Yesterday was an odd one. It was Yorkshire Day here in … er … Yorkshire – the annual celebration of the White Rose counties just south of 'Desolation'. It was also Swiss National Day – which caused me to say, at the start of an address in Skipton, that we should tip our hats to Toblerone and recognise that William Tell would never get a clean CRB for shooting a crossbow at an apple on the head of some kid.

But, if moving elegantly – if bizarrely – from lessons learned in my last two years in Yorkshire (including when it is unwise to go anywhere without a 'priest' and a 'condom') to the human vocation to be generous to outsiders (it all has to do with Deuteronomy 26, never forgetting your origins as homeless people, and making space for the strangers) seems odd, then have a look at today's news.

The US Secretary of State has called the military coup in Egypt “restoring democracy“. So, whatever we might think of its behaviour and policies in office, a democratically elected government is ousted by the armed forces and this is “restoring democracy”? Forgive the rest of us simpletons for having trouble with this notion – which sounds like it came out of 1984. This has nothing to do with Morsi's credentials or the Muslim Brotherhood's real intentions, but a lot to do with principles. How many other 'democracies' might be overturned by the military because they don't like who got freely elected – only to find this approved by the USA?

On the other hand, the US administration is furious at Russia's decision to grant Edward Snowden one year's asylum in their country – not one renowned for upholding human rights or freedom of information. But, if a Russian exposed what the Russian secret services were doing to bug the world's communications systems, would the US simply return him to Russia at Putin's request? 'Our' spies are always traitors; others' spies are always courageous heroes. And isn't there something profoundly undemocratic about a surveillance state harvesting electronic communications indiscriminately and without the sanction or knowledge of those who elected them?

However serious we need to be about having an intelligent and informed debate in the UK about immigration, the current output of the UK Government on Twitter (@ukhomeoffice) on the matter is disturbing. The feed regularly updates the number of people being arrested and where they are. You don't have to be a defender of illegal immigration to find this sort of reporting by a government department as worrying. If, for example, the Zimbabwean Government did a similar thing, would we find it acceptable – or deliberately intimidating? Campaigns of fear are questionable at best.

Which brings us back to the irony of Deuteronomy and the injunction to have rituals whereby we compel ourselves to remember where we have come from and that we are all transient in one way or another. I spoke at the service today in Yorkshire, a county that owes much of its industrial growth in previous generations to immigrants (in Bradford's case, from Ireland and Germany) and much of its entrepreneurial development now to newer generations of immigrants (from South Asia and beyond).

The terms in which we currently 'debate' immigration in the UK cast a dark moral shadow. It is a strange world we live in.

(And a 'priest' is the wooden thing you hit a fish with when you have caught it; a 'flying condom' is a spinner, apparently – although I erroneously called it a 'fly'. Just proves I am at heart a city boy.)

 

Advertisements

This morning the Bradford Diocesan Synod – in a secret ballot – voted 90-4 in favour of the Dioceses Commission scheme to create a single new diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales. We had an excellent debate in which people were visionary, responsible, realistic and prophetic: it was inspiring to listen to. The negatives were aired alongside the positives, but courageous vision is how I would describe the vote.

Ripon & Leeds voted in favour. Wakefield voted against. Now it goes to the Archbishop of York for a decision as to whether the wider needs of the Church of England should demand that the changes be put to the General Synod anyway. They should.

Here is the text of my (so-called) Presidential Address to the Synod this morning:

PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS

One of the Old Testament pithy sayings I often quote is the line from Proverbs 29: “Without a vision the people perish”. The truth of the saying is not in doubt. Any group of people that has no vision toward which they live and work – and for which they might sacrifice much – will not survive for long. It is the common purpose – the commonly held sense of direction – that holds them faithful while all around them changes and threatens and wobbles.

No wonder, then, that a common vision is hard to hold on to and sometimes hard to identify in the first place. After all, a ‘vision’ can be made up of lots of fine-sounding words; but then more words have to be found – and agreed upon – that establish the strategy – the ‘how will we get there?’ stuff – for making the vision a reality. And there lies the real challenge. For any vision that can only be realized in the long term lies open to being thwarted by immediate or short-term realities that can easily distract from the agreed goal.

So, although we might all agree with the fine-sounding line from Proverbs, we then find ourselves in some difficulty trying to formulate precisely which vision and strategy should be adopted. In one sense, we need to be grasped by a vision – having our imagination and will captivated by it – rather than us simply trying to dredge one up.

This is pertinent when we look at the matters before us on our agenda today. What sometimes looks obvious and clear from a distance becomes more complex and demanding the closer we get to actually making a decision. But, let’s put the more ‘domestic’ matters in perspective before getting into the substance of the options before us.

A month ago I travelled to Sudan for my first visit to our link dioceses there. Linda and I spent just over a week meeting people and being introduced to the place, the people, the church, the history and the politics of the country. I posted eight blogs from Sudan while we were there, but tried to be careful about what I wrote and how I wrote it. As I learned from my decade-long links with Zimbabwe, it is all too easy to salve my western conscience by ‘speaking out’ about what is going on there, whilst thereby only making life even more difficult for those people who pay the price for my ‘prophetic’ utterances. Since returning, I have been clear that any response from me and us must be guided by those who will live with the consequences. Accordingly, I am in contact with Ezekiel, Bishop of Khartoum, about the daily realities, checking our perceptions with him, and being guided about what to do at this end. (And there was a debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday this week, sponsored by Baroness Cox, into which our experience and analysis was fed via the Bishop of Exeter.)

What is increasingly apparent is that President Bashir’s government is engaged in ethnic cleansing of Africans. It is further clear that they want a single nation (Sudan) of a single race (Arabs) with a single language (Arabic) caught up in a single religion (Islam). Although complex, the direction – the ‘vision’, if you like – is clear; and it is not good for Africans – Muslim or Christian. We need to bear this in mind daily as we pray for our brothers and sisters in Sudan, as we interpret the news we hear, as we consider how to respond, and as we continue to give of our wealth to house and feed those who have nothing.

Such support also comes form strange sources. I was speaking at an ecumenical conference in Hannover, Germany, a couple of weeks ago and agreed to stay on and preach at an international service on the Sunday morning. The organisers pressed me about where to direct the offering, which normally amounts to around €150 and in the end I suggested our Kadugli Appeal, which so far has raised around £100,000. The offering came to just short of €600 and will arrive in our accounts soon.

I tell you this partly to assure you that when I am on business away from Bradford, I am also working for Bradford and telling our story beyond our borders. The conference in Hannover was established by both Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Hannover-Hildesheim region and attracted 1300 delegates to look seriously at how the church in Germany must change if it is to grow and reach a new generation. Fresh Expressions is something they have latched on to and they are keen to learn from the Church of England about our successes, our failures and our vision. Of course, listening through German ears compels me to examine the perspectives I have in England and in Bradford – which is never entirely comfortable, but does inform priorities and action.

(I will be in Germany again in May, along with some clergy and lay people form the Diocese of Bradford. The Kirchentag attracts around 120,000 ‘full-timers’ and a total of around 300,000 people over the four days. I will be doing various things, but my principle responsibility will be to preach at the outdoor closing service to a congregation of between 100-120,000 people. This will also be televised nationally on German TV. This is a privilege for an Englishman, great for the Church of England, and a shameless propagation of Bradford in Europe. Pray for me… and for those who have to decipher my German.)

I have been accompanying and observing the German Church’s reform process since 2007 when I was invited to the launch of the process in Wittenberg, birthplace of the Reformation in 1517. Although the cultures are different in many respects, watching the management of change in the EKD has been informative at a time when we are looking at significant change in the Church of England. I will refer here to two matters.

First, the matter of admitting women bishops to the episcopate. I don’t intend to rehearse here the events of July or November in the General Synod. Suffice it to say that anyone who comes up with a simple rationale for the failure of the legislation in the House of Laity has almost certainly got it wrong. The reasons for the failure are many and they are complicated – especially when you realize that it failed (in terms of votes) because enough people who want women bishops didn’t want them in the manner prescribed by that form of legislation. Vision and means again.

Since November facilitated conversations have been going on between different parties and the House of Bishops discussed these developments at our meeting in early February. Several options emerged and these will be worked on to see if there might be sufficient support for a form of legislation to be recommended by the House of Bishops in May for initial debate at the General Synod in York in July.

It is less clear to me than it is to others that this will happen. The current mantra is ‘simplicity with security’, which, it seems to me, ignores the fact that the search for ‘security’ militates against ‘simplicity’ – which is how we got to where we were in November in the first place. Anyway, an enormous amount of work is going on in order to see if a way forward can be found informally that will subsequently bear the weight of any legislation that might follow. Watch this space.

But, if agreeing on how to have women bishops is tough, we in West Yorkshire and the Dales face a challenge much closer to home. I hope to speak to this in the debate later, but will only do so if the points I wish to make have not already been made by others.

The challenge before us looks simple: we all agree we need to change, but what that change should look like – and how it should be brought about – is not obvious to everyone. The Dioceses Commission did not dream up their proposals because they had nothing better to do with their time or imagination. Look at the numbers for the three dioceses and, whatever the rhetoric from some quarters, they are, broadly speaking, heading south. If the proposals for a single diocese with an area system do not offer better mission and growth potential, then it should be obvious that current arrangements do not offer an alternative. One way or another there has to be change in the way we organize, ‘do church’ and reach out in this part of the world.

The problem comes, of course, when we ask what that change should look like. That will be the matter debated later. The Bishop’s Council has agreed that we vote in a secret ballot in order to ensure that everyone is free to make their own mind up. The method for doing so will be outlined immediately prior to the debate. Please note that our vote today is in principle – and although a considerable amount of coordinated work has gone on within and between the three dioceses already in order to flesh out realities and potentials, costs and benefits, making any changed arrangement a reality will depend solely on the will, determination, imagination and vision of those involved.

So, if you vote for this scheme, you commit to taking responsibility for making change work; if, however, you vote against, you need to ask yourself what you are, in fact, now voting for. No structure, old or new, will of itself deliver anything. Today is a challenge to our vision for the good news of Jesus Christ in West Yorkshire and the Dales, our courage in facing change, our faith in God and one another, and our realism about the challenge before us.

The writer of the proverb I cited earlier got it right: without a vision the people perish. (Although ‘perishing’ can take many forms…) But, to confound Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, not ‘any dream will do’. Our vision must be faithful and bold, realistic and achievable, godly and honourable. However we vote – and you do not need to be reminded here of my support for the scheme, especially as I am probably one of the few to have worked an effective area scheme (Southwark/Croydon) – we need to do so prayerfully, with confidence and with a clear recognition that the status quo is not an option, that we will direct change or it will drive us.

As Joshua heard before entering new and unknown territory: “Be bold, be strong, for the Lord your God is with you.”

The world is not a comfortable place just now. But, let's keep this in perspective: it is never comfortable, never has been, never will be. For most people with a pulse, life is tough and good times should not be taken for granted. Yesterday, spending an hour with a group of teenagers on a big outer-Bradford estate, we looked at who pays the price when we buy cheap clothes in England or drink coffee from companies that pay no tax here and probably don't pay the coffee growers a living or just price for their beans.

We do injustice and greed far better than we do justice and selflessness.

Italy is paralysed – demonstrating that Europe's financial crisis is more political than it is economic. It has to do with consensus, leadership and will… and not primarily the availability of cash.

Zimbabwe looks towards elections and the old tactics of violence and threat are already beginning to colour the process as Robert Mugabe seeks the protection of office (again) at the age of 89. Even the Pope can't persuade him to do the decent thing. And who suffers? Well, the 'wrong' tribes, for starters.

Just a few weeks ago we were in Sudan. President Bashir, already indicted before the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in Darfur, continues to pursue what can only be described as ethnic cleansing in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. Stories are coming out increasingly that allow no doubt of the nature of the oppression being exerted by the Khartoum government against its own people.

And there lies the nub of the matter: 'its own people'. The Africans are not seen by the Arab masters as their 'own people'. The Africans are aliens who should go south or disappear. Like all such cleansings – and here, despite the claims of the government, it is clear that the roots of Sudan's bombing and terrorising of civilians is ethnic and racial – people are reduced to categories that then become dehumanised: it is easier to get rid of them, if they cease to be 'people' and become simply 'objects that conform to a categorical type'. See Rwanda, Nazism, etc.

Today serious questions will be asked in the British parliament. Bishops will be urging action by the British Government and its partners in the face of Sudanese indifference to international rhetoric. These bishops are extremely well connected to the grassroots realities in Sudan (as many other places in the world) because we have very close partnership links with dioceses and bishops there. This means we get to see ordinary people living their ordinary lives away from diplomatic environments or media theatres.

After Rwanda we said we would never let this happen again. As Baroness Cox said on BBC Radio 4 this morning, “'again' is happening now”.

 

This is the basic text of a sermon I preached this morning to the judges, magistrates and diverse lawyers of Bradford at the so-called Legal Service at Bradford Cathedral. Not many jokes. And, to those on Twitter who asked if all the other services I do are illegal, I just call for a moment’s silence…

LEGAL SERVICE BRADFORD

You don’t have to be a Christian or a Jew to recognise that the English legal system is based on and derived from the Judeao-Christian tradition seen in the Scriptures. Justice lies at the heart of God’s character and is measured by how the powerful and the powerless are treated in society.

If you break justice, you are left with just ice. So says Scouse poet and Radio 4 presenter Stewart Henderson. I am glad he has come to that realisation as one of my earliest memories of him was being beaten up by him and Billy Mason when I was nine. Not that it still hurts, you understand…

wpid-Photo-17-Aug-2011-2351.jpgThe point he makes in his poem is a suggestive one: it is a cold world where justice is a commodity to be bought and sold, or where lip service is paid to justice, but it has become a means of privilege to those who either are powerful or have the skill to manipulate it.

I speak here from experience – not here in Bradford, I hasten to add, or even in England. In my previous post as Bishop of Croydon in the Diocese of Southwark I had a close link with the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe. Some years ago the then Bishop of Harare, Dr Nolbert Kunonga, tried to take control of the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, was deposed from his post – and no longer recognised by the Anglican Communion as a bishop in the church – and, declaring UDI from the wider church, took possession of all the assets and finances of the Diocese of Harare. Of course, he didn’t do it alone: he used armed henchmen to attack anyone who tried to gain access to churches, threw out clergy and their families from their homes if they had not supported him, and, with unchallengeable hubris, declared war on the province, the Archbishop of Canterbury, all colonialism (which was defined as disagreeing with him) and anyone who stood in his way.

The problem with Dr Kunonga, however, was that he was backed by Robert Mugabe, who rewarded his faithfulness by awarding him expropriated white-owned farms and full support in the public sphere. And the public sphere included the system of law. Even when the courts found against Kunonga, the police and security services simply ignored the courts and defended the status quo.

It was evident, in all the complexities of my engagement with Zimbabwe, that no progress would or could be made in rebuilding the economy or renewing politics until the rule of law was re-established and allowed to stand at the heart of Zimbabwean life. To twist the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Where there is no justice, the people perish.”

wpid-Photo-15-Jan-2013-1056.jpgHaving moved from Croydon and a link with Zimbabwe, I am now in Bradford where our diocesan link is with the five dioceses of Sudan. I had hoped for somewhere like the Bahamas this time round, but Sudan is now beginning to make Zimbabwe look tame. My wife and I spent just over a week there this month. I discovered a couple of days ago that immediately after we had left the guesthouse where we had been staying in Khartoum – at one o’clock in the morning – the place was raided and everyone taken in for interrogation by the security services. The building has now, apparently, been held by the security services.

The rule of law, impartially administered, is clearly fundamental to any free society or system of justice. Both Zimbabwe and Sudan – where indigenous people are now being disappeared and foreigners expelled – demonstrate clearly what happens not only when justice is corrupted by the fear and greed of the powerful, but also when any anthropological undergirding of human value is diminished to the point of tyranny.

While in Sudan I was reflecting on a line written to Katkov by Fyodr Dostoyevsky: “Juridical punishment for crime scares a criminal far less than law-makers think, partly because the criminal himself requires it morally.” Isn’t that interesting? Dostoyevsky doesn’t see the need for justice and juridical punishment simply in terms of society’s need to keep the peace, deter the wrong-doers or fulfil a bureaucratic requirement in order to keep elected politicians happy with their harshness. Rather, he appeals to something far more fundamental: criminals require justice because only this takes seriously their humanity, their moral accountability, their very being as moral agents who have both rights and responsibilities in a human community of mutual obligation.

Now, in one sense, this shouldn’t need to be spelled out. But, in a society which is shaped by media headlines that scream for the blood of ‘people not like us’ – who remove criminals from the moral page by categorising them as ‘monsters’ – we have to keep reminding ourselves of the anthropological assumptions that underlie our practice of justice. What is a human being and why does anyone matter? Why, ultimately, does it matter that some people break the law and put themselves beyond the reach of mutual or civil society?

Which, I guess, is what unites us here today. Lawyers, magistrates, judges – all those involved or employed in the justice system assume certain fundamental things: that a good society is one that is properly ordered; that law is not sufficient of itself in securing an ordered society, but is indispensible to it; that the common good demands a common legal system that shows no favour and cannot be manipulated by those who would gain personal advantage at the cost of social integrity or coherence. However we might articulate it, we believe that good law is essential to justice and that justice does more than simply ‘keep things on the rails’. Justice demands more than mere pragmatism – it rests on an assumption about virtue being essential to human and societal character.

wpid-Photo-30-Oct-2012-1057.jpgI haven’t time – and this isn’t the place – to go into contemporary debates about what is called ‘virtue ethics’, but it starts from an understanding that rules and regulations are not enough to shape or guarantee ethics; virtue has to do with the making of character, and it is character that shapes behaviour and ethics… whatever the rules and regulations might actually be. I am assuming here that good ethics require just such virtue, if they are to be more than ‘rules of engagement’.

Perhaps surprising, then, that the reading from Job 28 speaks not of justice, but of wisdom. And, perhaps, surprising that a question asked three thousand years ago in a context of abject suffering in an obscure place in the Middle East should cry out to be heard even in Bradford in 2013: “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” This man, Job, whose world has fallen apart in every aspect, cries out here not for mere practical solutions to his problems, not for a quick way out of his predicament, not for an anaesthetic to dull the pain of apparent hopelessness, and not for a panacea imbued with the complexion of fantasy. No, he cries out for wisdom and understanding.

Now, I realise that this sounds weird to a generation brought up on instant gratification, fast knowledge, bewildering amounts of information and the wallpaper-like surroundings of immediate judgement and dramatic analysis. Why wait? Why dwell in a space of indeterminate questioning or unsatisfying waiting? Why not, as the credit card advert once tempted us, “take the waiting out of wanting”?

Well, wisdom is learned, not bought. And it is learned by paying attention to what makes the world what it is, what makes people who they are, what gives meaning to what appears to be formless and void, what makes sense of lived experience in community with others, many of whom have no interest in becoming wise at any price. Wisdom – which is more than the product of information plus knowledge plus judgement – lies at the heart of any consideration of justice… precisely because justice can never be subject to whim or trend or fashion or even mere popularity. If Benjamin Disraeli was right when he said, “Justice is truth in action”, then it must be truth driving the action and not simply action defining what is deemed to be true.

I am sorry if all this sounds a bit abstract or academic, but justice is not a simple thing which can be claimed without examination and argument. Justice has to be seen to have a deeper foundational rationale, rooted in and emanating from a clearly understood anthropology… which knows why it thinks people matter essentially. And I’d like to say briefly what this looks like in a Judaeo-Christian narrative – indeed, the very narrative which gave birth to and has shaped the system of justice developed in England over the centuries.

To do this I need to tell a story. Way back in the Hebrew Bible the people who saw themselves as God’s people lost the plot – in more senses than one. First they lost sight of the story that had shaped – and was intended to motivate – their common life and relationships. Then, second, they lost their place in the land they took for granted as their own, and found themselves learning the lessons that can only be learned in the desert of exile.

Yet, right at the outset of their settlement of the so-called Land of Promise, they had been instructed to actively and religiously re-tell the story of their liberation from oppression in Egypt. The year and the seasons were dotted with festivals during which the community and its constituent families would rehearse story-telling and ritual, all bound up in the production of food and the economics of trade. The point of these was not to make life miserable for them, trapping them in a dour-but-romanticised myth of past generations – a sort of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, vying with each other for how bad their childhoods had been. Rather, this active and costly re-telling was designed to hold the people to truths that wisdom depended upon: they themselves had been dispossessed and landless slaves – and so should treat the poor and destitute with kindness and generosity; they themselves had been captive and unable to save themselves – and so should set people free and give undeserved grace; that they themselves had had nothing to call their own – and so should never forget that the accumulation of stuff, the acquisition of status and the appropriation of land must never be ends in themselves, but a means of generous and wise common flourishing.

Bradford CathedralIn fact, one of the most vivid of these festivals is described (or perhaps prescribed) in Deuteronomy 26 where the first ten per cent of your harvested produce should be brought to the priest whereupon you would recite a creed. How exciting is that? And the creed would begin: “My father was a wandering peasant…” In other words, the opening line of the story is a blunt articulated reminder that none of us can simply depend on the very things we think give us meaning. (We behave differently towards the homeless if we remember that once we were homeless.) In other words, regularly check that you are building the foundations of your life on something durable and not the shifting sands of material stuff.

Now, the point of this is simple. What unites both judge and accused, advocate and prisoner, is a common humanity which, if morality is to mean anything and justice is to have any currency beyond the pragmatic, not only imbues the legal process with dignity – building toward the common good – but also establishes the moral value of every human being. Justice takes people seriously, refuses to make excuses, but sees the dignity beneath the flawed and often appalling surface of greed, cruelty or selfishness.

And for this to flourish – for people in a community to flourish – those who frame justice need to remember their story, the story of mortal human beings in a contingent world, and to look wisely and deeply into the assumptions that make us think the whole justice project is worth investing in in the first place.

In other words, we need to think deeply about what we believe makes justice matter, and not allow justice to be shaped by political whim, economic pressure or media fashion.

Now, you, like those of us who serve through the church, are often on the receiving end of the media’s ‘wisdom’ (which, being meant ironically, I put in inverted commas) – usually in those unusual cases where fine judgements are hard to explain in simple language. You, too, are subject to a public that doesn’t understand legal process and shows little consideration of the consequences of their opinions. For example, if we did lock ‘em up and throw away the key, someone somewhere will have to pay. Not seeking rehabilitation or re-education will probably end in recidivism where there is no incentive or opportunity for changing one’s life or company. But, like bishops – who apparently do nothing all day other than dress up and argue about sex – you have to press on with your vocation whether you are understood, respected or liked… or not.

This service is evidence of the value placed by both church and civic authorities on the work you do and the way you exercise wise judgement on behalf of the rest of us. We thank you for the service you do.

And I would join those who wish to remind you of the seriousness of your task, the import of maintaining and securing a system of justice that is never capricious, and the essential need to dig deep into our corporate memory where we find the foundational narratives that give our justice system its very meaning.

I also hope, of course, that the bloke we caught on CCTV burgling my house and nicking my car and computer last August will one day appear before you in order to discover afresh that wise lawyers and judges have a responsibility on behalf of the rest of us to give him his full moral value as a human being.

May God bless you and us as we serve the common good, rooted in a conviction that justice goes to the heart of the character of God himself and should, in one sense, be (pace Disraeli) God’s character in action.

Back in 2007 I took a group of twenty to Central Zimbabwe for two weeks. The day after we arrived we walked to a farm and saw with our own eyes the desert that had once been a thriving and fertile farm. It has to be remembered that this was a time when the Zimbabwean economy was in free-fall and inflation at a mere 10,000%. We experienced constant power cuts, water stoppages and harassment from Zanu PF’s dodgy police.

While walking around the arid farm, and wondering how on earth a future might be shaped out of this disaster – the breadbasket of Africa become the basket case of Africa – my misery was interrupted by something easily missed and apparently trivial. It was a single rose, about twelve inches high, planted and watered in a small hole in the dry soil. It looked feeble and misplaced – almost futile. But, as everything else seemed to be closing down and smelling of death, here was a prophetic symbol of hope. It seemed to be saying that the is a future – that there is more to reality than what appears as the immediate evidence of your eyes. It was placing a question mark over the dominant gloom, whispering a new melody over the grinding music of doom.

In my presidential address to the Bradford Diocesan Synod this morning I called for our diocese to be ambitious and prophetic and I said it like this:

We should be ambitious. We should be confident about our vocation and the God who gives us it.
In all these matters we are being invited to be prophetic. I know the word is over-used. (I remember the Archbishop of Canterbury saying that when people ask him to be prophetic, what they really mean is: ‘Say loudly what I want to hear you say!’) But, to be prophetic in the biblical tradition is to catch a glimpse behind the curtain of our time and place – a glimpse of the glory of the God who, in the face of our pessimism and gloom, always whispers words such as ‘resurrection’, ‘renewal, or (in Walter Brueggemann’s memorable phrase) ‘newness after loss’. Being prophetic is to plant a seed when everyone else tells us the ground is dried up. It is to build a house when everybody else is demolishing and leaving. It is to sing a song when everybody else has gone silent. It is to build a boat when there isn’t any water… yet.
It is to be a sign of hope – assuming a future. As Rowan Williams says of Dostoyevsky, there is never a final word in the conversation; there is always more to be said. Just as there is nothing new under the sun, there is never an ‘end’ in the economy of a God for whom even death doesn’t finish everything off.

The Occupy movement does not have a monopoly on prophetic action. Every action, word or symbol that defies ‘endings’ by holding out even a tiny promise of a new beginning – a future beyond the loss – is prophetic. And hopeful.

The body of Muammar Gaddafi is in cold-storage in Misrata. It is unclear how exactly he died because different people keep giving different accounts of his capture and death. What we do know is that people are queuing up to see the corpse with their own eyes, to take photos and celebrate that he has gone.

And what is wrong with that? Another example of liberal Western sensitivity that hates to see blood and is too wet or squeamish to be happy at the departure of a tyrant?

The world cannot be worse off without Gaddafi holding any power. The madman is now gone for ever and his tyrannical empire is shattered. Good.

But, as long as we think the rule of law is essential to any civilised or governable democratic society, we cannot pick and choose when the rule of law should apply. Gaddafi’s brutality might well provoke a vengeful response from those who suffered, but suffering does not justify sidelining the rule of law when personally convenient. If we want Robert Mugabe to be held to account by the rule of law which he has abandoned in Zimbabwe, we have to hold to its universality. We cannot hold him to it while allowing others to dismiss it in acts of vengeance. A greater deterrent to other dictators would have been to see Gaddafi and his sons in court, not in fridges.

A civilised society must always see the human body as more than just ‘stuff’. That’s why we bury our dead with dignity. That’s why we don’t just chuck our loved ones into the sea as if the body meant nothing once the life has left it. The body matters.

So, what does it say to us and our children when we glory in the brutalised and torn body of another human being? Is it justified by voyeurism? Or vengeance? Or does it represent a more worrying and capricious reduction of human value?

Muammar Gaddafi was an execrable tyrant who caused misery to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. But, using that fact to justify summary execution, physical torture, desecration of a body bodes ill for when we want to argue that bodies are to be honoured, torture to be rejected, murder to be abhorred. We can’t pick and choose when the rule of law is to apply.

It looks like Gaddafi is on the run with his sons – who must be feeling awfully cheated out of their inheritance. It has been clear for years that their father is – how can we put it politely?- delusional. Those journalists who have met him say that he is lucid one minute and ramblingly incomprehensible the next. (Mind you, he’s not alone in that…)

In his latest (and last) broadcast message to ‘his’ people he said he will fight to win or become a martyr. Interesting use of an over-used word: martyr.

The word comes from the Greek and means ‘a witness’ – that is, one who bears witness to truth that cannot be denied. So, what does Gaddafi think he is a witness of? To which values does he bear witness? To self-aggrandisement, power, hubris, cruelty, domination and rule by fear? Thus, a martyr to delusion and illusion?


Didn’t someone once say, “Blessed are the meek…”? Didn’t that same person grasp the truth that the truth sets you – and, therefore, everyone else – free? And didn’t he propose – against the ridicule of the power-merchants – that rejection of power for it’s own sake is essential… that a cross is preferable to feeding Number one by turning stones into bread for the sake of one’s own security?

I read (on Twitter, I think) that the draft constitution for the putative new Libya owes much to Jesus and Locke. I guess we’ll see.

However, whatever else happens, we need to recover the word ‘martyr’ from its religious misappropriation and its common cheapening in vernacular parlance. Simply dying to make a point is not in any sense ‘martyrdom’. It might be dramatic and it might even be thought heroic. But, if people like Gaddafi think that going down in a hail of bullets as someone ‘sincere’ or ‘passionately committed’ to his cause will somehow mark him down in history as a noble victim, he is going to get a bit of a shock. Posterity will ridicule misguided and hubristic tyranny, not venerate its sincerity.

It’s one of the odder aspects of today’s world that people still say that “as long as you believe in something with sincerity”, that’s OK. Think Stalin. Think Hitler. Think Saddam. Think Robert Mugabe. Think Gaddafi.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Bradford