf between the rich and poor. Land of the free and home of the brave? I wish.

But, lest it appear that prejudice should filter a much wider reality, it is indisputable that if you can succeed in the USA, you will understand freedom differently from those who fail.

What is more important this week is not arguments about the fulfilment or otherwise of the great American Promise (rooted in a narrative of Exodus-related exceptionalism), but, rather, whether the oft-repeated dominant myths of American self-understanding any longer bear the weight of reality. Seen from this side of the Atlantic (with a great love for American friends and great admiration for much of what the United States stand for), however, the real world is leaving behind elements of American self-identity and exposing its deep myths as somewhat shallow fables.

Donald Trump

It appears that many Americans regret having voted for Donald Trump. Apparently, they believed his promises of magic restoration of greatness without asking questions of his empty rhetoric. His misogyny, amorality, financial track record, sexual behaviour, narcissism and nepotism (to name but a few of the obvious challenges) would have ruled out the candidacy of any other semi-reputable politician for the Presidency of the United States of America. His subsequent lying, shamelessness, vindictiveness and inhabiting of some ‘alternative reality’ (in which things that happened didn’t happen and things that didn’t happen did happen; in which things he said he didn’t say and things he didn’t say he did say) cannot have come as a disappointing revelation to anyone with half a brain or ears to hear. His espousal of the alt-right has not come as news. His condemnation of anyone and anything he sees as a challenge to himself (Obama, for instance) is weighed against his silence in the face of inconvenient truth or facts.

Yet, none of this is a surprise. It was all there to be seen before he was elected. How on earth did the Christian Right even conceive of the possibility of backing a man who can’t put a sentence together and who epitomises narcissistic amorality? If Hillary Clinton couldn’t be trusted because of her handling of an email server (or because Americans had had enough of political dynasties), by what stretch of moral imagination could Trump have been thought of as a cleaner, brighter alternative? To which base values did he appeal?

Donald Trump is the most consistent politician America has seen. Nothing that is happening now – the testosterone competition with North Korea’s leader, NATO, Russia, for example – is new or surprising. It was all there to be seen. Either it was seen and approved of (which says something of the moral sense of the people who voted for him) or something blinded good people to the reality of what was put before them.

Charlottesville

This has now reached a head in the violence of Charlottesville. Or, perhaps, less the violence and more the evident brazen impunity of the White Supremacists in waving their swastika flags, being accompanied by heavily armed militias, parading with torches, Nazi salutes and shouts of ‘Heil Trump’. This open bravado, provocative and blatant, is only possible because the fascists believe they can get away with it – or might even get approval from the top. The response to Trump’s lack of condemnation (or ‘naming’ them) published in The Daily Stormer makes it abundantly clear that they think Trump is beholden to their dogmas.

Trump’s unwillingness to name the offenders is not helped by White House clarifications that he included all perpetrators in his condemnation of violence. Contrary to protestations that he intended to include them in a general condemnation, he has said nothing specific. He attacks anyone and everyone – even his own colleagues – on Twitter; but the two he never mentions are (a) Wladimir Putin and (b) the white supremacists/nationalists. Join the dots – it isn’t hard.

(For another time: Trump has managed to grant to Putin what Soviet/Russian powers failed to achieve over seventy years: the destabilisation of the western alliance. Putin must think his birthday comes every day. I will return to this another time, but for a country that obsesses about its own security it is astonishing that they seem blind to what is happening internationally.)

Here again Trump is not being inconsistent. This is who he is and how he has been since his campaign began. There is nothing surprising here. The surprise is simply that people are surprised.

The future

Social media and the commentariat are ablaze with references to the rise of Hitler, the insidious corruption of political language and the potential imminence of nuclear war. It is easy to be dramatic and read into the present from the past in ways that are convenient, if hysterical. Images of judges in England on the front page of the Daily Mail, branded ‘Enemies of the People’ during the Brexit debate may rightly be paralleled with pictures in Der Beobachter of judges in 1930s Germany being branded ‘Traitors’. There are times when pointing out the parallel at the very least raises our moral antennae to the dangers of normalising language or behaviour that is corrupting.

However, there are moments in history where a tipping point is reached and it matters that people stand up and challenge the danger. This is one of them. Charlottesville is only one (relatively small) town in an enormous country, and most of the USA will have been as horrified as the rest of us at what they witnessed this weekend; but, the images coming out of this one place become iconic of a deeper malaise. People are right to look for consistency in the rampant condemnations and criticisms of their President in his favoured medium Twitter. If he damns Islamic terrorists and wet liberals for their actions, we can expect him to damn right-wing militias and neo-Nazi criminals when they walk his streets and drive cars into ordinary people. Silence.

In Berlin it is possible to do what a friend of mine who lives there calls the ‘death and genocide tour’ of places of significance. But, perhaps the most important place to visit is the relatively new Museum of Topography, built close to the site of the demolished Gestapo HQ. This museum documents the slow corruption of civil life and political discourse. It tracks the normalisation (the gradual acceptance of compromise) of corruption in public language, behaviour and institutional life. That is what made Nazism possible and, even, probable.

And that is the question standing before the American political establishment today. Does democracy matter? Furthermore, do truth-telling, truth-owning, public honesty and the integrity of language matter any longer? Is there no place for shame in today’s conflicted world?

There will be a million analyses of this situation. I write simply to get some thoughts into words. As a Christian leader, not oblivious to similar challenges here (consider the acceptability of multiple lies during the Brexit campaign and the brazen impunity of those who told them), I applaud my brothers and sisters in the USA who stand against the corruptions described above. I am proud that Christians (among many others) stood against the wickednesses of Charlottesville. But, I remain incredulous that evangelical Christian leaders, Bible in hand, can remain supportive of the President and administration that is corrupting their country. When will the Republican Party take responsibility, stop wringing their hands, and stand against this regime that will be able to do little without their support?

It is infinitely amazing how instantly we all jump to judgement. Analyses of Donald Trump's win were pouring out even before it had been formally declared. So many words, so much opinion, so much assertion in the face of actual ignorance.

So, I decided not to write anything yesterday. I couldn't see the point of adding to the voices.

Today, having reflected on the Trump triumph, I simply offer the following pegs for my own thinking:

1. Like Brexit, the content of the campaign will probably bear little relation to the reality that will follow. Slogans might abound, but promises are almost always empty or cannot be delivered anyway. If Donald Trump does one tenth of what he promised he would do on Day One of his presidency, he is going to have a very busy day – not least setting up the Grand Jury to get Hillary “great public servant to whom we owe a great debt” Clinton into jail. We live in what is being called a “post-factual” world. What it really means is that we accept our politicians lying through their teeth to us during a campaign, knowing that this lying doesn't matter. That is the world we have chosen to accept.

2. Today is tomorrow's yesterday. Time will tell whether a Trump presidency is dangerous or not. It will certainly shift the parameters of what is possible and how international relationships are recalibrated. The truth is, we have no idea what will happen when he takes over from an intelligent, articulate, cultured, plitically experienced president who was thwarted throughout his presidency by a Congress determined to stop him doing anything.

3. We now enter a new and unpredictable world. We also do not know what impact this phenomenon will have on the French and German elections next year. An era of reactive populism across Europe will shift all the plates across the planet, but we don't know. We felt the same when Ronald Reagan took up the reins in the White House, but although his presidency brought elements of “worry”, the world survived; furthermore, the chemistry between him and Gorbachev provoked change that might not have been possible with other characters. (Of course, this led to Putin…)

So, it is too early to make judgements or even prophecies (although this won't stop people trying).

I am a Christian. I don't think Christians should ever be surprised by anything that happens. We get on with reality, whatever complexion that reality adopts. We are committed to the world, but fired by a vision of how that world might be different. So, even if the world goes mad, we will stay stuck in – trying to shape it, yes, but also engaging with it whether it looks good or bad.

We'll see…

What is it about politicians that encourages them to make absurd pitches for power? During the EU Referendum campaign we saw ridiculous promises, based on dodgy assumptions, made with a confidence and certainty that defied reality. In the USA we see it in Donald Trump's campaign slogan: 'Make America great again.'

No definition of 'great'. No real definition of 'America' – by the time you've excluded all the people Donald doesn't like, it isn't clear who is left to enjoy the 'land of the free'.

Anyway, I am only thinking about this because on holiday earlier this month I read five books (including Elvis Costello, Tom Wright and Sam Wells), two of which haunt me: Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar' and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 'Romulus der Große'. I have already written very briefly about the first (brilliant book), but it is the latter that comes to mind just now in the context of Trump and other matters.

Not many Brits have heard of Dürrenmatt. A Swiss novelist and playwright, he describes 'Romulus der Große' as an “ungeschichtliche historische Komödie” (an unhistorical historic comedy). Written in 1950, it shows the demise of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, with the action taking place during the day of (and the day following) the Ides of March, 476. The Empire is about to collapse under the invasion of the greatly feared Germans and Romulus awaits its – and his – demise calmly. His family, ministers and courtiers try to force him to act decisively against the catastrophic and imminent Germanic invasion, but Romulus prefers to stay at home breeding domesticated chickens and doing nothing in response to the threat.

The ending is surprising and very civilised.

It is very clever, very funny, and needs to be rediscovered nearly seventy years after its initial production. Written in the aftermath of the German catastrophe of the twentieth century, it has much to say to us today in the aftermath of Iraq/Afghanistan, Brexit and America. Here are a few quotes (my translation as I only have the text in German):

Even the worst news sounds quite pleasant when spoken by someone who has rested well, has bathed and shaved, and has had a good meal.

It is not about the content of the language…

ZENO: “Now we must save our culture.” ROMULUS: “In what way is culture something that can be saved?”

Echoing elements of George Orwell's 1984, Romulus and Zeno (Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and escaped from Constantinople) come up with slogans they might use to counter the German invaders:

“For freedom and servitude!” “For slavery and justice!” “For caprice against barbarism!”

Rea, the daughter of Romulus, argues with her father that he must give everything to save the fatherland:

REA: “Our unconditional love for the Fatherland is what made Rome great.” ROMULUS: “But our love did not make Rome good.”

Which is where Trump comes in. Has greatness solely to do with power? Or success? Or self-protection? Where does “making America good” come in? Or the UK, for that matter?

I could quote other bits that resonate still, but that will do for now. Read the play – it isn't long. I have no idea if it is available in English, but the German is powerful even today. Under the humour and the satire there is a powerful punch.

 

Donald Trump plays into that bizarre American obsession with 'safety'. You paint America as a dangerous place where before even catching a train you have to be persuaded that it is a safe thing to do. You then demand a president who will make America safe as well as 'great' again.

Which means what? What would it look like for America to be 'great' again? Or 'safe' again? We don't get answers – just the usual perversity when it comes to asserting that more accessibility to more guns will magically make everyone safer.

Well, Americans will have to do their own business in the face of its Faustian pact with democracy in November. But, this impacts on the UK, too. Before leaving for a break I did an interview with BBC Radio 5Live in the wake of the murder by IS crazies of an elderly priest in France. Not exactly heroic, these criminals, are they? I mean, choose your targets.

The line of questioning put to me was that churches in England will now have to increase their security. What advice would I now be giving to my churches? I think my response must have been very disappointing. Increase vigilance and learn to look differently at what is going on around us, but don't go mad, start erecting fences or putting sentries on our churches. As if.

Isn't this what terrorists want us to do – be terrorised?

But, the main reason for rejecting some vast increase in security of buildings is that, as I think I put it, you can't legislate for total security. Furthermore, no one has the resources of money, time or people to provide anything remotely approximating total security. In the end, total safety is not something anyone can secure. Not even Donald Trump.

Our churches should open their doors and welcome people in. Yes, as happens already, someone should keep aware of who is there and who might be lurking around outside – especially if they are carrying knives and have their face covered. Yes, anything suspicious should be noted and, if necessary, the police alerted. That is common sense.

But, the first casualty of the current horrors should be the lie of total safety. History is littered with demagogues who promised safety and security along with renewed greatness. Their names are known to us. While understandable that in times of great fear and uncertainty people look for security and the promise of simple certainty, we should beware of the disillusionment and destructiveness that can follow when the empty and unachievable promises are seen for what they really are: a fantasy.

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

It doesn't seem that long since we were doing this last year: looking back at the old and wondering what the new year will hold. Many people in my part of the world will be hoping for better weather and, if that fails, at least better flood defences. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was surely right when he said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Well, looking forwards tells me that in Europe 2016 won’t be boring. Among other things, we’ll commemorate the centenary of the Somme – where a whole generation of young men (vast numbers from northern towns and cities) was sacrificed on the altar of violence. Then there’s the likely referendum on membership of the European Union which should remind us of where the drive for union began a century ago. And let's not forget the European football Championships in the summer – where we can only hope the goals go in the right direction.

Tomorrow is always an unknown country. This month the Primates of the Anglican Communion will meet in London and make decisions about how to belong together in the future. The divisions are no secret. The outcome is, obviously, unknown. What is certain, however, is that the future might not look exactly like the past.

Now, that’s a bit of a truism. But, every human community has to comprehend difference of opinion and competing priorities. Yes, we can walk away from the discomfort of conflict; or, we can face reality and harness it for honest conversation. Difference matters.

Later this month I will be visiting Anglicans in Tanzania where our diocesan partnership links are strong. We have equally strong links with Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the United States. What these relationships do is compel Christians in very different contexts and with vastly different histories and cultures to look through the eyes of the other and feel through the skin of the other. What we take for granted when we talk about God, the world and us gets challenged by looking through the eyes of a very different people. This also means exposing our own prejudices and discovering just how much of our theology turns out actually to be cultural assumption.

So, difference is integral to all human life. We either face it hopefully … or we simply wish it away. Hope is not the same as wishful thinking; hope refuses to let go in the face of even fierce discomfort.

Writing about the prophets, one Old Testament theologian titled a book 'Texts that linger, words that explode'. Well, maybe relationships sometimes explode, but words have a habit of hanging around – the conversation always has further to go. The texts that linger form a conversation that can’t be silenced.

A hopeful 2016 is one that faces reality and keeps talking.