Bro Duncan PBGV Speaks His Mind

I have been listening to BigSis and LittleSis discussing world events and am frustrated by my inability to tell them what I think, so I’ll tell you instead.

Many big human problems are, in essence, little ones, but you complicate matters with your pride and your long memories of injustice and your inability to forgive. You think you are being brave when you make lots of noise and brandish guns and grenades. You congratulate yourselves when you kill someone. Worst of all, you try to drag God into it. Whether you call him God or Allah doesn’t matter, you blaspheme when you destroy his children, but you don’t seem to recognize that. I’m not sure what sort of heaven or paradise you think you will earn, but I suspect it may be too hot for comfort. Think, for a moment, of all the tears you have caused to stream down the cheeks of people just like yourselves, who love their families and want them to live long and happily. Think of all the pain, and ask yourselves, does it have to be like this?

I have been thinking about all the dogs in France waiting for a Special Someone to come home who won’t be coming home after the terrible attacks on Friday. I don’t think there will be many dogs in Raqqa doing the same after the bombing last night, but I expect there will be lots of cats waiting for their staff to turn up and being disappointed. We dogs and cats are united in this: in our condemnation of violence and the glee with which you humans greet your mutual destruction. BigSis was telling me about all the angry words she has been reading and how people accuse each other of being ‘wet’ and ‘naive’ if they don’t subscribe to the current orthodoxy, and how Muslims are living in fear of retaliation and Christians are worried about further attacks on them and everyone is going round blaming everyone else; and I just want to shout, ‘Stop!’ And I think God wants to shout ‘Stop!’ too, only you humans aren’t listening to him.

I’m not a very clever dog and I don’t do politics or stuff like that but living with Them I have learned something important about Christianity. You can’t stop being Christian when you are under attack. That’s when you really learn what it means to live by the mercy of God, when you learn what it means to forgive and make peace with your enemy. No one ever said it would be easy. When you come to the monastery, the first thing you see is a big cross with the figure of Christ hanging on it. That is the price of mercy and forgiveness. We dogs instinctively understand that; so why don’t you?

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The Confessor and the Conqueror

The feast of St Edward the Confessor tends to be greeted with a smile by most people, if they think of it at all. According to popular myth, he was a bit of a loser: politically inept, childless, more interested in Churchy things than anything else. We look around Westminster Abbey and are grateful, but he is like all those Anglo-Saxon saints with impossible names who seem so long ago and far away that they do not live for us as people of flesh and blood. He is a royal cypher rather than a distinct personality. Compare and contrast him with William the Conqueror. Now there’s someone we can relate to: a larger-than-life figure, ambitious, ruthless, above all, successful. There’s a touch of Lydia Languish about Edward; more than a whiff of Putin about William. But Edward was considered a saint, even in his own lifetime; more than one person thought of William as the devil incarnate. For us today they are a reminder not only of the potency of what we might call popular history but also of  two very different world-views. How many politicians today would be in the running for a halo? How many would be dismissed for caring about the poor or ridiculed for their personal austerities?

If we leave aside the historical myths for a moment, we are confronted with a very contemporary question. How far can a public figure live his or her life according to the values they hold in private? We have grown so accustomed to the idea of the separation of Church and State, for example, that we tend to view religion as a private matter which should not be allowed to intrude in the public sphere. That would have been nonsense to Edward. There was a consistency about the public and the private man that his contemporaries understood and honoured, even if they would have liked him to have been more obviously a warrior and less obviously a wimp. Today there are lots of questions we are told the Church should have no view on, or take no part in deciding, yet every member of the Church is also a citizen and, as a citizen, has both the right and the duty to speak and act in the public sphere. We talk a great deal about rights today. Edward the Confessor reminds us that we have duties, too. Faithfully performed, they can lead us to holiness. They may also, incidentally, lead us to suffering and persecution on the way.

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Sentimentality is Not Enough

When the only news item about refugees and migrants on the BBC’s front page is a subcolumn headed EU tries to resolve migrant quota row, it is clear that there has been a major shift in the nation’s media focus. It does not mean that the problem has gone away or diminished in severity. There are still people clamouring to get to the richer countries of northern Europe; still people enduring appalling conditons; still host countries experiencing confusion and uproar. But we are not really looking. Many individuals have responded generously with money and offers of temporary homes. Some of the latter, I fear, have had more to do with sentimentality than serious consideration of what is most needed. Please don’t think I am belittling such offers, but there is a danger that in our anxiety to do something rather than nothing, we may unconsciously be trying to salve our own consciences rather than finding a solution to the underlying problems. To solve those problems, we must face some uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the situation we face.

A number of commentators have already said the unsayable: that not every person rattling Europe’s cages is a refugee fleeing war and terror; that there is a disproportionate number of young men unaccompanied by women or children; that the absorption of many thousands of Muslims could pose long-term cultural difficulties; that among those entering Europe may be those committed to its destruction. All these things may be true, but we would be untrue to ourselves and our Judaeo-Christian heritage if we didn’t first meet the purely human need of providing food and shelter to those who are lacking such things. But then comes the difficult part. What do we do next? How do we go about absorbing and integrating large numbers of deeply traumatised people? Should we even be thinking in terms of absorbing and integrating anyway? There is the fact that the public purse is not inexhaustible. We cannot complain, on the one hand, about diminishing services and benefits and then, on the other, expect the governments of Europe to cover the costs of resettlement, etc. It can surely not have gone unnoticed that Greece and Italy have borne much of the initial burden of welcome and support.

Politicians will argue endlessly about finance. It is true that Britain is the largest aid donor to Syrian refugees after the U.S.A., outsripping the contributions of other European countries by a considerable margin; but that doesn’t let us off the hook. The unpalatable truth we have to own is that much of the situation we face is of our own creation. The war in Iraq, years of cosying up to Saudi Arabia and oil-rich dictatorships, fighting phoney wars with Russia, even the mistakes, as we now see in retrospect, of British policy in Palestine have contributed to the chaos.

So, what to do? I think we need to support those trying to work out a political solution rather than simply condemn them for their failures. We cannot dismiss the past as of no consequence but, at the same time, we cannot let it dictate the present. Christians believe in redemption, in the possibility of change; and that is surely what we need to work at right now. It won’t be easy. More than one European politician must be having nightmares about civil unrest and trying to calculate how far it is politically expedient to follow one course or another. Such realpolitik should not surprise us. Those with a responsibility to govern, to ensure public order and safety as well as the provision of adequate food, clothing, shelter, etc, cannot be guided by feeling alone. As summer turns to autumn and chill winds begin to blow, it can be helpful to remember that we all need to take risks — and we cannot place the whole burden of doing that on our elected officials. ‘I was a stranger and you made me welcome’ has not lost its force or urgency. It is a sentence directed to each one of us.

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The Importance of Right Judgement

In the ancient prayer for the Consecration to a Life of Virginity attributed to St Leo, there is a petition for the gift of ‘modesty with right judgement, kindness with true wisdom’. How do the stories about Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron currently being circulated by the media measure up to that? Are they helpful? Do they do anything more than satisfy a desire for curiosity or titillation? A man may commit adultery then later learn the importance of fidelity. The stupidities of youth do not necessarily define or last into middle-age. In short, why are we wasting time on the past lives of our politicians when it is their present actions that are most important? True, one may argue that being a philanderer or a drunkard in one’s youth, for example, may lay one open to blackmail/corruption in later life, but I suspect most of us have done or said things which, if they were to be laid against us now as the key to our character or actions, would seem seriously wide of the mark. So, what is this thing called ‘right judgement’? How does it operate? Why does it matter?

I would argue, first and foremost, that right judgement is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is reason informed by grace — a human quality which can be nurtured through prayer, reading, reception of the sacraments and, above all, by practice. It is another name for the gift of counsel, and it is one we stand in need of every day of our lives. We often have to make choices between two or more apparently good things. But we also have to make choices in grey areas, where nothing seems particularly good or bad. Take the stories about Corbyn and Cameron again. Aren’t they inconsequential, read today, forgotten tomorrow? Yes and no. Imperceptibly, they shape our opinion of the two men and, as such, have more importance than might at first appear. We actually have to bring our judgement to bear on the matter, which means deciding how significant they are. We can’t just absorb and ignore.

To exercise judgement with modesty, admitting that we may not always be the best of judges, that not everything is helpful, leads inevitably to that kindness and wisdom of which St Leo speaks. They are qualities we tend to prize in others rather than ourselves. Wouldn’t it be useful to spend a moment or two thinking about how we could cultivate them in our own lives? Right judgement isn’t a rarefied spiritual quality; it is a very practical one.

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St Bartholomew and Baalshamin

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra
Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra

Time was when the legends surrounding the death of the Apostle Bartholomew seemed remote and unapproachable. Who but a barbarian would flay the skin from anyone? Such cruel and unusual torments belonged to a distant age or were the creation of an over-heated imagination. Sadly, we know better now. The enormities of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries show us that the dark side of human nature does not change. The napalm that stripped the skin from Vietnamese civilians, the brutalities of IS and Boko Haram, what are they but contemporary instances of that same deadly impulse to destroy?

The desire to inflict pain takes many forms. The destruction of the temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra may not have resulted in the death of anyone*, but to destroy the artefacts of the past, to destroy the cultural heritage of the Greco-Roman world, is to inflict a grievous wound on Western civilization. That, presumably, was the intention. But there may be something the perpetrators have failed to consider. Just as the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, so attempts to destroy Western civilization may actually invigorate it. There surely has to come a turning-point when we in the West will stop wringing our hands or lamenting what is done and make clear where we stand. How we do that, I don’t know. Personally, I don’t believe a military ‘solution’ is any solution at all. Just as St Bartholomew did not resist his captors but ultimately triumphed over them, we need to decide what we truly value and follow the logic of our decision. Something worth thinking about, I suggest.

*Please see this post for 22 August.

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The Two Koreas, St Pius X and the Way to Peace

There is a terrible irony in the fact that this morning the war of words between the two Koreas has escalated. It is no longer just a matter of rhetoric or small arms fire: there has been an artillery exchange and North Korea has been placed on a war footing. It is said that St Pius X died of a broken heart at the outbreak of World War I, and there is surely something in that memory we could all usefully think about.

We tend to think of Piux X in connection with the liturgy or the reform of canon law. Some will reflect on his efforts to improve clergy training and discipline while those of us who love Gregorian chant honour him for having fostered its revival. Scripture scholars probably think more of his foundation of an institute for scriptural studies or his inauguration of a revision of the Latin text of the Bible (the Vulgate). Others again will dwell on his separation of Church and State and his vehement opposition to political organizations laying claim to religious sanction. But I wonder how many will remember those homilies he preached Sunday by Sunday in the courtyards of the Vatican on his favourite theme: the restoration of all things in Christ and the ushering in of peace on earth.

Peace is more than the absence of war, but it has to begin with a cessation of hostilities. While the world looks on aghast at the atrocities of IS or worries about what might happen in the Korean Peninsula, there is a challenge all of us, without exception, need to accept. For there to be peace in the world, there must first be peace in ourselves. Unless we are prepared to lay aside old grievances, face up to old injustices, admit misunderstandings and the mistrust born of them, how can we realistically expect any change in others? It may sound idealistic, even naive; but perhaps if a few more people had been prepared to be reckoned simpletons, the tragic slaughter of World War I could have been avoided. We may be tempted to smile at the antics of Kim Jong-un as others once smiled at the reaction to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It would be more to the point to ask the prayers of St Pius X instead.

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Calais and the Language of Fear

Anyone who has been following media reports of the disturbances in Calais will have been struck by the way in which the language we use reveals more hidden attitudes. The BBC seems to have opted for ‘migrants’ as the most neutral term it can find to describe those trying to make their way into Britain via the Eurotunnel. Add ‘illegal’ to ‘migrant’ and one immediately has a more disapproving idea of the people involved. Why should anyone think they have the right to enter Britain? Aren’t they already in a free country (France)? They only want to come here so they can enjoy a better standard of living at our expense! Conversely, call such people ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers’ and a more positive note is sounded. What unimaginable horrors they have fled from, and at what cost! A compassionate society must provide for them. Shame on those who show reluctance! How we talk about all the others caught up in the disturbances, from the French police or Eurotunnel guards to British lorry-drivers/holiday-makers, also reflects our underlying attitudes.

What I think is indisputable is that we are all, in some measure, afraid. Our language about Calais is the language of fear, whether we take a positive or negative view of people and events. Some are afraid of being swamped by an alien tide of immigrants; others are afraid of being found wanting in compassion, of inhumanity to those most in need. Ask me where I myself stand and I can’t answer because the situation is too complex. How does one weigh the case of a young person fleeing poverty and distress against (significant word!) that of the middle-aged lorry-driver whose freight company is being pushed towards financial collapse? Everyone wants the situation resolved peacefully and soon, but how shall we be fair to everyone involved?

To many, it will seem lame and inadequate to say that, unless we are called upon to give practical help, the only answer is prayer; but there is a very important truth contained in that answer. Prayer, because it invites God into a situation, opens it up in a way impossible to us as mere human beings. It drives out fear and selfishness (which is only another kind of fear) and allows us to work for the common good. In all the debate about what should or should not be done in Calais, no one seems to have addressed the importance of changing the economic/political circumstances that drive people to make that hazardous journey to Europe in the first place. Until we do something about that, I suspect we are destined to go on being afraid. Calais is a challenge to more than the way we use words. It is a challenge to the way we view the world.

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What Do We Mean by Democracy?

A single, short question for Monday morning. What do we mean by ‘democracy’? No one denies that the origins of the word are to be found in the Greek ‘demos’ = people and ‘kratia’ = power or rule, but what do we mean by them?

When Alexis Tsipras talked about the ‘democratic mandate’ he had received from the Greek people as a result of last week’s referendum, he overlooked one rather obvious point. Every other elected E.U. leader also has a ‘democratic mandate’, and is answerable to his/her own country for the decisions made with regard to Greece and the Eurozone. Similarly, we are seeing a wave of tweets and posts about ‘Tory cuts’ which suggest that the writers do not accept that the government of the day has any democratic legitimacy. So what does confer democratic legitimacy in Britain, or indeed Europe, today? It is, hopefully, something more objective and quantifiable than my mere personal opinion.

Before anyone leaps in to say, for example, that Greece is being unjustly treated, or that the Tories are this that or the other, may I make two further obvious points? There isn’t a simple right or wrong answer to the Greek crisis — not in my view, at least. What the Eurozone leaders decide has implications for every other member state, so whatever is going on behind those closed doors in Brussels, we can be quite sure that a lot of self-interest and trading of positions is involved. The argument, in other words, won’t just be about Greece. Similarly, whatever one thinks about government policy on any particular issue, does any individual or group have the right to do more than challenge the government via the democratic processes we already have? What are the limits of dissent?

Our understanding of democracy is important because I think Europe now lacks any other single cohesive force (see my 11 July post). If democracy is the only value on which we can agree, that has huge implications for our moral and ethical principles. Many people take their ideas of right and wrong from the law; so, if the ultimate arbiter of what is right or wrong is to be found in democracy and the institutions of the democratic state, we had better start thinking what we truly mean by democracy itself. If all the big questions are, in the end, political (i.e. related to citizenship), they are also religious and related to our lives under God.

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Anti-German Sentiment

Like everyone else with an interest in financial and political matters, I have followed events in Greece with increasing concern. This isn’t the place to argue what should/should not be done. I don’t know, and I’m pretty sure that many of those who rush to comment don’t know, either. What I have become very conscious of, however, is the anti-German sentiment powering much of the Greek people’s opposition to the various bailout programmes proposed by the E.U. Die-hard opponents of Britain’s membership of the E.U. like to remind anyone who will listen of a certain German general’s prophecy at the end of World War II, to the effect that Germany might have lost that war but would win the economic one. Today, in Europe, there are many who feel that Germany dictates economic policy to other nation states. There may not be the same intensity of loathing that some in Greece have displayed recently, but still there is a fund of anti-German sentiment that is troubling.

Today is the anniversary of the beheading of St Thomas More. One way of dealing with opposition is to cut off its head, either literally, as in the case of More, or figuratively, as in the case of Greece and its likely exclusion from the Eurozone. It is much harder to weigh arguments and open oneself up to the possibility one may be wrong. No one outside Greece doubts the corruption and economic mismanagement that led to the present situation, but the solutions proposed hitherto may be too ‘north European’. Couldn’t part of the problem be that those of us who live in northern Europe expect everyone in southern Europe to think and behave as we do? Phrases like ‘austerity’,  ‘economic discipline’, ‘retrenchment and reform’ sound differently under southern skies. Maybe when we ask why Greeks can’t be more like Germans we’d do well to admit the long shadows cast by history and examine our own attitudes. Anti-German sentiment isn’t something that concerns Greece only. It is a thinly-disguised element in some of the debate about Britain’s membership of the E.U., too.

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The Morning After #GE2015

There are advantages to being a nun when General Elections are held. One goes to bed at the usual hour then awakes to a world a-buzz with comment. Twitter this morning is awash with tweets containing a degree of infallibility that might surprise even the pope. For some, we face disaster; for others, a golden era beckons. Both are wrong. What we face is largely unknown. We know there will be some very important decisions to be made — about our place in Europe and the shape of the Union, for example — but the predictable is often blown out of the sky by the unforeseen. We are not just a small group of islands able to live wholly self-sufficiently. What happens in Washington, Beijing or Moscow, in the boardrooms of multi-nationals or on the streets of Syria or Iran, can have a huge effect on what happens here. Even the actions of a single rogue trader, manipulating stock markets, or someone anonymously hacking the IT systems of a nation state, can have immense consequences for us.

Today brings us not only the General Election results but also a reminder of VE Day, the seventieth anniversary, in fact. World War II may seem a distant event to many, but we live with its consequences, both good and bad, even today. As we remember those who gave their lives for the freedoms we now enjoy, and reflect sadly that the world is still at war in many places, we can also reflect on both the fragility and strength of our democratic processes. We need to pray for H.M. Government, H.M. Opposition, the Civil Service and all who have a role to play in the business of government and the implementation of policy. We may like or dislike individual parties and their policies, but the important thing is surely to try to do the best we can for everyone — to put into action what we, as Christians, often claim to have: a sense of moral purpose, a commitment to the common good, a desire to be of service to others. These are not small things, but they can be hard to achieve.

Many today will also be quietly celebrating Julian of Norwich and her wise and generous vision of a world in which all shall be well, because it is held fast by the hand of God. That hope and vision are a comfort and inspiration, but they require our co-operation to be realized. The General Election is the end of one process and the beginning of another, just as much as VE Day marked the end of the war in Europe and the beginning of the building of the peace. The one thing we can safely predict is that it isn’t going to be easy.

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