President Macron’s Armistice speech – is nationalism the only evil?

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On Sunday 11 November 2018, President Macron of France gave a powerful speech at L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Before him were gathered leaders of the allied powers, including Presidents Trump and Putin. The UK was represented by David Lidington as First Secretary of State. There was no member of the Royal Family present. The Cenotaph ceremony in Whitehall is a bigger focus in the British mind.

Those gathered in Paris heard Macron launch a stinging attack on nationalism:

Let us remember: do not deprive anything of what was purity, ideal, superior principles in the patriotism of our elders. This vision of France as a generous nation, of France as a project, of France carrying universal values, was in those dark hours exactly the opposite of the selfishness of a people who look only at their interests. For patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is treason. By saying “our interests first and what do the others matter!” we erase from a nation what is most precious, what makes it live, what brings it to be great, which is the most important: its moral values.

These words were obviously intended to hit out at both President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, and at the manoeuvres of the Putin regime. But we need to define nationalism carefully. Nationalism is not ‘the opposite of patriotism.’ Patriotism is an essential part of our cultural identity and, as Macron explained, is to be lived according to moral values (but which ones?) Nationalism is the perversion of patriotism, because it takes love of one’s own nation one step further by idolising our nation and fearing all others. It does not take much to make that step, because the human condition is sinful, arrogant and inherently proud, and if that is true at the personal level, it is magnified at the national level. Patriotism easily descends into nationalism, a danger we must always be aware of.

But here is Macron’s bigger mistake, even to the point of subtly re-writing history. The First World War was not caused by nationalism, so much as imperialism. True, it was a Serb nationalist who lit the touch-paper by assassinating Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. But the explosion this caused came about because Europe was in the grip of huge rival empires, so powerful that some of them were clubbed together in security pacts to stand against the threat of the others. Britain, France and Russia were tied together by treaty, and Russia felt a close affinity to Serbia as another Slavic nation so they went to her defence. Germany stood with Austria-Hungary against Russia, and so Britain and France came into the war. It was a clash of imperial powers. At the heart of the imperial mindset is hubris, expressed so well in the French word Superieur. We know better, and because of that we have the right to rule other nations and extend our empire. The honour of the empire must not be threatened, and war is justifiable if the empire’s repute is in some way impugned. The primary issue that caused the slaughter of millions in the First World War was imperialism, not nationalism.

At the end of the war, President Wilson of America outlined his fourteen points that would form the basis of the post-war settlement. Being convinced of the right to national self-determination, he had no desire to perpetuate any empire, but the British and French governments steadfastly stood by theirs, while watching the German/Prussian, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires crumble, waiting to grab the spoils of war to extend their dominions, particularly into the Middle East as well as Africa. At the same time, several European nations used Wilson’s speech to justify their own claims to self-determination, and countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic States and Finland claimed their freedom through the peace settlement. Empires had been vanquished, and in their place came bitter nationalisms that led to the Second World War.

President Macron praised ‘the United Nations, a guarantor of a spirit of cooperation to defend the common goods of a world whose destiny is indissolubly linked and which has learned the lessons of the painful failures of the League of Nations and of the Treaty from Versailles.’ I agree with these words. But his enthusiasm for ‘the European Union, a union freely agreed, never seen in history, and delivering us from our civil wars’ is more worrying. He is a true believer in the EU, but does not realise that his vision is an imperial one. The European project must not be challenged. Those who want to leave are presumed to have hostile intent by doing so, and must not be allowed to do so easily. He spoke of the danger that others want to ‘ruin this hope by their fascination for withdrawal, violence and domination [which] would be an error that future generations would rightly take on historical responsibility.’ [Forgive google translate here please!]

But that is precisely where he is wrong. Withdrawal from the EU does not mean a resort to violence and domination. The seeds of domination are already sown in the ever closer union that the EU elite insist upon, that brings down governments and overrides the will of the people in order to preserve the wider EU ‘project.’ Such imperialism is the very thing that will cause nations to feel the EU’s oppression, and make them want to tear away from the EU. Suppress that desire for independence, and you could end up in another European war.

There is a deeper problem still. In the final part of his speech he spoke of the dead, standing as he was in front of the French tomb of the unknown warrior. He said ‘That on the tombs where they rest, flourish the certainty that a better world is possible if we want it, if we decide it, if we build it, if we demand it with all our soul.’ Expressed in those words is the modern secular mindset, that there is no God, and that we can build our own destiny if only we have the will. Surely, in reflecting on what two world wars have done in Europe, this hubris is utterly misplaced.

We should rather be looking for a different road, neither the imperial road that leads to war and domination (and eventually defeat) nor the road of nationalism that idolises our country and hates all others. Rather, we should be following a road where our national life is lived out under God, where we confess our national sins and personal hatreds, where in war we love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, and where we know that we do not have anything as a nation that we have not received from the hand of a good and gracious God. It is my hope and prayer that as we reflect on the war that killed so many, our desire will not be just to rail against nationalism but also against empire, and to follow a third way, the biblical road of nationhood lived out in humility under the sovereignty of God.

 

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In Brussels and Strasbourg – a Brexiteer on holiday

IMG_20180728_151138In any disagreement, it is good advice to go and step into the other person’s shoes. Our summer holiday provided the perfect opportunity, as we based ourselves first near Brussels and then in the Nord Vosges west of Strasbourg. We’ve had more holidays in Eastern France and the Low counties than anywhere else, because we love the culture and history of each nation, as well as the manifest beauty of each landscape. Yet I am convinced that Brexit is right for the UK, and increasingly sure that something similar would be good for many EU countries. But have I missed something? Why do dedicated Europhiles love the EU? Seeing things from the perspective of the heart of the EU might be helpful.

When you visit the Parliamentarium in Brussels, the visitor centre at the EU Parliament, you can have the whole raison d’etre of the EU explained to you. The EU exists because of Europe’s history. It is a fear of the past that drives the determination to integrate into an ever closer union. Set into the wall in a darkened room in the exhibition, screen after screen narrates the sad story of early 20th century carnage. Europe was laid waste by war, and only in the ruins of the late 1940s did a new Europe begin to be fashioned.

It is important to realise that for continental Europeans this experience goes much further back, to Napoleon and beyond. While Britain played a major part in defeating Corsica’s most famous son, we kept out of the conflicts that followed, particularly the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, because we were too busy fighting colonial wars elsewhere and were more concerned to extend our expanding empire. For the French, their war with Prussia was yet another bloodletting between neighbours, so dreadful that when it was over they commissioned a great monument to the fallen, the basilica in Paris known as La Sacré Coeur. It was completed in 1914! The killing fields of the Western Front in WW1, in which my Gt. Uncle died, another Gt. Uncle was wounded and my Grandfather also served, were yet worse for the French, especially on battlefields such as Verdun in the centre of France. In January 1918 President Woodrow Wilson made a speech setting out a new doctrine in international relations, his ‘fourteen points’ that established the principle of national self-determination. When the armistice was signed in November 1918, this let loose a wave of nationalism. The old empires of Europe – Russia, Germany and Austria Hungary – gave up territory to make way for new states such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and Poland re-emerged. Empires were to be a thing of the past, at least for the vanquished.

What Wilson had not reckoned with was the growth of National Socialism, in Germany, Italy, and Spain, and the success of Bolshevism in the Soviet Union. All these countries practiced a cult of religious nationalism, idolising their leaders and their nations with rituals and parades that seem utterly absurd to us now, but which people obviously believed at the time. When such nationalism had laid Europe waste again, in a total war that killed civilians as deliberately as it killed soldiers, there was a new consensus to build something bold and new.  The Parliamentarium exhibition is filled with quotes from the founding era of the European movement, and it is fascinating to see how they explain themselves. One that struck my notice was the Geneva Draft Declaration (II) on European Federation:

‘During the lifetime of one generation Europe has twice been the centre of a world conflict whose chief cause was the existence of thirty sovereign states in Europe. It is a most urgent task to end this international anarchy by creating a European Federal Union.’

Two world wars were blamed on the existence of ‘sovereign states’ across Europe! Independence and national sovereignty must always lead to war – a claim no doubt challenged by countries like Sweden and Switzerland. For a more recent voice expressing the same view, turn to Liliane Maury Pasquier, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.[1] She said:

‘As an organisation that brings together almost all European states on the basis of common values, principles and legal standards, the Council of Europe is today best placed to help meet the challenges raised by growing nationalism and avoid the building of new walls….upholding multilateralism as an essential weapon against sovereigntist attacks on our shared values.’

Do you see the same idea being expressed? The problem with Europe is ‘sovereigntism’ and ‘nationalism’ as the inevitable causes of war, while the only way to break that is to achieve what the EU calls ‘ever closer union.’ Indeed, the European Parliament’s other new and grander home in Strasbourg is built to look like a work still in progress, its circular walls intentionally unfinished to convey the idea of a single Europe still being constructed. There is in the EU psyche a genuine conviction that they are the only means by which Europe can be spared again from another appalling war. For that reason, they see Brexit as potentially unleashing the dogs of war. If it can be frustrated, and if necessary governments that support it can be destabilised so that the British change their mind, the European project can continue on its way.

Yet I believe that the European Union is fast becoming the most likely cause of another war in Europe. The EU is becoming an empire, concentrating power at the unaccountable centre, fighting to protect its own interests, bending its own principles to ensure that it stays together at all costs. This way of going on is nothing new. It was how every empire operated, and alienated and oppressed those it dominated until they rose up against it. It happened with Napoleon’s France, and in the British, Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian empires, and you can see the new empires of the US, China and America learning the same character traits.

Wars are caused when empires and nationalisms collide. Both are evil. The view I seek to express on this blog is that the biblical understanding of nationhood avoids both extremes, and seeks to plough a third way, the way God intended us to live. Nations are to live together peacefully, side by side, each rejoicing in its own national conversation, cherishing its own language, culture and history, but also rejoicing in the culture, language and history of its neighbours and relating to them peacefully and generously. Each nation should be humble enough not to think of itself more highly than it ought to think. It ought to recognise that national borders are porous, not least because of marriage and migration, and thus every nation is always in a rich process of change and development. When a nation idolises itself, it always ends up hating and distrusting its neighbours. When a nation thinks so much of itself that it feels the urge to dominate all other nations around it, it has started to form an empire, which can only be achieved or maintained by oppression.  There is a close connection between nationalism and empire. One often leads to the other.

Empires caused the First World War. Woodrow Wilson saw national self-determination as the antidote to empire, thereby giving rise to nationalism, and the kind of self-obsessed idolatrous nations (Nazi and Bolshevik) that went out to build new empires by aggressive force. Empire will never be the antidote to nationalism, because idolatrous nationalism always leads to empire, given the opportunity.

At the centre of the carnage of too many European wars sits the city of Strasbourg, a city in France that sits next to the Rhine, and whose tram system crosses over into Germany. It has changed hands several times, and as a visitor one is not quite sure whether it is German or French. Staff who can tell you are not French may greet you in German then be confused to find that you are British. It is entirely understandable that the people of Strasbourg and Alsace never want to see war again. But what can keep them, and all Europe, from war? Two independent nations, humbled by the follies of the past, ought to be able to live alongside one another without ambitions that lead to war. Instead, I fear that an empire with its Parliament in Strasbourg will only serve over time to make other nations hate the place.

There are several aspects of the EU that already have the hallmarks of an empire. The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg can override national legislators and tell them to think again, thereby challenging the will of the people. The rules of the Eurozone were bent to get Italy and Greece into the Eurozone, and then when it proved unsustainable, everything had to bow to the survival of the Euro, even if that meant bringing down elected governments in Athens and Rome. The Schengen treaty is also seen as essential to European unity, even when a migration crisis makes such open borders seriously questionable. The EU is also good at colonising institutions that operated quite happily without it. The European Space Agency existed separate from the EU for many years, and has member states who are not EU members, such as Switzerland and Norway, as well as relationships with Canada and Israel. For years ESA operated free from EU interference, but since 2004 the EU has been taking a closer involvement in the running of ESA, and would like it to be considered an agency of the EU. Not only that, the EU Commission is determined to prevent the UK using ESA’s Galileo GPS satellite system post-Brexit, even though the UK has chipped in £1.4bn. What this means is that the EU has colonised another institution, and is determined to push out member states that will not toe their line. Imagine what it would be like if the EU created a European army, thereby undermining the cohesion of NATO.

I understand the fear of another European total war, and why people would be motivated to pursue any grands projets to try and prevent it. However, the answer is not another European empire. Empires have done as much if not more damage in Europe that nationalism. Neither will keep the peace of Europe. There are plenty of other ways for independent sovereign nations to cooperate together peacefully without surrendering their sovereignty, and so to live together on this war-scarred continent with humility and respect.

[1] Don’t confuse the Council of Europe with the European Union. The Council of Europe is a gathering of MPs from the national parliaments of 47 European states, as a ‘pan-European forum for inter-Parliamentary dialogue’, which keeps a focus on human rights through the European Court of Human Rights and is not part of the EU. It meets in the old EU parliament building in Strasbourg.

The Irish referendum – a bleak day for human rights

justice-626461_1920The Irish referendum last Friday is being hailed as a great day for freedom, a key moment for the liberal consensus in creating a modern, progressive future. The Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said: ‘Today we made history’ ‘A quiet revolution has taken place, a great act of democracy.’ The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said ‘What a moment for democracy and women’s rights.’

I’ve spent the weekend away, with a dying mobile phone whose twitter app kept crashing – it was a blessing to be spared the weekend on Twitter! Back home this morning I listened to Baroness Chakrabarti, Shadow Attorney General and leading human rights campaigner, speaking on the Radio 4 Today programme, berating the DUP in Northern Ireland for blocking a similar liberalisation of abortion. She did so in really striking terms, (which is why I have to blog this morning):

‘This is an issue of fundamental human rights, and in fact the situation in NI is currently putting the UK Government in breach of its international human rights obligations, so says the UN, so we’re calling on Mrs May, a self-identifying feminist, to negotiate with the parties and then legislate without delay…..You can’t have democracy without fundamental human rights….’

This is Alice in Wonderland stuff. Quite extraordinary! Everyone is patting each other on the back, speaking of human rights being established at last, talking about our international obligations and so on, when no one seems to have noticed what the Irish referendum was all about.

It was about abolishing a fundamental human right that is currently written into the Irish constitution. Continue reading “The Irish referendum – a bleak day for human rights”

Rural mission in the Vale of Dibley

england-2960807_1920A couple of weeks ago, Helen and I spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon touring South Oxfordshire looking for wedding reception venues as we start to plan our daughter’s wedding. Sitting at home that Saturday evening, I somewhat naively put up the following tweet which soon gained a life of its own.

Visited four lovely village halls today in S Oxon and West Berks. How wonderful it would be if each of them had a gospel church planted in them in the next 10 years. This is a big area of need, and influence. The movers and shakers live in these villages.

Steve Kneale picked up on it and blogged about the final phrase, and then some local Anglican clergy in the Thames Valley weighed in, the thread developed a life of its own, and I was accused of arrogance. So, a couple of weeks later, after a chest infection as well as a trip out of the UK, I want to explain what I was on about.

Villages are sneered at by the urban elite. They are still seen as places where locals marry their cousins, children are born with six fingers, everyone speaks with an impenetrable yokel accent and people have the intellectual capacity of Alice Tinker from The Vicar of Dibley. Villages are seen as backwaters by many young ministers, who choose the trendiest church-planting locations or the bigger suburban churches with the best prospects, knowing that there is a shortage of people coming forward for ministry, so they can afford to be choosy.

Continue reading “Rural mission in the Vale of Dibley”

Heidelberg, Luther and the cross: the critique of reason and experience

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26 April 2018 marks an undervalued milestone in Reformation history. We are familiar with Luther’s ninety-five theses posted in October 1517, and his passionate defence at the Diet of Worms in 1521 that his conscience was captive to the Word of God. However, the Heidelberg Disputation, which took place on April 26 1518, is less well known, though its significance could not be more relevant. Allow me to fill in the background.

Luther was growing in fame (or notoriety) as a preacher following the events of October 1517, and Pope Leo X wanted him disciplined by the Augustinian order to which he belonged. The man tasked with this challenge was his confessor, Johann von Staupitz, who famously had already heard Luther’s endless confessions of numerous sins, and who had guided him along his spiritual journey. Staupitz wanted Luther’s discipline to take the form of a public disputation. So the Augustinians gathered in Heidelberg to hear Luther present forty-two theses. (This was the age of the list!) Two theses in particular set out the key principles of what has come to be known as Luther’s ‘theology of the cross’:

  1. He is not worth calling a theologian who seeks to interpret the invisible things of God on the basis of the things that have been created.
  2. But he is worth calling a theologian who understands the visible and rearward parts of God to mean suffering and the cross.

The reference to the ‘rearward’ parts of God is an allusion to Exodus 33-34 where Moses hid in the cleft in the rock and glimpsed just the rearward parts of God as he passed by in all his glory. There is so much of God that cannot be comprehended merely on the basis of human reason. For Luther, medieval theology was a theology of glory, but it did not comprehend what God had done for us in Christ at the cross.  The church buildings of the medieval Catholic Church still stand across Europe. Whether it is the Duomo in Florence, Notre Dame in Paris or St Peter’s in Rome, they stand as a testimony to Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on the glory of worship. These great structures are human achievements, the epitome of human glory and effort offered up to God. Yet their glory is at variance with the way of the cross, where God reveals himself in his Son, through suffering, rejection and death.

The Renaissance period, that preceded the Reformation, placed a high value on human reason. In scholarship their watchword was ‘back to the sources’, going back to the original Latin, Greek and Hebrew classical texts, and in art they studied form closely in a more realistic way (e.g. Leonardo da Vinci). They called their movement humanism, because it was about valuing human reason, and believing that human reason could in the end study, understand and explain anything. Does that sound familiar? Although Renaissance thought was not atheistic, it marked the beginning of the intellectual process, traced through the eighteenth century Enlightenment, which has led to the cold certainties based entirely on human reason that we see in the New Atheism today.

In Heidelberg, Luther contended that when you come to the cross of Jesus, reason fails. There is a hidden revelation of God in the cross, and you can only grasp it by faith. God told Moses to hide in the rock, because he could not see his face and live; he would just glimpse his back as he passed. Luther said that the cross is likewise a glimpse of the ‘rearward’ parts of God that can only be seen by faith, which itself is given by God. The cross is the biggest, most glorious revelation of God, the heart of human history and the centre of all theology, and yet at first sight its glory is veiled. ‘The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God’ (1 Cor 1:18). If you look at the cross with only human reason to guide you, it will offend you. Why would God send his own Son to die? Why would be punish his own Son? Isn’t that child abuse? How can God possibly be revealing himself in this dreadful event, this shambolic slaughterhouse? These are the questions that our secular world throws at us for believing in Jesus. They put us on the back foot, because we think we ought to give some intellectually respectable answer that will satisfy the proud demands of human reason, but the cross defies human reason. God’s purpose in the cross of Christ was to expose the limits of human reason. We expect God to reveal himself in some vision of glory, power and majesty, but he humbles himself even to death on a cross, in shame and weakness. Why? Because he has to teach proud human beings to be humble, and admit our weakness and sinfulness. Luther knew well the life of the medieval academy, where they valued human reason so highly, but he could see how man-centred it was. The scholastics had argued about so many things in theory in their ivory towers. Catholicism was built on human reason, and its whole theological system put its trust in human ability and merit. All of that has to die when we come to the cross. At the cross we realise that our wisdom is folly, and we must learn from Christ.

But Luther was also undermining another great theme in medieval theology: mysticism. The cross teaches us not to trust human experience. There was a strong strand of mysticism in Catholic belief. You could trust experience, and my spiritual experience is valid for me just as yours is for you. The disciples all had their experience of Jesus, and they thought they knew who he was. They had seen his miracles, listened to the Sermon on the Mount and talked with him while walking in the region of Caesarea Philippi, but then they had to face this terrible day when their master was betrayed and crucified. Even Jesus himself, in his great cry of dereliction on the cross, cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ (Mark 15:34 CSB). Similarly, we can look at our own experience of suffering and conclude that God has abandoned us. So many people have logical reasons for not believing in God, because in their desperate experiences they cannot find him when they want him. The cross tells us not to place our confidence in our experience, but to trust God in the darkness, for the abandonment of that bitter day, when Jesus bore our sins and carried our sorrows, is gloriously answered by the resurrection. Suddenly on Easter morning the meaning becomes clear. God has accepted the sacrifice of his Son, and vindicated him by raising him for our justification. Reason fails at the cross, and experience fails as well. Both of them are shown up in this much bigger revelation of God in Christ, dying and rising. If we will come and surrender to the crucified God, our Lord Jesus Christ, then we will put reason in its place, and experience in its place, and worship Christ, and begin to find the meaning and purpose of our lives in his world.

Luther’s theology of the cross is essential for every Christian, and should get much more attention than it does. It also speaks to two pressing issues in our generation. First, the cross-currents of contemporary biblical scholarship among evangelicals are in danger of leading to a new age of scholasticism, in which extra-biblical sources carry almost more weight than the text of Scripture itself. We think we know what Scripture means because we have analysed the writings of other authors of the period, we have inhabited their world, seen how the phrases and genres of Scripture were used elsewhere, and then allowed the extra-biblical material to have a greater validity than Scripture itself. On this basis, evangelicalism is in danger of slowly placing itself above Holy Scripture, and failing to sit under its complete authority.

Second, in an age of prosperity and individualism, Christians have succumbed to the guidance of their own experience. Society says that we have a right to be healthy and wealthy, and that above all we should do what feels right. The prosperity gospel is simply offering back to society its own expectations and experiences. The whole drive of the church gathering is to provide an experience that feels good, and that people go away moved, though that feeling is based entirely on individual experience (and may have a lot to do with the lights, the music and the coffee!). It is also worrying to consider how often, when churches have to make great decisions, it can be that what feels right wins the day. We are far more led by experience than we are by Scripture itself.

This Easter, remember the great anniversary of the Heidelberg Disputation at the end of April, and the way in which Luther called the world back to the theology of the cross. Ask yourself how much your understanding of God is based on your own human reason, and how much it is surrendered to the Christ of Scripture and is humbled at the foot of the cross. Ask yourself how much you lean on your own subjective experience, and how often you find the limits of your own understanding. Then step beyond them to the glory shrouded in shame that is the revelation of God in Christ at the cross, and there you will begin to grasp the depths of Christian theology.

 

Image: Memorial Plaque for Luther Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 in University Place, Heidelberg, Germany. Anneyh/Wikipedia.

‘We’re all doomed’ – understanding British pessimism

danger-851895_1920Pessimism is an essential element of British culture. This fact is realised by all nations on earth except the British themselves. We actually believe our own pessimism with such inevitable gullibility that we rarely notice when things turn out differently. After all, we invented the weather forecast and the shipping news. It could so easily be Britain that Salman Rushdie had in mind when he described a sad and forgetful city in Haroon and the sea of stories:

In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I’m told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news.

We are beset by gloom at the moment. We emerge slowly from the dark of winter, only to be assaulted by a beastly storm (blamed on the Russians!), and switch on the news to hear yet more Brexit woe. It is all going to turn out bad. The economy is going to tank. As soon as we leave we will ‘fall off a cliff’, jobs will be lost in their millions because our goods will no longer have any kind of access to vital EU markets at all, Dover and Felixstowe harbours will be filled in with concrete, and a wall that will be the envy of Donald Trump will be built along the Irish border. Meanwhile, millions of Poles and Romanians will flee immediately, leaving our care homes and hospitals entirely unstaffed. And we will be paying the bill to the EU forever, and it will turn out to be much bigger than we ever agreed to. ‘We’re all doomed.’ It is all too dreadful to contemplate.

Before this all gets too much, allow me to review some projects of the recent past that had the misfortune to be enveloped by this British cloud of pessimism. Let’s start with Heathrow Terminal 5. Continue reading “‘We’re all doomed’ – understanding British pessimism”

‘The Crown’, the Monarchy and God

The_crown_logoOver Christmas I discovered Netflix for the first time, and enjoyed the entire first season of The Crown.[1] It is a quite remarkable piece of TV drama, most of all because of the way it explores the very basis for the British monarchy. TV dramas about the Royal family are usually cack-handedly dreadful, with ham acting, dreadful scripts and actors who look more like Bruce Forsyth than the Duke of Edinburgh. The Crown is almost entirely believable, with Lancaster House looking as opulent as Buckingham Palace, and the actors inhabiting their roles with an understated confidence and poise. It handles the death of George VI quite brilliantly (even down to the Royal embalmers!), and brings the spectacular of the coronation to life for the digital age.

What impressed me most was the dialogue in episode 4, where a frail but impressively matriarchal Queen Mary, herself with not long to live, advises the young Queen about her calling under God.

‘Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth. To give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives. Monarchy is a calling from God. That is why you are crowned in an abbey, not a government building. Why you are anointed, not appointed. It’s an archbishop that puts the crown on your head, not a minister or public servant, which means that you are answerable to God in your duty, not the public.’

There is plenty to disagree with here, such as the dreadfully class-ridden assumption that the common people lead ‘wretched lives’, and it has to be said that the aristocracy have often provided a shocking example of debauchery and excess rather than ‘an example of nobility.’ However, behind the exalted language is a much derided idea that I think Christians need to rediscover: the biblical idea of nationhood includes the idea of kingdom rule under God. This is in stark contrast to the secular Enlightenment’s view that the people, the body politic, are sovereign, and our rulers answer to the voters above everything else. Continue reading “‘The Crown’, the Monarchy and God”

The death of Diana – a cultural watershed

640px-Diana's_funeralThe death of Diana marked a watershed in our culture, an event so visceral in nature that it shook our British life to the core. Some ‘earthquake’ events change a nation’s life because a key figure is gone: Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, Chairman Mao, or, most obviously, JFK. When they are the person whose power drives the nation’s life, their passing changes everything. Diana was different. She had no power, and yet she became a defining character of the 1980s and 90s, a fairly blank canvas onto which people projected their own hopes, dreams, and ideologies. Whether Diana herself believed half of what is claimed for her now is so hard to know. She died young and so she became the stuff of myth and legend, though not ‘the stuff of which fairy tales are made.’ While much will be made of Diana over the next few days, allow me to draw attention to that culture shifting week between her death and her funeral. It tells us little about Diana herself, but so much more about British life now, as it flowed from that watershed moment.

The watershed of paganism

The way the public responded to tragedy was extraordinary. Flowers and candles spread from Kensington Palace down to Kensington High Street, and they extended out from the railings of Buckingham Palace and up Constitution Hill. As Diana’s coffin was carried from Westminster Abbey out of London up the Edgware Road onto the M1, people stood on bridges to drop carnations onto the hearse, and the undertakers had to use the windscreen wipers to clear their view. This seems normal now, but at the time it was still quite a new phenomenon (perhaps only having been seen previously after the Hillsborough disaster).

What did those evenings of candlelight and weeping in Kensington Gardens really signify? Neo-paganism came of age that week.  You could read it in the inscriptions on the flowers, describing Diana as an Angel and a gift from ‘heaven’. The spiritual ignorance and folk religion on display was extraordinary. Paganism worships created things, and begins to attribute to the chosen god such powers as they never had. The actual facts don’t matter. In those days all the flaws and failures of Diana’s character were ignored and she was elevated to sainthood by public opinion. Chatting with a friend a few weeks later, she said ‘I want to draw attention to the fact that if she wasn’t gallivanting round Paris with a very dodgy boyfriend, she might still be alive, but I’m not allowed to say it.’ The Diana cult expressed itself in the funeral service in two ways: in Elton John singing Candle in the Wind (still the best selling UK No 1 single ever), and in Earl Spenser’s tribute, which stands as one of the great speeches of the twentieth century, both for what it said and for what it tells us about the way we live and feel now.  Continue reading “The death of Diana – a cultural watershed”

Great Summer Reads 4 – The Eagle Unbowed by Halik Kochanski

Eagle Unbowed‘You started it. You invaded Poland!’ Tragically, that punchline from Fawlty Towers is all that most people know about Poland’s experience of the Second World War. Most young people know the story of Auschwitz, but I wonder how many of them know it is situated in Poland? Our ignorance of Poland’s tragedies in World War Two is widespread, at a time when in Britain we have a large and growing Polish community that we need to understand. Where better to look then that to the brilliant but unsung book The Eagle Unbowed- Poland and the Poles in the Second World War by Halik Kochanski.

Reading military history is a long-standing hobby for me, and I try and ration my reading because it easily becomes obsessive, especially when it comes to WW2. I find it good to read about an aspect of the war I know nothing about, rather than yet another book about D-Day. Halik Kochanski is a respected Historian at London University, the child of Polish refugees whose story she subtly weaves into her narrative. She assumes you know nothing about Poland, and educates while drawing you into the story. The book even comes with a helpful pronunciation guide, but like reading War and Peace, you have to get past the names issue.

She starts with the rebirth of Poland in 1920 and their victories over the Bolsheviks in the east (which stores up trouble on Poland’s eastern border for later on in the story).  Then Poland’s humbling at the hands of Hitler and Stalin in 1939 is described in detail – while we had our ‘phoney war’, there was nothing phoney in Poland. What people never realise is that Poland was the only country overrun by the Nazis in Eastern Europe that never surrendered. The government went underground, as did key parts of the army to form the ‘AK’, while others crossed the border into Hungary and Romania, and made their escape to fight with the allies in Western Europe. Polish pilots formed two RAF squadrons, 303 squadron being based at RAF Northolt and making a huge contribution to the battle of Britain. George Vi was heard to say ‘One cannot help feeling that if all our allies had been Poles, the coursed of the war, up to now, would have been very different.’ Continue reading “Great Summer Reads 4 – The Eagle Unbowed by Halik Kochanski”

Great Summer Reads 3: Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson

Home_(Marilynne_Robinson_novel)_coverartMarilynne Robinson is the world’s greatest living novelist. I know that is a huge claim to make, considering she has only written four novels, but as one novel has won a Pulitzer and another the Orange prize, she deserves special attention. Why is that? I think it is because she has created a unique genre of novel, the pastoral novel. Not in the sense that Thomas Hardy wrote pastoral novels about the bucolic charms of his beloved Wessex. Marilynne Robinson writes novels about pastors. That is why I am so drawn to them, and why I urge you to step into her world this summer.

The huge industry that publishes novels has done to death several different genres. Romantic fiction from Jane Austin and the Brontes to the modern chick flick can surely have nothing much left to say. Crime novels are still a huge industry, as are legal and military thrillers, but like their TV adaptations, you do tire of them after a while. Couldn’t someone create a new genre of drama sometime? Just as I was thinking that, I stumbled onto Robinson’s novels via Twitter, and they are a door into a world I have inhabited for twenty five years in pastoral ministry, and they are written as great literature.

Gilead  is the name of a small town in Iowa on the American prairie, where John Ames is a pastor reaching the end of his life, and writing the book to his young son so he can understand his roots when his father is gone. The framework of the story only suggests itself gradually, and key facts slip effortlessly into the cake while the mixture is slowly stirred at the kitchen table. The main interplay is between the Ames family and the GileadcoverBoughtons, the local Presbyterian pastor and his family. Meanwhile, the beauty and thoughtfulness of small town America is worked out in domestic scenes so rich and warm that you feel yourself invited to sit at the table. There is plenty of theology that comes up in conversation, and the struggles that a pastor has in trying to care for his flock, and the frustrations he has with those who reject the gospel. All of this is brought to life in the most dazzling prose that will ease the stresses of life from you and evoke a world of swing-seats out on the stoop, rocking chairs by the fire and a hardwood kitchen table where meals are shared as expressions of the gospel. Robinson establishes a huge sense of place and lets you inhabit it and feel fully at home. But do not imagine that these sedate scenes are free from trouble. There is grit in the story. Dark tones come to the surface, just as rural life can often be darker than any urban dystopia, and Jack Boughton is the source of the trouble. This gives a brilliant opportunity to trace the interplay between the grace of God in the gospel and the prodigal who rejects it and runs away. How is he to be handled? Who will say the wrong thing? What are his real motives? What is he really thinking as the pastor talks to him? The characters are drawn so brilliantly that not one of them is a cliché.

Home is the second novel of the series, and the focus moves from the Ames household to the Boughtons. Young Jack Boughton has been away from Gilead for twenty years, but now he comes home seeking refuge from his past. The question is how his father and his sister Glory will handle this, and how Jack will respond to God’s grace when he encounters it. I found my heart aching for him as the conversations were played out across the kitchen table. The heart of a pastor aches to see gospel change in those who waste their lives, but it is a change that only God can give. Will it come to Jack as he tries to rebuild his life? There are layers to this exploration of regret and repentance that run so deep, and both father and sister find their own hearts and attitudes examined. I am confident that there is no work of fiction that explores this better.

I have yet to read the third in the sequence, Lila, which tells the story of Ames’ second wife and how she came to Gilead from a background of wandering and tragedy, and then married him. But I am thinking I need to re-read the nuances of Gilead again first to be ready to savour its riches. And sit by that fireplace and nod my agreement with the old man.

Great summer reads 1 – A Better Story

God sex and human flourishingMostly I have a few books on the go, and dip between them, lose the thread a few times, but eventually get the end of some of them. But then every so often a book comes along that has to be read at every available stage of the day: before bed, over breakfast, right through lunch break and more after dinner. A Better Story: God, sex and human flourishing by Glynn Harrison has gripped me in this way. That is why I am suggesting it here as my first ‘Great Summer Read’, among a selection of books about culture and mission that you really must read this summer if you can.

Glynn Harrison is a former professor of psychiatry at the University of Bristol, and therefore is able to draw on years of research in analysing the sexual revolution. He breaks his book down into three parts, first understanding the sexual revolution from the 1960s to today, then critiquing it from a biblical perspective, before calling us as Christians to shape the ‘better story’ of the title. Though he could have pitched this at a fully academic level, this is a book for everyone who is prepared to think, and is written in lucid, clear and engaging language for everyone. He handles Scripture well, and brings to it the findings of some fascinating studies from the world of modern psychiatry. Continue reading “Great summer reads 1 – A Better Story”

The Migrant crisis – an African perspective.

Gambia cowsIf you want to try starting to understand the migration crisis in the Mediterranean, look beyond the boats and the people traffickers to the world the migrants come from. A couple of Saturdays ago I sat with an African friend at our dinner table, and we picked through the newspapers. The Saturday Telegraph carried two lurid headlines: ‘Europe warned of ‘biblical’ migration if it fails to act now’ and ‘MP’s anger over paying £30M flood insurance for Africa.’ Africans continue to push up towards Europe in huge numbers, but we do little to invest in Africa. When we do, such as the African flood risk insurance scheme, the idea gets hammered. Discussing this sparked one of the best conversations I’ve had in a while, so I took notes in order to blog an African’s perspective on the whole situation.

My friend Steven is a Sierra Leonean who fled civil war in his homeland in the 1990s. He has lived in the Gambia for twenty years, and seen the Gambia go from freedom into fairly repressive government, and then enjoy a change of President last year that has brought new hope. It is still one of the poorest countries in the world, but perhaps a flow of inward investment and a new generation educated at home in the Gambia’s universities can shape the country’s future in a positive way.

Some Gambians who survived the journey into Europe on inflatable boats used the old regime as their reason for leaving. However, Steven says that the previous President only attacked politicians and journalists. The many who said ‘We are fleeing political persecution’ were using that to try to play the asylum system.  Their real reason for travelling the desert and getting into a boat was because of their extended family, and the willingness to take a huge risk for them in a culture where life is often short, death from disease is still common and the economic contrast with Europe is extreme.

In a rural Gambian village a family will look at their children as the key to their economic future. A young man who is fit, streetwise and could be relied on to get some kind of work is seen as a good risk by his parents and other relatives. They will pay for him to go with the people traffickers, who will take him to Europe. They may pay 40,000 Dalasi (about £650), or it may be double that. To the family it may be everything that they can rake together. But they do not consider the risks, mostly because they are not really known in a society with much less access to the news media than we are used to. To them, their son is their investment, and he will do well. ‘Allah will help us.’

Steven described how he is involved in a building project outside the capital. He went to visit the village, to find the builder he is paying to make his concrete blocks and raise the walls. Each time he visits the home, the family say ‘He is away.’ Finally, a month later they admit that he has headed to Europe. He was not ‘people trafficked’ against his will. He is simply a ‘hustler’, taking a chance to get them all a better life. They call him a ‘hustler’ because he doesn’t have a job to go to, or anywhere to live. He is just chancing it. The family treat it as like taking a ‘lucky dip’, rather than anything illegal. Some migrants go from the villages, others come from the main city, Serrecunda. Some go with their family paying, but some also go without anyone knowing. Generally they carry mobile phones to contact their family when they arrive.  If after several months nothing is heard, the family then conduct a funeral, assuming their loved one has died.

What route do they take? It is a highly organised people trafficking network. Some use canoes and fishing boats to take them out of the Gambia river to a ship off the coast, which then transfers them on along the network of connections to the North African coast. The majority go by land. They enter Senegal, where the traffickers load them into vehicles which take them across Mali or Mauritania, then through to Algeria or Libya. How much they pay the traffickers will depend on how many bribes are paid. Out in the Sahara it is comparatively easy to come and go, but the big obstacles are the security forces in Algeria and Libya. The traffickers may bribe the police to turn a blind eye and let them through, but traffickers are completely unscrupulous. If they have to run from the security forces, they will drive their cargo south into the desert and abandon them to the sand and sun.

Last year the Gambian government repatriated 270 Gambians by plane from Libya. They put them on Gambian TV to tell their story, testifying to how they had had to drink their own urine to survive being abandoned in the desert. Quite rightly the Government wanted to educate their own population of the perils of this racket.

Consider then those who do make it to the coast. They have to deal with another group of traffickers altogether, the boat operators. If you wonder why those coming off the boats in Lampedusa are in such a bad state, look at the way they have been mistreated on their journey to the coast. They may indeed be desperate to get to Europe by this stage, but the greatest reason for this is the hellish journey they have endured, and the sense that the traffic is only one way.

Steven knows three young men who have travelled the route or considered it. One was a student staff worker who had considered going, but abandoned the idea before he came to faith in Christ. ‘God saved me from sin and also from an early death.’

Over 250 years ago, John Newton and others were sailing thGambia mosquee river Gambia to trade in slaves. Today we have a new, and tragically voluntary trade, but it similarly leads to an early death and all manner of crimes. What can end this awful process? Steven says it needs to be an economic partnership to create local employment. In the last thirty years we always assumed this had to be Western governments extending their aid budgets. Where this funds good education and healthcare, and upgrades infrastructure, that is good, so long as it doesn’t create dependency and get syphoned off in a load of graft. However, African countries have been soaking up western aid without having to think about becoming self-financing. What they need most of all are the banks and private investors who will partner with national entrepreneurs to build the businesses that will fund proper public services. Good governance is also key, and a big anchor in making people want to stay in their home country. If they can be confident that government will respect the rule of law, respond positively to public opinion and govern according to principles of justice for all, they would far rather stay put. Steven says ‘The truth is most Africans won’t want to come to Europe if they have just the basic necessities that make life comfortable.’ But if the only thing we export to West Africa is the dream of western riches, shown through our films, TV shows and advertising, then the dream will always be in the Promised Land of Europe, but the journey there will be hellish chaos and many of those who make it will not prosper.