A long time ago I spent a year working as a bread-wrapper – in an ASDA store on that U-bend in the Thames, the Isle of Dogs. This was back in 1988, when the Docklands Light Railway operated, but the foundations for Canary Wharf were still being dug. It was a time of transition, and the supermarket was rumoured to have an annual staff turnover of 110%. The old East End was giving way to a flood of wealth and gentrification that would soon alter the character of the local community, and move low-paid workers elsewhere.
Working in the bakery at the store was an education. It enlightened me about the misleading nature of marketing, as the photo heading this blog illustrates. People might imagine that ‘baked in this store’ equates with ‘made in this store’. Little could be further from the truth. Frozen and chilled goods would arrive, produced in a factory far, far, away. The purpose of the bakery was to finish these products while filling the store with the comforting aroma of freshly baked bread.
As Christmas approached I opted for two overnight shifts. This only ever happened at Christmas. On the nights of 22/23 December, and 23/24, one baker and I staffed the bakery on a shop floor devoid of everyone bar a security guard or two (these were the days before 24/7 opening). The purpose was clear. Anything wrapped after 00:01 hours bore the date of the day yet to dawn. By 8 am whole stacks of baked goods were on the shelves ready for the deluge of shoppers eager for their festive essentials.
At this time of year special foods are synonymous with the season. Dodgy adverts also tend to proliferate, and we are lured into imagining that this gift, or fragrance or food, will enable us to have the perfect Christmas. More often than not, these illusions arrive part-cooked, and never deliver everything the advertising appears to promise.
Bethlehem comes from the Hebrew name ‘Bet Leḥem‘, meaning ‘House of Bread’. In the Bread House Jesus is made human, with all the pain and risk that any birth at that time might occasion. Wesley may be right, following George Herbert, that here is God ‘contracted to a span’, but incarnation isn’t the creation of a bite-size divinity. In Bethlehem and after Bethlehem, Jesus is being made flesh, and fashioned into the saviour he becomes. Bread that will feed the hungry and energise those seeking justice, but sticks in the craw of vested interests, and those bent on retaining privilege and power. I’m not always sure that the Church is advertising accurately the kind of God-incarnate who is ‘bad news’ for some, and a stumbling block to others.
But the child that is Noble and not Mild He lies in his cot. He is unbeguiled. He is Noble, he is not Mild, And he is born to make men wild.
Stevie Smith (1902-1971) From the poem ‘Christmas’
The forced loss of land is probably the chief cause of the world’s most entrenched political and personal discord. In The West Wing, in a throwaway comment about Palestinian resettlement in the episode entitled Gaza, Admiral Fitzwallace remarks: “You know, after 50 years, one option might be to get over it”. The comment doesn’t recognise the enduring wounds of injustice which haunt people who have been forcibly removed from their land. I was reminded about this recently when speaking with some visitors from South Africa. Their families had been relocated during Apartheid under the Group Areas Act. Part of the rationale for this was the argument that they were a growing population and needed more space – which wasn’t available. However, revisiting their original home-town they had noted that many of the areas they were told could not be developed, now had housing. The forced relocation of people, accompanied by lies and coercion, leaves a stain of injustice that lasts much, much longer than 50 years.
The commodification of land is a widely accepted aspect of economic life in the West. However, this was an alien concept for many peoples around the world during colonisation. The protracted, trans-generational misery of exclusion from historic lands continues to blight the lives of indigenous communities around the world. Having land removed, or the rights to access land denied, can contribute to a disintegration of culture, customs and wellbeing that cannot be easily repaired or replaced.
“The current discussion concerning the environmental crisis emphasizes the need for a theology of land. One of the key observations of this thesis is that Indigenous communal identity includes the land, and that has underscored for me the general dislocation from the earth of modern Western people. A theology of creation must move even closer to the earth, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between people and the earth. Indigenous people understand that the Creator put them in a specific place, and this forms a vital part of their identity”.
Aldred, Raymond Clifford. An Alternative Starting Place for an Indigenous Theology. Diss. 2020p. 251
A consideration of indigenous peoples, land and theology must include the religious dimensions and complex politics of a ‘promised land’. While some territories have been ‘virgin’ (from a human perspective), most people around the world are settled on land that was once occupied by someone else. When religious legitimacy is given to the removal of people from land it does nothing to diminish the sense of anger and injustice. The Radio 4 In Our Timeseries has an episode giving attention to the debates in Spain that following the conquest of indigenous people in South America. The assumed benefit of bringing Christianity to anyone was a key ideological factor in the approach that was taken to land acquisition. Around the world religious ideas, and the Bible in particular, were used selectively to underpin and implement egregious acts of violence and land acquisition.
Land that is understood to be promised is at the heart of many of the most politically complex situations in the world. In the Middle East the desire for peace is met with seemingly intractable complexities of religion; geopolitics and history. Despite the interventions and attempts by many world leaders the situation remains volatile and dangerous (and not only for the Middle East).
“For those who might have heard about what befell the Palestinian Arabs, it is possible that they felt sorry for us, but in the great master plan of God and God’s purposes for history, the Palestinians who were killed by the Zionists in the war and the hundreds of thousands who were dispossessed and became refugees were probably considered collateral damage and a small price to pay compared with what God was accomplishing through the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland”.
Ateek, N. S. (Ed.). (2017). A Palestinian theology of liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel conflict. Orbis Books.
In material gathered before the end of Apartheid, RS Sugirtharajah’s work Voices from the Margin there is a case study from South Africa which includes the following comment by a participant:
“We want to live freely as we used to before the white man came. When I was a small boy, my grandfather had land, cattle, sheep, goats, plenty of land that they tilled and could reap good harvests and had cows to milk, And life was good. You felt you had what you wanted. But they took the land away from him; something to do with title deeds and white farmers, and that happened to other blacks as well, and the men had to work for the white farmers or come to town to work. So that’s how we came here”.
Sugirtharajah, R. S. (1991). Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World.
Our ability, or capacity to restrain our intervention, seems to leave only tiny exceptions to the general rule of conquest and assimilation. A combination of economic exploitation, religious mission and academic curiosity has put an end to many distinctive cultures and civilisations. The people of the North Sentinel island might be one of the few remaining cultures almost entirely left alone. When an American missionary was killed on approaching the island even the US State Department decided not to pursue an investigation for murder. We have no idea what ‘murder’ would mean in the culture of the North Sentinelese, or what shared framework of human perception and understanding would enable a fair trial. In an earlier colonial era such acts would legitimate conquest and subjugation.
The legacy of colonialism undoubtedly leaves many indigenous people and communities bearing a burden of injustice. Today, in a different way, it is also these communities which are often those most affected by changes to our climate. A UN independent experts panel has called on the States attending COP27 to “allow for the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and civil society… Indigenous peoples and civil society play an essential role in the advancement of climate action, and their voices must be heard”. When the voices of indigenous people are absent, or go unheard, humanity’s vision is diminished. This is especially true when such voices come from people often very close to the land, experiencing and lamenting the changes that make their way of live increasingly difficult. As we continue to debate and respond to a crisis from which none of us can escape, the relationship of human beings to land sites at the centre of any meaningful action. Altering our attitudes and perceptions about land, especially its commercial use, is essential for any meaningful sense of liberation.
Peru is a remarkable country. It possesses a breathtaking combination of the natural wonders, from the jungle to the Sierra, as well as the remarkable archaeological legacy of earlier civilisations, including the Inca Empire. For my first trip abroad since 2019 there could not have been a better destination.
When travelling I always try to discover a little about life beyond the corridors of the tourist experience, and having a reasonable level of conversational Spanish certainly helps in Hispanophone countries. A few days before we landed in Lima the Government of Peru eased some mask restrictions. This meant that from 1 October mask wearing is only mandatory ‘at health establishments, and in ground transportation vehicles‘. In effect, we experienced Perus at its most ‘normal’ since the early months of 2020. Continuing mask-wearing was certainly being upheld during a train journey to Machu Piccu. Unsurprisingly, in a country where 0.5% of the population died from COVID-19, the transition to pre-2020 behaviours has been more hesitant than in countries such as the UK.
During the past couple of weeks I have had the opportunity to ask people about their experience of COVID in Peru. It is strikingly different from the situation in Europe, especially from an economic perspective. There is also a dimension that reaches far back into the history of Peru, not least in the relationship between indigenous peoples and the conduct of the state. It is a salutary reminder that harrowing experiences of conquest and subjugation have profound and enduring legacies. Often these communities are economically disadvantaged and may have unresolved reservations about medicine delivered in ways that may appear to be at odds with traditional beliefs and treatments.
Whatever quarantine rules said, it’s hard for many Peruvians to stay home. Roughly 70% work in the informal employment sector, with little job security and no sick pay. Nearly 44% of homes don’t have a refrigerator, so families must go out often to get food. Busy markets have become hubs of infection.
Ciara Nugent, ‘Why Peru’s COVID-19 problem spiralled – despite a strict lockdown’, Time Magazine, June 15 2020.
Nugent quotes Iván Hidalgo’s observation about the nature of decision-making during the crisis: ‘We’re seeing the measures designed in the capital collide with the reality of the country’. In Peru there was no state-funded furlough, at least not for those to whom I spoke. People were forced to survive as best they could. As tourism dried up, a major source of employment in the country was put on hold. I asked what that meant for various people, denied salaries and ‘tips’, and I heard about the resourcefulness of people suddenly denied their income. One drew on his early years growing up in a farm to breed ducks; another turned his hand to furniture making; and one guide returned to her family home where they opened a food shop. However, despite this resourcefulness, they all spoke about how hard the past two years had been, even if they and their families had not been affected too badly by illness and mortality. The tour guides were well-educated people, with wide networks of contacts and skill in several languages. I can only imagine how much more difficult life must have been for people with fewer resources, used to living hand-to-mouth in normal times.
The people of the floating islands of Uros on Lake Titicaca demonstrated one approach by which traditional ways of life offered potential advantages in responding to COVID. The remarkable reed islands, constructed by the Uros people, allowed the community to sever links with the local city of Puno and focus on fishing and other forms of subsistence. Speaking to one of the leaders of a family community (pictured), known as a ‘President’, it was clear that their way of life enabled infection to be avoided. However, the loss of income from tourism, as well as a lack of access to education, left lasting damage to the people living this distinctive way of life.
Overall, my observations in Peru, and conversations with local people, have reminded me of the lamentable fact that the least-well resourced in society typically suffer repeated harm. It is entirely fitting that South American countries, with a sustained experience of socio-economic disadvantage, developed a form of theology which interrogates systemic disadvantage and energises practical responses to injustice. Liberation theology, notably pioneered by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, has had a mixed reception in recent decades. However, there is a growing interest in forms of liberation which are generated in specific communities experiencing particular forms of disadvantage. This includes a liberation theology of indigenous peoples, a constituency made up of between 5 and 8 percent of the world’s population.
‘Indigenous theology attempts to mobilize community cutting across class, caste, tribe, and gender barriers to promote values and structure that enhance life, reject the forces and practices that destroy life, and liberate them from bondage. Collective solidarity resistance with the victims of the system and people in pain is witness to the liberating power of God in Christ. The cross is the sign of solidarity. To witness Christ without resistance for justice has no meaning’.
Longchar, W. (2013). Liberation theology and indigenous people. In The Reemergence of Liberation Theologies (pp. 111-121). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
For Gutiérrez, liberation theology arose out of a conviction in God’s ‘preferential option for the poor’. It is clear that during COVID the plight of the poorest in society was exacerbated. In Peru’s capital, Lima, one district, Cantagallo, is home to the majority of the city’s indigenous population. In May 2020 tests showed that 73% of the district’s inhabitants had COVID. Following the first death due to the virus the police established a cordon around the community. Given the severely limited resources of the district this placed a significant burden on the residents. Hearing of their plight, indigenous communities across Perus responded by sending traditional herbal remedies and other assistance. In June 2020 the Archbishop of Lima filled the Cathedral with pictures of those who had died from COVID, criticising a health system “based on egotism and on business and not on mercy and solidarity with the people”. Words alone will not change this reality, even if identifying the failings and their consequences is a first step in addressing an injustice. While the attention of the world has moved on from COVID to other challenges, it remains vital that the human cost of inequality and discrimination is not forgotten – nor the deep history which shapes the continuing marginalisation of indigenous peoples across the world.
The Age of Anxiety is the title of WH Auden’s final long poem. Born in York in 1907, Auden published the work in 1947 and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry the following year. Its theme is human isolation, a condition indicated to be more frequent with the loss of traditions, and established forms of religious belief. Seventy-five years after its publication the presence of anxiety, isolation and purposelessness shows little sign of diminishing. Despite the rapid advances of technology and scientific understanding during the last eight decades, we appear to have arrived at a point of heightened anxiety. Within three years we have encountered unprecedented isolation due to a once-in-a-century pandemic; endured weather conditions never known before (e.g. over 40°C in the UK); and, with war in Europe, now have a global energy crisis that shows no immediate sign of abating. If there were need to add to this dismal catalogue, in the UK a new government has added to our woes with an economic policy favouring the wealthy.
Like the breakers of a storm, the past 30 months has seen a rapid succession of events largely outside the experience of most people in the West. Anxiety has undoubtedly increased during this time, with serious and debilitating consequences. Following a research report, linking anxiety-induced dreams in middle age to the eventual development of dementia, it would appear that we even have reason to be anxious about our anxiety.
Intriguingly, some researchers have identified ‘awe’ as one antidote to anxiety. While academics have divided awe into ways that are either positive or negative, it is likely that even some of the negative implications (feeling ‘smaller’) might not be detrimental to overall wellbeing. Sometimes that experience of proportionality is only a corrective to an over-estimate of our place in the universe. As we are reminded in the Book of Job: “my days are a breath”. Seeing our significance more accurately might lessen a deceptive sense that the world around us relies on us. In that correction we may feel our anxiety diminish, although – understandably – for others this truth may feel very threatening.
“Awe seems to be a complex emotion or emotional construct characterized by a mix of positive (contentment, happiness), and negative affective components (fear and a sense of being smaller, humbler or insignificant).”
Arcangeli, M., Sperduti, M., Jacquot, A., Piolino, P., & Dokic, J. (2020). Awe and the experience of the sublime: A complex relationship. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1340.
From a religious perspective awe is tied to a sense of transcendence: ‘Ultimately wonder and awe are significant aspects of the religious experience‘. This is both something about a sense of perspective linked to a divine being, as well as finding in that perspective a sense of purpose. Time and again studies have found this sense of purpose plays a major part in our wellbeing and contentment. Religions usually promote a sense of purpose across the life-cycle, and continue to anticipate purpose even in advanced age (Simion/Anna). While many activities linked with personal worth and value may disappear with age (such as employment) even in the advanced years of retirement prayer and worship often remain active elements of life. For people living with dementia, especially if they have a deep background in religious belonging and participation, familiar patterns in the year (e.g. Easter/Christmas) as well as songs, liturgy and texts, locate someone in a broad narrative of transcendence.
Holding the narrative and space for religious awe has long been a role for the Church. Yet awe is not a word used often in discussions about contemporary developments in worship. This misses a primary purpose of the Church’s life in a local community. There are occasions, including State occasions in the UK, when the Church holds a particular kind of space for people in relation to a much larger story.
A church is a sacred space carved out of nature to represent the indwelling of grace and to impart an orientation. They are pointers to transcendence. When we enter a church, we cross a threshold pointing to a communion table of shared goods… Within this comprehensive orientation there are nodes or lodes of experience that open up the space of transcendence: the sense of unworthiness and rebuke in the presence of the holy, the trustful assurance of acceptance requiring nothing beyond openness to the pure gift of grace, the awareness of a calling to spiritual and moral order and a potential for transfiguration..
Martin, D. (2021). Pointing to Transcendence: Reflections from an Anglican Context. NTT Journal for Theology and the Study of Religion, 75(3/4), 310-336.
In his poem Auden suggests that human beings prefer to hang on to their fears, rather than risk change and risk: ‘We would rather be ruined than changed’. The experience of ‘awe’ is perhaps one of the few things that might encourage us to abandon our illusions and contemplate a greater reality. To realise that often our anxiety is generated by these self-same illusions, and are in reality shadows we need not flee. It has been the case that not only cathedrals, but even remote and seemingly insignificant churches, hold such a space – whether for RS Thomas in Aberdaron, or TS Eliot in Little Gidding. It is unclear in today’s church where the emphasis on transcendence now lies, or how people will be able to encounter ‘the bright field’, whose treasure transforms our living.
I like stationary. There are so many wonderful notebooks and watermarked sheets to choose from when the internet allows you to browse the global marketplace. I recall a few years ago standing in a street in Positano gazing at the hand-bound books of marbled paper in a shop window. Paper has been made along the Amalfi coast since Medieval times. I resisted the temptation to purchase (just) but am not so disciplined on other occasions. A new notebook offers so many possibilities, perhaps too many. The act of writing instantly and progressively reduces the options for what the book will be telling, and regret can come quickly.
“She drinks pints of coffee and writes little observations and ideas for stories with her best fountain pen on the linen-white pages of expensive notebooks. Sometimes, when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery.”
Nicholls, D. (2011). One day. Hachette UK.
If the material to write on fails to distract, there is always the means of writing to consider. I must be towards the end of the era when undergraduate work was all hand-written – which could be a challenge. Fast-speaking lecturers, without the offer of typed notes, tested many students’ ability to record the key points. However, the ceremony of writing, especially with a fountain pen, continues to appeal. I can empathise with the irritation of King Charles when pens fail to ink, or leak their cargo when least expected. (I was allowed to return to the church where I blotted the Service Register). Despite these perils I share the delight Seamus Heaney finds in the feel and flow of a quality pen.
The nib uncapped, Treating it to its first deep snorkel In a newly opened ink-bottle,
Guttery, snottery, Letting it rest then at an angle To ingest
Seamus Heaney, The Conway Stewart, in Human Chain, Faber and Faber Limited, 2010
Other disincentives to write include the sheer volume of texts now written, and the outstanding quality of some contemporary writing. I was deeply sorry to learn in recent days of the death of Hilary Mantel. The skill Mantel manages to effect in her Cromwell trilogy is astonishing. All the more so because even 500 years later, writing about this period of English history remains fraught with ‘positions’ and continuing political implications. It is a credit to her craft that people from so many different religious backgrounds and cultures read and applaud these novels. Perhaps this is because the humanity of her characters, and Cromwell in particular, shine through so convincingly. Seldom have I been so moved by reading anything, as I was by the conclusion of The Mirror & the Light when Cromwell is taken to his execution.
“His foot is now on the step of the scaffold. His mind is quiet but the body has its own business, and that business includes trembling. His head turns again. He is not looking for pardon. He knows the king is busy getting married. All he is looking for is the source of the noise, to quell it, because he wants to die listening to his own heart, till verse and prayer fade and heart says hush”.
Mantel, H. (2020). The Mirror & the Light: A Novel (Vol. 3). Henry Holt and Company. Chicago
The splendid Slightly FoxedLtd published its limited edition of Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving up the Ghost (2003), in 2017. The book is a moving narrative and addresses some of Mantel’s motivation to write.
I feel that each morning it is necessary to write myself into being – even if the writing is aimless doodling that no one will ever read, or the diary that no one can see til I’m dead. When you have committed enough words to paper you feel you have a spine stiff enough to stand up in the wind. But when you stop writing you find that’s all you are, a spine, a row of rattling vertebrae, dried out like an old quill pen.
Hilary Mantel, Giving up the Ghost, 2017 Slightly Foxed Ltd p. 207
Perhaps writers all need this sense of compulsion in order to succeed in seeing their story to the end. Goodness knows how many incomplete books exist, or how many finished works languish in a drawer, rejected for publication at every turn. BBC Radio 4’s comedy-drama Ed Reardon’s Week is a modern and amusing take on a long history of frustrated authors. In the nineteenth century a central character in Middlemarch, the middle-aged cleric-scholar Edward Casaubon dies with his opus magnum incomplete: TheKey to All Mythologies. Ambitious in scope and sprawling in nature, George Eliot exposes the opposite problem to the anxiety of the blank page: too many details, too many notes and references, an endless number of pages and an unending topic to study.
Life-drawing presents all kinds of challenges to the drawer – especially me. A fundamental issue is the need to unlearn our habits of seeing what we think is there, and focus on the reality of the subject. This requires careful attention to the relative size and scale of limbs and their disposition. For example, the face is only a small part of the head, even if our communication-centred focus leads us to privilege the eyes and the mouth. Drawing what we see as important delivers a disjointed and disproportionate view of the body.
For some time I have been intrigued by Anil Seth’s hypothesis that consciousness and our sense of self is best understood as a ‘controlled hallucination’. Reflecting on this I would be more inclined to amend the phrase to ‘collective’ rather than controlled. In every age there have been people who stood apart from a collective agreement about what constitutes a normal sense of self. Usually, they suffered for this nonconformity, even if their perspective later came to be an accepted view. For me the strength of Seth’s idea is not so much for people who share an agreed interpretation of objects and events, but as a way to explain behaviour when the hallucination is fractured. For example, with dementia, the way we order past and present might be rearranged. There is still engagement with the material world but this materiality might be significantly recast and reinterpreted. A husband and son are not recognised in these roles but instead named as the person’s father and brother. Sense-making appears to be less controlled and requires some lateral thinking in order to comprehend. In this example, in which I was involved, the person knew that these were her male relatives of different generations, but the designations were misplaced.
I noted some time ago that the pandemic has generated increasing interest in subjects such as those covered in York’s nightly ghost-tours. At the time I thought this was linked to increased mortality but in the light of a recent Guardian article I wonder if there is another reason. For example, whether the degree of social disruption has sent a significant earthquake through the ground of our perception. What was assumed to be certain was shaken, and many people are in the process of renegotiating the relative meaning and value we construct to make sense of the world. It is not necessarily the case that more people believe in ghosts, but they may be more open to the unexpected and the disruptive.
Prof Christopher French, head of the anomalistic psychology research unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, is not surprised to hear reports of a rise. “There is historical evidence for increased interest in, and reported experiences of, this kind of stuff at times of uncertainty, stress and turmoil.”
Emine Saner, ‘Spooky Britain: how ghosts became a national obsession’ The Guardian, 6 April 2022
How we draw a head, or how we order our experiences of the physical world, may not be as accurate as we would like to think. A significant aspect of religious experience is that the way we accept the world should be questioned and challenged. Today, Palm Sunday, is a day when the Church marks the start of a week in which the presence of Jesus questions a whole range of assumptions. Entering Jerusalem on a donkey, the expectation of sovereignty is placed in a posture of humility and service. This is a King who is not here to stamp authority on a subjugated people. Perhaps more potently, his action in washing the disciples’ feet on Maundy Thursday puts the teaching into action. Jesus’ words and deeds subvert the accepted relationships in society and open the possibility that we see and embrace a more proportionate understanding of our place in the world. A place where we see properly the people who are often peripheral to our vision; recognise our illusions of independence for what they are; and live at peace with our mortality. The foundational stories of the Abrahamic faiths all narrate how our clarity of sight has been corrupted and distorted. On our own we cannot see aright, and embracing this awareness should foster some humility and co-dependence as we seek to determine how best to live.
Christians live with a conviction that the world is not as it should be. The idea of the Kingdom of God points to an altered reality where a different kind of society lives in peace and justice. Having this belief may inspire discontent with the world as it is, as well as energise activity to aid this Kingdom emerge fully into our personal relationships and local communities. In this much there is hope, resisting the temptation simply to accept what is in front of us and ‘labour for what does not satisfy’ (Isaiah 55:2). When it is fully alive, the Christian story challenges false power by its persistent presence and emphasis on servant leadership. It questions those who misuse religious authority, and stands in profound silence before Pilate. At the end of this week those who oppose the petition ‘your Kingdom come’ find that even the certainty of a sealed tomb is not enough to extinguish this outrageous hope.
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 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.
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”.
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 that 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.
A long time ago I worked as a bread-wrapper at ASDA. It was on the Isle of Dogs in London’s East End and the rumour was that the store had 110% staff turnover per annum. It certainly felt a very transitory workforce, and my own employment lasted just under a year. From the Docklands Light Railway I would gaze down from a train to see work underway on the foundations of Canary Wharf. It was a time of huge upheaval for the local population and the East End as a whole.
In my work of wrapping and stacking I experienced something a lot of people will recognise. Wearing my bakery uniform I noticed that people never looked at me. Workers doing basic (but essential) jobs know how easily they become peripheral to people’s attention. The scope of this disregard is extensive and is manifested not only in personal interactions but in pay, conditions of service and benefits. With rising inflation, a hike in National Insurance payments and spiralling energy costs, many of these workers are now facing an unacceptable decline in living standards. MHA is one of many charity’s and operators calling on the Government to do more to support the sector and help employees be given the recognition they deserve.
My own experience of being peripheral was minuscule and fleeting. For many people, including women; people living with a disability; and people whose ethnicity is in a minority; being peripheral is part of everyday living. I am as susceptible as anyone for allowing ingrained attitudes to influence my looking and the way I value other people. It is something we all need to struggle to overcome. At ASDA the only people who gave any real attention to me and my co-workers were children. Children who found the world fascinating and intriguing and hadn’t yet learned the kind of seeing that channels our gaze to the people and things we have been taught to see as important. In her recently published collection of essays Esi Edugyan discusses race and identity with reference to works of art:
Perhaps my ambivalence also comes from certain threads I sensed missing. For these exhibitions represented renditions of the same Western story, a story of wealth and expansion. Black people are present, but as footmen, slaves, lady’s maids, magi… Black bodies are less living, breathing people than repositories for cultural anxieties. Blacks are an expression of status, of Christianity’s reach, of white morality. They are rarely, until the twentieth century, just human beings, living human lives.
Esi Edugyan, Out of the Sun: Essays at the Crossroads of Race, Profile Books Limited 2022
While we cannot see everything all of the time, we need to be aware that we all face limitations to our vision. However, that doesn’t mean we should accept our outlook or leave it unchallenged. When Jesus extolled the virtue of childhood to his disciples I wonder if he had in mind the capacity of children to be engaged in the world without acquired prejudices. To remove the blinkers we are given, or choose, in order to see people as central to the mission inspired by the statement that ‘God so loved the world’. A world containing a remarkable variety of people. To be born again surely means – if nothing else – to grow again and to see again. The ability to expand our vision of the world is the condition which precedes our capacity to be changed. Only through our transformation can we then be of any use in building that Kingdom which is rooted in a peace the world cannot give.
We must always contest our inclination to let people drift into our peripheral vision. It is good that many of us are being stirred into action to support the people of the Ukraine. Yet there have been many wars in far-away places for which many people we have felt too little concern. It is likely that our sense of identification with the people under attack is the key to the different responses the world makes to various disasters. Ensuring that we are in dialogue with a rich variety of people, and reading and watching things that expand our horizons, acts to prevent a tendency to insularity. As Christians head towards Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, it is a good time for each of us to ask who is in our peripheral vision – and why are they there? We may discover that zoning-out people with certain characteristics, including those carrying out minimum wage jobs, is robbing us all of a richer life. Life in a community that is radically different from our accepted models, where no one is peripheral, and the gifts and distinctiveness of everyone are valued and affirmed.
We had decided to visit the Reina Sofia gallery in Madrid ‘temprano’: early. Somehow, in our confusion of language and signage, we ended up going in by the exit. We didn’t mean to, but nobody challenged us on our route. Unsurprisingly, as Picasso’s Geurnica is the highlight of the collection, it sits in a room close to the completion of people’s visit. On this particular day it also meant that it was almost the first thing we came to and, for probably 8 whole minutes, we were alone with the masterpiece and its security guard. Usually the key work of a gallery throngs with people getting their look at one of the wonders of the world. For us that day brought the unexpected privilege of silence, space and the opportunity to gaze at the artwork without the jostle of others. It was quite a moment.
Guernica is named after the Basque town which was reduced to rubble after bombardment by German and Italian warplanes in 1937. The scale of destruction served the propaganda purposes of Franco who wished to promote fear as a way to defeat his opponents. For Italy and Germany it was an opportunity to test their weapons and capabilities before the full horror of global war was unleashed. As is so often the case, in the fog of war, the accounts given at the time varied widely. Berlin denied any involvement and the rumour was propagated that Republican forces had done it with explosives as part of their retreat. As the saying goes, ‘The first casualty of War is Truth’. As we contemplate military manoeuvres on the Ukrainian border the risk of intended or unintended hostilities – when the truth of what is transpiring is so doubtful – is frighteningly real. Time and again in human history a spark has led to conflagration.
Over the years I have spoken with people who experienced life in terrible places of fear and death during conflict. I have listened to a personal account of horror told by a survivor standing beside a cattle-truck in Auschwitz. From the same war, but in a very different setting, I have heard about the experience of someone who spent years as a prisoner of war. At the moment I’m reading Herta Muller’s novel The Hunger Angel, which centres on the experiences of Leo in a Soviet labour camp. While we view these experiences from the perspective of history, a recurring theme for all these voices is the uncertainty of when or how the experience would come to an end. In winter especially, the hardships and suffering of people detained in the horror of the camps appeared to be an unending tale of misery. It is remarkable that anyone emerged alive from such places, either physically or spiritually.
There’s no such thing as a winnable war It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore
Sting, Russians, 1985
Studying the history of conflict and genocide is an important task in every generation. For me part of the power of Guernica is the reminder that we arrive in horrific places via a whole catalogue of other atrocities and mundane acts of human indifference. Evil is built, rather than suddenly appearing. It’s why some of the most important struggles against tyranny are fought in the foothills before the full scale of disaster is both blindingly obvious and seemingly irresistible. The present prospect of war in Europe must urge us to work and pray for leaders to weigh the full cost of conflict. Even when things appear confused and uncertain we need to seek peace and pursue it – to stand up for a world in which war is never viewed as the right way to settle disputes.
Author of all peace who through your son reconciled us to yourself, we pray for peace in our world at a time of heightened tensions.
for our governments and political leaders – for wise counsel and sound initiative to defuse tension
for diplomats – that they may have space to negotiate
for the people of Ukraine – that their close ties with the people of Russia and other neighbours will remain strong even in the face of military threat.
We pray that all governments commit time to dialogue and understanding, respect the will and freedom of all peoples, invest in welfare and alleviation of poverty and reject militarism and the threat of violence.
May Christ’s teaching and example be our inspiration, may hearts and minds be changed, and may your holy spirit be at work transforming each of us day by day,