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Thursday, 25 June 2009

‘Waiting for God and Godot’

Vladimir: It’s the start that’s difficult.
Estragon: You can start from anything.
Vladimir: Yes, but you have to decide.

I was invited to Westminster Abbey this week for the ordination and consecration of a bishop into the Church of England’s Diocese of Salisbury. I’d never been to an event like this - I’d never even visited Westminster Abbey. So it was too good an invitation to turn down.

As might be expected it was a very formal occasion: ceremonial processions of clergy and bishops in full regalia, red for bishops, yellow and white for others, jewel-encrusted crosses on long staves, the Abbey choir in full voice, all the dignity and solemnity of a church confident of its traditional role in England’s history, preserver of continuity and faith, representatives of - as the liturgy proclaimed - ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation’.

The Archbishop of Canterbury takes pride of place in this ceremony, bringing up the rear of the opening procession in his white mitre and full ceremonial gown (I’m Jewish, what do you want, the technical terms for all this stuff?). It’s fancy dress for grown-ups, playing their allocated roles. I noted, with wry amusement, how Rowan Williams, as soon as the opening procession had ensured that all the participants reached their designated spots, swept off his mitre with what seemed to be palpable relief – it revealed his curiously back-sprouting shock of grey hair (springing from his head as if he’d been struck by lightning), which he left for a moment or two before attempting to smooth it down with a worldly sweep of his hand.

Estragon: Nothing to be done
Vladimir: I’m beginning to come round to that opinion

I’d been to see Samuel Beckett’s play at the weekend – and during the long ceremony in the Abbey I couldn’t help contrast the two occasions, both choreographed with theatrical precision, both in love with language, both speaking about the most profound of human concerns (love and hope and service), and both using the technique of dialogue to explore the mysteries of what we are here on earth to do.

‘Do you accept the Holy Scriptures as revealing all things necessary for eternal salvation...’
‘I do accept them’
‘Will you be diligent in prayer...and in all studies that will deepen your faith...’
‘By the help of God I will’
‘Will you be gentle and merciful for Christ’s sake to those who are in need...’
‘By the help of God I will’

And so on – an antiphony of call and response, interspersed with psalms, scriptural readings, and prayers by the community, culminating in the ordination itself, the ‘laying on of hands’ where the 30 or so bishops form a bright red swooping crowd, like a flock of exotic birds, and descend on the ordinand until he disappears beneath a host of outstretched hands as the Archbishop intones: ‘Send down the Holy Spirit on your servant...’

Beckett’s play contains a memorable portrait of a master-servant relationship: that of the silent , ironically-named Lucky tethered by a rope to his master, Pozzo, who treats his servant as an uncomplaining beast of burden and form of entertainment, ordering him at whim to dance, then ‘Stop!...Turn!...Think!’. Perhaps this is how Beckett sees humanity, labouring under its servitude to authorities human and divine. The Bible does contain images of a ‘God’ ordering us around, often in arbitrary-seeming ways, and it seems significant that in the single long speech that emerges from the hapless Lucky – his only words in the play – what we hear when he is ordered to ‘Think!’ is a stream of words that sound like a parody of religious argumentation:

Lucky: Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann [Beckett had a genius for names as signposts] of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension Who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambit divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown...

And so on and on for several uninterrupted minutes, a logorrhoea of sense and senselessness, mirroring our human attempt to construct meaning out of silence and the void.

Does Beckett’s text at this point make any more or less sense than the reading from Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians which the Abbey ceremony included? Before faith came we were imprisoned and guarded under the law [like Lucky?]until faith would be revealed therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith...’

The motif within the ordination of the need for help, God’s help, to carry on with life is echoed in Godot – except that in Godot the only help we can draw on is the help we give to each other:

Estragon: What’s the matter with you all?
Vladimir: Help!
Estragon: I’m going.
Vladimir: Don’t leave me! They’ll kill me!...Help!
Estragon: I’m going.
Vladimir: Help me up first. Then we’ll go together.

For Beckett, companionship, human connectedness, our dependence on each other – these are the antidote to oblivion. Rowan Williams would agree, I’m sure. Yet Beckett’s masterpiece, first produced in 1955 and written in the shadows of the death camps and Hiroshima, speaks of a post-religious world where the only faith that exists is in our human capabilities, our potential for concern for each other:

Vladimir: Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!

Sir Ian McKellen delivers the lines with great pathos, and urgency: I see this speech as the religious/spiritual core of Beckett’s play, the author’s own declaration of the necessity for human values in the face of a world in which ‘God’ is absent - in which ‘God’ may be spoken about, and waited for, but never arrives.

The ordination was formal, and moving in its own way. But it was curiously impersonal – to my mind the sermon-giver (a Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge) listed the ordinand’s achievements and qualifications, gave us his CV as it were, but never really said anything personal about him, or to him. Nor did Rowan Williams: all his lines spoken to the ordinand were scripted in advance and printed neatly in the order of service given to us in the congregation. There was more human life, human warmth, on the stage between Vladimir (McKellen) and Estragon (beautifully played by Patrick Stewart), than in the ceremonial drama in the Abbey.

Perhaps that’s the way it needs to be when you are representing the Church, the Body of Christ on Earth, during such a ritualised occasion. But maybe there’s a clue here as to why our theatres are packed and the Church of England is in decline. Maybe the Spirit has migrated from formal religious structures (synagogues too?) into other, more ‘worldly’, places. Places that have the possibility of mixing laughter with a sense of the serious, places where laughter and tragedy can both be accommodated and embraced. (I had never understood until this last weekend why ‘Waiting for Godot’ is described by Beckett as a ‘tragicomedy’. But this production taught me that it is in fact very funny, with both an Irish (and Jewish) gallows humour together with the innate humour that flowers between human beings bound together in absurd situations).

‘Waiting for Godot’ is a profound, religious work: like all the best religion it is open-ended, searching, inquiring after meaning, allowing a full expression of human creativity and compassion without avoiding our capacities for cruelty and destructiveness. It is a text filled with what used to be called – and still is called in some places – ‘the Holy Spirit’. That is, the spirit of life that animates existence and us poor creatures who struggle with existence, the spirit of being that enables us to wrestle meaning out of the chaos of being, the spirit of being that helps us bear the frustrations of waiting, waiting for clarity of understanding to arise, waiting for our inevitable end, waiting for our waiting to end, for Godot to arrive, for the curtain to fall.

Pozzo: They give birth astride the grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more...

Oh, but what the light reveals! While it’s there, while it’s here: what the light reveals!

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

On the BNP and Europe

I’m unsure how to think about the results from the European elections – in particular, what to think about the BNP’s capture of two seats in the European Parliament.

On the one hand, it seems a dark day for Europe. Two British racists, from a neo-fascist party, will have new access to funds and free publicity, along with a modicum of influence (together with like-minded groups) over policy-making in the European Union. They will join with other racist and xenophobic parties – the anti-Gypsy Hungarian party, Jobbik, who gained 15% of their vote, far-right groups from Romania and Italy (10% of each of their national votes), the anti-Muslim party in Holland (15% of the vote), as well as Austrian unlikely band of brothers-at-heart who in any other context would probably be at each other’s throats. So, from this point of view, the BNP’s success can be linked to a larger and worrying strain of intolerant, fear-fuelled nationalism that is rippling through Europe.

On the other hand, the BNP’s share of the UK vote was still only 6.26% (4.94% in London) – in the midst of this grim recession, and in spite of the tide of anti-immigrant prejudice spilling from the pages of the Daily Mail (and other papers) for the last few years. I’m not sure I have much faith in the alleged ‘tolerance’ and ‘common sense’ of the British public, but until the next election here in the UK there are as yet no BNP MPs (although there are a scattering of local councillors in specific deprived areas of the UK). In other words those who do bother to vote have, this time round, overwhelmingly rejected this hate-filled political party. (In 1930, Hitler won 107 seats out of 577 in the German parliament on 18% of the vote, having trebled their percentage of the vote in 2 years).

And even the news from the Continent seems contradictory. Jean-Marie le Pen’s National Front in France lost 4 of its 7 European seats. And in Belgium, the Flemish separatist-nationalists lost half their votes. Maybe other ethnocentric-rightist parties are picking up these votes: UKIP’s vote ended up larger than Labour’s – but it’s hard to know how to interpret all this anti-European voting.

As a passionate pro-European I know that I feel saddened by it. And as a cosmopolitan Jew – not rootless, but glad to be British and glad to be part of a larger European identity – I feel doubly saddened by it. That the Jews of Europe have traditionally celebrated their multiple identities – as Jew, as committed to their land of domicile, and as committed to a trans-national culture of creative human endeavour – is a theme I will leave for another time.

Jewish identity; patriotism; internationalism – these have existed in creative tension in Jewish lives and hearts for the last two centuries. This multi-dimensional sense of identity might cause, has caused, confusion, dismay, or worse, to the ‘outside’ world, the Gentile world. And to us Jews it has been, yes, sometimes problematic, and unsettling - this challenge of holding together disparate parts of our identity - but at its best this cross-fertilisation has been integral to Jewish creativity: in the arts, in music and literature, in the sciences, in philosophy, and religiously, and in the human and social sciences - across the whole spectrum of Jewish endeavour. Living our lives in different worlds , in different dimensions - material and spiritual and intellectual and emotional – this has been the ennobling, disturbing, (sometimes disruptive), Jewish diasporic contribution to European life over the last two centuries.

And in and of this longer perspective, and within this larger perspective, the BNP know nothing, and are nothing.

But we will keep an eye on them.
(June 10th 2009)

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Truth & Tiananmen, Truth & Obama in Cairo

June 4th

I’ve been catching up this week with what happened twenty years ago in Tiananmen Square. Today is the 20th anniversary of the massacre – but I have realised over the last few days that my knowledge and understanding of what occurred in Beijing in 1989 has been negligible, restricted to a memory of an iconic image of a man with a bag (or was it a briefcase?) standing alone in front of a tank. [It has been brought to my attention after I posted this that he had a bag in each hand - the unreliablity of memory!] Who was he? What was he doing there? What happened to him? What were the tanks doing there? What was this ‘massacre’ about, in a far-off place about which I know almost nothing?

Of course I knew that China’s political system was oppressive and dictatorial – 9 men control the lives of 1.6 billion people – and that China’s attitude to dissent is typically totalitarian: imprisonment for speech-crimes and for any writing that questions the State’s values, systemic human rights abuses, and all the grim apparatus of State repression that the Soviet Union and China developed and made their speciality in the last century.

This was why I was opposed to the granting of the Olympic Games to Beijing – and why I believed that all the promises made by the Chinese government about an easing of restrictions on individual or collective dissent were worthless. Their reassuring words were lies - manipulative deceptions of a staggeringly naive Olympic movement, and those sponsoring Western businesses who sought to profit from this once-in-a-generation exposure to new markets; businesses that were happy to be deceived because, after all, it’s money that makes the world go round. And what are human rights compared with profit margins. It’s almost too easy to award the gold medal for cynicism to Western banks and corporate capitalism. (Though it’s since been established that those noble institutions were drugged up to their eyeballs with toxic substances and mainlining on consumerist greed, making addicts of us all).

When I spoke about China in April last year, before the Games, I drew the obvious parallel with the shameful Berlin Olympics in 1936 (cf. sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue But what has shocked me this week, as I have been reading about and watching programmes on the 1989 events, is both the ruthlessness with which the Chinese government murdered their own youthful citizens – crushing them with tanks, shooting indiscriminately into peaceful crowds, then removing bodies to destroy the evidence – and the ruthlessness with which knowledge of this bloody chapter of recent Chinese history has been suppressed. In their official histories and their museums, it is as if this event never happened.

In China you can’t Google it – Google have agreed to China’s censorship of certain areas within internet sites – and recently this year, right up to this week in the run up to the 20th anniversary of the massacre, China has blocked access to sites such as Hotmail, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Microsoft’s Windows Live,, and message boards on more than 6,000 websites affiliated to colleges and universities. Knowledge is power. And so, knowledge is dangerous.

Nobody yet knows – and maybe nobody ever will – how many youngsters (and they were predominately young people in their teens and twenties who were gathered in the Square) were murdered by government troops in Beijing 20 years ago today. Estimates range from around a thousand to perhaps 3,000. (And nobody knows who the anonymous man in the photo is. Or rather, was). Throughout China there are parents alive whose children never came home. But who cannot talk about it. Cannot be allowed to mourn. Cannot be told the truth.

And part of the tragedy of those days – which are these days – is that so many in China have agreed to live with lies and self-deception and the erasure of memory. As the banned, exiled novelist Ma Jian (author of Beijing Coma) puts it: ‘The Chinese have made a faustian pact with the government, agreeing to forsake demands for political and intellectual freedom in exchange for more material comfort. They live prosperous lives in which any expression of pain is forbidden. When I talk to young Chinese about 1989, I am invariably accused of spreading false rumours and being a traitor to my nation. When I bring up the subject with my old friends, most of them laugh scornfully, as if those events are now irrelevant. But I know that behind this show of derision or apathy lies real fear. Everyone knows that attempts to break the Tiananmen taboo can still destroy a person’s life and the life of their families. The authorities, for their part, may have a monopoly of the nation’s resources, but they can never fully control the nation’s soul...’

The struggle between truth and lies is a spiritual battle within each human soul. We may seek the truth, about ourselves and the world around us, but our capacities for self-deception and for hiding from the facts of life are endless. And the wish to be deceived - for the sake of a quiet life, or material security, or supposed emotional stability – is deeply ingrained. The truth can set you free – and that’s why it is so desirable, and that’s why it is so frightening.


‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth’ – when President Obama spoke those words today in his long-awaited speech in Cairo, quoting from the ‘holy Qur'an’ (and you could hear that his Arabic pronunciation of ‘Qur'an’ was spot-on) there was generous and spontaneous applause from his invited audience at Cairo University. And that was what he was here in the Middle East to try to do, he said, ‘to speak the truth as best I can’.

It was, as one can expect from Obama, a masterful speech: clear, intelligent, both humble and robust, and embodying the principles of dialogue – respect for and a willingness to listen to the other, and a reciprocal attentiveness to the truth of one’s own position and a willingness to articulate it as openly as one can.

The fact that Obama was speaking in a country ruled (like China) by an oligarchic, authoritarian elite – a country ruled by means of a permanent state of emergency in which human rights abuses are systemic – cannot escape our attention. But at least this was a beginning. ‘A new beginning’, as Obama put it, in relations between the US and the Muslim world. And one where Obama was able ‘to speak the truth’ as best he could about the Palestinian situation, giving voice to the truth that the ‘situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable’ , while also reiterating that ‘resistance through violence and killing is wrong.’ And affirming the self-evident truth - evident that is to most honest-minded observers - that ‘Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.’

Obama is having to play a complex game with Israel’s leaders, in particular with Netanyahu – who was once described by Avi Shlaim, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, as ‘devious, dishonest and completely unreliable’ in his dealings with King Hussein of Jordan when Netanyahu was prime minister last time round, in the 1990s. And can a leopard change its spots? And is the Pope a Catholic?

Obama has his work cut out in relation to Israel but so far seems to be playing a canny yet resolute hand. If he can continue to be guided by his understanding of ‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth’, there may still be a glimmer of hope in that desperate, dusty patch of God’s good earth.