This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (written late last night after getting out of Parliament):

I entered the chamber of the House of Lords yesterday afternoon, ready to lead prayers. A colleague came in and said there had been an incident outside involving gunshots. Very quickly the whole of the Palace of Westminster was locked down. Over the next five hours we were moved from place to place, ending up for several hours in Westminster Abbey.

The normality of the day had been ripped apart in acts of wanton violence that beggar imagination. The ordinariness of life – tourists posing for photos with policemen at the gates of Parliament, people walking to and from work – collapsed in tragedy and misery. Words cannot comprehend the depths of shock as news filtered through of what had happened. Someone said to me: “the world feels less safe today.”

The world of words is not short of explanations or interrogations. Even before we know the facts, judgments are made. This is inevitable in a world of instant communication. But, words are also needed as we attempt to grasp what has happened.

I turn to the Psalms. This Hebrew poetry collection is not for the squeamish or those who like to keep their religion tidy. One minute these poets are laughing at the absurdities of human beings, the next they are raging at God because of the injustices and cruelties of this world. And they were certainly no strangers to violence or horror. They knew what it was to be hunted; but they also knew the power of mercy and love and hope.

And that reflects what many of us in Parliament witnessed yesterday. While we were being kept secure by a remarkable police force, they were outside dealing with the unknowns of terror and the loss of a colleague. The parliamentary staff were professional and, as always courteous. Visitors, including parties of school children, were looked after by MPs who managed to keep everything calm and human. The emergency services did their stuff with discretion, skill and humanity. Westminster Abbey took in over one thousand people and made the experience as good as they could.

Yesterday we saw the worst of human depravity – that empty, soulless vacuum from which joy has been sucked – but the Abbey was filled with conversation as we saw the best of human society and compassion. And maybe the Abbey was the best place for us to be – a place not only of refuge and mercy, but a locus of hope… a place whose very stones bear witness to the mess and muck as well as to the glory of human beings who struggle to make sense of it all. Here God is worshipped and here people laugh and weep and think and speak. Here is a space that refuses to stick God in a box where he can remain unsullied by the realities of a complex life.

Parliament will resume today and life will carry on. But, my prayers are for those whose lives are now for ever changed.

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I once lived in Paris. I worked for a telecommunications company near the Eifel Tower, doing a variety of jobs in translation, teaching and accounts.

I loved Paris. I would walk miles across the city, just looking and listening and watching and absorbing. I also went busking on my days off, except when I was writing a dissertation in German on some educational/legal issue. Back in the late 1970s it was a city of vibrant optimism, of cultural positivity and cosmopolitan joie de vivre. Problems in the banlieus were already recognised, although recent years have seen an explosion in the racial frustration that was incipient then. It remains to be seen if Friday's violence was planned and perpetrated from outside France or by 'insiders who see themselves as outsiders'.

Paris is now a city in mourning and France a country in fear. And if this mourning is shared across Europe, so should the fear. Paris will clearly not be the last of such atrocities.

But, I feel uneasy. Such violence is an everyday occurrence in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Last week suicide bombers caused death and mayhem in Beirut. Yet, we just read over it and move on. European cities apparently matter more; European lives are apparently more valuable.

The second cause of unease revolves around the liberal values that France embodies with its liberté, egalité, fraternité. Recently an archbishop in Erbil, Iraq, warned the West that the violence being poured onto his people would eventually find its way to Europe. He then went on to say the unsayable: that we might have to compromise some of our liberal values in order to counter the real challenge to our world and our freedom. He was ignored.

The next few months will see some focus on just how far we take this seriously. We want to be free from surveillance, but then want to be fully protected from killers who organise on encrypted social media. It's a tough call, but we can't have everything. So, how much of our freedom are we willing to sacrifice in order to secure greater protection? This is where one piece of rubber will hit one slab of road.

In the meantime, the avalanche of comment, analysis and judgement will gather pace. It is astonishing how, in the immediate aftermath of the violence in Paris, when little or nothing was known about what was being done by whom, the Internet was alive with words that could not be other than ignorant. Twitter was unbelievable: ignorance and confidence make for a terrible combination. And, of course, as facts become known over the next few days, the original judgements simply get forgotten as the narrative gets re-shaped with equal confidence. It is depressing to watch the utter lack of discipline – the one thing words demand.

Enough said.

In the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales we put out a simple and practical statement:

The slaughter in Paris on Friday is shocking and horrifying.

Cathedrals and churches have been actively using social media to offer their support and bring people together in prayer. Some are opening up and offering a space for local people to come together, to reflect, to show solidarity with the victims, maybe to light a candle and to pray. These are simple ways of opening a space for our neighbourhoods at a time of heightened anxiety.

United with others in grief and hope, we hold onto God's promise that perfect love casts out fear. Standing together, we must work hard to ensure that fear does not drive our communities apart.

 

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

The Dalai Lama was at Glastonbury yesterday, but not for the music. Twice he described human beings killing each other as “unthinkable”.

However, events of the last few days have, once again, demonstrated that human cruelty is all too thinkable. It has proved impossible not to be scarred by the images and sounds of violence in Tunisia, France and Kuwait. And they are simply the latest in a litany of horror and destruction.

I think it is easy to try to block out such images. Yet, the very human stories began to come through very quickly: of fear amid the silence, of desperation in trying to get information when there might not actually be any to get, of loss and shock. And now, as inescapable reality sinks in for those involved, the pain and grief can only grow in power.

And many of us wonder again what sense is to be made of this human propensity for violence – the nihilism that explodes into killing, whether it be dressed up in the clothing of religion, politics or tribalism. Maybe, we need to start by recognising that what William Blake admiringly called ‘the human dress’ has a fitting that also distorts and destroys. The policeman who shot the Tunisian gunman says that the killer had stopped shooting and was praying when he himself was shot. And we rightly ask: to whom was he praying and about what? And what sort of madness is it that makes God in the image of our most depraved imaginings?

Well, two images have imposed themselves on my own mind since the mayhem of the weekend. The first was the President of the United States singing the hymn written by a former slave trader who had been surprised by what CS Lewis called ‘joy’: Amazing Grace. Obama went on to name each of those killed in the racist attack in Charleston, asserting that they had that grace. Not a grace that takes us out of the real world, but one that plunges us into the heart of both its joys and agonies. This, in the light of the forgiveness offered by those bereaved, defies the violence and denies it the end it seeks: a new cycle of destruction and vengeance.

The second image was one I read in the Hebrew Bible. The prophet Jeremiah buys a field … whilst besieged by the forces that will shortly occupy the land and drive the people into an interminable exile. In buying that field he invests in a future that cannot now be imagined. It looks ridiculous and wasteful. But, that small act of hope took the power away from the terrorists of the day.

It will be in such small visionary gestures that the demons of violence will be stripped of their crazed power, and a future opened up.

This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 in the presence of actors Emma Thompson, Celia Imrie, Paul McGann, Sean Pertwee and musician Billy Ocean.

I've just been on holiday for a week of culture-free sitting in the sun and reading. It was brilliant. I packed a pile of novels, but in the end spent several days reading a history book called 'Sleepwalkers' – about the origins of the First World War.

Now, I can't read this sort of stuff without being haunted in my imagination by the words of the World War One poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon as they shaped horror with sounds of beauty. Someone once sang, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” but in the trenches it seems that when the going got tough, the tough wrote poetry.

It sounds a bit weird, doesn't it? We think of the violence of war – especially that war – and feel ourselves bombarded with the power of destructiveness. Yet, amid all that sound and fury, some of these guys refused – in words that echo and linger in the memory – to let the inhumanity of conflict stop the heart of what it means to be human.

I'm not being naive about this stuff. But I am being dead serious about the poetry. The great Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn once suggested that “maybe the poet… shows you new ways to see”. It is the poets who open our imagination and fire the spirit. Put the poet's words to music and the darkness of your heart gets broken open by the surprise of light.

I'll be reading the poets again as we approach the centenary of the slide into war in 1914. And I fear I will want to defy the destruction and misery as the poets themselves did by daring to believe that love is more powerful than death and toughness is to be seen in a refusal to collude with the idea that might is inevitably right.

Two thousand years ago a Middle Eastern writer quoted a poem: “So, these three remain: faith, hope and love. But, the greatest of these is love.” There you have it. What is really tough? It's love actually.

 

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

I’d love to wish everyone a happy new year, but, apart from the general sentiment involved, I wouldn’t actually know what I was wishing you. I’m not sure that happiness – despite its elevation in the US Constitution as one of the ultimate human pursuits – is all it is cracked up to be. It seems to me that most human beings on the planet would settle for survival and freedom from fear.

Well, we are about to launch into a year of commemoration. In fact, we face four years of remembering that only a century ago the world fell apart. All the optimism for the new century, coupled with pride in the inexorable progress of science and technology, would shortly lie bleeding in the fields of Flanders. Humans never seem to change when it comes to violence.

Yet, my guess is that as 1913 gave way to 1914, most people just got on with their life and paid little attention to the seeds of overwhelming destructiveness that were already being sown in Europe. Did anyone really think, when they wished each other a happy new year at midnight, that just after the summer holidays that year a whole generation of young men would begin the four-year slaughter that would in turn sow the seeds of the Second World War? Or did they just wish, as we might do, that everything would turn out OK and that everyone would miraculously start being nice to each other?

If we learn anything from history it must surely be that what appears to be ‘normal’ and stable in the world is actually extremely fragile. Remember the faith we placed in global capitalism until the banking emperors were seen to be naked in 2008 – with many of the poorest of our people still paying the price?

Perhaps the beginning of happiness lies in recognizing this fragility of life, and daring to be challenged by cries for justice even when they cost us dearly. The Hebrew prophets saw through the thin pragmatic veneers of affluence and power, and called on people to be captivated by a vision that was more humane and of eternal value – regardless of how costly its pursuit might turn out to be. Jesus invited people on the edge and people at the centre of power to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

I will shortly be back in Germany – a country I visit frequently and one that has lived through two world wars, the Holocaust, Communism and now democratic capitalism. In the city of Halle there is a tram stop called Frohe Zukunft, Happy Future. But the question is: do happy futures just happen, or do we create them? Happiness can quickly turn to horror. And this fragility should evoke humility – the desire to live well and the resolve to live better.

 

Whenever there is an atrocity committed against Christians elsewhere in the world I get asked what we are doing about it here. The insinuation is that we appease Muslims, but ignore the plight of Christians being persecuted or victimised in Muslim-majority countries.

The quick answer is that loads of stuff goes on under the radar at national, international and diplomatic level. Anglican Communion partnership links mean that dioceses and bishops here are intimately connected to those places where Christians suffer. Relationships are often strong and communication good. However, such situations often mean that 'we' are wise enough not to salve our own consciences by making proclamations that make us feel better but do nothing to help the sufferers. Public silence does not equate to inactivity or inertia.

The latest atrocity was in Pakistan and the Archbishop of Canterbury was strong in his observations on events there. I also raised questions in a post the other day. But, what do we do on the ground, as it were?

In Bradford the President of the Council for Mosques called a meeting the day after the suicide bombing in Peshawar and a common statement by Muslim and Christian leaders was agreed. A joint appeal was launched at the same time in order to provide both symbolic and practical support to the Christian community that was attacked. The statement reads as follows:

Unfortunately attacks on places of worship of both Muslims and Christians alike are becoming more frequent. In recognition of this, Christian and Muslim leaders are encouraging all to join in prayer and supporting a joint appeal through mosques and churches across the city to raise funds to support the victims of this most recent atrocity.

We invite faith leaders of mosques and churches to support this worthwhile initiative through prayers and by raising funds for the appeal.

Bradford Cathedral, with my encouragement and at my instigation, is to hold a silent prayer vigil this coming Sunday evening from 6.30-8.30pm and Muslim representatives will be present. The vigil will be introduced by the Dean of Bradford and Dr Philip Lewis (Interfaith Advisor to the Bishop of Bradford). (I will be in the north of the diocese that evening in a rural parish.) Furthermore, a place of prayer will be established within the Cathedral for those Christian victims of such violence and other minorities who are subject to violence on account of their faith. This place will remain until Remembrance Day.

While writing this I have received information about a serious outbreak of civil violence in Khartoum, Sudan, and continued violence against civilians (mainly African and Christian in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile regions of Sudan. These are our brothers and sisters and we know many of them by name. So far the appeal in my name to support displaced people in these areas has raised well over £100,000 in eighteen months. There is more to be done.

But, perhaps this illustrates what partnership means and how we respond in Bradford to events that appear as news headlines.

Yesterday saw a group of people discovering that they weren’t as big as they thought they were. James and John, preoccupied with their own status have gone. Peter (or ‘Rocky’ to his friends) has contradicted every pretension and disowned his friend. And Pontius Pilate, a man with only the vocabulary of violence and power, of threat and of fear, stands in feeble judgement on the man who, silently refusing to play the Empire’s games on its own terms, stands in judgement on him. That was yesterday – the day hope lay bleeding in the dirt of Calvary.

Today is empty. The end of the story is unknown. A world has collapsed and only darkness beckons. Maybe Pilate was right: only power, domination, violence, destruction, threat, fear and death actually do matter in the real world we all know.

But, this will not be the final word.

Tonight, with the fires lit and the candles burning, we will be surprised – a surprise bigger than the Bradford West by-election result. Good Friday and bleak Saturday have been an experience of crisis (literally, from the Greek meaning ‘judgement’). We all – along with Pilate and the Empire – stand judged by the tortured man who looked to have been getting it all wrong, missing the point about real power. Surely God should look a bit bigger and a bit stronger than this man from the hill country of Galilee? Surely the ‘liberator of his people’ should make a bit more noise and, at least, collect around him some powerful people? But, Jesus collects around him a ragbag of ordinary people who, most of the time, have little idea of where this is all heading. He takes people like us and through them changes the world.

This Easter we face huge challenges in our own society. Economic struggle is accompanied by fear for the future… which looks uncertain for many people. Many people question the basis on which we are building our common future – a moment of crisis, a moment in which we are being judged according to what truly drives us. But, even in this context, the surprising Easter message is one of challenge and encouragement:

  • On the cross Jesus opens his arms, embracing the world, absorbing all that we can throw at him and not throwing it back at us.
  • Death, violence and destruction do not have the final word: God does – and that word will be ‘resurrection’.
  • God is in the business of bringing new life out of what is dead.
  • In the empty tomb God quietly points to the power of love and hope and new life.

God has come among us, as one of us, and nothing in this world holds any surprise for God; the world might be wobbly, but God calls his people to hold those who wobble; we are loved to death and beyond.

No wonder the risen Christ says to his frightened friends: ‘Do not be afraid.’