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religion, literature, culture

Myth, Illusion & National Identity

In the Helen we had invented, we were defending everything that we no longer had. 

And the more it faded the more real we had to say it was.[1]

Christa Wolff, Cassandra

A recent survey found that, whereas in Germany, France and the USA, less than 10 % of respondents said that Britain of all the wartime allies contributed most to the defeat of the Nazis, from British respondents the figure was an alarming 47%. [2]

It is clear that war frames Britain’s self-understanding to a considerable degree, but the war which is remembered is a war rewritten and reconceived.  It is a war which is remembered for bringing a nation together under a common cause (which it did, but contrary to the common understanding, at the same time crime soared).  It is a war which lends itself to triumphalism because Britain was on the winning side.   But perhaps more profoundly it is a war which can be idealised because (with the exception of the Channel Isles) UK territory was not occupied, which means its inhabitants were not faced with the complex ethical dilemmas that occupied peoples were.  As Rab Bennett puts it in his study of moral dilemmas of resistance and collaboration in Nazi-occupied Europe, writing of the different WW2 experience of the UK and USA as compared with other countries involved in the conflict:

Because our countries have not been invaded and garrisoned with enemy troops, we have not had to confront the uncomfortable problems of life under enemy occupation and brutal dictatorship. [3]

Towards the end of his study, Bennett addresses the question as to what would have happened if mainland Britain had been invaded, and cites Madeleine Bunting’s study of the Channel Islands under Nazi occupation:

The islands’ experience flatly contradicted Britain’s dearest and most complacent assumptions about the distinctness of the British from the rest of Europe.  Under occupation, the British behaved exactly like the French, the Dutch or the Danish. [4]

This is not a condemnation but an acknowledgement that so-called “British exceptionalism” is a myth, one which the nation’s experience in two world wars has fuelled but which ultimately is an illusion.

However, the myth lives on and has received new life in the context of the ongoing debate about Britain’s relationship to the rest of Europe and even in its response to the current Covid 19 pandemic.

War & National Identity

Nearly thirty years ago, Danish scholar Ulf Hedetoft published an article comparing “National Identity and Mentalities of War” in the UK, Germany and Denmark. [5]  A “basic assumption” of the article is that ‘the history, symbolism and mentality of war … constitute central elements in the make-up of national identities.’ [6] 

In relation to the UK, Hedetoft cites the (then relatively recent) experience of the Falklands War in 1982, and goes on to suggest that

It is in war and warlike circumstances that the “home fires” really start to burn, that the British appreciate national togetherness. [7]

In an interesting observation on 1980s political rhetoric in the UK, with disturbing resonances to our own time, Hedetoft observes that:

Throughout the 1980s, the Thatcherites and the New Right tried to keep the people in a state of … war-like emergency, by constantly projecting images of enemies (“within” as well as “without”). Thus strengthening the symbolic putty that keeps the British together more than anything else. [8]

It is from around this time that the declining observance of “Remembrance Sunday”, with its accompanying red poppies, began a resurgence which continues to the present time.

Can it then be any coincidence then that military metaphors abound in the UK’s approach to Covid 19 ?   Although the UK is not alone in making use of metaphors of war and combat in relation to Covid 19, it is in stark contrast to one of Hedetoft’s other subjects, Germany, where they are hardly used. [9]

Heroes

Related to the use of military metaphors is the language of heroism.  A number of commentators both in the UK and US have critiqued the use of the term “hero” to describe health workers and others, often working without sufficient protective gear.  As Charlotte Higgins writes in the Guardian newspaper:

The danger of using the language of heroism is that it mutes critique and debate: heroes aren’t supposed to complain, or speak out about inadequate protective equipment or lack of testing capacity, or to point out what damage years of austerity have done to healthcare provision in the UK. [10]

And Adina Wise in Scientific American:

A wartime mindset demands death, suffering and sacrifice in the service of one’s country. But a global pandemic should not demand the same of its medical workforce. [11]

The easy use of the language of heroism is particularly disturbing because it enables “us” to evade our own responsibility for, in this case, supporting successive governments that have reduced funding for essential services.  This blog post from 2011 neatly sums up what is going on in this misuse of language:

What if we considered that heroes are scapegoats for bad social behaviour? By calling people heroes for surviving homophobic societies and wars, among other unnecessary circumstances, we create a bit of relief from responsibility for our reality, don’t we? [12]

This is probably why Hedetoft observes that heroes are ‘socio-cultural constructs, paradoxically more useful to the cult of nationalism dead than alive’ [13]

But the language of “heroes” presents other dangers too.   Those unwilling, or unable, to offer themselves up as “heroes” risk being branded “cowards” – or worse.   Newspaper headlines in the UK speaking of medics and unions “preventing” teachers from being heroes because of their insistence on proper protection and precautions from Covid 19 seem to be missing the point – teachers shouldn’t have to be heroes, and if they are, we all share the blame for putting them in that position.  

Still Looking Back

This is something I have noted since moving to the UK. The ubiquity of the Union flag on packaging, the “Great British” trope present in the titles of products of popular culture, and the always present symbols of military power are notable when you first arrive in Scotland. [14]

Nearly forty years on from Hedetoft’s article, it would seem that the UK has moved on very little  from his analysis.   As he concluded:

Hence, it would seem, the future of war (mentalities) in Europe is less a question of the survival or death of nationalism than of whether or not the European nations will be able to construct a kind of national identity which is truly ‘open to the world’ and independent of the imagery of sacrifice and heroism. [15]

Events of the past few years seem to have proved that the UK is as yet unable to construct a national identity that is “open to the world”, and that “imagery of sacrifice and heroism” continues to inform British national self-understanding and identity. 

On the part of a substantial number of people, there would seem to be no desire to work towards a reconstructed national identity, where openness and co-operation replace myths of war and national heroism.  So entrenched is a national self-understanding rooted in myths of wars fought and won that any questioning of the nature and purpose of remembrance is seen as akin to treason, witness the annual outcry over public figures not wearing a red poppy, or the fact that it remains disturbingly easy to evoke the so-called “Blitz spirit”.

Myths,  Symbols and National Identity

There had been countries, and borders.   It was hard to explain. [16]

Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven

Many of the stories which are told about a nation’s history are in essence myths, stories we tell because they help us to understand who we are – or, perhaps more accurately, who we think we are.  For many in the UK the Dunkirk retreat in 1940, indeed the whole of WW2, continues to be thought of and spoken of in mythic terms.  In the same way, many aspects of a nation’s life are seen as symbolic of the nation even if they are in reality little more than accidents of history.   Hence rightwing commentator Madsen Pirie can restate (rather than defend) the UK’s adversarial culture, manifested in parliament and legal system, under the heading “We are an adversarial culture” [17], without offering any arguments for why such a culture might be preferable to the alternatives.  

Both myth and symbol operate at a deep level, beyond conscious realisation.   Therefore, powerful (and often subliminal) messages can be communicated by evoking them.   Furthermore, because they operate at such a level they are in many ways invisible, which is why they lend themselves to manipulation.   Some commentators have observed how the NHS has been used during the Covid 19 pandemic as a symbol of national sacrifice to such an extent that the slogan “Save the NHS” has come to overshadow the accompanying slogan “Save Lives”. [18]  Here again we are thinking in terms of symbols, where the NHS is seen as a national symbol, like the flag, and as such something for which one should be prepared to make sacrifices.

The popularity of the wartime “Keep Calm & Carry On” slogan, seemingly ubiquitous on everything from T Shirts to tea towels, is a fascinating example of this dynamic at work. In reality, the slogan was never actually used during the war itself, being viewed as too upbeat.  Posters bearing the slogan were printed during WW2 but never officially displayed.   Those who did see them at the time were not impressed and it appears that they ended up being pulped. [19]   Yet the slogan has taken on a life of its own and its true history is hardly acknowledged.   Ironically, therefore, a slogan that was never used at the time because of fears that public opinion would have found it distasteful, is seen as exemplifying Britishness during WW2 !  Again, what is important is not what actually happened but the ways in which the myth or symbol help us to feel good about ourselves now.

Cultural Hegemony

Coined by Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) the term “cultural hegemony” refers to those things which people take for granted as common sense even when they know little about why it is common sense or even what the viable alternatives are.  As one commentator puts it:

The power of cultural hegemony lies in its invisibility. Unlike a soldier with a gun or a political system backed up by a written constitution, culture resides within us. It doesn’t seem “political,” it’s just what we like, or what we think is beautiful, or what feels comfortable. Wrapped in stories and images and figures of speech, culture is a politics that doesn’t look like politics and is therefore a lot harder to notice, much less resist. When a culture becomes hegemonic, it becomes “common sense” for the majority of the population. [20]

The messages of the myths and symbols referred to above have, for many people, been simply taken for granted, and so (with the assistance of press and powers that be) a “national identity” is formed.   Indeed, it could be said that the very concept of a nation is itself an example of cultural hegemony.   Michael Billig speaks of what he terms “Banal Nationalism”, by which he means the myriad ways in which national identity is daily formed in us unawares, for example:

In routine practices and everyday discourses, especially those in the mass media, the idea of nationhood is regularly flagged. Even the daily weather forecast can do this. Through such flagging, established nations are reproduced as nations, with their citizenry being unmindfully reminded of their national identity. [21]

Another way in which national identity is subtly formed and assumed is by claiming cultural preferences as national traits, as in the then BBC Director-General Tony Hall’s conference speech in 2019:

… PSBs [Public Service Broadcasters] are strongest in the content that UK audiences love.  Stories about them and about their communities.   British passions and British concerns.  [22]

What exactly these passions and concerns are, and how different they are from those of other nations, we are simply not told.

Such language is hardly surprising if, as Benedict Anderson puts it, a nation is essentially an “imagined community”.   This is so, he suggests, for the simple reason that

the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. [23]

A nation is an imagined community because imagination is the only way in which one’s consciousness of being part of the whole can be nurtured and reinforced.   Hence the importance of the many taken-for-granted expressions of belonging which Billig terms “Banal Nationalism”.

So, even the idea of the nation state is an example of the cultural hegemony of which Gramsci so perceptively warns us.  This isn’t to say that such a self-understanding is necessarily unjustified or illegitimate, but it is important to be aware that to a quite considerable extent one’s national identity is manufactured by those in control of the myths and symbols.

From a theological perspective, in his early work The Presence of the Kingdom (1948), lawyer and lay theologian Jacques Ellul put his finger on the illusion at the roots of western society and observed how women and men are effectively manipulated in their view of the world:

Our contemporaries only see the presentations which are given them by the press, the radio, propaganda, and publicity. … [and] … modern man, submerged by this flood of images which he cannot verify, is utterly unable to master them.

Therefore, women and men all-too-readily take on board the prevailing “explanatory myth”:

But what is evidently very serious is that modern man has no other means of intellectual coherence or of political investigation than this myth. If he abandons it, he cuts himself off from the world in which he is living … [Furthermore] Modern man has a good conscience because he has an answer for everything; whatever happens to him, and whatever he does, depends on the explanation which is provided for him by the myth. [24]

For many of our contemporaries the “explanatory myths” of Britishness are indeed “common sense”, it is, quite simply, “who we are”.  Furthermore, there are certainly many in whose interest it is to maintain the status quo and for the UK to continue to root its national identity in war and heroism coupled with exceptionalism and an adversarial culture.  But it doesn’t have to be like that !

Beyond “Common Sense”

No culture, however, is completely hegemonic. Even under the most complete systems of control, there are pockets of what Gramsci …  called “counter-hegemonic” cultures: ways of thinking and doing that have revolutionary potential because they run counter to the dominant power. [25]

One of these “pockets” should be the Christian community.   After all, the parables of Jesus are largely counter-hegemonic.  Many of them shock or disturb us because of the way they appear to defy what we have been brought up to think of as “common sense”.   The parable of the workers in the vineyard, for example, is disturbing and annoying for many people because it seems unfair that those who have only worked for an hour get paid as much as those who have worked for a full day.  The same applies to much of Jesus’ teaching.  His teaching on nonviolent resistance, though more complex than might be thought from a face value reading, again defies what many would regard as “common sense”.    In a similar way, much of his life would seem to subvert the “common sense” of his time – eating and drinking with the disreputable, mixing with “undesirable” or “unclean” women, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.  From all these examples, and more, it would seem clear that Jesus embodies, in his life and teaching, an example of a counter-hegemonic culture.

What then is the role of the Christian community in offering a counter-hegemonic alternative to the tired symbols and myths of national identity ?   Perhaps the most important role is to ask questions, to challenge those things that are simply taken for granted, to suggest that things could be different.   Already the pandemic has led to unprecedented courses of action ranging from state-sponsored furloughs to in effect re-nationalising the railways, from housing the homeless in hotels to suspending face to face public worship.    At the same time, a range of voices are calling us to a new normal, characterised by a better world for all.   Suddenly so much hitherto “common sense” is no longer common nor sense.   What better time, therefore, to reimagine the myths and symbols of nationhood ? 


[1] Christa Wolff, Cassandra (FS & G, 1988), p. 85

[2] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2015/05/01/Britain-America-disagree-who-did-more-beat-nazis

[3] Rab Bennett, Under the Shadow of the Swastika (Routledge, 1999), p. 10

[4] Bunting in Bennett, p. 270 TBC

[5] Ulf Hedetoft, “National Identity and Mentalities of war in Three EC Countries”, Journal of Peace Research 30:3 1993, pp. 281 – 300

[6] Hedetoft, p. 281

[7] Hedetoft, p. 284

[8] Hedetoft, p. 286

[9] See Dagmar Paulus, “Germany refuses to wage War on Covid”, New European May 28 – June 3 2020, pp. 12,13

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/27/healthcare-workers-heros-language-heroism

[11] https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/military-metaphors-distort-the-reality-of-covid-19/

[12] http://www.philippatston.com/blog/heroes-are-scapegoats/

[13] Hedetoft, p. 283

[14] http://www.hargaden.com/kevin/2014/08/21/book-review-honey-from-the-lion-by-doug-gay/

[15] Hedetoft, p. 297

[16] Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven (Picador Ebook), p. 279

[17] https://www.adamsmith.org/blog/we-are-an-adversarial-culture

[18] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/16/the-great-british-battle-how-the-fight-against-coronavirus-spread-a-new-nationalism

[19] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keep_Calm_and_Carry_On

[20] https://beautifultrouble.org/theory/cultural-hegemony/

[21] Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (Sage, 1995), p. 154

[22] Tony Hall, “The TV of Tomorrow”, speech at the Media & Telecoms Conference, March 7 2019 https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/speeches/2019/tony-hall-media-telecoms

[23] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (Verso, 2006), p. 6

[24] Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom (SCM, 1951), pp. 101 – 103

[25] https://beautifultrouble.org/theory/cultural-hegemony/

An Identity I Never Asked For

Brexit, Moral Injury & Resistance

 

They didn’t even let us know what was happening out there.  They always acted as if it were some sacred rite, some abstract science that we wouldn’t understand anything about anyway.   They only wanted to make sure no one saw through their game.  And then they lost everything, including us and our future. [1]

In the years following the 2016 EU Referendum, the term “Brexit anxiety” has come to characterise the feelings of many of those who voted to remain, and especially those from other EU countries living in the UK (who had no vote) as well as UK citizens currently living in other EU countries.  Whilst there are very real practical implications for the latter two groups of people, more than enough to cause anxiety, for many UK citizens the anxiety is caused by a tension between their own personal self-understanding and values and that proclaimed by the nation of which they are a part.

This tension is perhaps epitomised in Prime Minister Theresa May’s response to those she termed “citizens of everywhere”:

“But, if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.” [2]

 Commentators were quick to point out the parallels between May’s rhetoric and that of Adolf Hitler in 1933, when, in a speech to Siemens factory workers he spoke in scarcely veiled terms of the so-called international Jewish conspiracy:

The struggle between the people and the hatred amongst them is being nurtured by very specific interested parties.   It is a small, rootless, international clique that is turning the people against each other, that does not want them to have peace …It is the people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere, who do not have anywhere a soil on which they have grown up, but who live in Berlin today, in Brussels tomorrow, Paris the day after that, and then again in Prague or Vienna or London, and who feel at home everywhere.  … They are the only ones who can be addressed as international, because they conduct their business everywhere, but the people cannot follow them. [3]

 One of the great benefits of the European Union is the cultivation of a sense of European identity, transcending national boundaries, and it is that European identity which the UK’s departure from the EU threatens to take away.  For many of us, this is a profoundly unsettling state of affairs.

But it goes further than that.   As UK citizens we are inevitably and unavoidably implicated in what the nation’s leaders say and do, and this causes a sense of cognitive dissonance, where our leaders are saying and doing things (in “our” name) with which we fundamentally disagree, and which in many cases (treatment of migrants,  attitude towards the EU in Brexit negotiations) we believe to be ethically wrong.

It is as if the very identity of the UK is being reconstructed before our eyes as a meaner, more inward-looking nation, focused on past glory and seemingly uninterested in future co-operation unless it is on our own terms.

I would suggest that an apposite term to describe this experience is “moral injury”.

What is Moral Injury ?

The term “moral injury” is a fairly recent one, the concept being developed by psychiatrists through interviews with military veterans during the 1990s, and is used primarily in a military context to describe the traumatic effects on combatants of acts in warfare, in which they are implicated either directly or indirectly, and which go contrary to their personal moral or spiritual beliefs.

“Moral injury” is different from PTSD in that it specifically describes the effects of a personal violation of the individual’s conscience by things that they have seen or actions they have performed.

As one definition puts it:

Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct. [4]

That damage can indeed be psychological or spiritual as another definition points out:

We define “moral injury” very simply: moral injury is debilitating psychological or spiritual damage resulting from transgression of deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. [5]

Therefore,

 … the key precondition for moral injury is an act of transgression, which shatters moral and ethical expectations that are rooted in religious or spiritual beliefs, or culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life, and so forth. [6]

Finally, other definitions use the word “betrayal”:

First, there must be a betrayal of what is morally correct. Second, someone who is in a legitimate position of authority must do the betrayal of what is morally correct. Third, the betrayal must occur in a high stakes situation. [7]

Moral Injury & Brexit

To my knowledge the term ”moral injury” has not yet been used to describe reactions to the 2016 EU referendum and its aftermath.  Furthermore, I don’t believe that to do so denies either the uniqueness of the military experience nor the intense suffering of those in the military who have experienced it.

However, I do believe that the term is relevant in the context of the aftermath of the 2016 referendum.  For many people there has indeed, and continues to be, a transgression of deeply held moral beliefs and expectations by those in authority both in their words and actions.   Furthermore, those words are said, and those actions committed, in “our” name.

Writing of the USA under Donald Trump, US ethicist James Childs has recently suggested that the term “moral injury” might be applied to nations.   He cites the C20 protestant theologian Paul Tillich who wrote of the symbolic function of government, or as he terms it, “the ruling minority”:

Every member of the group sees in members of the ruling minority the incarnation of those ideals which [he or she] affirms when [he or she] affirms the group to which [he or she] belongs Therefore every ruling minority preserves and presents and propagates those symbols in which the spirit of the group is expressed. [8]

In other words, government is seen as embodying and promoting the self-image of the nation.

Of course, there are times in everyone’s lives when the “other side” are in power, but in a functioning democracy, a reversal of fortunes is potentially only ever an election away.   However, President Trump and all he stands for, and Brexit and all that stands for, would seem to be of a different order.  Childs speaks of shame:

… I would suggest, therefore, that we can as a national community feel a deep sense of shame for being part of something that is not us; we can lose our soul. This state of affairs is more radically problematic even than feeling guilty over the failures of justice in our public life. Shame is a deep sense of having lost or losing the spiritual core of those symbols that define our national identity and in which we take both pride and refuge. [9]

These words echo the feelings of many in the UK in reaction to the 2016 referendum and all that followed.

For many people the loss of their EU citizenship, and the European identity that comes with it, is in itself enough to cause moral injury.  But if indeed, Tillich’s” ruling minority” are symbols of the nation’s self-image, then it is no wonder that many are morally injured.

Rhetoric which constantly exalts “us” above “them”, which dismisses co-operation in favour of competition, which shows disdain for immigrants and refugees. Policies which seek to legitimate prejudice and inequality.   All these compound the moral injury.

Identity and the Nation State

Unlike most other human communities, one’s membership in a nation state is rarely a choice and is not easily laid aside.  By contrast, most other communities are joined by choice and can be left at will. So there is unlikely to be the degree of cognitive dissonance between its members and the church or society or company to which they belong.  In such circumstances one would simply renounce one’s membership and join another.  This, however, is not for most of us an option when it comes to nation states.

Yet, the nation state to which we (willingly or unwillingly) belong is inevitably a source of identity. It is a source of identity in the straightforward sense that it is inscribed on our passport and is the nationality by which we are known.  It is a source of identity in a more complex sense in that its citizens look to Tillich’s “ruling minority” to embody and articulate their values and priorities. It is a source of shared identity, too, in the sense that we form a community with our fellow citizens, though this latter dimension is relativized for many by online communication and easier travel, resulting in a larger, more inclusive, international community.

What exactly constitutes national identity is very difficult to pin down.  Symbols such as flag, national anthem, currency, head of state, buildings, institutions are seen by many as embodying their national identity, though much the same could equally well be said for their various EU equivalents as embodying European identity.   For others it is about a set of values, though the set of values often referred to as “British values” bears an uncanny resemblance to simple human values, as can be seen from this list promoted by OFSTED in 2015:

  • democracy
  • the rule of law
  • individual liberty
  • mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.[10]

For others, national identity is rooted in shared culture.  Recent defences of the value of the BBC have referred to its role in what is sometimes described as the “national conversation”, reflecting the nation’s people and their concerns.   Although, again much the same could be said about the value of pan-European broadcasting and other media in nurturing European identity.

I would, therefore, suggest that national identity is much more fragile than some would like to think.   Indeed, this may be at least part of the reason for the shrill  populist nationalism of the past few years.

But what if national identity is severely, perhaps fatally, broken ?  What if the “ruling minority” no longer embody our values and priorities ?  What if our sense of community with our fellow citizens is severely fractured ?   When national identity is projected in the language of exclusion, or of long gone empire or long past military victories, where is the option to opt out and say “Not in my name” ?

This is the situation in which I believe  that it is possible, and indeed helpful, to speak of “moral injury”.

Learning from the Past

By itself, to suggest that those of us who believe in the European project, and the UK’s part in it, are suffering from “moral injury” in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum risks the accusation of self-indulgence when others around us are suffering the practical effects of the last four years’ rhetoric, and in the military yet others are suffering from “real” moral injury.

However, if recognition that we are indeed suffering from “moral injury” can lead beyond paralysis to action and resistance, then I believe the diagnosis is worthwhile.

Over the last few years, a  number of commentators have made comparisons between what is happening in the UK and the rise of the Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s.   This is not to compare the Conservative party with the Nazis, but the parallels are there and are instructive.

Firstly, it is widely acknowledged that a divided left in the 1920s allowed the Nazis to come to power, taking advantage as they did of those who felt the nation’s post WW1 leadership had betrayed it, and scapegoating Jews for the nation’s problems and difficulties. [11]

Secondly, the opposition to the Nazis, active, committed and more numerous than often thought as it was, never quite managed to succeed in its aims of toppling Hitler and regaining control of the nation.  As Count Helmuth von Moltke, leader of the Kreisau Circle wrote in February 1942:

A remarkable paralysis of the will seems to have affected everybody again and instead of the “it’s too early” that I heard again and again before Christmas, I am now told that it is “too late”.   It is sad to see how correct Peter [Yorck] and I were in diagnosing 18 December 1941 as “the right date”. [12]

A parliamentary opposition that was divided and a wider opposition that never quite agreed on a time to act meant that by 1942 the Nazis had a seemingly firm grip on power.

As Moltke wrote in January 1941:

It is not exaggeration to say that everything that ought to be absolute has become relative.  As a result things like the state, race and power which are entirely lacking in absolute value, have become absolute. [13]

Yet even as he wrote that, Moltke was involved with others in discussing the shape of post-Nazi Germany.  For them it would have been part of a federal Europe, albeit one further advanced in integration that the EU is even now.   Although neither Moltke himself nor many of his contemporaries, were to survive the war, they continued to resist.

On November 14 1944 he wrote from Tegel prison to his wife Freya:

What catastrophes there must be before this mentality is eradicated.  [14]

Within 10 weeks of writing that von Moltke had been executed, but within six months of writing it Hitler was dead and the Nazi regime ended.

So, in our very different situation, where thankfully our lives are not under threat nor our ideas illegal, I would suggest that we too can resist. 

Resistance

We can resist in at least two ways.

We can refuse to allow our identities to be defined by the nation state.   Although it is not often proclaimed in our world of national churches, Christian faith radically relativises national identity.  The writer to the Philippians’ claim that “our citizenship is in heaven”[15] can be read as a pious longing for the afterlife, but it can also be read as an undermining of the nation state’s claim to final allegiance.

The first Christians were distinguished by their refusal to take the oath of allegiance to Caesar and it was not until the church was co-opted by the state by the emperor Constantine that church and state began to be seen as partners rather than rivals for ultimate allegiance.

So the first act of resistance is a personal one.  In acknowledging that we are citizens of God’s world we burst the confines of petty nationalism and join our efforts with all those the world over who seek justice, peace and human flourishing, who commit themselves to a global perspective where the planet is cherished and competition between nations becomes co-operation for the good of all.

Reading novels and watching films from non-English speaking nations and cultures, turning to sources outside the UK for at least some of our news and current affairs, listening to music from around the world, cultivating pan-European friendships, all these can open us up to an international perspective on the world.

The second act of resistance is a public one.

What shape it will take will depend on different people.   For some it might involve simply wearing a badge or some other symbol to indicate that they continue to welcome those from other nations and cultures into the national conversation and reject exclusion and nationalist rhetoric. For others it may mean getting involved in campaigns or protests against unjust and exclusive government policies, or joining organisations committed to an open future.

Many of those who took part in the various pro-EU marches over the past four years (often the first marches they had ever been part of) will attest to how important they were in maintaining hope, defeating feelings of impotence,  and creating a sense of community with others of a common mind.

Beyond Moral Injury

Moral injury is caused by a feeling of impotence in face of actions and rhetoric which claim to be in our name but fundamentally cut across cherished beliefs and ethical principles.  That impotence can be paralysing, but it need not be so.  As individuals and as a community of resistance we are so much more than a nation state, and both personally and publicly we can continue to affirm that this is so.

Can you imagine what it means to work as a group when you cannot use the telephone, when you are unable to post letters, when you cannot tell the names of your closest friends for fear that one of them might be caught and might divulge the names under pressure ? … Happily I have been able to follow the activities of my English friends, and I hope that they all keep their spirits up. [16]

[1] Alfred Doblin, November 1918: A German RevolutionVolume One: A People Betrayed (Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1983), p. 10

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-mein-kampf-adolf-hitler-nazi-vince-cable-liberal-democrat-conservatives-a7825381.html

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/genocide/hitler_audio.shtml#one

[4] http://moralinjuryproject.syr.edu/about-moral-injury/

[5] Brad Allenby and Tom Frame, “Moral Injury” in  Moral Injury: Towards an International Perspective (Center on the Future of War, Arizona State University, 2017)

[6] https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/cooccurring/moral_injury.asp

[7] Jonathan Shay, “Casualties”, Daedelus 140(3), 179-88.

[8]  Paul Tillich,  Love, power, and justice: Ontological analysis and ethics (Oxford University Press, 1954) Cited by James Childs, “Can a nation suffer moral injury ?” (Dialog 58: 1, Spring 2019), p. 3

[9] Childs, p. 5

[10] http://www.doingsmsc.org.uk/british-values/

See also:

https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2017/08/teaching-british-values-in-schools#

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jul/01/gove-what-is-so-british-your-british-values

[11] https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/2018/10/how-left-enabled-fascism

See also:

https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/britain-proroguing-boris-johnson-parliament-suspension-richard-evans-weimar

https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/how-the-nazis-succeeded-in-taking-power-in-red-berlin-a-866793.html

[12] Ger van Roon, German Resistance to Hitler: Count von Moltke and the Kreisau Circle (Translated by Peter Ludlow) Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1971), p. 170

[13] Van Roon, p 63

[14] Freya & Helmuth James von Moltke, Last Letters (NYRB, 2019), p. 119

[15] Phillipians 3: 20 NRSV

[16] Letter of Helmuth von Moltke to Lionel Curtis, 1942, in van Roon, p. 377

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kirchentag 2019

This year’s Kirchentag has just ended and I am back from the 30 degree heat of Dortmund to a rather breezy UK.

On the Way

I had planned a two and a half hour stopover in Brussels, largely so that I could be sure of making my connection, but this gave me an opportunity to visit the excellent Beyond Bruegel experience opposite Brussels Central Station.  Surrounded by images of Bruegel’s paintings projected onto the walls and culminating with an immersive experience where you stand as part of the painting, the whole thing offered a real window in to Bruegel and his world, both bizarre and mundane.

When you look at images such as the one on the right above, it is only too clear that in many ways “their” world was not “our” world, but then you look again at the world around us and wonder how much we have in fact changed in 500 years !

Looking at his “Tower of Babel” (above right), rather than a symbol of hubris, I found myself thinking sadly of those who would so carelessly tear apart the institutions which have brought our world together over the last couple of generations.  Attending Kirchentag 2019 and being part of this singing, studying, worshiping and reflecting community for five days was for me another way of  demonstrating and affirming my European identity.

Kirchentag 2019 : What confidence is this ?

It was in the context of a world where previously taken-for-granted norms of behaviour are being thrown to the winds, that this year’s Kirchentag sought to engage with such issues as peacemaking, migration and social justice.   There is always more than one can possibly attend, so any one person’s account will be by definition partial and fail to do justice to all that is on offer.

For me, one of the major themes was violence:

Violence against women was highlighted in the presentation from the World Council of Churches’ Thursdays in Black campaign, which seeks to raise awareness of, and stand against,  violence against women in all its forms. Interviewed afterwards for the WCC, I made the point that if we are serious about standing against violence towards women then our churches will stop excluding women and our Bible Studies engage with stories of violence against women, and in doing so set myself an agenda.

Violence & religion was the theme of a Saturday morning session.   Referring to his own country (but equally valid for the UK, and many other European countries), Jim Winkler, President & General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, reminded us that any nation built on the backs of slaves and conquest is by definition violent.   As he went on to speak of American exceptionalism I couldn’t help reflecting that in our world it is, sadly, not just America which sees itself as the exception !   When he went on to speak of the Kirchentag as a “living movement against violence” I felt both privileged to be a part of it but also concerned that this is not something which could be said of the church as a whole.

Part of this session focused on the issue of violence in the Bible, something with which I am increasingly concerned.  Theologian Gerlinde Baumann observed that this is not at present a live issue in the German Protestant churches, but that people at the grassroots are putting pressure on scholars to address these questions.  Certainly in my own experience churchgoers are much more concerned about biblical violence that we sometimes expect, and the formation of the Centre for Bible & Violence at Bristol Baptist College is a sign that this is certainly the case in this part of Europe.   Gerlinde Baumann’s own work has engaged with the issue of the God-image of the Hebrew Bible but she went further and raised important questions (which I share) concerning NT apocalyptic texts and indeed the violence of continually reminding people how sinful they are, which seems to be a feature of most Christian worship services / liturgies.

Structural violence arose from a number of sessions I attended, but it was perhaps put most powerfully by Namibian Lutheran Bishop Zephaniah Kameeta, who spoke of our world as a house where some of the children go to bed with full stomachs and sleep in good beds whilst some go hungry and sleep on the floor.   To make matters worse, he added, some of  us go to the other rooms of this originally plentiful house, and remove all the wealth, taking it back to our own room.   That, he said, is a scandal !  Indeed it is …

And finally, there were sessions on peacemaking.  A session on the work of Christian peacemaker teams left me wondering what peacemaking might mean in a divided and post-truth UK.  But that is a question for another post …

Much more than theology

The Kirchentag is much more than theology.     It is worship (Opening Services in the city squares and Closing Service in the Dortmund Stadium).   It is music (for me Lotte on the opening night; Scala & Kolacny Brothers in a converted industrial site;  Philip Glass’s opera Echnaton (Akhnaten) in the Dortmund Opera House;  and the acapella band VivaVoce on the final evening.    

And perhaps most important of all, it is community.  Staying with a German couple in Schwerte was a wonderful experience as were the encounters and conversations with those I met throughout the five days.

I return home with a renewed sense of my Europeanness.   As I wrote after Berlin 2017, citizenship is as much of the mind as it is a matter of documentation.  And, as I said then too,  I will continue to ask why churches so often serve to contribute to notions of national identity rather than critiquing the whole idea.

Kirchentag 2019 is over, but as a “living movement against violence” it lives on in those who continue to explore and engage with the issues it has raised for us.  I look forward to Frankfurt 2021 !

Get With The Action

Currently showing at the Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft is a selection of the work of pop artist and (for much of her life) Roman Catholic sister Corita Kent.   I was aware of Corita but had never really engaged with her work until this exhibition, which runs until October 14 2018.

Ahead of her time in the 1960s, in many ways Corita is still ahead of her time in 2018. Her work features bold colors, profound and provocative words, and unexpected juxtapositions.   The work illustrated on the left above is entitled “that they may have life” and was composed in 1964.   It is inspired by the still popular North American sliced loaf “Wonder Bread (also featured in Regina Spektor’s song “Samson”).   As can be seen from the current packaging (below), Corita has little to do to make her point.

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The words “Wonder” and “Enriched Bread” could hardly be more fitting to describe the Mass, and the coloured discs adorning the packaging need only to be rendered in white to represent communion wafers.

But Corita does more.   She adds words.   Words first from a Kentucky miner’s wife:

It’s bad you don’t know what to do when you’ve got five children standing around crying for something to eat and you don’t know where to get it, and you don’t know which way to start to get it. I just get nervous or something.

And then words from Gandhi:

There are so many hungry people that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.

So even the commonplace white sliced loaf can remind us of the Mass, and, more than that, of those who go hungry in our world and our responsibility to work for a world where everybody has enough to eat.

Corita’s works offer us objects for reflection, enlarging our view of both God and the world through the mundane and everyday transformed by words.   Just like the Mass.  In fact, protestant theologian, and friend of Corita, Harvey Cox, suggests that the Mass is the original pop art:

I once suggested to Marshall McLuhan that the sacrament was the first form of pop art.  You take a piece of bread, or a cup, and put it in a very unusual setting, namely the High Mass.  You lift it up and look at it.   And from then on you never see bread and wine in quite the same way again.

For Corita, anything is a potential object for an encounter with God.   In an essay entitled “Art & Beauty in the Life of the Sister”, Corita sets out her approach to her work:

Our time is a time of erasing the lines that divided things neatly.   Today we find all the superlatives and the infinite fulfilment man [sic] hungers for portrayed not only in fairy stories or poems but also in billboards and magazine ads and TV commercials.   We are doing an age-old thing in new media.  …  This sign language is almost infinitely rich.  … Nobody should believe ads and billboards.   They are contemporary fairy tales and are the carriers, as fairy tales have always been, of man’s loves and hopes and beliefs.  Up and down the highways … we see words like “Cold, clear, well water”, “the best to you each morning”, “Have a happy day”, “Sunkist”, “Del Monte’s catsup makes meatballs sing”, that read almost like contemporary translations of the psalms for us to be singing on our way. 

Furthermore:

… if our business is to put the always new truth into new wineskins, we need to know the very latest about wineskin making .   This means we should be listening to the most experimental … music, seeing the newest plays and films, reading the latest poems and novels … We need to be hungry for new insights.

Exactly !

Yet for many, there is something sacred about the cultural forms of the past, yesterday’s wineskins, which prevents new wineskins coming into use.   So Corita’s work continues to challenge a church which finds it very difficult to let go of past objects and places of encounter with God and embrace new possibilities and forms of encounter.

There is so much more I could say about Corita and her work, and I will return to them in a later post.   In the meantime, the challenge she poses to the church remains …

 

 

 

 

 

 

Britain, Pale Mother ?

Fritz Cremer: “O Germany Pale Mother” (Berlin-Mitte)

 

‘Let others speak of her shame,
I speak of my own.’

O Germany, pale mother!
How soiled you are
As you sit among the peoples.
You flaunt yourself
Among the besmirched.

The poorest of your sons
Lies struck down.
When his hunger was great.
Your other sons
Raised their hands against him.
This is notorious.

With their hands thus raised,
Raised against their brother,
They march insolently around you
And laugh in your face.
This is well known.

In your house
Lies are roared aloud.
But the truth
Must be silent.
Is it so?

Why do the oppressors praise you everywhere,
The oppressed accuse you?
The plundered
Point to you with their fingers, but
The plunderer praises the system
That was invented in your house!

Whereupon everyone sees you
Hiding the hem of your mantle which is bloody
With the blood
Of your best sons.

Hearing the harangues which echo from your house,
men laugh.
But whoever sees you reaches for a knife
As at the approach of a robber.

O Germany, pale mother!
How have your sons arrayed you
That you sit among the peoples
A thing of scorn and fear!

Bertolt Brecht

To a Siberian Woodsman

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Recently we sent a weekend in Prague.  We arrived in the evening of November 17, and enjoyed experiencing the various commemorations of the Velvet Revolution (which began on that day in 1989) as we wandered around the city.

As well as seeing the expected sights of Prague, on the Sunday afternoon we took a guided tour of some of the places significant in the Communist era, ending up at a now disused nuclear bunker just outside the centre of the city.   The guide told us how “civil defense” was part of his school curriculum, familiarising he and his classmates with weaponry and grenades in case of invasion.   The bunker itself (we were told) was designed to hold 5000 people, though it seems they would have been expected to stand, and would have had supplies for two weeks, after which presumably everyone would be able to return to their homes !  So not a terribly effective precaution.

But nor, this side of the so-called Iron Curtain, was the advice of the “Protect & Survive” films made by the Uk government.   For, as we now know, whilst the powers that be would have been safe underground, the public would have been shown how to construct a fall-out shelter in the cupboard under the stairs.

After our visit to the nuclear shelter I was reminded of a poem by the American writer Wendell Berry.   Written at the height of the so-called Cold War in 1968 after seeing some pictures in a magazine, “To A Siberian Woodsman” can be read in full in a number of places online, but the stanza that stands out for me is the fourth one.     The cold war may be no more, but Wendell Berry’s words continue to remind us that there are no enemies, only people.   It’s a beautiful and powerful poem and I encourage you to read it in full.

Who has invented our enmity? Who has prescribed us
hatred of each other? Who has armed us against each other
with the death of the world? Who has appointed me such anger
that I should desire the burning of your house or the
destruction of your children?
Who has appointed such anger to you? Who has set loose the thought
that we should oppose each other with the ruin of forests and
rivers, and the silence of the birds?
Who has said to us that the voices of my land shall be strange
to you, and the voices of your land strange to me?

Who has imagined that I would destroy myself in order to destroy you,
or that I could improve myself by destroying you? Who has imagined
that your death could be negligible to me now that I have seen
these pictures of your face?
Who has imagined that I would not speak familiarly with you,
or laugh with you, or visit in your house and go to work with
you in the forest?

 

 

The Handmaid’s Tale

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Over the course of five days last week we watched the recent TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale.    I had not read the book, though had some idea what the story was about, and found the TV adaptation both powerful and engaging.

Perhaps the scariest thing about the story is just how plausible it is that, in a world suffering environmental devastation and mass infertility, a scenario develops where those few women who remain fertile are used as breeding machines for the rich and powerful.

Frighteningly plausible too is the way in which religious, specifically biblical, justification is given for the work of the handmaids.  The story of childless Rachel’s use of her maid as a surrogate mother for her child with Jacob is told in Genesis 30:

30When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’2Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’ 3Then she said, ‘Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.’ 4So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife; and Jacob went in to her. 5And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. 6Then Rachel said, ‘God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son’; therefore she named him Dan.*7Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son.8Then Rachel said, ‘With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed’; so she named him Naphtali.

9 When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. 10Then Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. 11And Leah said, ‘Good fortune!’ so she named him Gad. 12Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. 13And Leah said, ‘Happy am I! For the women will call me happy’; so she named him Asher. (Genesis 30: 1 – 13 NRSV)

This is the story which stands behind The Handmaid’s Tale.   But the regime’s (ab)use of the Bible doesn’t end there.  The title given to the female housekeepers is “Martha” and there is much (ab)use made of the Beatitudes at crucial moments when the Handmaids need to be kept in order.   And, of course, the very name of the state where all this happens is “Gilead”, a place-name straight out of the Hebrew Bible.

It is clear to me that here we have yet another example of religious language being used to conceal socio-political reality, in this case the oppression and abuse of women.  The Handmaid’s Tale may be fiction, but there are plenty of examples of the same dynamic happening in the real world.

In one very powerful scene towards the end of the series, the Handmaids are summoned to a stoning.  One of their number is accused of putting her baby’s life at risk and the handmaids are instructed to gather up their stone and then stand in a circle round her ready to strike.  But one by one they drop their stones and refuse.  It is like a silent version of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John’s Gospel, where Jesus’ challenge that the one without sin should throw first leads to everyone dropping their stones and slinking away, and serves to remind us of how easy it is to puncture the pretensions of those who would seek to use biblical / religious sanction for injsutice and oppression.

It would be good to be able to claim that the world described by Margaret Atwood in 1985 was further from reality now than it was then, but sadly this doesn’t seem to be the case.  That is why I believe it is so important to be aware of how religious language is being used both by ourselves and others, lest we find ourselves justifying hidden realities by our use if it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Un Village Francais

 

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Last week we finished watching the final season of the excellent French TV series Le Village Francais, which covers the years 1940 – 1945 in the life of a small town in Vichy France.  Although I am sure its representation of the time is not perfect, the series gives a real window into what it must have been like to live under occupation, and the very real ethical complexity of day to day existence and survival.

Looking back over the series, the season which caused me the most disquiet was (perhaps surprisingly) the final one, where those who were seen to be collaborators were tried and, in one case put to death, because of what was seen as their responsibility for the deaths of French citizens.

As well as raising the more general question as to whether it was surely better that those who collaborated were basically good people, working for as good an outcome as possible in their various roles, rather than people with no particular concern for others, the programme raised some very important ethical issues.

One particular character, Servier – a decent, likeable, if unimaginative man –  is tried and then executed as he was seen to have been responsible for the killing of a number of people by the Nazis.   Despite the fact that the Nazis put him in the impossible position of promising to kill fewer people if he chose the names, and hence his willingness to make that awful decision actually resulted in a number of people avoiding death, Servier was found guilty and executed.

I found this very difficult to watch and found myself asking again and again “What about the Resistance itself ?” Very often it was their own actions which led to the round up and killing of French citizens by the Nazis, yet that fact was never mentioned in the trial.  But how were they any less morally culpable for the deaths of their fellow French citizens than the man they tried and executed ?   And were those actions which led to civilian hostages being taken and killed actually worth it ?   It would be interesting (though probably impossible) to know how many civilian lives were lost in response     to  Resistance actions as compared with how many were saved due to Collaborators like Servier and his colleagues.

The series presents quite clearly the way in which the reality of collaboration (or as one scholar prefers to term it, “accommodation”) was very soon to be obscured by the myth of resistance, and (as a result) what seems to me to be the scapegoating and execution of those who served as reminders that the past was not quite so simple.

Who knows what any of us would do in a situation of occupation.   Though studies suggest that most people see themselves as resistors, perhaps that is a further result of the myth of resistance and its implicit claim that “everybody” was a Resistor ?

I would recommend Le Village Francais in either of its Australian or US (where it is available as A French Village) subtitled versions.   For further exploration of the ethical issues raised by resistance and collaboration, see Rab Bennett, Under the Shadow of the Swastika: Moral Dilemmas of Resistance and Collaboration in Hitler’s Europe (Springer, 1999)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Things Gathered Up

 

This week I have been preparing a paper on transhumanism, focusing on its claims that we are not far from what amounts to a form of secular resurrection as the possibility of uploading the human brain onto a computer comes ever closer.

But would this uploaded brain / mind be “me” ?   Or would it just be a very good copy ? This would seem to be a very important difference, if not to others certainly to “me”.   There is all the world of difference between knowing that I will live on after my death even if I am not conscious of it and knowing that I will live on after my death and indeed be conscious of doing so.   The first option, which appears to be that promised by the transhumanists, is little different to the way that we already live on through our offspring, or our life’s work.

At the end of the paper, I briefly outline my own eschatological vision.  And after I had done so, it occurred to me that we construct – or choose – the vision of the afterlife  which best addresses our own particular needs and desires. Indeed, the two transhumanist figures I cite in my paper, Ray Kurzweil and Martine Rothblatt,  focus their work on recreating a dead father (Kurzweil) or copying a living partner (Rothblatt), so it is clear what their motivation is.

My own view of the future brings together faith and science in a way that works for me and, no doubt, addresses my own concern to capture the past.

I am fascinated by memory, and how seemingly clear memories are proved to be incorrect by one quick glance at the diary.  I am fascinated, too, by the way in which simple encounters and conversations can turn out to be life-changing but also in time forgotten. That is why I keep a diary, so that as little as possible from my life is lost.   It is probably also why I tend to hold on to seemingly insignificant things, perhaps because at the time one is never sure quite how important they are going to turn out to be in one’s life journey.

Imagine, therefore, if at some point in the future all those lost and forgotten moments and people and conversations come together ?

Scientists currently suggest three models of the universe: open, closed and flat.  In a closed universe everything comes to an end in a reversal of the big bang referred to as the “big crunch”.

This is what Teilhard de Chardin refers to in his writings as the Omega Point, and it may be that we get a glimpse of this in the Pauline author’s vision of all things gathered up into Christ in Ephesians 1: 10 and the early church theologian Irenaeus’ vision of recapitulation inspired by it.

Whether that be the case or not, it is helpful and meaningful to me to see this convergence at the end of the universe as a time when all who have ever lived will come face to face with those whom their lives have impacted and will understand for the first time the full meaning of their lives for good and for ill.

So maybe all things being gathered up into Christ means all those forgotten people and moments in our lives being fully known and understood perhaps for the first time in the light of the God for whom nothing is forgotten, nothing lost.

This sounds good to me but I’m aware that to others, who have lived less happy and privileged lives than me,  it might be a nightmare, so it’s probably just as well it’s not up to us anyway !

 

Kirchentag 2017

Every two years some 100,000 people descend on a German city for the Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag, a five day festival of lectures, panel discussion, Bible Study, worship, performance and music.

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This year’s Kirchentag was in Berlin, my favourite city in the world, from May 24 – 28.   It also coincided with the Reformation 500 celebrations, which meant that the closing service took place in Wittenberg, a 50 minute train ride away, so even more ground was covered than usual !

This was my second Kirchentag, the first being in Stuttgart in 2015, when in many ways (pre Trump, pre UK EU Referendum) the world seemed a different place.  As an international guest you have an opportunity to be accommodated by a host family, and my accommodation was on the edge of the former East Berlin, and it was a very special experience to  get the tram and bus / SBahn into the city centre and get a taste of what it must be like to live in the city, rather than staying in a hotel.

Because of the number of people attending, there are three simultaneous opening services, and I found myself at the one in front of the Brandenburg Gate, where we were all sitting, or standing, on what would normally be a busy road, bordered at each side by the beautiful Tiergarten.   This too was the venue for the conversation between Barack Obama and Angela Merkel the following morning.  Not surprisingly, Obama’s speech was inspirational, and it can be watched on youtube here. This  version of the video also includes English dubbing of Angela Merkel and other German speakers, although this isn’t particularly easy to hear.

The German programme for the Kirchentag is the size of a substantial paperback book, and the international programme (featuring sessions either in English or with translation into English as well as a few events which need no translation) offers more than enough choice.

Thursday afternoon I attended a session on Christology in the Light of Judaism.  The novelist Amos Oz gave the keynote speech, and (drawing on his latest novel) raised questions about the NT story of Judas, observing  that the gospel narrative does not need Judas (after all everyone knew what Jesus looked like) and suggesting that the story serves only to make it clear that the Jews were to blame for Jesus’ death. Interestingly, in German the word for Jew is “Jude” which very easily becomes “Judas” (and vice versa).   This session raised some profound and important questions that I intend to return to here in the future.

Friday morning I attended a Bibliodrama workshop.   Bibliodrama is a way of entering into a biblical story through role-play, literally becoming the characters, reflecting on what is going through their minds, and interacting with each other within the group.  It seems to be more popular in Germany and the Benelux countries than in the UK, and so most of the resources are in German or Dutch, but more information can be found here

Friday afternoon’s session explored the tensions between freedom of religion and human rights in the area of LGBT. Coming just a few days before the annual commemoration of the Ugandan Martyrs,  Ugandan LGBT activist Kasha Nabagesera told of how LGBT persons are persecuted by the Ugandan church, and former UN Rapporteur for Religious Freedom Heiner Bielefeldt spoke of the recent establishment by the United Nations of an Independent Expert on Protection Against Violence and Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. Although the focus was on Africa, the issues are no less relevant to Europe.

Saturday morning’s session “How Much War Does Peace Take ?” raised questions which had been raised already by Barack Obama (and were to be raised again on my return to the UK by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the country’s general election campaign), namely the need to think carefully about military interventions with the aim of peacemaking, as so often these do not work out as planned.  As one speaker paraphrased Cicero:  “If you want peace, prevent the conditions for war”.   Again, much to think about and also a very welcome reminder of the existence and work of the OSCE

Part of the programme was taking place in the Messe Berlin convention centre, and I spent all of Saturday there, with my last session being one on Transhumanism.  This is something which should concern us all, and especially those from within religious communities, because it is about what it means to be human.  At the centre of the debate is what it would mean to be able to upload the human brain to a computer and in what way that would render the individual concerned immortal.  This, again, is a topic I intend to explore further here. For the moment, to read of one person’s journey into transhumanism see this article from the Guardian here.

The Kirchentag concluded with a closing service just outside the town of Wittenberg where, 500 years ago this October, Martin Luther may (or may not) have nailed his 95 Theses to the church door.  The rousing sermon (in English) from the Archbishop of Cape Town formed a fitting conclusion to this five days of exploration, debate and challenge.   The whole thing can be read here, but I would like to quote his concluding words:

Martin Luther King Junior famously spoke about a dream that he had for his country. Like King, I have a dream for the world: that one day soon all the narcissistic, nationalist, isolationist ramblings of our current times will disappear. I have a dream that instead there will arise a global awareness that we are of one humanity. I have a dream that we will all sit together to decide: “What is in the best interests not of this or that group, but of all of society?” I have a dream that your children, and mine, will one day live in an Africa and in a world that has an abundance of unlimited and equal access to education, to health care, to water and sanitation and to economic opportunities.

Will you, young people and older people, help me realise that dream? Please help me. 

I also had an opportunity to visit some of Berlin’s museums before the opening service on Wednesday evening.

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It was illuminating, and moving, to learn about Berlin 1937 at the Markisches Museum. Alongside material about the “Give Me Four Years Time” exhibition that year when the Nazis paraded their accomplishments over four years and their plans for the next, there was an anonymous photo album, offering photos both intimate and militaristic, bringing together the normal and the abnormal over that year. as well as eyewitness testimonies from a number of figures who were in Berlin that year. It was  sobering to recall that four years earlier, in 1933, Germans had voted in a referendum to leave the League of Nations.

Over at the Berlinische Galerie it was interesting to trace Art in Berlin 1880 – 1980, and to be reminded that the Nazis effectively airbrushed from history the period of Weimar (1919 – 1933) and the Modernism which preceded WW1 in their attempt to return to what they saw as an idyllic Golden Age of Germanic culture.  Most nations and cultures have their so-called Golden Age, but whether anything is accomplished for the present in seeking a return  to them is another matter.  In our own time I think it is true to say that we are seeing something not dissimilar, namely pressure to conform to a nationalistic narrative and an idealisation of the past.

Finally, the Topography of Terror had an exhibition coinciding with the Reformation 500 celebrations exploring Luther and the Nazis, and including some extraordinary examples of the coming together of Christian and Nazi iconography, as for example in this entranceway to the Martin Luther House in Cologne, where Martin Luther appears on the left hand side and an SA officer (with swastika) on the right:

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Reflecting afterwards, I wrote in my diary:  I can see, perhaps more fully than ever before, why Karl Barth took the position he did !   One could say the the so-called “German Christians” were engaged in a form of contextual theology !  

There are lessons still to be learned, both for our own time and for the doing of theology, from the Nazi era, and I hope to explore these further here.

So, my concluding thoughts ?

Though I had been to Berlin before, I didn’t know anyone there and had only one brief telephone conversation with my host, where my lack of German was a definite problem, before I set off for the Kirchentag.    Yet the whole experience became for me, in the words of the Taize community, a “pilgrimage of trust on earth“, and that will stay with me, as will the conversations both at the Kirchentag itself and on the journey there and back on the train.

For me, too, this time in Berlin was an affirmation of my Europeanness. However nation-states may seek to define their citizens, citizenship is as much of the mind as it is a matter of documentation.  And I will continue to ask why churches so often serve to contribute to notions of national identity rather than critiquing the whole idea.

To visit Berlin is to be reminded of the entire history of the twentieth century in one city. Everywhere I turn, a familiar name or event is commemorated.    So, after six days I head for home.  Amazing city, amazing event.  I look forward to Dortmund 2019 !

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