The Long Shadow

Rarely do leaders weigh the consequences of conflict. The human cost is terrible, and so too is the loss of homes, wildlife, heritage and communities. Things that take centuries to create are gone in an instant. The destruction wreaked by war has perhaps never been as visible as it is in Ukraine. From mobile phones and social media sites there is moment-by-moment reporting, independent of the channels of news that previously controlled the narrative of world events.

The photo at the top of this blog, taken in South Shields, is not a relic of the first or second World Wars. The Trow Rock Disappearing Gun was a prototype that could be retracted or elevated from its mount, but never went into mass production. The gun in the picture is a replica of the Victorian original. Across the UK, in all sorts of places, we can still see the detritus of war – pillboxes left standing as a reminder of the coastal defences that once surrounded the British Isles. Conflict lingers in the landscape for centuries.

The Chapel of the Royal Foundation of St Katherine, London, stands on the site of a parish church destroyed in 1940

The human (notably male) propensity for fighting appears to be travelling at a far slower pace of evolutionary progress when compared with the speed of new armaments and their technical delivery. A primitive willingness to go to war is now housed in the terryfing world of novichok and thermobaric bombs. Growing up in the 1970s I was well aware of CND and its opposition to the philosophy of ‘mutually assured destruction’. I was 14 when Russia invaded Afghanistan and remember feeling anxious about where this might lead; how the world would react; and whether military escalation would follow, drawing in an ever wider circle of armed forces.

Today is Mothering Sunday, the midpoint of Lent in the Western Church. Tragically we are witnessing many mothers with children fleeing to neighbouring nations, leaving partners behind fighting for the defence of Ukraine. It is a sad reality that many of those seeking refuge will not be reunited with their loved ones. This adds poignancy to the partings that we see on train platforms across unoccupied Ukraine: people do not know whether the separation will be temporary, or final.

Few, few shall part where many meet!
The snow shall be their winding-sheet,
And every turf beneath their feet
Shall be a soldier’s sepulchre.

Hohenlinden by Thomas Campbell

We seem to have lost the energy to seek peace and pursue it. Perhaps there was too much hope invested in the interconnections of capitalism as an impediment to war. Putin has shown us that massive economic losses do not outweigh the decision to invade a neighbour. I’m not sure there can be great hope for humanity if all our energy is put into technical advances with token interest in peace studies; ethics or responsible disarmament. Whether in prayer or mindfulness, we each need to reflect on our own contribution to peace – and find ways to resolve differences without a clash of arms or the long, long shadow of war.

“Friends, let us hold in the Light the people of Ukraine. Let us hold in the Light the people of Russia. Let us hold in the Light the people of Afghanistan. Let us hold in the Light the people of Ethiopia. Let us hold in the Light the people of Myanmar. Let us hold in the Light those affected by conflicts we have forgotten or have never even heard of, because the consequences of war will scar lives just as they are doing in Kyiv. Let us hold in the Light the people working for peace. Let us hold in the Light the people who are not”.

https://www.quaker.org.uk/blog/ukraine-faithfully-maintaining-our-testimony-against-war

Useless Beauty

Sadly, neither music nor sculptures stop tanks. Military bands, uniforms and insignia may all demonstrate the way art can be conscripted into morale boosting service, but these are details rather than the main event. Many people will be tempted to see artistic talent in current circumstances as a ‘nice to have’ at a time when many people in Ukraine are searching for bread, shelter, safety and warmth. Yet the countless social media clips of singing children, firefighter violinists, and heavily sandbagged civic statues, suggest a deep determination to make sure that a people’s culture endures.

I am a great admirer of the ceramic sculptures created by Antonia Salmon. In a recent circulation to her contacts, Antonia reflects on the state of the world and the point of art:

“In one sense it could be easy to regard the arts as frivolous at a critical time such as this. Both the quality of our Presence and regard for our fellow human beings, and for our planet as a whole, is vitally important at this time. I’m certain that in whatever way you are able you will contribute to the awareness and growth of human connection, to love and to beauty.”

Antonia Salmon, Spring Update 13 March 2022, email quoted with permission
Detail of ‘Winged Form’ by Antonia Salmon

In the same week as receiving Antonia’s email I heard an excellent reflection on lament. This was given by Wendy Lloyd in a Lent series for York Minster. With the title Prayer as Lament and Hope, Wendy set out the idea of prayerful lament as a way of ensuring we continue to hold the vision of how things could (or should) be, especially when life is at its most difficult and destructive. All the acts of art or culture we are seeing in Ukraine suggest that in adversity people need to sustain a vision that amounts to far more than nostalgia. It constitutes a progressive hope focused on a time when all these slivers of Sabbath become the life we lead. As we maintain and re-pattern our creative senses and connectedness, art can make us restless with many aspects of the world in which we are living. As such, lament prevents us colluding with the failings and distortions of the world. In her reflection Wendy quoted an excellent article from a recent issue of The Financial Times:

Lament understands that naming reality is part of what enables one to address it and move towards a new reality. It is a way of bearing witness to injustice when we see it, to the unfairness of life, and yet also to a deeper belief in a world where we can seek help and have the agency to make decisions and take action so that pain and suffering are not the accepted order of the day.

Enuma Okoro, The Importance of Lament, The Financial Times, March 4 2022

When we see courageous acts of creativity and beauty in the midst of horror it reminds us all that we cannot afford to abandon the very things that make human beings their best selves. The arts have an invaluable role in both naming the injustices of life whilst simultaneously expressing the hope and possibility of something far better. In Lent, for Christians, the temptations of Jesus illustrate the tawdry shortcuts that will never achieve the splendour of what might be – of the time when all creation finds its true peace and purpose.

The featured image is an overview of ‘Holding Piece’. Antonia Salmon’s website: http://www.antoniasalmon.co.uk

The Question

President Zelensky’s address to the UK Parliament was a masterful presentation of truth-telling, conviction and heartfelt oratory. Touching lightly on classic speeches of British history and literature, he appropriated the words of Hamlet to sum up his country’s plight – and the question ‘to be’. As Shakespeare’s character suggests, the choice to continue living is not without cost or consequence. Some may see the determined resistance of Ukraine’s fighters as a hopeless last stand – almost suicidal in the face of overwhelming odds. Others can only applaud with both awe and admiration the courage of people unwilling to let go of their life, freedoms and sovereign identity.

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep

Seldom do heads of state face the suddenness of the question as to whether their nation should be – or not be. It is little wonder that European minds turn back to the 1930s when looking for a comparison with the present crisis. Countries falling under the sway of an aggressor who refuses to listen to the voices of other nations, but is more than willing to deploy military force against civilians. Propaganda and brutality at home: fear abroad. It is an approach used by dictators for as long as human history. Like all bullying it is effective only until one slash with the sword suddenly echoes with the ring of steel. What was supposed to be quick and easy meets its match – mettle answers metal. I cannot believe that President Putin imagined that the conquest of Ukraine would be so slow; so costly in Russian lives; or so devastating to the Russian economy. There has been a miscalculation or a misunderstanding; delusions of power or the fear of a successful, prosperous, democratic neighbour. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t care, confident that gradual escalation will lead to ultimate victory.

Part of the reason it is so moving to hear President Zelensky’s speech is the possibility that he may not be alive for very much longer. He has chosen to stay in Kiev, and must be the number one target for Russian forces. It is difficult to think that Ukrainian defiance will be quite as determined or as effective without this charismatic leader so visibly present in the war.

One of the oddities about Hamlet’s soliloquy alluded to by Zelensky, is its departure from what many would regard as orthodox thinking about death. For the Church, the afterlife was much more than a dream filled sleep. There is only one implicit reference to religion, describing death as ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished’. In this soliloquy it seems there is no heaven; no Christ; no God; no judgement. Vladimir Brljak’s paper entitled ‘Hamlet and the Soul-Sleepers‘ identifies the presence of popular 16th century beliefs about a state of sleep which preceded the general resurrection and last judgement. This belief was initially advocated by Martin Luther and was shared by other Reformers in England. The audiences for Hamlet would recognise this heresy in the words of the young Prince studying in a city at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. With reference to the First Quarto edition of Hamlet, Brljak finds even stronger evidence for this wayward doctrine was the basis for Hamlet’s soliloquy.

… the sleepers saw themselves as pious Christians, but their opponents relentlessly misrepresented them as denying the immortality of the soul and consequently bordering on atheism.

Brljak, V., 2018. Hamlet and the Soul-Sleepers. Reformation & Renaissance Review, 20(3), pp.187-208.
Vancouver

In the space of just two weeks the people of Ukraine have been forced to face urgent questions of sovereignty and mortality. In their response to the Russian invasion the two things have been welded together, with countless examples of individual sacrifice and tenacity. If the primary issue is the survival of a nation, there is also an implied question for other democratic countries. If this can be ‘allowed’ to happen, what else can be done by a powerful totalitarian state without the threat of consequences? If Finland begins an application process to join NATO we may discover just how far Putin will go to ensure neighbouring states conform to his wishes. At a time when Ukraine is facing an existential threat, there are other countries now living with a question about the scope of their freedom ‘to be’. If the West tries to sleep through this crisis, hoping it will eventually go away, we may all learn to our cost just what kind of nightmares might suddenly become our reality.

To Break Every Yoke

I have been fortunate in my life to know very little of war. It has been a distant experience, vicariously brought nearer by television, conversations, films and books. Only once have I ever felt the uncertainty and apprehension that comes with sudden military action. This was in Argentina in 1987, while spending a year in the country working with a mission organisation. I was based in Córdoba where, in April of that year, a Major in the army began a mutiny. A few days later this was followed by a military revolt in Buenos Aires in support of the Major’s action. It was Holy Week, and in the student hostel where I was staying in Córdoba a man in plain clothes took up sentry just outside the property. Some of the students asked who he was and phoned the local police station to check his credentials. Back in the UK my family saw film on BBC News of tanks rolling through the streets of the capital.

Thankfully what became known as ‘the Carapintada’ mutiny was short-lived. The elected President regained control and peace was restored across the country. In places unfamiliar with recent armed conflict it seems unimaginable that life can change so quickly. Yet, in Ukraine, we are witnessing the terrible cost of war in Europe in the 21st century. Destruction is so quick and devastating – building and establishing civil society takes much more effort and far more time. Even if there was a permanent caseation of hostilities and withdrawal of Russian troops, it would take years for Ukraine to be restored to what it was just couple of weeks ago. Given that the conflict is unlikely to end soon I wonder whether I will ever see that country return fully to peace, stability and prosperity in my lifetime.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
 and to break every yoke?

Isaiah 58:6 NRSV

Religions as a whole have a mixed track record when it comes to conflict. Many people don’t describe themselves as ‘religious’ due to the way in which religious groups have behaved when it comes to war. More often than not people in the West see religious differences as part of the problem rather than the solution. Without doubt there is truth in the view that just as religions can be brilliant at binding people together, shaping their identify and offering a sense of purpose, so too that cohesion can come into conflict with other groups holding different convictions. Even now we see two Orthodox churches each supporting leaders who are commanding their nations in a war. There are certainly dissenting voices, but the leadership of the churches appears to be supporting the Governments of both countries.

A student from Ukraine speaking at a demonstration in York UK on Saturday 5 March 2022

Speaking at a rally in York yesterday the Archbishop of the city suggested that we have taken peace in recent years for granted – and that ‘peace is something you have to work at’ (BBC Breakfast at 1:18 minutes). Undoubtedly this is a Western perspective as many part of the world have been mired in conflict in recent decades, but it has not been at our door. The challenge for us is to reflect on the extent to which racism has shaped our responses to various crises, which must prompt soul-searching and a change in our attitudes. There is no question that our response to Ukraine is the least we can do – but in many other conflicts there is almost certainly more that we could have done.

For Christians attempting to observe Lent this year there are plenty of passages in the Bible that tell us God is uninterested in token sacrifices. Isaiah describes God’s fast as an active confrontation with the injustices of the world. When you loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free not everyone is pleased. Pursuing God’s call for us to confront the evils of our age will bring us into conflict with the people doing the oppressing and keeping people captive. This Lent let us recognise injustice and heed God’s call to confront it so that people are freed from suffering. Let us also ask in our hearts why we do not always feel equally motivated to do this for all peoples around the world. Maybe, this year, Lent will begin to break the yoke of our prejudice and allow us to become the people who let the oppressed go free, irrespective of who they are.

Dust and Ashes

Today I shall remind people that they will die. It is a curious and perhaps shocking element of the Church’s witness that on Ash Wednesday we are reminded viscerally of our mortality. Not only in words, but with the touch and mark of ash, we recognise that our constituent parts add up to very little. Our bodies change and decay. This life is not forever and time will undo us as it undoes everyone.

Christians bear this stamp of mortality in a way that is both provocative and hopeful. Through Lent and into Holy Week we follow in the footsteps of someone whose life seemed little more than dust. Born long ago in a distant province of the Roman Empire; regarded as illegitimate; a Rabbi who didn’t come through the normal route of family connection and privilege, but out of a carpenter’s workshop. Despite a brief ministry that attracted crowds and controversy, love and fear, Jesus of Nazareth died as a criminal in the most humiliating of executions.

In the poem Dust, Elizabeth Jennings begins with the same basic reminder that is the message of Ash Wednesday: ‘We are made of dust’. But this is never the end of our story. ‘Blown to the back of the earth, Stormed at, broken, defiled’ we have both a ‘living mind’ and spirit, and are met by a grace that goes to the end of the earth. We are dust, yet this dust is:

A place for visions, a hope
That reaches beyond the stars,
Conjures and pauses the seas,
Dust discovers our own
Proud, torn destinies.
Yes, we are dust to the bone.

Elizabeth Jennings, Dust in ‘Collected Poems’ 1986 Carcanet Press Ltd.

In a similar way, reflecting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s participation in the Bradford Declaration against the Nazification of the German Church, signed by German Christian pastors working in England in 1933, the poet Diane Pacitti writes: “out of dust a new world can be formed”. The Christian conviction, expressed at every baptism and on every Ash Wednesday, is not a denial of mortality. We name the reality of death more often than we might imagine – just think of the marriage service. It is simply that in following Jesus Christ we believe that death can become something else. That dust can be the basic thing in which new life is written, born and liberated.

Photo by Irina Anastasiu on Pexels.com

As the pandemic lingers and war erupts in Europe, dust still has its part to play. However far humanity thinks it has come, the basic terms of our existence contain recurring themes. The horror of war haunts us with ever more terrifying weapons, and something akin to Medieval plague has kept us in quarantine and ended millions of lives. As Job found after all his adversity, destruction, losses and sickness, sometimes we need to sit in the dust before things can change. Avoiding or denying the dust risks an unhinged response to the realities of life – a denial of our four score years and ten. It might take a brave priest to ash the forehead of Vladimir Putin and say: ‘remember you are but dust and unto dust you shall return’. However, perhaps only a reminder of this reality can stay the hand of someone who appears bent on terrible destruction. Today people will fast and pray for peace – may their prayers be answered.

When they saw him (Job) from a distance, they did not recognise him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

Job 2: 12-13