I was asked to give the first 'sermon' at a new Sunday Assembly in Norwich this last weekend. Given it was Remembrance Sunday, the theme What Price Peace? jumped out at me and I wrote a rather long and exhaustive essay riffing on themes of conflict and complication, silence, individualism and community. I'm hugely honoured to have been asked, and hope I produced something interesting and thought provoking. The Sunday Assembly has a great vision: to live better, help often, wonder more.
For more information or if you are interested in joining Norwich Sunday Assembly, visit the website here, or find out more on Twitter or Facebook.
For more information or if you are interested in joining Norwich Sunday Assembly, visit the website here, or find out more on Twitter or Facebook.
I hate to break the silence... We get so little of it, don't we?
Sometimes my life feels like a long search for silence. For stillness, and calm. I have a blog called Books, time, and Silence, the title of which I took from a quote by the author Philip Pullman, and at the time I picked it for its focus on books and reading and the importance of making space for them. But as the years go by I find it might be the other way, that I am trying to make space for silence, into which I might inject reading.
I probably should have been a Quaker or Buddhist. Or a monk! None of which I really know anything about and all of which would probably involve too many rules which might drive me crazy. But I want to know about them, and the ideas that drive them. I don’t want to judge without learning. And there is so much to learn. Which is why, right now I’m pleased to be here with you. And instead of further silence, I'm going to fill this room with my other great love: words.
Earlier this week a group of friends and I went to London for a party in the Natural History Museum. Amidst the absurd excitement of drinking wine beneath the diplodocus in the central hall, and wondering whether the giant blue whale might come to life movie-style when we were kicked out at 10pm, I got to discussing the grandeur of the building. I hadn't been for a decade or so, and I had forgotten how dramatic the architecture is. I mean, really stunning. Every wall, every column and Romanesque arch is gilded or carved or decorated in some way. I asked a man I happened to be talking to about the origins of the building, and he happened to be an expert on architecture and public buildings – he works for Historic Royal Palaces in London. And he told me that it was a Victorian building, part of a trend to build cathedrals to the ideas of the age: evolution, science, and the public value of knowledge and learning.
That's great isn't it? The public value of knowledge and learning.
I respect the Victorian approach to creation. As a societal whole, they were riding the crest of the widest change in society. And this led them to conquer and impose and feel superior which aren’t very good. But it also led them to create. And they didn’t behave like Henry VIII or the 1950’s town planners, they didn’t destroy everything that came before them which they didn’t like: they simply added to it, repurposed it. They developed. They expanded. Many complain about the collateral destruction this did to historic buildings, but they weren’t just conserving the past, they were building something new on the back of great things of the past. Building a future. That feels admirable, to me.
Although we are here today in slightly less impressive surroundings than the Natural History Museum, this Sunday Assembly too feels like a monument to the public value of shared experience and learning. We are here, perhaps, because we want to better ourselves, individually, together.
I am not at all religious. And I don’t much like ceremony either. What I have loved on the occasions I’ve been to a religious service is the sermon. Sitting there in a hard pew in an often cold church listening to someone talk to me. I find I would go from slouching to the edge of my seat, listening intently, as someone took the time to distil some of their thoughts about the week that has passed and bring them together into a coherent whole. To tell me a story or invite me to think differently. To teach or introduce me to something. Or just to comfort me with their words.
So it’s thrilling – and not a little terrifying – to be doing the same here this morning. My grandfather was a methodist minister and wrote sermons. So good was he that they made him tour the small rural churches of Suffolk. That sort of sounds like a punishment to me, but maybe not. Congregation size can’t be everything, surely.
Apparently, our family has kept all these sermons, and I’m fascinated to read them, to see what was on his mind and how he presented that on Sunday mornings to small congregations in Suffolk. I’m particularly intrigued because I’ve been on a bit of a rollercoaster journey this last couple of months. I recently started a year’s Fellowship, which is essentially the biggest, boldest, most mind-bogglingly exciting and, again, terrifying things I’ve ever done. And already, one of the things that has become apparent as I’ve reflected upon my myself, is that I find it difficult to speak as though others want to hear what I have to say. I put great value in enabling others to speak, to share the limelight. And I had thought this was one of my biggest strengths (which is probably is.). But, it is also a defence mechanism, a way of hiding in the shadows. And so when Rachel and Pete invited me to speak this morning, it wasn’t only the honour to be asked and my vanity that ensured I would accept: I knew immediately, that this would be an opportunity to practice trusting in my own words. Challenging myself, and learning.
But old habits die hard, and so I'm going to quote other people liberally! First up is Thomas Paine, famous son of Norfolk. In The Rights of Man he declares: ‘Independence is my happiness, my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.‘
These words have become my personal motto of sorts. And they seemed appropriate to share here today. For not only are we at the start of something, not only will many of us feel ourselves to be independent, global citizens committed to ideas of social justice, but it is also Remembrance Sunday, a day when we mark lives lost to war: present, recent, past, and ancient. And this Remembrance Sunday is particularly significant, marking as it does 100 years since the start of World War 1. The war that came to be known variously as The Great War. The War to End All Wars.
During the silence, I made sure I thought about the non-British soldiers and civilians who have been killed or had their lives negatively impacted by war. Of the way Britain has used war as a way of imposing its will on the world.
But this week I’ve also tried to imagine what those British soldiers might have been thinking and feeling 100 years ago. I imagine that as autumn turned to winter and the temperature began to drop, it might have been around this time that the early optimism began to fade and the realities of the war became apparent. All that nationalistic bombast that saw young men rushing to recruitment centres in the belief that they’d be home by Christmas might have started to seem a little hollower. Faced with the realities of a war like nothing that had been seen before, that gap between what had been imagined and what was being experienced must have felt as vast as the trenches stretching from the North Sea into the heart of Europe.
I’m not particularly imaginative when it comes to calling to mind the thoughts and feelings of other people; this is one of the reasons I love fiction. There is nothing I do in my life that so enables me to inhabit other skins and see the world through other eyes. It puts me inside the heads of other people, other lives, other cultures, other ways of thinking. It helps me see things differently, it makes me think differently, it complicates my point of view.
On that same trip to the Natural History Museum this week, our group also visited the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation at the Tower of London. It is a moving tribute to the 888, 246 British service men and women who lost their lives during the Great War, each of whom is represented by a single poppy until the moat is carpeted in red. It is visually spectacular and has captured the public desire to remember, and to be grateful. The crowds flocking to the Tower - so many that tube stations have been shut and £150,000 of extra staff brought in to shepherd them - have stood in silence to listen to the names of those soldiers read one by one. It is theatre meets art installation, meets public ceremony all at once. And there is something immensely powerful about it.
But I also feel uneasy about it. As Jonathan Jones recently wrote in The Guardian, 'In spite of the mention of blood in its title, this is a deeply aestheticised, prettified and toothless war memorial. It is all dignity and grace. There is a fake nobility to it, and this seems to be what the crowds have come for – to be raised up into a shared reverence for those heroes turned frozen flowers. What a lie. The First World War was not noble. War is not noble. A meaningful mass memorial to this horror would not be dignified or pretty. It would be gory, vile and terrible to see. The moat of the Tower should be filled with barbed wire and bones. That would mean something.'
I’m not sure I would criticise the installation for not being something different to what it is. That’s a horribly judgemental view the role of art criticism. But I love that Jonathan Jones was able to complicate our national thinking about the memorial. And he raises some valuable points about the way we remember war. It is notable, I think, to remember that in 1918 as the war came to an end, young men returning from the front got behind pacifism. There was a feeling of ‘never again’ across society, and many philosophers and thinkers took to championing the morality of peace and the utter monstrosity of war. It took a financial meltdown of unimaginable proportions, and the rise of a dictator bent on imposing his will on the world to break this determination for peace. And even then, before the fighting began, Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich waving a piece of paper proclaiming peace in our time.
Whatever our view of the morality of war and peace, we shouldn’t forget how those who lived through the war came to view it. Not as glorious and noble. But as Jonathan Jones suggests: as barbed wire and bones, tangled together in a vivid, real depiction of hell on earth.
There is a commentator I admire named Stanley Haeuerwas, who said recently that ‘war serves as the great event,...where we sacrifice the youth of the present generation to show that the sacrifices of the youth of the past generations were worthy. So war becomes the great ritual moral renewal of...society. Just think of all the language about sacrifice that is constantly used about the service people.’
War begets war. Pretending it is noble only makes future war easier to embark upon.
I am also reminded of the words of 91 year old World War 2 veteran Harry Leslie Smith, who, last year, wrote a piece in The Guardian declaring that 2013 would be the last time he would wear a poppy. That after nearly 60 years of remembrance to a war so horrific ‘no poet of journalist could describe’ it, he would now mourn the dead only in private. ‘Because,’ he wrote, ‘my despair is for those who live in this present world.’
Again, Harry has complicated the blood red waters. He has a particular perspective: that all the horrors of the second world war just might have been worth it given what followed: the creation of a new society built on principles of social justice and economic mobility for all. But that as that has been eroded over the last 40 years to its present paltry state, and that erosion has gone hand in hand with a ramping up of rhetoric and ceremony around war, he has been left to mourn what we have done to one of the greatest inventions of mankind. Something we have all lost.
It’s probably obvious! My natural stance is that no end is worth the blood and gore and waste and destruction of war. I am a pacifist. I don’t believe that any end justifies its means. Even if eternal peace were to be guaranteed by war, I would oppose that war on principal. Because I don’t really believe in ends. I mean, when does history ever end? What event doesn't leave ripples in all it touches? We can only live in the present, and do what feels right now. We live these means in everything we do, every day. For that reason above all others, I am a pacifist.
But reading Harry’s book this week has been challenging my default position. And I love this. And being challenged has got me thinking about all sorts of other things, one of which is what might be my favourite line from literature. This line isn’t a grand opening sentence or a wonderful conclusion, its not got the exquisite sadness of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s opening line from Love in the Time of Cholera: ‘It was inevitable. The scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.’ And nor does it capture an entire book, as F Scott Fitzgerald does in the last line of The Great Gatsby: ‘And so we beat on, backs against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
No!, this is a mid-paragraph line towards to the beginning of JM Coetzee’s masterful novel Waiting for the Barbarians. In a tale about conscience and honour in a land where fear has replaced trust, our hero The Magistrate reflects somberly: 'I believe in peace. Perhaps even peace at any price.'
'I believe in peace. Perhaps even peace at any price.'
Why does this sentence so affect me? It isn’t just that it is a statement of the ultimate pacifism. There’s also something in there that is complicated. I got to exploring it.
I - It starts with a single letter. An I. A person. Vulnerable skin and easily spilt blood. A brain of synaptic flashes that create a consciousness that is so much more than electrical impulse. Could have been one of 888, 246, or the 187 million people that the historian Eric Hobsbawm estimates were caused by or associated with war in the Twentieth Century.
I love the first person narrative voice. The I. Bang, we’re in another person’s head. In Western society, this I is dominant. Look at our movies, our books, our cartoons. So many of them are about a simple concept: the triumph of the individual. The individual who is different and who ends up benefiting or saving her society through her very difference. I was in China a while ago, and I picked up a picture book. I didn’t know what it was called or what it was about, but being a picture book I could follow the story pretty easily. There was an antelope and she wanted to be a zebra. She dressed up in zebra stripes and painted her flanks like a bar code. Her elders told her not to, that it was drawing too much attention to the pack. But she did anyway. And when the lions attacked they went straight for the animal that stood out. It escaped narrowly - this was a children’s book - but the message was pretty clear. Difference is dangerous. The We, is everything, the I, nothing.
I was amazed at this vast difference between the two cultures. The West and the East .The ‘I’ and the ‘We’. Are they polar opposites? Isn’t love and sex about breaking down the barriers between one person and another, uniting physically and emotionally into something bigger than the I. And this gathering and all those religious gatherings happening every day around the world, aren’t they about finding how we as individuals relate to something more than just ourselves. Shortening the distance between people. Broaching the ‘I’ and the ‘We’.
I guess I am a product of western society, for I do believe that no matter how much we wish to change the world, or help others, no matter how selfless our desires, we can only ever be one person. I is all the power we will ever have. And it is all the vulnerability we will ever need. We can do amazing things together, but we have to value that I, nurture it, challenge it. Only then can ‘I’ ever hope to become purposeful to the ‘we’... And if the we ever leads the I, beware.
And after the I we come to 'believe'. A Tricky word. Belief says a lot to some people, and is a wishy washy loose word to others. What excites me about it is the positivity. There is something slightly audacious about saying you believe something, especially when you don’t follow it up with any evidence. Sure, blind belief isn’t complicated. In fact, it’s really straight forward. But most belief isn’t blind: it is questioned, considered, and somehow emerges undimmed. When we assume less, we undervalue the rigor of our fellow man. I admire the person who, having thought about it, believes in a God just as utterly as I admire anyone. To me, and Arthur C Clarke, there’s very little difference between magic and science. At its heart belief is about wonder. I guess I believe in wonder. There is something wonderful to me about belief.
Going back to Harry Leslie Smith - might we have been able to build a the social conscious society without the destructive furnace of war? I hope so. I believe so. Yet history sometimes suggests otherwise. This complication saddens me. But I choose to believe inspite of it.
And what does our Magistrate believe in? Peace of course. Just like many people around the world. Probably the vast majority of us. But I’m intrigued by what this peace he believes in might actually be. I fear it isn’t as straight forward as it appears. Is the magistrate a moral pacifist? Or is he so scared of confrontation and change that he will do anything to retain his safe quiet life? Are they entirely different or two sides of a coin? Is The Magistrate embracing life when he says he believes in peace, or is he fleeing from it? We’ll come back to this in a minute for now that we reach the end of the first part of this quote, we come to the best word of the lot...
Perhaps. In those 7 letters lies the genius of this phrase. Uncertainty, exploration, learning, testing the waters. The Magistrate isn't sure, he doesn't know exactly what he thinks. He is human and he is uncertain. But he is brave too. He is willing to go out on a limb and express his belief, a belief that could make him vulnerable and slightly ridiculous. And having done this he is willing to take it even further, hesitantly, to stumble into something really profound. But he knows enough to know certainty is folly. My economics teacher once tought me that the answer to every question should be: ‘it depends,’ and perhaps the beginning of every statement should be, ‘perhaps.’
Perhaps complicates. Even extends. Like belief, 'even' takes us further into something improbable. It signposts us that something dramatic might be about to be said. And it is well used here. And with Peace we have the repetition of that keyword, driving the importance of it home. And in Any we have further extension. The word any is like having a breakdown in the trenches and being sentenced to death for cowardice, then spreading your arms wide and bearing your chest against the firing squad. Relatively pointless, but symbolic nonetheless.
And we come to our last word: Price. And our theme for today: What price peace? For the magistrate in this book, the answer is ‘any’. His refusal to fight costs him everything. Everything but his principles, anyway. And true to his word, he pays it if not willingly, then with a stoic sense of necessity. In the ensuing battle with this faceless state, he is crushed. Tortured, shamed, displaced. And his peace is replaced by a fear of imminent war.
But when the forces leave, the Magistrate and the people remain. And they endure. And by the end of the book, war has not yet arrived. They are still waiting for the barbarians. Waiting...
Might peace be defined as the absence of war just as some medical professionals define health as the absence of ill-health? Perhaps semantically not, in that the word war is so much more specific that the term ill-health. But is avoiding war a triumph for pacifism, in and of itself? I think the answer to that might possibly be yes. Peace often necessitates the courage to wait and to endure.
But waiting isn’t the same as not acting. Hauerwas again:
‘Commitment to nonviolence does not require withrdrawal from the world and the world’s violence. Rather, it requires [us] to be in the world with an enthusiasm that cannot be defeated, for she knows that the power of war is not easily broken...For what creates new opportunities is being a kind a people who have been freed from the assumption that war is our fate.’
Perhaps it takes the grim, vile, ugly realities of war to help us break this cycle of sacrifice and ritual. The casting off of red poppies. The filling of moats with bones and barbed wire. Let us all take the briefest of moments to be silent again, to extend our commemoration of those killed in wars and to think about all the times peace has been curtailed by war, and what it will take to hold onto it this time, or next time.
Perhaps the question 'what price peace?' is a trick one. After all, we can never make a transaction that gives x in return for peace. There is no end of peace. We can only live our lives each day in a way that feels right. For me that means a way that does no harm...or as little as is possible in this complex world. I like to think I would do anything for peace, but if I’m being totally honest, the price I have paid until today is virtually zero. I am a man of words but few actions. I put posters in my window and talked incessantly about the folly of invading Iraq and the War on Terror, yet I didn't even join the anti-Iraq marches – like the Magistrate I was too busy looking after my own personal peace to join with a hoard of others and demand peace. I fear I would rather close the door and read. Or at least that is what my behaviour says. I don't like this about myself. It is embarrassing to admit. It is one of the personal challenges I wish to overcome.
But there are other challenges we all face: peace and war being two big ones. And smaller ones: what words to use and which not to; how to tell our own stories so that others will listen and hear them; how to turn words into actions, breaking down those barriers between you and me, your skin and my bones and our individual electrical flashes. There are some challenges we should embrace: the importance of pushing yourself, learning, and being brave, accepting own limitations and failings but not letting them stop us doing good.
And if we do anything, it must be to build new cathedrals to those things that matter: love and peace and learning and friendship and belief and complication and words and actions and individual autonomy and collectivity. To build on what already exists. To create, to create, to create.
I hope this Sunday Assembly will be that. For all of us.