On Not Looking Away

“Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.” (Matthew 27: 55)

We are becoming used to heart-rending testimonies from those on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic. Carers, family members, paramedics, those working in hospitals, including in ICU, those who care for the bodies of those who’ve died and ensure that they are lovingly buried, even in the absence of mourners: their extraordinary work, and their witness to what they have seen, and lived through, will haunt us forever.

I was especially struck, and moved, the other day by a comment by a journalist on Twitter: that he too, working largely alone and trying faithfully to report the truth to the world, could bear no more. He was sick at heart and wrung out with grief. He had, just for a moment, to look away. To find comfort, and renewed strength, somewhere else, before returning to his desperate task.

His comment reminded me of the Gospel stories of Jesus’s final day, Good Friday. Amid the horror of that day, of the brutal injustice meted out to Jesus, of the cruelties of a Roman execution, and amid the crushing of their hopes, and the murder of their teacher and friend, some women kept watch. The crowd which only moments earlier had invested itself in crying for his death had now lost all interest, and turned to other matters. Life carried on. Except for that community of women, refusing to look away, keeping watch with Jesus as he dies, almost alone, virtually forgotten now as the news moves on and another issue emerges for popular interest and uninformed engagement. women at cross

The gospels suggest that those women, in being the first to discover the empty tomb three days later, have good claim to be the first Christians, the first to begin to grasp the immensity and possibility of the grace revealed in Jesus, the scale of the New Creation now being inaugurated. But we can’t detach the cross from the tomb: it was only because they refused to look away on Friday that they were able to discern the power and the coherence of the resurrection, on Sunday. In his life, and especially in his death, Jesus asks us all to refuse to look away from the full and difficult truth of our life together as human beings – our casual cruelty, our never-ending spirals of retribution and violent injustice, our economic systems that always, always, benefit a few and crush the majority, our delight in marginalising others, our false securities and mendacious strategies – in order that he might also reveal God’s alternative. The cross, surprisingly, shockingly, miraculously, scandalously, reveals both the extent of our ruin, and the lavish generosity of what God is doing to remake and renew us: but we have to look, and see, if we are to glimpse and grasp, both the disgrace of our present condition, and the lifeline being held out to us, the new life promised us.

I want to suggest that the Church has a great responsibility in these times to be on the front lines of those not looking away. This isn’t to suggest that we don’t need to take our own mental health and self-care seriously: the women acted together, as a small intentional community, so as to comfort and uphold each other in unbearable trauma. But we are already realising, if we are looking, the extent to which Covid-19 is offering us a troubling reflection of the state we’re still in today: its effects will overwhelmingly fall on the poorest, the most vulnerable and the marginalised, in the UK and overseas; the economic downturn it will engender will ask searching questions of how we structure our economies and protect the least secure; we have been offered a glimpse of how much we owe to some of the lowest-paid and least-valued workers, just as they are being discriminated against, in immigration law and elsewhere; and we have been offered a searching, heart-rending reminder of our interdependence and mutual belonging. No one can be self-sufficient right now. These things cannot be just the latest shallow tabloid campaign or a momentary, passing point to notice. The future of humanity rests on us looking at them, full-on, and prayerfully asking: “so, then: what now?”

Writing to some early Christians, Paul wrote: “For the message about Christ’s death on the cross is nonsense to those who are being lost; but for us who are being saved it is God’s power.” This week, the message about the cross offers us a vital lens through which to take stock of the world we’re in: and God’s constant, lavish, passionate, response to it, full of grace, and mercy, and sometimes difficult truth. But we cannot look away.

Nature with open volume stands
to spread her Maker’s praise abroad,
and every labour of his hands
shows something worthy of our God.

But in the grace that rescued man
his brightest form of glory shines;
here on the cross ’tis fairest drawn
in precious blood and crimson lines.

Here his whole name appears complete;
nor wit can guess, nor reason prove
which of the letters best is writ,
the power, the wisdom, or the love.

O the sweet wonders of that cross
where God the Saviour loved and died;
her noblest life my spirit draws
from his dear wounds and bleeding side.

I would for ever speak his name
in sounds to mortal ears unknown,
with angels join to praise the Lamb,
and worship at his Father’s throne.

Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748)

See also the amazing, inter-church work of the Joint Public Issues Team, who faithfully look, and watch, and pray, and act, on behalf of the churches, and who show us how to do the same: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk

Remembering Martin Luther

A sermon preached in the Chapel of the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, on Tuesday, October 31st, 2017.

So, today’s the day. 500 years ago, to the day, Martin Luther strode through Wittenberg, and affixed to the door of the Castle Church 95 ‘theses’, or statements about the workings of the medieval Catholic Church which were like ecclesiological dynamite in the life of European Christianity. We are the direct descendants of his act of protest, and in all our glorious diversity we share his deep commitment to scriptural authority, the primacy of faith, and a willingness to critique the Church when it has things wrong.

That’s the story, anyway. But the trouble with historians – of whom I am one – is that they have an irritating tendency to pull away from us our treasured myths and legends with their annoying determination to get at the truth.

The truth is, of course, that Martin Luther wasn’t saying or doing anything too extraordinary by the standards of his day. Others had noticed and criticized the same practices as he did – Sir Thomas More, Desiderius Erasmus, even several bishops – without ever thinking they were doing anything other than being faithful Catholics. In publishing his theses, indeed, Luther himself thought the same: he was triggering a debate which, when it was all sorted out, everyone would thank him for having initiated. Subsequent events, of course, took things in a very different direction. But Luther didn’t always believe that the papacy was Antichrist.

There’s even some doubt about whether anything really took place 500 years ago today. It’s increasingly likely that there was no public posting of the theses at all, at least in the manner described. It’s highly unlikely too that Luther stood at the Council of Worms three and a half years later and said “Here I stand. I can do no other”.

There’s also the strangeness for us that the English Church has never been Lutheran. It may have been influenced by Lutheran ideas at times, but it was never safe to admit that. By the time Henry VIII died in 1547, with his fierce resistance to Lutheran theology, the thought of those leading the Church under Edward VI had moved beyond Luther to the second generation of ‘Reformed’ Christianity now emerging in Europe. And then under Elizabeth I, the Church of England pursued its own eccentric course, whose theology, expressed so nobly by Richard Hooker, whom we celebrate on Friday, also undergirds early Methodism.

So: today’s a little strange for us. Perhaps we should all leave now and have an extended dinner.

Well not quite so fast. Because, for all his eccentricities, for all the fact that his theology was never fully able to catch on here, for all his foibles and failures and flaws, for all that he is sometimes so unlovable, Luther remains a giant, a towering figure of so much more than mere protest. Throughout the centuries, he has remained a pointer to some core reference points for all of us, about how we should live and move and have our being, as those who seek to follow Christ, even when sometimes the institutional Church seems to fail, made up as it is of us – with our foibles and failures and flaws.

I want quickly to mention three things for which I give thanks to God – and to Martin Luther today.

As Tess Daly would say, in no particular order…

I’m firstly grateful to Martin Luther for his insistence on the absolute gratuitousness of GodAny other claim to represent the life of God, which lacks this central emphasis on grace, he warns us, is false. It is fake. It is ersatz religion. Any experience of Church which does not seek to lead us towards a God of endless, generous, generative, life-giving love and welcome is simply heretical.

Added to that, any experience of Church which adds to our burdens, which we do not experience as a gateway to life, a road into wholeness and fullness, needs seriously to be questioned. An encounter with divine grace, mediated through Christ and the Church, should set us free. When Church binds us, or weighs us down, or seeks to exclude, or demean, or diminish any of us – it marks the failure of Church. God is not in that effort, for God is absolute, unlimited, unhesitating gratuity. God’s banner over us is Love.

John 8 is one of the toughest biblical chapters to preach on. But I do believe that, beneath the casual anti-Jewish sentiment which too many – including Luther – sometimes fail to get beyond, Jesus is making a serious point about religion. When we fail to put down deep roots into the life of God, our corporate religious life becomes too tainted by our own human propensities and preoccupations. And it binds us instead of freeing us for the life God intends and freely offers. We fail to hear the force of his message here if we make it about Judaism. Jesus was a Jew; he spoke of what he knew and of tendencies he saw in his own faith. But what would he say of us? What would he say of our ecclesial cultures, which, to quote Walter Brueggemann, are so often characterized by ‘restless anxiety’ and not by the generous, gratuitous, life-giving, liberating ‘covenantal existence’ to which we’re really called by God?

Which brings me to point two. Karl Barth popularized a phrase he claimed to have borrowed from Augustine, but which it seems to me perfectly encapsulates something Luther made clear. In Latin, ecclesia semper reformanda. In English, which lacks the wonders of the Latin gerundive, the Church is always in need of renewal. We are meant to be, to quote our communion hymn, ‘the new community of love’, one which models and mirrors to the world this absolute gratuity at the heart of God, this limitless, self-giving love into which God desires to draw all creation more deeply. We are, literally, ‘ek-klesia’, ‘called out’, of human systems and structures and spirals of revenge, retaliation, exclusion and death and into a new humanity, grounded on Christ. But it is hard to unlearn what you know and to learn a new way of being. And we get it wrong. And, through us, the Church gets it wrong sometimes, even though God’s claim and call on us never fails. But it means that any Church to which belong at least, will always be in need of renewal, will always require reform.

It’s striking to me, on this Reformation Day, that the person who seems most to understand this today, ironically, is the head of the Roman Catholic Church. To be fair, Pope Francis follows in a surprisingly long line of popes who did grasp the reality of human sin when it gets hold of the levers of the Church’s structures. Some of his 16th century predecessors were very clear on this, in fact, even without Luther’s help. And Pope Francis explicitly cites his own debt to Pope John XXIII, without whose courage, vision and humility the reforms of Vatican II would have been impossible: reforms whose ground-breaking statements on the guilt of Christian anti-Jewishness, on the possibility of a new relationship with those of non-Christian religion, and on the Church’s interaction with surrounding culture were liberating in the life of Protestant churches too.

When Francis kneels to wash the feet of Muslim refugees, when he embraces the most marginalized and neglected of modern society, when he rails against the cruel tyranny of global capitalism or the privileged comfort of the Roman Curia, when he castigates humanity for its deliberate and systematic rape of the planet, when he pauses before offering the casual judgements of the lives of others so beloved of Christian leaders, he offers a glimpse of all we might be as a Church, of the alternative community we are called out by Jesus to become. And he asks us, his fellow Christians, to examine our own responses to Christ’s call and our own institutions too.

One need only look at the opposition to Francis’s efforts, though, to understand both the difficulty of his task and its fundamental correctness. The Church is always in need of renewal. That idea offends some very ‘high’ ecclesiologies. But it’s not that God has failed. We have, even sometimes while trying to do our best. And the minute we deny that, we are in real peril. I’d be amazed if you felt I needed to illustrate the point further in the modern Church. Martin Luther’s great gift to us all is to remind us to search ourselves deeply and prayerfully, to seek humility and courage, so that the Church can be a place of life, of liberation and of love. A place in which God is encountered, with all her endless, gratuitous generosity.

And, finally: courage. Luther’s decision to publish his theses, 500 years ago, led to very dark times, almost to a cruel heretic’s execution. But, whether he really said it or not, he felt he could do no other. That was the nature of Christ’s claim on him, once his reading of Romans utterly transformed his understanding of what grace is and how it works and how therefore the Church must embody it. Few of us can imagine the fear, the loneliness, the isolation, and the opprobrium he experienced.

In the darkest of those days, assaulted as he felt not merely by human forces but by demonic ones as well, he said that he used to remind himself, as a sort of mantra, ‘I am baptized’. ‘I am baptized’. No one and nothing could ever remove from him the claim that God had had on his life from before he was born, and which the Church had affirmed and declared even as he was brought in infancy to the font. He was baptized: loved, cherished, a child of God, a son of the Church, a member of Christ’s body. He was baptized. And it was his birthright, which could never ever be taken away from him.

And, we are baptized too. I think I’d want to frame it a little less individualistically than Luther, whose reading of Paul reflected, to use Krister Stendahl’s word, a more ‘introspective’, more modern, approach than Paul ever intended. Paul’s great concern was to offer a rationale for the inclusion of the Gentile world into God’s covenant with the Jews, through Jesus. Romans 3 is a key part of that argument – the grace that grafts in non-Jews is the same grace that gave the Law. I think therefore that Paul would wish to remind us that we are baptized, together – Jew and Gentile, men and women, Anglican, Methodist, Pentecostal, Catholic, Baptist, Reformed, Lutheran. Christ has called us, together. We are the new community of love, together – in all our diversity, called to struggle together to mirror and model for the world what that divine gratuity looks like when shared in a community of such disparate folk and different people. That is God’s great gift of the world, through us, in Christ.

God is grace. By grace the church is called into being to model for the world what human life can be. But the Church always needs renewal, because we comprise it. We need courage, which springs from our baptism. And we need each other, for the fulness of God’s life to be formed in us.

The God who is our ‘safe stronghold’ in all of this invites us now to be renewed ourselves and together in the receiving of his self-giving life at this table. We give thanks for one another, for God’s claim on all our lives and the birthright which belongs to us all, and we remember Martin Luther, our brother in Christ, giving thanks for all he still teaches us.


happy birthday wendell

BerryOn his 80th birthday, here’s a favourite poem of mine from one of my favourite American poets, Wendell Berry. It speaks to me powerfully of the task of the historian, of the purpose of teaching and education, and of the wisdom of those who live and work close to the natural world and its lessons. I’m so grateful for Berry’s insight and grace.




At a Country Funeral

Now the old ways that have brought us
farther than we remember sink out of sight
as under the treading of many strangers
ignorant of landmarks. Only once in a while
they are cast clear again upon the mind
as at a country funeral where, amid the soft
lights and hothouse flowers, the expensive
solemnity of experts, notes of a polite musician,
persist the usages of old neighborhood.
Friends and kinsmen come and stand and speak,
knowing the extremity they have come to,
one of their own bearing to the earth the last
of his light, his darkness the sun’s definitive mark.
They stand and think as they stood and thought
when even the gods were different.
And the organ music, though decorous
as for somebody else’s grief, has its source
in the outcry of pain and hope in log churches,
and on naked hillsides by the open grave,
eastward in mountain passes, in tidelands,
and across the sea. How long a time?
Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide my
self in Thee. They came, once in time,
in simple loyalty to their dead, and returned
to the world. The fields and the work
remained to be returned to. Now the entrance
of one of the old ones into the Rock
too often means a lifework perished from the land
without inheritor, and the field goes wild
and the house sits and stares. Or it passes
at cash value into the hands of strangers.
Now the old dead wait in the open coffin
for the blood kin to gather, come home
for one last time, to hear old men
whose tongues bear an essential topography
speak memories doomed to die.
But our memory of ourselves, hard earned,
is one of the land’s seeds, as a seed
is the memory of the life of its kind in its place,
to pass on into life the knowledge
of what has died. What we owe the future
is not a new start, for we can only begin
with what has happened. We owe the future
the past, the long knowledge
that is the potency of time to come.
That makes of a man’s grave a rich furrow.
The community of knowing in common is the seed
of our life in this place. There is not only
no better possibility, there is no
other, except for chaos and darkness,
the terrible ground of the only possible
new start. And so as the old die and the young
depart, where shall a man go who keeps
the memories of the dead, except home
again, as one would go back after a burial,
faithful to the fields, lest the dead die
a second and more final death.


In his evocative book on his home city, Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk defines the predominant mood of Istanbul and its inhabitants: hüzün, a particular form of melancholy. Istanbullus are only too painfully aware that their city was once, and for many centuries, the very centre of the world, a great global capital city to which millions looked and where real power resided. The slow decline and subsequent fall of the Ottoman Empire led to a period of stagnation and isolation; the capital of the new Turkish nation was moved to Ankara; Istanbul faded from view and slid into disrepair and virtual oblivion.Image

These days, the tourist trade has vastly improved the city’s fortunes, and its architectural splendours are slowly being restored and rebuilt. Even at first glance, the sheer beauty of the place is overwhelming: straddling two continents, blessed with some of the finest buildings in the world, great domes and elegant minarets rising from the hills which form its foundation, and surrounded by sparkling blue sea, it packs quite a punch.

Still, the melancholy remains. Istanbul’s buildings reflect its long and turbulent history. For eleven centuries it was the capital of the Roman Empire and its Byzantine successor. In the great Church of the Holy Wisdom, built in the sixth century by the Emperor Justinian, the emperors were crowned in great pomp at a spot halfway along the nave called the ‘omphalion’: literally, the ‘navel’, the centre, so it was thought, of the world’s power, where God’s heavenly authority came to rest on human but imperial shoulders.

The Church, often called Hagia Sophia, a transliteration of its Greek name, is still an awe-inspiring architectural marvel, whose construction seems almost unimaginable in the twenty first century, let alone the sixth. The building you visit now has been internally re-ordered, reflecting its conversion in the fifteenth century to a mosque. The Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II overthrew Emperor Constantine XI in 1453, and with him the last vestiges of a once proud Christian Empire. Changing churches to mosques was naturally the means to symbolize the arrival of a new world – and religious – order. Image

Much of Istanbul of course reflects the Islamic faith and culture that arrived with Mehmed’s forces. But it also reflects how his Empire lasted even less long than that of the Byzantines. Successive sultans established their power here too; the sprawling Topkapı Palace became the nerve centre of their vast Empire, and massive mosques were built to symbolize their dominance and the new hegemony of Islam. They, like their Christian predecessors, acted as though their temporal power was of divine origin and meant to be eternal. Like those predecessors, they too were wrong. The Turkish state that emerged from the wreckage of World War One was secular in nature. Even if the vast majority of the Turkish people are still Muslim, their nation is not, officially. (Though there is tension here of course: perhaps best left for a future entry!)

The world turned its back on Istanbul after that, for a while. Today, it is indeed permeated with a sense of deep melancholy, a poignant yet arrestingly beautiful reminder of the ultimate transience and irrelevance of human rule. It asks deep and troubling questions about religion’s proper role in the exercise of power. It reminds us not to place too much confidence in our own importance, nor to assume that our names will forever live in glory. It gives a stern corrective to any sense of ourselves as God’s special elect people, the eternal channel of God’s power to a waiting world.

ImageBeneath the melancholy, however, Istanbul may offer us a sense of what is really of lasting value, what really does live forever, above the clash of empires and our foolish claims that we are, exclusively and uniquely, right. The tombs of Sultan Suleiman, the ‘Magnificent’ (1494 – 1566), and his wife Roxelana, behind his massive mosque conceal one such glimpse. She was a Eastern European slave, Christian by upbringing, whose beauty captivated him but whose wisdom, wit and intelligence led him to break with generations of Ottoman tradition and marry her officially, keeping her with him as his friend, advisor and companion instead of following the custom of banishing her and her offspring to a distant province. ‘My very existence, my Sultan’, he wrote to her, in some dazzling love poetry. There is something more moving in this to me than the huge mosque, larger than Hagia Sophia, which he intended as his legacy.

Or, take the Sultan’s son-in-law, Rüstem Pasha, twice the Grand Vizier of the Empire. He too built a mosque, down by the Golden Horn. It isn’t massive, but it is for my money the city’s most exquisite, lavishly decorated in Isnik tiles inside and out. To enter its cool, quiet serenity is to be transported instantly into a place of spiritual as well as physical beauty. Built literally above the jostling hubbub of a street market, without ostentation, it touches the Imageheart in a way that great monuments of Empire do not. Doubtless Rüstem Pasha played the games of politics with all the cunning and guile required: but he was also a man who cherished beauty, and sought to reflect his deep love for his city and his God in a place of quiet but surpassing beauty.

Istanbul’s very lifeblood is this melancholy, for several lost empires and a dramatic fall from importance. But I came away thinking that it perhaps also echoed a suggestion made by Philip Larkin, that it might prove ‘Our almost instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.’


the imperative of remembrance

A sermon for Yom HaShoah, delivered at New England Congregational Church, Aurora, on April 7, 2013.

Again and again, almost like a pulse, the Tanakh, the Old Testament, commands its readers to do one thing above all things: Remember.  Remember.  Remember.  Remember the God who brought you from the dust.  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.  Remember that you were liberated, that you wandered in the desert, that through Moses you received the Law, that you inherited a Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey.  Remember that you were blessed; remember that you failed; remember that your rulers sometimes raised you up, and sometimes let you down.  Remember that you were in exile.  Remember that you were oppressed, and overcame oppression.  Remember that, in all this, God was with you, in dark times and in good times, in a hostile environment and in your own land of promise and plenty.  Remember to teach all this to your children.  Remember it all.  Trace through your remembrance the presence of God in it all.  Remember to remember.  Because, if you do not remember, you forget who you are, and whose you are.

Today, we are called, Jews and Christians, to remember again and anew.  Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, established by the new state of Israel as an annual observance in 1953 to remember the most horrendous and unspeakable catastrophe of all, the deliberate, ruthless murder of about 6 million European Jews by Germany under Nazi rule, in an effort to eradicate Jews and Jewishness from Europe, and from the world, for all time.  Today, in line with biblical wisdom, we are again called to remember.

For Jews and Christians, though, today is perhaps the hardest day of all, the hardest remembrance of all.  For Jews, because of how many were lost, how much was taken, how incomprehensible is the enormity of such destruction, such hatred, such wickedness and violence: in the heart of Europe, in the 20th century, through initially democratic means, using the advances of science and technology.  For Jews, it is hard to remember, and we should all remember that for some the possibility of faith itself, belief in any kind of God, still less a guiding, redeeming one, has been taken away by the scale of the killing and the scar it leaves, not just on families and individuals, but on the remnant Jewish community.

It’s hard for Jews to remember too that all this took place with the consent, or even co-operation, of so many non-Jews who had before been friends, and neighbors and fellow citizens, and who lent a hand, or turned their backs, or averted their eyes, as scapegoating turned to exclusion, and marginalization turned to violence, and violence finally begat genocide on a scale previously unimaginable.

It is for that reason mainly that today is a hard day for Christians to remember too, or should be.  It’s a day on which we must recall the total, abject failure of our faith and our tradition.  It’s a day when we must remember how centuries of anti-Jewish sentiment, from the Gospel of John to the sermons of John Chrysostom, from the crusades of Pope Urban II in the 1090s to the ghettos of Pope Pius VII in the 1820s, from the writings of Luther and the Institutes of Calvin, to the journal of Wesley and yes, even the anti-Jewish sermons of Hitler-resisters like Karl Barth, fuelled the fires of Nazi hatred.  It is charged to us today to remember German Protestants, forming the pro-Nazi Reich Church, to remember the weak intransigence of the Vatican under Pius XII, to recall the way in which Lutherans worshipped the Führer, Catholics upheld an unjust agreement and remained silent, and almost everyone colluded with evil, so as not to be convicted of disloyalty. 

For Christians, we can’t today just cling to Bonhoeffer, or recall Bishop von Galen, both of whom in fact drank in this anti-Jewish theology with their mother’s milk, for all their later heroism.  We can’t turn away or hide from it.  We must remember too, today, the way in which a religion which rests its understanding and belief on a Jew from Palestine and on Jewish scriptures and worldviews, failed, utterly, to stop this from happening, in the heart of its territory.  We must remember the faithful, churchgoing Christians, people like us, policemen and soldiers and SS officers who shot and bombed and tortured and gassed and murdered millions, told to believe they were about a noble, even a godly, cause.  And we must remember that the leaders of their churches condoned, or stood by silent, as they did so.  If we Christians fail to remember today and in the days to come, we too, and we especially will be guilty of another and perhaps even graver sin.

Remember.  Remember.  Remember.

Probably, this sermon should end there.  There is no easy comfort to find, no glib route back to feeling safe again with our traditions of faith.  And I want to do nothing this morning to short-circuit the careful, painful, truthful process to which all Christians are called, of remembering the Shoah in all its horror and shame.  I mustn’t prevent us from appreciating how much the Christian churches contributed to the perpetration of genocide.  It’s only when we fully understand how abject was our failure that we can even think about beginning to rebuild what has been lost, and renewing all that was found wanting.

And yet no less a figure than Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, in his Nobel Prize lecture, reminds us that “just as [we] cannot live without dreams, [we] cannot live without hope.”  In the face of the scale of the Holocaust, survivors like Wiesel have often commented that it is in the small things we find any purpose for carrying on.  They may be tiny pinpricks of light against the infinite Imageblackness of the sky, but still, they represent the possibility of the continuance of life, of faith, of belief, of hope, of meaning.  German-Jewish philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emil Fackenheim forbids us to allow Hitler any posthumous victories, including abandoning our hope for a world free of wickedness and our trust in God.  And, for that reason too, we remember today.  We remember those whose example might suggest that Truth, and Goodness, and Love may not have been utterly vanquished.

I remember our family friend Judith today.  Judith, a German Jew, came to live with my great grandparents in rural England in 1939.  She was one of the ten thousand Jewish children brought to Britain under the kindertransport scheme.  Like many of them, she alone survived the devastation, never seeing her family again.  She lives now in Washington, DC, with her husband Tom, defiant, generous and beloved, a pinprick of light in this dark sky.  And as I remember her, I remember the simple goodness of my great-grandparents, a goodness based on their Methodist Christian convictions, not concerned with Judith’s race or religion but concerned with her welfare and her safety and dignity as a fellow child of God.  While Protestant denominations, eminent theologians and self-important prelates turned their backs, simpler, wiser folk opened their homes and their arms to refugees.  One small point of light.

And I remember my dear friend, Magda today, whom some of you have heard speak at AU.  Magda has her own tales to tell of how simpler, wiser Christians in her Hungarian town helped Jews in the ghetto: a Catholic lay woman who risked her life to smuggle food under the barbed wire; a nun who continued to correspond and to do what little she could to help.  But Magda is a source of hope for me amid the darkness for more reasons than that: for her simple kindness; her unstinting generosity; her blank refusal to bear malice or carry bitterness in her heart; her indefatigable dedication to tell her story to new generations of students and children so that they in their turn might remember; her commitment to let the rest of her life, rescued from the flames by her beloved American servicemen, be committed to reconciliation and peace. 

Magda participated in a documentary a couple of years ago, telling the story of Hungary’s Jews in the terrible year of 1944.  At the screening of the premiere, two of her friends from Auschwitz, also in the film, were flown over from Europe.  They hadn’t seen Magda for several years and it was a touching reunion.  As the three of them, now frail, elderly women, embraced at the end of the screening, I was moved to tears by them.  This was a day they were not supposed to see, a life Hitler did not intend them to have: and yet here they were, a living affront to his ideology and a full-hearted rebuke to his hatred.  A momentary pinprick of light: maybe, just maybe, love is ultimately stronger.

The Holocaust produced very few Christian heroes, and some of those we celebrate as such weren’t always quite as flawless as we like to make them seem.  But, I remember a genuine saint today too, another flicker of light amid this darkness.  Angelo Roncalli worked for the Roman Catholic Church in the war.  He was in fact the Apostolic Delegate – papal ambassador – to Turkey and Greece.  In that role, recognizing from the outset the vile barbarity of Nazi policy towards Jews, he gave himself to doing whatever he could to help them.  He helped refugees arriving in Istanbul to places of safety; he intervened to get Jews out of Bulgaria, Slovakia and Romania and away from harm; he schemed to prevent Jews being deported from concentration camps to the death camps in Poland. 

In 1958, to everyone’s surprise and especially his own, Roncalli was elected Pope.  As John XXIII, he immediately set about renewing the corrupted Christian tradition that had laid the foundations for and colluded in mass murder.  He changed the way in which Jews are referred to Imagein the Church’s worship, famously interrupting Good Friday services publicly to reprimand a priest who insisted on using the old formula which called Jews “perfidious”.  A dressing-down he likely didn’t forget.  I hope not.

And John called a great Council, Vatican II, which began 50 years ago last October, and which for the first time began the process I’m describing, of remembering the abject failure of the Church’s past in order that renewal and hope could slowly emerge from the wreckage.  One of its pivotal documents, In our Time, puts the case firmly, over-ruling the false teaching of the past:

We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).

No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.

I remember Pope John today, because he gives me hope that great statesmen of the Church can also be simple Christians, imbued with the love, wisdom and understanding that were in Jesus, the Galilean Jew.  I remember him, and I know we all pray for his successor Francis, who seems to breathe a similar spirit.

You see, there is a solemn purpose to all this remembering.  Dealing with the pain and dislocation of exile and the triumph of their enemies, and beginning to think about the return home, the Israelites famously asked “how then shall we live?”.  In the face of the Holocaust, it’s an urgent question indeed.  And to answer it, I remember one more pinprick of light.

Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch Jew, has left us a set of remarkable diaries, written while she was imprisoned in Westerbork transit camp.  She writes with clarity and dignity of how in each Imagegeneration there must be people who in some sense take responsibility for God: for letting faith be at work in us in such a way that others are drawn to, and not rejecting of, the God whom we represent.  “There must be someone to live through it all and bear witness to the fact that God lived, even in these times”, she wrote.  “And why should I not be that witness?”  Though she died in Auschwitz in 1943, her witness remains real.  So does that of Magda Brown.  Asked by my class where God was in Auschwitz, she simply said, by some miracle: “with me.  I never doubted it.”  Asked by them ‘how then they should live’, she replied: “resist the deniers.  Protect your freedom.  And think very carefully before you hate.”

How then shall we live?  So that in future generations our narrowness or hatred does not cause others to stumble.  So that others may not use our ideologies or beliefs or convictions as weapons of division and pain.  So that we allow Hitler no posthumous victories.  So that we are living, defiant resisters and rebukers of all prejudice, intolerance and fear.  In a way that takes care not to hate. 

Why then do we remember?  To allow these pinpricks of light to begin to break the darkness.  To honor those with no graves at which we might mourn.  And to take responsibility for God in our own difficult generation.  May that God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Magda Brown and Pope John and Etty Hillesum, grant us wisdom, courage: and a very long memory.  Amen.

rights and responsibilities

In the week that sees the celebration of US Constitution Day (September 17), we’re hearing lots about rights just now.  In the wake of the terrible attacks on foreign embassies and consulates, which resulted in the deaths of four US diplomatic personnel, voices all over the political, civic and religious spectra are engaged in the conversation, some of which have been moving (Secretary Clinton this week beautifully paying tribute to the work of the dead whilst perfectly articulating the complexities of broader geo-political issues, or the touching tribute of grateful Libyans to Ambassador Stevens) and some downright depressing (the attacks themselves, of course, but also some of the less informed views on display yesterday at the so-called ‘Values Voters Summit’).

In this country of all countries, it raises essential questions of identity.  There are those asserting their basic rights to express themselves as they will, and not have to worry about the consequences.  There are others who think free speech should have its limits.  Most Americans would react with horror to the laws I’m accustomed to as a Briton, where in the UK you can’t actually say exactly what you want if it’s deemed ‘hate speech’ against certain individuals or groups on grounds of race, religion, gender and sexual orientation.  However much I think these laws are simply more realistic about the extent to which you have to legislate in order to create the society in which diversity is celebrated and enjoyed, I also instinctively prefer the US model: its optimism, hope and trust in its citizens to be thoughtful, respectful grown-ups, imbued with compassion and tolerance as well as “inalienable rights”.

And there’s the rub.  The kind of society the Founding Fathers envisaged, based on all the Enlightenment’s confidence in human reason and good sense, still remains a little out of reach, despite all our best efforts.  The problem is often that we narrowly define rights as a highly individual thing, without also understanding that they bring a heavy, sacred set of responsibilities towards the rights of others.  Individual rights aren’t worth very much without some sense that we are a human community.  Sometimes, laying down our individual rights or sacrificing our personal freedoms does far more to advance the cause of ‘human rights’ than fiercely protecting them: ask Ambassador Stevens, who laid down his life metaphorically and then  literally to aid and assist the cause of a people and a culture he loved and admired.  Ask Dr. King.  Ask Aung San Suu Kyi.

As these figures remind us, there’s a good deal about this in religious life and teaching too.  Even the wicked love those who love them, Jesus said.  The righteous recognize that we’re bound together as a human family across our divisions and disagreements vastly more deeply than that.  Good religion has always taught that grasping the essential unity of humanity is one of the deepest and more important truths of existence and relationship with God.  Even those who hate us.  Even those who seek our destruction.  Even those who defame our beliefs and mock our cherished understandings.  My rights are vital and God-given: but they make sense only when also viewed as a set of urgent responsibilities to others.

facing tragedy

Events like the shootings in Aurora, Colorado are so hard to imagine, comprehend or interpret.  They seem to throw our settled sense of the order of things up into the air.  Amid the shock, grief and horror, perhaps the most difficult of our fears to contain is our sense that such things happen apparently at random, to anyone, at any time.  Losing our notion that we – or anyone – is in control can be the hardest loss of innocence.

At such times, some take comfort in the idea that these events are ‘God’s will’ and purpose, in some inscrutable, impenetrable, mysterious way in which we must simply trust.  For myself, I find the idea of such a divine plan impossible to accept.  Maybe I simply lack sufficient faith, but my tradition, Methodism, has always encouraged its followers to trust their powers of reason in such matters: a God who plans for the violent death of a dozen people one Friday night surely doesn’t meet the most basic standards of justice and compassion for which we all look.

Rather, the central story of the Christian faith is its assertion that, in the chaos and unpredictability that necessarily comes from the freedom we have to choose how we act towards one another, we are not alone.  God is ‘in control’, not by directing and dictating every act or event in human affairs, but by assuming a place at the heart of the pain and redirecting its outcome, if we are open to it.  The central Christian story is of a man unjustly killed, the victim of the religious hatred, political expediency and personal animosity and failure of those around him.  The central Christian story is one of how, through self-giving love (and that alone) these forces can be transfigured and transformed, turned into good, from within.  For Christians, this man embodied the essence of God and the essential truth about God: that selfless love eventually conquers all.  Even that.  Even this.

This should never be something glib, or without cost.  It’s the hardest path to choose, in fact, but the only one that ever really changes us or our world and its future.  It’s why, if we are the praying sort, we are called to pray today for James Holmes as well as his victims.  It’s why it’s right that we feel just a little daunted and overwhelmed by the magnitude of Aurora, or Columbine, or 9/11, or Syria or North Korea.  Pulling us out of the spirals of revenge, paranoia, fear and falsehood in which we’re so caught up won’t be simple, or easy.  It costs everything.  But we are not alone.

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing –
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No lingering !
Let me be fell: force I must be brief ‘.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here ! creep
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

yearning to breathe free

We’re getting ready at the Wackerlin Center to welcome an exhibit on the life and work of the poet and activist Emma Lazarus.  The more I learn about this woman and her work, the more excited I’m becoming about celebrating her life and reflecting on her legacy.  In many respects, hers is a story about the experience of America itself.

Born to a wealthy New York family, Lazarus grew up quite insulated and protected from the harsher realities of life, and moved in elite artistic and literary circles.  Her early friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson shaped her vocation to poetry, and she published youthful volumes of work showing considerable promise.

It was the arrival of refugees from the East, Jews fleeing dreadful persecution in Europe, that changed Lazarus’s life and outlook.  She threw herself into volunteer work, greeting those whose lives had been ravaged by prejudice and violence, and working to educate and resettle all who sought a new home in America.  Although sometimes critical of traditional religious practice, she discovered in this a distinctively Jewish voice, enunciating the biblical principles of welcome, hospitality and generosity, especially to strangers and refugees, as the values which ought to undergird the United States.  Decades before her time and to considerable disdain, she advocated for the creation of a Jewish homeland.  She saw the potential dangers of global anti-Semitism in the 1880s, sixty years before the devastation of the Shoah under the Nazis.

It was the gift of the statue Liberty Enlightening the World from France to the USA that raised Lazarus to her greatest contribution.  While Americans struggled to embrace – or fund – a project whose purpose was unclear (save uniting the French and Americans in a common hatred of the British!), Lazarus and her friends tried to raise money to erect the monument.  She wrote for a fund-raising event a poem: The New Colossus, which redrew Lady Liberty as the ‘Mother of Exiles’, a symbol of generous, welcoming America, the champion of justice and diversity, whose presence in the world would be a restraint on tyranny and a healing balm to the persecuted. 

It was two decades after her death in 1887, aged just 38, before her poem  finally became the defining word on the statue.  Today, it is affixed to the pedestal, a permanent reminder of Lazarus’s contribution to the forging of national self-understanding.  Her biographer, Esther Schor, who curates our exhibition, has written:

“She showed America how to become more generous, more noble, and more just. Her passion for justice lives on whenever we Americans dedicate ourselves to welcoming immigrants, training and educating the poor, and celebrating diversity.”

The exhibit opens in the atrium of the Institute for Collaboration on October 31st and will be open to the public 9am-8pm every weekday until December 16th.   In addtion we have three exciting events, all in Crimi Auditorium, all free and all open to everyone!

November 3rd: ‘From Slavery to Freedom’ (3.30-5.00pm)

Magda Brown returns to tell her refugee story, coming to the US after surviving the Nazi Holocaust

November 15th: ‘Emma Lazarus: A Passion for Justice’ (12.00-1.00pm)

Rabbi Prof. Victor Mirelman on Lazarus and the quest for human dignity

December 7th: ‘Emma Lazarus and Us’ (3.30-5.00pm)

AU faculty including President Rebecca Sherrick offer concluding reflections and discussion

More at our website: http://aurora.edu/student-life/wackerlin/emma-lazarus.html#axzz1ax7A7GnG

Call us on 630.844.6864 or 6866 or email wcfa@aurora.edu for more information or to book a place for yourself or a group.

uncle fred

A few years ago, my cousin did some research into our family history; I remember being interested at the time to hear that she’d discovered relatives of ours who had emigrated to the USA over a century ago, but didn’t pursue it much further.  Just recently, my mother mentioned to me that she’d just realised that one of those who came over had served in the Civil War, and had lived in Illinois.  My attention was caught, and cousin Joyce sent through the details. 

It all began when members of my great-grandmother’s family made the huge decision to seek a better life across the Atlantic in the mid-nineteenth century.  That side of my family, my maternal grandmother’s, lived in the small farming village of Isleham, about ten miles from Ely, the market town where I grew up.  In those days, it was remote, and isolated, and probably rarely offered its inhabitants much that was new or strange.  John and Mary Fletcher’s decision must therefore have been doubly shocking and difficult, but they left home and family in January 1855 and set sail for America, taking their nine-year-old son Alfred with them.  I can only barely imagine them, resigning themselves to the grief of never seeing other family members again but firm in their resolution and confident in the dream of their new life.  They landed in New Orleans and made their way north on the Mississippi (including a six-week delay in St. Louis for ice) before settling in Iowa. 

 Uncle Alfred apparently went his own way, and settled with a cousin in Morrison, IL for seven years.  It was during this period of time that he joined the 8th Illinois Cavalry, Company A, and served under General Grant in the closing months of the war.  Returning to civilian life, he resettled in Iowa, in Johnson township, where he farmed the American soil just as, when a child, he had helped to farm the dark earth of the English fenland.  He retired to Merrill, IA, where he was buried in 1929 with high honor as the last local Civil War veteran.

 ‘Finding’ Uncle Fred has stirred interesting feelings in me.  Suddenly, I feel more connected to this country, to which I came in my turn almost exactly five years ago.  A relative of mine gave his strength, sweat and zeal to establish a more perfect Union; someone connected to me by blood gave a measure of his life and self in the cause of justice and freedom for all America’s children.  It feels like an extraordinary new taproot in this place, an abiding connection to a country which has sometimes felt strange to me, and in which I have struggled a little with the new notion that I’m now the ‘stranger’ and the ‘alien’.  Uncle Fred helps to reinforce my sense that I really do belong here and have a contribution to make to the life of my new home.

 These themes are powerful ones in national discourse just now.  I saw one of my favorite historians, Doris Kearns Goodwin (whom I’m excited to hear at Aurora University in the spring) on Meet the Press this weekend.  She spoke in the first half as an academic, offering insights into current presidential politics.  She spoke in the second half as a mother, with her son who joined the US Army right after 9/11, exactly ten years ago.  In her reflection, she placed many of our responses to that terrible day in the context of the US’s larger story.  In so doing, she reinforced for me that sense of how large the American family has been at it best, and how generous the vision of the United States has been and can be: inclusive, confident without arrogance, and welcoming to all who would contribute to the nation’s welfare.  As we mark this anniversary, I’m remembering Uncle Fred, and hoping that we all continue to inherit from him and those like him the courage and wisdom we shall need.


[Postscript: the Wackerlin Center will also be hosting a national travelling exhibit about the poet Emma Lazarus (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”)  later this Fall, and thus we’ll be exploring these themes in more depth.  Mark your calendars for November!]


I’m just back from a delightful week with delightful friends in Savannah, GA, home of Food Network queen Paula Deen (no distant relation, I think) and genteel Southern charm.  It was a much-needed time of renewal and rest before the start of a new university year.

For Methodists (especially a history geek like me), Savannah holds an added interest, as the site of our founder, John Wesley’s, brief experiment as the pastor of an English Anglican colony.  Wesley signed up to minister to the Savannahians, seeking the next step on his faith journey, and arrived early in 1736.  Nothing now survives of the colony as it was then, except the grid-like layout of the town, designed by General Oglethorpe himself.  In Reynolds Square, nearest to the site of his home and chapel, a statue now stands, commemorating the young man who served his time here before making a huge impact on global Christianity through the dynamic movement he was to found. 

This public honouring of Wesley, in truth, masks something rather critical.  His time in Savannah was an unmitigated disaster.  He was prissy, prim and particular, unbending about his ‘methodical’ practice of Christianity and his parishioners seem to have detested him.  He resented the claims they made on him and his time, because he really wanted to go and convert the Native Americans, or else hide himself in his study.  He became embroiled in a romance with a young woman, Sophie Hopkey; it ended in public humiliation when she interpreted their relationship status very differently than him and became engaged to someone else, frustrated at Wesley’s coldness.  Reacting with indecent self-righteousness, he refused her communion one Sunday morning: and found himself now the target of accumulated rage.  The people turned on him; lawsuits were brought against him; his friends deserted him; and he fled in the night, across the hostile Georgia marshes, to a ship that would take him away from this shame and abject failure, and back home.

All a far cry from deserving a statue in the town square…except that Wesley’s experience in Savannah proved crucial in his own growth and in the rise of Methodism.  Out of the ashes and despair, out of the utter breakdown he experienced, he clutched at Grace: and found new life.  He let go of his control freakery (somewhat!) and his need to prove himself to God and others; he acknowledged the frailty of his faith and the inadequacy of his own intellect and energies, and threw himself on God instead.  The result: within months, he was at the center of a movement which revived the churches, revolutionized social provision in England, and renewed countless people in hope, in life and in action for the poor.  But it couldn’t, it wouldn’t have happened without Savannah.

We live in a culture which despises failure.  We are citizens of world of self-sufficiency, where our own resources must be enough and needing help seems like weakness.  These attitudes, though, simply deceive us.  No-one found grace except through realising their own limitations.  No-one ever became fully alive without first dying at some level to their false self.  No-one has ever fully understood maturity without experiencing the loss of hopes and dreams.  Fr. Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward is a wonderful reflection on these themes, one which I found an apt distillation of Wesley’s story too.  As Rohr says: “we grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right…if there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own”.

The mature John Wesley believed fervently in the possibility of human perfection, carefully defined.  Perhaps he knew a little of what he was talking about.