Sunday, April 13, 2008

Hamba Kahle, Ivan Toms

Only heard today that Ivan Toms has died. I am too upset to say anything. Go well, comrade. Hamba Kahle.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Karfreitag: Friday of Lamentations

It is customary in English to call the Friday preceding Easter Sunday 'Good Friday'. As a second-language user, or more specifically, as someone whose mother-tongue is German, that always struck me as odd, for in German, the old word 'Karfreitag' is still in use, and that means the very opposite: this is the Friday of lamentations (in old high German, kara = lamentation, mourning, etc.).

Curiously, it was the German reformer, Martin Luther, who popularised the idea of 'Good Friday': he called the day 'Guter Freitag' because he wanted to stress a theological 'retro-perspective' from Easter Sunday - hardly surprising, given Luther's general theological perspective. That is all fine by me - I was brought up in the tradition of the Reformation, after all.

But... picking up from the last post, it seems to me that we have lost a lot by calling Karfreitag Good Friday: that is something that is much more dangerous in English than it is in German, where at least the old word has been kept. The whole point of the ritual (liturgical) re-enactment of this day in churches today is to remember the passion of Christ: that is, the suffering of Christ. To speak too easily and too quickly of how this is, ultimately, the one thing that saves us from ultimate disaster, is shortsighted. Once again: we cannot understand Easter Sunday unless we experience the Friday of Lamentation.

Today is Karfreitag: a day of lamentation. Jesus was betrayed by one of his followers; denied by the rest; tortured, abused, and brutally executed by the Roman occupation force (and what they thought of it we can see in the sign they placed on his cross, the instrument of execution, and the description of the two other poor souls who were killed next to him that day; Mark 15: 25-27). Today is a day of lamentation.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Arrest

I think it was about 12 or 18 months ago or so that I watched the film, "Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage" (The Final Days).

The plot, of course, was hardly news to me. In fact, not long before I had been to the university building in Munich where the opening scene was shot, and where in fact that arrest took place in 1943. Yet as I watched the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film, the build-up to the arrest of Hans and Sophie Scholl, I felt a growing sense of panic. I felt like dragging them away from the moment where they decide to go back into the hallway to make sure that absolutely all of their leaflets are distributed. They had already distributed so much of it - this was a further risk just not worth taking, and it cost them their lives.

I felt almost the same visceral response to the arrest scene in a powerful performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion on Monday night at King's College, Cambridge. (Never mind the privileged environment; that's another story.) Both the gospel writer - on re-reading the passion narrative - and Bach really understood the reality of arrest and what it meant; and Bach - on top of that - creates an extraordinary scence with that desparate panic in the 'participant observer/audience'. The Evangelist's lines are thoughtfully laid out, and then there is that Chorus, twice: "Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!" (Leave him, stop, don't bind him!")

In the Protestant tradition, it has of late become quite commonplace to ignore the liturgical-theological movement of the ecclesiastical year. (Clearly that was not the case for Bach!) That this is a serious loss is nowhere more apparent than during Holy Week and Easter: to understand Easter, one has to go through Holy Week, every year, with a feeling of dread, panic and fear.

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The myth of English liberalism and the politics of bigotry

The current row over Rowan William's remarks on sharia law and the British legal system is deeply saddening. Perhaps I should preface this by stating that I am not generally all that favourably inclined towards him as a church leader, though I have the deepest respect for his theological work - but it would take too long to explain that. Suffice it to say that he strikes me too much as an institutional apparatchik (no doubt he would see this differently - and in terms of ecclesiology). But he is an extraordinarily fine intellectual, and he strikes me as generally honest in his attempt to hold the Church of England together. (Again, one may differ in opinion as to whether that is important.)

But regardless of what one thinks of him, the hyped-up and hysterical reactions of sections of the media, politicians, the church, and the general public is appalling. It does not matter so much whether one actually agrees with what he said on the topic; and one wonders of course what kind of media advice he was given when it came to that Radio 4 interview that preceded his lecture on the topic. The point is, one would have thought, that he wanted to make a contribution to a debate, which is entirely within his remit. But that is where the mistake crept in: real debate, honest debate, is not desirable in this country, it would seem. Hardly anyone apparently bothers to read what he actually said - or perhaps the educational system in this country is now so bad that hardly anyone can read something that isn't a transcript of 'Big Brother'.

Several factors seem play into this hysteria:

Among the media, there seems to be a strong tendency to portray Williams as some kind of weird intellectual who cannot string a simple sentence together that people could understand. His commmitment to liturgical practice, ecclesiastical garb etc. which many no longer understand, isn't helping here. There seems to be a strange mixture of anti-intellectualism, latent class conflict, and broad alienation from church practice in large sections of the media - as indeed the country in general.

The way the controversy was intially introduced on Radio 4 was extremely revealing. On the Thursday afternoon programme (7 February), if I recall correctly, the headlines began with a short line on what Williams had supposedly said, followed by predictably uninformed, populist reactions from politicians. There was then a short segement where the Radio 4 interviewer was himself interviewed, which gave us a little bit more of an idea what Williams was trying to say, but not much: the interviewer himself struck me as pretty clueless. And then to top it all, a "Sun" journalist (if that is the right word to use) was asked to comment, and proceeded to spew forth his usual bile. And this is what they call 'news' on the premier, supposedley liberal (whatever that means) BBC. Pathetic.

Sadly, within the church, this is just another welcome opportunity for conservatives to get Williams out of office. Shallow liberals seem to join conservatives in a bizarre kneejerk reaction. Strange bedfellows indeed.

But there is something even more troubling in the broader public reactions. A strong element of bigotry pervades this country, in particular in respect of muslims. There is so little communication, so little dialogue, so little interaction between different communities - it makes this country perfect fodder for the strategic objectives of the USA; 'special relationship' indeed. No wonder that British politicians, regardless of which of the three political parties they come from, tend to buy into this crap.

England, regardless of what people would like to see themselves as, has a substantial population that would appear to be just as bigoted as people in other places. Not worse, but no better than other countries. That should not surprise anyone: if you live long enough in different places, you realise that all people are, well, human. But it's saddening nevertheless.