Ascension Sunday and World Communications Day

With luck, I’ll not have to write the words ‘Ascension Sunday’ next year as we live in hope that the feast will be restored to its proper day, but World Communications Day is likely to be with us for some time to come. Is there any link between the two? Does celebration of the Ascension enrich our understanding of world communications?

The theme for this year’s World Communications Day is Truth, proclamation and authenticity of life in the digital age. It isn’t difficult to make a case for a link between the two with truth and proclamation. When the Lord Jesus ascended, the disciples were scarcely allowed to gaze into heaven before they were sent on their way to proclaim the Good News of salvation. Similarly, we are urged to use every means open to us to proclaim Christ and champion truth in our everyday lives. So far so good, but what are we to do about ‘authenticity of life in the digital age’? Is that just another empty phrase that falls from the lips of clergy trying very hard to sound ‘relevant’ in a world that has largely given up listening to them?

I have to admit that I have difficulty with the word ‘authentic’. Generally, I use it to mean ‘genuine’ but ‘genuineness of life in the digital age’ doesn’t convey very much to me. ‘Authentic’ can mean ‘faithfully resembling an original’ but with the original in question not spelled out, that doesn’t really help, either. A third meaning of ‘authentic’ is ‘based on facts, reliable’ which is certainly helpful as regards how one would wish to communicate, but I’m not sure it really fits the idea of living as such. Could it be that this phrase, so often used in religious documents, is reflecting the Existentialists’ ’emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life’? Well, that’s all right as far as it goes, but doesn’t it leave out something rather important? One of the gifts with which God graces human beings is humour, fun, a delight in the world he has created.

There are many places in the gospels where we see the Lord Jesus teasing people or playfully responding to the quips of others. Worried disciples had to be reassured that every hair on their head had been numbered or that taxes would be paid even if their purse was empty (surely there was a chuckle as Peter went off to fish in the lake for his half-shekel); the Syro-Phoenician woman won Jesus over with her repartee; the Samaritan Woman almost bantered her way into salvation. Even the excess of that first miracle at Cana has more than a hint of joyful exuberance about it. Shouldn’t our lives have something of the same?

To me ‘authenticity of life in the digital age’ shouldn’t be all grim purposefulness but should include an element of light-heartedness. So, whether we tweet or blog or FB, let it be as whole people, able to laugh as well as mourn, to joke as well as preach. I can’t help feeling that the Ascension had some divine humour in it. As the Lord Jesus ascended, the disciples were left gazing skywards and had to be prodded into action by a vision of angels. Even now, they did not fully understand. Surely, a huge smile spread over heaven.

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The End of the World

Apparently, some people think the end of the world will come this week-end (21 May, to be precise). I cannot say that it would be a great surprise if it did. We have had more than enough of ‘wars and rumours of wars’, earthquakes, fires and tsunamis, deadly plagues and all manner of human wickedness envisioned by the writer of the Apocalypse and every other religious visionary. I daresay some people are running to their bunkers in the hope of surviving a little while, rather hopeless if you think about it. What shall we be doing here at the monastery? What we always do, I suppose. Part of me thinks that if the world should end I’d like to be kneeling in prayer, giving glory to God; but if I’m meant to be cleaning out the recycling bins or casting up figures for accounts that will never be audited, that’s what I’ll do. It is where I’ll be looked for, after all.

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A Morning Walk

This morning the dog took us for a walk through the lambing fields and along the edge of a coppice before returning via the Hendred brook and under the trees. Nothing very remarkable in that, you may think, but oh, how wrong you’d be! It was one of those ‘anonymous’ mornings — not very sunny, but warm and bright, like a thousand other mornings. The grass was thick and high, the cow parsley jostling with buttercups and one or two lingering bluebells. Wrens and finches appeared in abundance, all going about their lawful occasions, while red kites wheeled overhead with their peculiar mewing cry. We glimpsed a hare and smelled where a fox had lain; the ewes called after their lambs and the lambs, very properly, ignored their mothers, save when a trip to the milk bar seemed in order. It was all very ordinary and all very extraordinary at the same time. The Psalmist understood this well when he wrote of the landscape of Israel with its rabbits and goats and doves and swallows. ‘Let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord.’ This morning, I rather think it did.

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Women’s World Day of Prayer 2011

Map of Ivory CoastLast night I could not sleep. Trying to pray failed to cure my insomnia, so I fell back on listening to the World Service. A report from Ivory Coast shocked me. A woman described how a group of about 5,000 unarmed women had gathered to march in support of Alassane Ouattara. As they began to do so, tanks appeared and at least six women were gunned down by the security forces (the woman speaking claimed eight were shot, including one pregnant woman whose womb was ripped open and another whose head was blown off in front of her). This morning, that report is not even mentioned on the front page of the BBC news web site. To me, that is eloquent both of the quiet heroism of many women and their “unimportance”.

It is ironic yet strangely fitting that the news should reach us today, which is Women’s World Day of Prayer. Had those Ivorean women been hurling sticks and stones, I suppose the story might have been more newsworthy, but they were defenceless, in a part of Africa no one except God thinks about very much or very often. Today huge numbers of women throughout the world will be gathering together to pray, and the prayer of all will be one with the prayer of the powerless and “unimportant” in every age. I believe such prayer is powerful with God. Perhaps the death of those women in Ivory Coast may help bring about the political change which no amount of diplomatic dealing or violence has yet been able to do. I certainly hope so.

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Gaddafi and the Problem of Tyranny

Watching the very public agonizing of President Obama and others over what to do about Libya set me thinking about the way in which Christian writers have attempted to deal with the problem of tyranny. That it is a problem is obvious. You have only to read Romans 13. 1-7, which seems to recommend absolute submission to earthly rulers (and has often been quoted by earthly rulers as justification for whatever they want to do) to see the dimension of the problem. People must put up with anything and everything, right?

Some Christians would certainly agree. Indeed, those of us who have vowed obedience to a religious superior know that our vow obliges us to obedience in all that is not sin. The problem comes when we and our superior disagree on what constitutes sin (folly is a sin, dear Mother) or we venture into that grey area which St Thomas Aquinas describes as “not sin, but sharing in the nature of sin.”

St Thomas gave a lot of thought to that passage from Romans. In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (Bk2, dist.44, quest. 2, art 2), he makes a distinction between authority derived from God and authority that isn’t. In other words, rulers must fulfil certain conditions if they are to be obeyed. He provides this helpful little guide to identifying rulers whose authority is not God-given:

But, as we have already said, authority may fail to derive from God for two reasons: either because of the way in which authority has been obtained, or in consequence of the use which is made of it.

There are two ways in which the first case may occur. Either because of a defect in the person, if he is unworthy; or because of some defect in the way itself by which power was acquired, if, for example, through violence, or simony or some other illegal method. The first defect is not such as to impede the acquisition of legitimate authority; and since authority derives always, from a formal point of view, from God (and it is this which produces the duty of obedience), their subjects are always obliged to obey such superiors, however unworthy they may be. But the second defect prevents the establishment of any just authority: for whoever possesses himself of power by violence does not truly become lord or master. Therefore it is permissible, when occasion offers, for a person to reject such authority; except in the case that it subsequently became legitimate, either through public consent or through the intervention of higher authority.

With regard to the abuse of authority, this also may come about in two ways. First, when what is ordered by an authority is opposed to the object for which that authority was constituted (if, for example, some sinful action is commanded or one which is contrary to virtue, when it is precisely for the protection and fostering of virtue that authority is instituted). In such a case, not only is there no obligation to obey the authority, but one is obliged to disobey it, as did the holy martyrs who suffered death rather than obey the impious commands of tyrants. Secondly, when those who bear such authority command things which exceed the competence of such authority; as, for example, when a master demands payment from a servant which the latter is not bound to make, and other similar cases. In this instance the subject is free to obey or disobey.

Thomas goes on to argue that both passive and active resistance to tyranny are allowable. He also considers whether and under what conditions it is legitimate to kill a tyrant. With regard to the tyranny of Julius Caesar he concludes that “in such a case, one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant is to be praised and rewarded.” That is strong stuff and is the natural consequence of what he has to say about the nature of legitimate authority, how it is conferred and how it should operate. Thomas’s principal concern is for the good of the community (which reminds us he was a medieval, not a modern, man) but he was aware of what Walter Ullmann called the “ascending theme of government”, the need for the people’s consent. Only those who protect the good of the people are legitimate rulers in St Thomas’s eyes.

I find it interesting that St Thomas should write so clearly about a problem that exercises our minds today. At what point does someone cease to be a legitimate ruler, what are the limits of obedience and what is the scope of legitimate disobedience? The answer might have surprised my novice mistress.

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Of Flags, Flowers and Dreams of Freedom

One of the minor pleasures of modern mass communications is seeing what world leaders like to have as backdrops. The President of the United States of America is invariably accompanied by flags; the President of Russia seems to prefer some nondescript bits and pieces of technology and some very grand paintings (not difficult when one has at one’s disposal the treasures of the Hermitage); the Egyptian Military Council has flags, of course, but also some rather stiff arrangements of flowers improbably placed around the Council’s horseshoe desk.

During World War II my father served in North Africa. Some of his books are filled with wild flowers picked on the battlefields or gathered on ‘sight-seeing’ trips during rare intervals of rest and recuperation. This morning I found several from Egypt: fragile, crinkled blooms of unfamiliar flowers. They made me reflect that tyranny, like the poor, is always with us, only the names change. The thought that today is the anniversary of the Dresden bombing is a further reminder of the dreadful things we can do in pursuit of freedom and peace. Those flowers around the Egyptian military are surely meant to be reassuring. Let us hope that they presage better things for all Egypt’s citizens.

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Ideals versus Interests

Half the world has its eyes on Cairo at the moment, and there is every chance that this blog post will be overtaken by events. One aspect of the reporting which has fascinated me is the way in which it has shown the uneasy tension between the west’s ideals and interests. On the one hand, democracy is canonized; on the other, the west’s diplomatic and commercial interests seem paramount.

I’m not sure any western leader would really like to see a democratic Saudi Arabia (Osama bin Laden for President, anyone?) but it’s difficult to press purely selfish concerns in the light of what is happening in Egypt. Personally, I was much heartened by President Obama’s latest speech, in which he came down firmly on the side of his ideals. But he knows, as we all know, that if President Mubarak doesn’t go, he’s got to continue to work with him for many months. That is realpolitik, twenty-first century style.

To pray for our leaders, to pray for our governments, is no idle prayer.

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Out of Egypt

Henri Pirenne used to say that Africa began at the Pyrenees. I always thought he should have said that the Middle East began at the Pyrenees. Now, with the ethnic complexity of Europe as a whole, I think we can claim that the Middle East is all around and what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere has profound implications for us all — and I am not talking about oil prices!

I was looking at some statistics gathered by the BBC and was struck by how young the population of Egypt is. The median age is only 24 (in Yemen it is 17.89). You can check for yourself here. The combination of youth and violence is a heady one, so one must wonder not only how long President Mubarak can hang on, but also what we can expect in his stead from a fragmented and inexperienced opposition. Tunisia, Jordan, and Yemen are experiencing their own political upheavals so that the stability of the whole region is in question.What the west fears more than anything is a power vacuum which might allow regimes dominated by Islamist extremists and some kind of ‘over-reaction’ from Israel.

Those who do not themselves believe may find the idea of Christians falling to their knees and praying for a peaceful outcome to these situations rather funny. What could be more pointless than asking God to solve a problem we ourselves cannot? That is to misunderstand what we are doing, and even more what we are asking God to do. Prayer for peace in the Middle East means taking something of the confusion and conflict into ourselves and lovingly, trustingly, holding it before the Lord. We cannot change what is happening in Egypt but perhaps we ourselves can change so that the risk of confrontation is reduced. We can become channels of God’s peace.

Long ago, one of the sages of Israel wrote, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’ and it was to Egypt that Mary and Joseph fled with the Child Jesus to escape the wrath of Herod. No Christian can be indifferent to what happens there. We owe Egypt a huge debt of gratitude if nothing else.

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Heritage Security

People matter more than things, agreed; but no one watching the turbulence in Egypt can be indifferent to what has happened at the Cairo Museum. The damage to the mummies and the loss of precious artefacts recalls the terrible loss of material in Iraq or, a couple of decades earlier, in Lebanon. Yet, to many of our commentators, the effect on oil prices and speculation about the political consequences of what looks increasingly like the fall of the Mubarak regime is what matters.

For much of the twentieth century we in Europe thought of security in military and political terms. Defend ourselves against aggressors and all would ultimately be well. In the last twenty years or so, we have come to recognize that food and water security are even more essential, something our forebears understood but which we in our increasingly urban lives could easily forget. Looking at what is happening in Egypt, I want to ask if there isn’t another kind of “security” we need to think about, heritage security.

When I was a child, my mother used to go once a week to visit someone I’ll call Hedwig. Hedwig had escaped one of the German death camps but she had lost everything she valued. Pretty well all she had was contained in a carrier bag which she carried with her everywhere. What she most lamented was the fact that she had lost every physical remembrance of her family and culture and was adrift in a land where she didn’t speak the language very well and could share nothing of her inner world of memory and reference. She had been robbed of her heritage, which also meant for her a loss of identity.

We define ourselves in many different ways, but our sense of belonging to a group (be it family, nation, Church or whatever) is largely expressed through our ownership of places, language, artefacts and rituals. We can survive the loss of some of these but not all. Even losing some can do enormous damage. There are still Hedwigs in the world, and because what they suffer isn’t tangible, we tend to dismiss its importance. Perhaps we need to value our heritage more, not just because it is beautiful or interesting, but because it is intimately bound up with our sense of being human.

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Just Wondering

First we had Wikileaks, splattering our screens with all kinds of “private” information from the diplomatic bags of American officials. Now we have Egypt suspended in internet isolation while the Mubarak regime struggles to hold on to power. Has the web changed our understanding of freedom? It has certainly made the exercise of it more dangerous.

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