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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Starfish

This article about starfish on the BBC web site caught my attention this morning. Anyone who has sarcoidosis or asthma or even plain old arthritis will recognize at once the potential here hinted at. When the body’s immune system rages out of control and inflammation levels rocket sky-high, the only available therapies have unpleasant side-effects. (That michelin-man look may be prednisolone- rather than Macdonald’s- induced.)

It’s a striking reminder how much we have still to learn about the natural world. The number of endangered species on the planet is frightening. We lament, rightly, what their loss would mean in terms of biodiversity and beauty. What we tend not to consider is how much our own species stands to lose. Many of us are still too hung up on energy to consider the wider implications of species loss: possible medical benefits and the like.

The Christian Churches do not have a united response to ecology questions but there is in the Rule of St Benedict a guiding principle we can apply. The cellarer of the monastery is to treat all its goods and property “as though they were sacred altar vessels”. There couldn’t be a clearer statement of our responsibilities towards the natural world or the material things we use. What God has created is good and should be treated in a good way because everything in creation is of interest and concern to him and ultimately for our good, too.

To put it another way: it isn’t only every sparrow that has been counted, it’s every starfish, too.

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