The pope gave a sermon last month which was widely reported. It was timely. The western world was turning its thoughts to the annual winter ritual of overspending and over-eating. No surprise, then, that the resulting headlines all seemed to focus on the ‘charade’ of Christmas.
I looked up the sermon but couldn’t see where – or if – Pope Francis used that word. Many other words, though, were worthy of headlines. More worthy. Especially now, as Britain decides whether to support France, our neighbour and ally, in bombing Syria.
What the Pope actually said about Christmas was this:
“Today Jesus weeps … because we have chosen the way of war, the way of hatred, the way of enmities. We are close to Christmas: there will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war. The world has not understood the way of peace.”
He had more to say about war and peace, but before we get to that – a glance at Christmas, in passing.
I saw some research recently that suggested British families expect to spend, on average, around £800 celebrating Christmas in 2015. And to do so, many families will go into debt – in 2014 the UK topped the European Christmas-induced-debt league table.
Fine – if that makes you happy. But I suspect it doesn’t. And that’s just one reason why I’d agree that Christmas is, indeed, a charade.
But there’s more to this charade than hopes raised and dashed, than parents plunged into self-inflicted debt and children dissatisfied with even the wildest largesse.
Especially this year.
Especially here, in Europe.
I’m afraid there’s much to be miserable about at the moment.
The weather is vile. Dank skies and squelching gardens. Pelting rain and roaring winds. Grey flagstones and sodden raincoats.
Friends and acquaintances brim-full with sadness, rooted in reasons more serious than mere weather.
Libraries closing, children’s centres closing, police stations closing.
Cars by the side of the road with handwritten signs buckling in the window: ‘For Sale’.
Our economy supposedly growing, but foodbanks busier than ever.
More homeless people on our streets.
Updates from our local soup kitchen make desperate reading – which young, vulnerable person has died from lack of care lately?
Terrorism stalks the world. In Paris, Nigeria, Egypt, Beirut, Tunisia – too many places to list.
Waves of refugees are washing up – some half dead, some wholly dead – on the beautiful shores of the Mediterranean. More camp in squalor twenty odd miles across the sea, in France.
And our government wants to start bombing Syria.
At this point, then, let’s return to what the Pope said.
“Everywhere there is war today, there is hatred.
What shall remain in the wake of this war …?
Ruins, thousands of children without education, so many innocent victims:
and lots of money in the pockets of arms dealers.”
The situation in the Middle East is far too complicated for a blog post of a few hundred words. But anyone who reads any analysis knows that we’re already playing, as a nation, a complicated cat’s cradle of peace and war.
Our arms industries sell to regimes like Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabian interests fund extremist supposedly-Islamic groups.
Our government once wanted to take us to war against the Assad regime in Syria. Now it wants us to go to war with those who would keep it in power.
Because ‘we’ want to support our allies in the wake of the Paris atrocities.
Surely even a fool can see this is madness?
‘Oops, we accidentally bombed a hospital’, admit our American allies.
Today, in the ‘Independent’, a letter from Dr David Lowry of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, Mass, cited a report on the US bombing, during the Vietnam War, of Ben Tre city. It was 7 February 1968. Associated Press correspondent, Peter Arnett, reported:
“ ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it’, a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong.”
Dr Lowry fears the same fate awaits Syrian civilians in Isis strongholds.
I can’t say that emulating anything that happened during the Vietnam War sounds like a good idea to me.
And bombing in Syria and Iraq hasn’t exactly worked so far.
So, why do it?
Here’s Pope Francis again:
“War is the right choice for him who would serve wealth: ‘Let us build weapons so that the economy will right itself somewhat, and let us go forward in pursuit of our interests …’ The men who make war are cursed, they are criminals. A war can be justified – so to speak – with many, many reasons, but when all the world as it is today, is at war – piecemeal though that war may be … God weeps. Jesus weeps.”
Now before you have a go at me about Christianity and war – I know. Christianity has no proud history in warfare. I studied the Crusades as my special subject at university.
But we have, I hope, learned our lessons – at least, some of us have. There are, sadly, supposedly-Christian extremists just as there are supposedly-Islamic extremists.
I do not believe we should commit further to a ‘war’ that we cannot win, cannot fully understand and whose ‘planned’ outcome seems like the equivalent of sticking a tail on a donkey while blindfold.
It’s easy to feel dejected by all the misery stalking the world.
It’s tempting to go back to bed and hide under the covers with a good book till it’s all over.
Yet I’m sitting at my desk, feeling like there’s hope in the world.
I unwrapped a bar of special soap this morning and had a long, hot bath – what a luxury.
The soap came all the way from Australia. From a kind and thoughtful person (I know this, despite the fact we’ve never met) who reads my blog and whose blog I read.
The uplifting scent of that lemon-myrtle-goat’s-milk- soap changed my mood in an instant.
Thank you, Elladee, for brightening my day. Despite everything.
And in that new, brighter spirit, I’d like to give the final words to radical poet and playwright, Adrian Mitchell: