24 December 2016

A week that reminds us
of ‘how fragile we are’

‘If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one / Drying in the colour of the evening sun’ … sunset at the harbour in Skerries two weeks ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier this week, I was writing about one Christmas carol and one Christmas song that I have found myself listening to again and again: The ‘Coventry Carol’ and ‘Stop the Cavalry’ (1980) by Jona Lewie. They have reminded me throughout this Christmas season of both the Ministry of Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral and my involvement with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) at the height of the Cold War in the late 1970s and the 1980s.

Since then, two incidents have reminded me that we have still not removed the threats of nuclear war and that we still live in a very fragile world.

Donald Trump has stunned the world by appearing to call for a renewed arms race on his Twitter feed and in a TV interview. ‘Let it be an arms race,’ the US president-elect is said to have told Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe programme, in an early phone call yesterday [23 December 2016]. He went on to say: ‘We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.’

Trump’s incendiary remarks follow a tweet on Thursday [22 December 2016] in which he threatened to preside over a major ramping up of the US nuclear arsenal: ‘The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.’

Meanwhile, 12 people were killed and 56 others were injured in a terrorist attack on Monday night [19 December 2016], when Tunisian-born Anis Amri a truck was driven into the Christmas market near the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin. Anis Amri was killed early yesterday in a shoot-out with Italian police near Milan.

The fears of a new Cold War and nuclear arms race that are being stoked by Trump, before he even takes office, and terrorist attacks on the streets of a European capital in the days before Christmas, and the consequent fears of a new rise of racism and Islamophobia, have reminded me of two songs from the 1980s by Sting, ‘Russians’ (1985) and ‘Fragile (1987).

‘Russians’ was recorded by Sting for his debut solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, released in July 1985, and it was released as a single the following November. The song was released in the final years of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, stoked by the deployment of Cruise, Pershing and SS 20 missiles, and the plans for a new ‘Star Wars’ escalation of the nuclear arms race.

The melody was inspired by the ‘Romance’ theme from the Lieutenant Kij√© Suite written by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev for the film Lieutenant Kije (1933).

The lead-in includes a snippet from the Soviet news program Vremya in which the Soviet news broadcaster Igor Kirillov says in Russian: ‘...The British Prime Minister described the talks with the head of the delegation, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, as a constructive, realistic, practical and friendly exchange of opinions...’ This refers to the meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher in 1984.

In the background, we can also hear communications from the Apollo–Soyuz mission.

Sting later recalled: ‘In this political climate a friend of mine, who was doing research at Columbia University in New York, had a computer system sophisticated enough to intercept the Soviet’s TV signal from their satellite above the North Pole. On a Saturday night in New York City we could watch Sunday morning programmes for the kids in Russia. The shows seemed thoughtful and sweet, and I suddenly felt the need to state something obvious in the face of all this rhetoric: Russians love their children just as we do.’

Sting’s lyrics ask rhetorically if Russians love their children, too, and question why the Russians and the Americans are taking part in the Cold War.

The song speaks to both sides in the Cold War:

There is no monopoly on common sense
On either side of the political fence

It describes the thoughts of ordinary people in both superpowers in the early 1980s and protests against the concepts of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD) and of a limited or ‘winnable’ nuclear war:

There’s no such thing as a winnable war
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore.

It then recounts and rejects the views of both President Ronald Reagan and his proposals for the ‘Star Wars’ initiative:

Mr Reagan says ‘We will protect you’
I don’t subscribe to this point of view.’

But Sting is even-handed – he has already rejected the bellicose views of the Soviet Prime Minister, Nikita Khrushchev:

Mr Khrushchev said we will bury you
I don’t subscribe to this point of view

‘Little Boy’ was the name of the first atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. ‘Oppenheimer’s deadly toy’ refers to Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who invented the atomic bomb.

He hopes that the ‘Russians love their children too,’ since this would apparently be the only thing that would save the world from eventual obliteration by nuclear weapons.

Sting originally wanted to record this song in Russia with the Leningrad State Orchestra. However, he told Record in 1985: ‘Unfortunately I came up against the bureaucracy that politicians put in front of you. It’s not easy to get into the Soviet Union to make a record – and it should be.’

The Cold War was in its final years when ‘Russians’ was released. Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985, and in 1989, Gorbachev and George Bush snr declared the Cold War over at the Malta Summit. The Soviet Union was dissolved two years later.

In Europe and America,
there’s a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets.

Mr Khrushchev said we will bury you
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
It would be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too.

How can I save my little boy
from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy.
There is no monopoly in common sense
On either side of the political fence.

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too.

There is no historical precedent
To put the words in the mouth of the President
There’s no such thing as a winnable war
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore.

Mr Reagan says we will protect you
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too.

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians love their children too.

The second song by Sting I am thinking of this Christmas Eve is ‘Fragile,’ which he recorded in 1987 for his second studio album, Nothing Like the Sun, and released as a single the following year. He has also recorded this track in both Spanish and Portuguese.

The song is a tribute to Ben Linder, an American civil engineer who was killed by the Contras in 1987 while he was working on a hydroelectric project in Nicaragua.

The song features in the 1992 Academy Award winning documentary film The Panama Deception, telling the story of the US invasion of Panama in December 1989.

‘Fragile’ was the opening song in Sting’s ‘All This Time’ concert, recorded on the evening of the 9/11 attacks on 11 September 2001. Sting sang ‘Fragile’ last month to open his concert at the reopening of the Bataclan in Paris on 12 November 2016, a year after the 2015 Paris terror attacks.

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the colour of the evening sun
Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay.

Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime’s argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are.

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are how fragile we are.

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are how fragile we are,
How fragile we are how fragile we are.

‘The sweet and silly
Christmas things’

‘The Irish Times’ publishes the following, full-length editorial on 13 this morning, Christmas Eve, 24 December 2016:

Searching for meaning
‘The sweet and silly
Christmas things’

Earlier this month, Philip Larkin joined the pantheon of poets when he was honoured with his own plaque in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. The ceremony was recognition for a poet who had refused all the trappings of establishment life, including a nomination as Poet Laureate.

While he was a student at Oxford in 1940, Larkin spent Christmas with his parents in Lichfield, the Midlands cathedral city they moved to during the Coventry Blitz. In those weeks, Larkin wrote three poems including Christmas 1940. These poems were never published in his lifetime and first came to public attention in 1992, almost seven years after his death. Larkin was a secularist who spurned all links with polite society and with the church. Yet he was nostalgic for the Church as an embodiment of tradition and community, and he was, as he said, “an agnostic, I suppose, but an Anglican agnostic, of course.”

In Christmas 1940, Larkin is a young man standing atop Borrowcrop Hill, looking down on the cathedral city on one side and on the open English countryside on the other, enthralled by the beauty of creation – “the night … full of stars”, “tree and farm”, “living stars flung from east to west”, “the windless gulf”. Despite his “Anglican atheism”, Larkin suggests in many of his poems, including Church Going and An Arundel Tomb, that he wants the Church to continue its rites and rituals, if only because they provide social cement as society faces disintegration.

As faith and belief lose their grip on society throughout northern Europe, those rites and rituals persist – to catch imaginations, to provide meaning and significance and to explain how we share values. And these truisms come to life most explicitly in this Season of Christmas.

We continue to bring trees from the countryside into urban homes, as though we retain memories of the need to care for and to preserve the beauty of creation when the harshness of mid-winter seems to threaten survival itself. We decorate our homes and frost the windows of shops with reminders of “living stars flung from east to west”, re-creating an awe for the splendour of the cosmos even when we forget how a star led the Wise Men to Bethlehem. We convince our children of the truth of Santa Claus, though we have long forgotten Saint Nicholas of Myra who combined his defence of Christian dogmas with the defence of children, and who gave generously to save children from abuse and trafficking.

The Christmas message is refashioned in each generation, told and retold in each age. But at the heart of this message is a story that challenges us when we become consumed with consumerism, and when we forget the truths that lie behind the first Christmas story. We retell the Christmas message every time we send Christmas cards to those we need to remember. The poet John Betjeman – the poet Philip Larkin was expected to succeed as Poet Laureate – recalled in Advent 1955:

… I remember
Last year I sent out 20 yards,
Laid end to end, of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know –
They’d sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back.

Most of our Christmas cards still illustrate scenes of the first Christmas: the stable in Bethlehem, the angelic host, the shepherds tending their flock, the visiting Magi, the homeless family who became refugees in Egypt. How often we send cards without reflecting on the significance and relevance of these scenes. The yards of cards, laid end to end among our decorations, should remind us of the needs of a homeless family with a child at Christmas, the cruelty of capricious and despotic rulers and factions in the Middle East, and the plight of refugees in a region once known as the Holy Land.

A stable is not appropriate housing for a homeless couple when she is pregnant; but then neither is a doorway nor an occupied office block. The Christmas story continues to confront us with the inadequacies of our society and the paucity of our priorities. And it challenges us to ask why many European leaders, who claim they are defending a Christian Europe, have turned their backs on the plight of refugees in the very parts of the Mediterranean basin where Christianity was born.

Having questioned the meaning of a consumer-obsessed Christmas, John Betjeman turns to seek its true meaning:

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Praying in Advent with USPG,
(28): 24 December 2016

The Nativity scene on the carved triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Christmas Eve, and we have arrived at the end of the fourth and last week of Advent. Tomorrow is Christmas Day. Throughout this time of preparation for Christ’s coming at Christmas, I have been praying each morning in Advent and using for my reflections the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency, USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week, the prayers in the USPG Prayer Diary focus on the church’s support for children worldwide, drawing insights from the work of the Delhi Brotherhood Society with children and women.

The USPG Prayer Diary:

Saturday 24 December 2016:

Pray that children the world over might know the love and protection of caregivers who are sensitive to their needs. Pray that caregivers might know God’s strength.

Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, the Church of Ireland, Holy Communion):

II Samuel 7: 1-5, 8-11, 16; Psalm 89: 2, 19-27; Acts 13: 16-26; Luke 1: 67-79.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
you make us glad with the yearly remembrance
of the birth of your Son Jesus Christ:
Grant that, as we joyfully receive him as our redeemer,
We may with sure confidence behold him
when he shall come to be our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Advent Collect:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer

God for whom we wait,
you feed us with the bread of eternal life:
Keep us ever watchful, that we may be ready
to stand before the Son of Man, Jesus Christ our Lord.