The times they are a’changin
By PAUL OESTREICHER
Socially, politically and personally there are many reasons to call to mind the year 1968. To coherently make sense of the movements and events of that year, even those to which I can relate from experience, far exceeds my intellectual and spiritual capacity. What follows may simply resemble a patchwork quilt. Bear in mind, dear reader, whatever your place in life and whatever your take on this unsystematic chronicle, that the writer was a child refugee from Hitler’s Germany and is a white, male Anglican priest and Quaker, a student of politics, a pacifist and an inhabitant of England who grew up in New Zealand. So much, then, for my horizons and my limitations.
Two Significant Deaths
l shall start late in 1968, on the tenth of December. On that day, both Karl Barth and Thomas Merton died. They will long remain icons and spiritual mentors to many. Though from widely diverse beginnings, they were remarkably similar in their impact on both prophetic theology and 20th century politics. Neither the systematic Protestant theologian nor the mystic Catholic monk stayed in monastic or academic seclusion. Their social activism was as disturbing as any decent Christian’s witness should be. In one long and one relatively short life, they travelled far, ending a long way from where they began, both of them charismatic, exuding an inner peace in times of turmoil. Laughter too. I will return to them.
What most readily comes to mind is the rebellion of the young intelligence. It started in Paris, where else? The French do not rebel quietly. So passionately did they want to change not only the sclerotic condition of academia, but the stagnating soul of the nation, that they took to the streets. That is where change happens. The pictures are still iconic. This was the starting pistol of the western world’s would-be cultural revolution. It spread like wildfire, first to California and then across Europe. So insecure was the French political elite that the rebels came close to overthrowing it. However, the revolution had no programme. It changed the political climate, but not the system. To almost win, is to lose, as the liberal revolutions of 1848 had done. But not completely. The neo-liberal counter revolution today is not winning, any more than the hapless invaders of Afghanistan or Iraq. The banks and the multinationals, the real power brokers, may yet lose. The jury will be out for a long, disturbing time. Reaction is all around us. Yet so is hope.
Mao Tse Tung or Xi Jinping?
Meanwhile, in 1968 the Cultural Revolution to ‘save’ China’s revolution, was at its height, soon to be stopped in its bloody tracks. Mao, the communist emperor, close to death, had set free the young generation – the Red Guards of socialist purity - to destroy all the vestiges of China’s past. Licensed anarchy that cost and destroyed more lives than will ever be known, swept across the nation until the ailing Mao became fearful of what he had set loose and stopped the frenzy. A surviving elite, lead initially until his death by Premier Zhou Enlai whom the people had learnt to trust, began to lay the foundations of what will soon, for good or ill, be the world’s dominant power. Socialism with a Chinese face may yet prove to be the greatest success story of modern history. China’s state capitalism is perhaps more accurately described as national socialism … oops, sorry, Hitler irrevocably poisoned those two words in combination. But let no one imagine that Xi’s latest version will last a thousand years. All fundamentalisms carry within them the seeds of their own decay. Religious ones tend to live slightly longer.
Facing up to the Nazi Past
By 1968, Germany’s cultural revolution had an overriding cause. While East German propaganda falsely claimed to have eradicated the Nazi past, a new West German generation was no longer willing to collude with the stultifying silence around the criminal past of the Third Reich. Their grandparents’ generation had actively or passively supported Hitler. Their parents did not want to be reminded of the role they had played. The economic miracle of the Federal Republic did not suffice to command the allegiance of the student generation. They wanted the nation to face the past and in the process to reform the present. Sophie Scholl and her brother, students executed for opposing Hitler at the University of Munich, became the new models.
Unlike that small minority who were to turn to violence, the Red Army Faction, terrorising West German society in the 1970s, the great majority of 68ers were prepared to embark on the slow march through the institutions. The Free University of (West) Berlin, founded and so named after the War in contrast to academia in the Communist East, began to express the new spirit of change. In Rudi Dutschke, the students found a charismatic leader. He in turn had a Christian mentor, the radical socialist theologian Helmut Gollwitzer who broke with most professorial traditions to become a pastor to the angry students. It was my privilege to study under Gollwitzer before he moved from Bonn to Berlin. To say ‘under Gollwitzer’ is a misnomer. He gathered his students around him, more often than not sitting on the floor to negate the habitus of the traditional German academic hierarchy. This was academia with a difference.
In April 1968 a fanatical neo-nazi shot Rudi. It sent waves through Germany. Rudi survived and sought asylum in England with his American wife Gretchen. I organised their welcome in my South London vicarage. John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, my own bishop, with a reputation somewhat like Gollwitzer’s and a respected New Testament scholar, saw to it that Rudi was given a post-graduate fellowship at Cambridge. Perhaps surprisingly to some, Rudi’s radical politics stemmed from his Christian upbringing in East Germany. He chose the West and criticised it radically. Stalinism appalled him.
Rudi’s passion for changing the world as peacefully as possible did not alter in Cambridge. He remained in dialogue with many from around the world. Some were Muslims. That did not escape the attention of MI5. In a secret hearing at which he was presented with none of the material against him, Rudi was expelled from Britain. The University of Aarhus in Denmark gave him asylum and work. He died there, a delayed consequence of the attempt to kill him. Rudi’s expulsion was an early expression of the irrational fear of Islam. He had talked with the wrong people. In Britain that was enough to damn him.
Did Uppsala Change the World?
The 1968 Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Uppsala, Sweden, in July 1968, marked a progression in the WCC’s life. Moving with the times, the WCC was prepared to embrace a clearer political profile. At one remove from the member churches, the WCC could, as national church councils were also doing, espouse causes that reflected a commitment to human rights. The quest for the unity of church structures began to give way to the pursuit of the unity of humanity. If the word oikumene is descriptive of the whole wide world, that took church councils out of their ecclesiastical comfort zone. Within that zone, reconciled diversity seemed theologically more than just an interim way forward. From that year onwards, the WCC and the Vatican were happy to jointly sponsor the January Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. There remained some cause for penitence. The time for breaking bread together was, and still remains, an unfulfilled grass roots dream. There was talk of the universal peace council that Bonhoeffer had envisioned for all of Christendom. Today it would need to be much wider, embracing all the world’s religions and like-minded people beyond organised religion.
At Uppsala, the controversial anti-apartheid programme to combat racism became the WCC’s prime political commitment. The related Special Fund did not expressly rule out the use of violence. Some member churches fell back uncomfortably on pacifist objections that in no way reflected their theology. The Programme remained in dispute, but made the WCC a pillar of the global opposition to Apartheid.
The South African Council of Churches called for financial divestment by the western churches. So strong were their ties to the banks that they were often paralysed. It happened that I was present at a Synod of the German EKD in Stuttgart, home of Mercedes Benz. Despite the plea of the Bishop of Berlin, the Synod could not see itself confronting the banks.
The ecumenical structures had more freedom to act than many of their members’ churches. In South Africa the powers were afraid, afraid enough to bomb the SACC but to little effect. They bombed the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London too, also to no effect. The British Council of Churches stepped in and offered their own offices. The writing was on the wall. The oikumene had found its role. It took another generation to end the suffering. That prompts the question: can world ecumenism live effectively, now that it no longer has such an undisputed enemy?
At Uppsala there was another innovation: the active participation of the Russian Orthodox Church. Its delegates were there with the approval of the Soviet state. Without it, they would not have been permitted to join. It gave a persecuted Church (though that was unconvincingly denied by the hierarchy) a world platform. Sadly, that effectively silenced any open WCC criticism of Soviet policies. Was that a price worth paying? Once the Soviet state ceased to exist, the Orthodox Church, now embraced by Putin’s Russia, has lost its enthusiasm for the Ecumenical Movement. Western ‘heretical liberalism’ is now seen to be a threat to Holy Russia.
Back in 1968, Metropolitan Nikodim had led the Russian delegation in Uppsala. I knew him well, respected him and often crossed swords with him. He played his difficult political role strictly by the book, but with a twinkle in his eye. He was of Friar Tuck proportions. Though a Metropolitan, he was not much older than I was at 37. He did understand ecumenism and wrote a well-researched biography of Pope John XXlll. In the presence of his successor Pope John Paul I, Nikodim died of a heart attack in Rome. Had he lived, would he still be trusted in today’s Moscow? The faithful loved him. That was obvious at his funeral in Leningrad, which I attended with Bishop Robert Runcie, later Archbishop. I had been refused a visa until Robert, who was representing the Archbishop of Canterbury, refused to go without me. In Soviet Russia, pulling rank usually worked.
The Second All-Christian Peace Assembly
In May 1968 there had been another ecumenical Christian Assembly, this time in Prague. In 1958, the Czech Protestant theologian Josef Hromadka had founded the Christian Peace Conference in the hope of creating a genuinely ecumenical organisation behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. He truly believed in dialogue, rejected the anti-communism of the (West’s) Cold War, and was prepared to play it more or less by Soviet rules. The word ‘peace’ opened doors behind the Berlin Wall. The western counterpart was the word ‘freedom’. Both sides had their propaganda dictionary.
As the East Europe Secretary of the British Council of Churches, I had led a large, unofficial but representative delegation of British Christians at the First Christian Peace Assembly in 1964. Dialogue with the East seemed imperative, with dissidents and with those who were not dissidents. The latter were suspected in the West. Most of us from Britain had come in critical solidarity. By March 1968 I had to pay the price of expulsion. Open criticism was unwelcome.
My friend Jaroslav Ondra, General Secretary of the CPC, flew to London to tell me that the ‘Soviet Friends’ had threatened that he would lose his job if he failed to persuade me to resign from the leadership group. So, I did, to save my friend. All this, early in ’68, happened against the background of something infinitely more important than Church politics anywhere: the euphoric Prague Spring that the Soviets feared and almost everyone else celebrated. It looked for a few months as though ‘Socialism with a Human Face’ could be a dream fulfilled. Not only were the Stalinists afraid, so were the hard-line capitalists. In August, Soviet tanks crushed the dream. The cold warriors had, for twenty-one further years, apparently won. This nightmare was also mine. The ghost of Stalin was back. Dubcek and his reformist Czech colleagues were lucky not to have been murdered, unlike their Hungarian predecessors in 1956.
The CPC was forced to ‘normalise’. Jaroslav Ondra lost his job anyway. The visionary Josef Hromadka was heartbroken and died within weeks. In effect this vision of an eastern ecumenism, not as a rival to the WCC but in dialogue with it, also effectively died with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The western participants nearly all left the CPC, sadly disillusioned.
The Christian-Marxist Dialogue
The Christian-Marxist dialogue was another casualty of the death of the Czech Spring. From the early 1960s, a reform movement within Communism, largely in western Europe but also in Latin America was eager for ideological rapprochement with socialist Christians. That had hitherto been seen as a Communist heresy. Now, among significant Communist intellectuals in Italy and France and in some other western Parties too, the fronts were breaking down. In Latin America, the borders between liberation theologians and radical socialists were wafer thin. Both doctrinaire Marxists and the Vatican remained ill at ease. Nevertheless, Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris had laid the foundations of a different kind of Rome. It had perhaps been too early to bury Cold War attitudes. 1989 was still some way off. The Prague Spring of 1967-68, ahead of its time, was never consummated.
James Klugman was a British Communist Party historian with new ideas, repudiating his former significant role as a Stalinist agent. He and I together edited an anthology entitled What Kind of Revolution? (Panther Paperback 1968), and I edited a collection of essays entitled The Christian-Marxist Dialogue (Macmillan, New York, 1969), a political science textbook. It helped to clarify the disillusion of many Communist intellectuals with their Party hierarchies. Nor did the Christian churches challenge the prevailing Capitalist orthodoxy of the West. The historic betrayal of Jesus by the churches’ alliance with mammon was not and is not news. Dialogue would now be reduced to shadow boxing instead of practical collaboration. Marx survived for another day. Jesus too, though precariously, in ever more secular societies.
The Polish Marxist philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who played a leading role in the dialogue, became a withering critic of Communist power. The disillusion of 1968 was, for him and many others, worse than a mere death blow to the dialogue. His prose poem What Socialism is Not (written after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956) is a burial rite to Socialism betrayed. It was an accurate description of Stalinist reality. Asked, what then is Socialism? One word sufficed: ‘Beautiful!’ I failed to write an appendix to Kolakowski: What the Message of Jesus is Not: The churches as they are.
The Lausanne Movement
Around 1968, before and after, Billy Graham, John Stott and friends were planning (no, I did not think plotting) not another Assembly, but a Movement that was eventually launched in Lausanne in 1974 to embrace the truly converted world-wide - all for Jesus. The Movement has a conservative (I do not think reactionary) evangelical vision that bypasses all church structures. It has a wide (not as uniform as many think) personal appeal. Much wider than the WCC, but narrower too. The General Secretary of the WCC addressed its most recent gathering in Cape Town. This Movement and the WCC could be said to co-exist peacefully. Even though Billy, its prophet, has now died, it will, as it changes, live on. It has a London shrine at All Souls Langham Place. Or, just maybe, in the Alpha World of Holy Trinity Brompton. But, dear reader, at this point my apology. 1968 is not its Holy Year. ‘Dying and Behold We Live’ is not its chosen motto. In Lausanne, numbers counted, as they still do. This Movement sees itself as embracing the actual, person-by-person representatives on earth of the Kingdom of God – no hierarchy needed.
All the Catholic Bishops Conferences of Central and South America met in Medellin, Columbia, in 1968 to proclaim nothing less than a peaceful revolution. The Medellin documents are a public declaration of the social hope of the Christian Gospel. This was a proclamation of the Church’s preferential option for the poor, a commitment to poverty for the sake of the poor, a renunciation of the Church’s own history of domination. The Church would create base communities and live communally. This was to be the official blessing for liberation theology with truth as its foundation, liberty as a sign and love as the fundamental law of human perfection. It looked (briefly) as though the Roman Church was beginning to run with the pure Gospel. There was nothing collectively quite like this in Orthodoxy or Protestantism.
Here, in the midst of grave social and political injustices was a call that led to the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero, of murdered Jesuit priests, of the Church at war with military dictatorships. The intention of all this was to put into action the resolutions of the Second Vatican Council, in particular of the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (1965).
Perhaps Archbishop (he hated titles) Helder Camara got the spirit of this revolution best when he famously said: ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a Saint. When I ask: why are they poor? they call me a Communist.’
Good Pope John did not live long enough. His charismatic Polish successor did not understand. He simply feared Communism. He and his German successor blew the whistle on this kind of liberation. Liberation Theology did not survive in the overground. Rome informally wrote Medellin off and so betrayed the Jesus of the poor. Is there time for Pope Francis to turn the Church back – and forwards? For now, the evangelical charismatic preachers almost have the floor to themselves.
What Future for Palestine and Israel?
In 1968 the Palestinian National Council of the PLO promulgated a Charter which it held to be the basis of a definitive Constitution for an envisaged Palestinian state. This would include the whole territory of the former mandated territory of Palestine. In effect it denies the right of Israel to exist.
Since the Oslo peace accords in 1993, it has been variously stated by the PLO that those sections of the Charter that are not in accord with Oslo should be annulled or are no longer operative. There is no clarity about this. Israel contends that short of a formal Palestinian recognition of the Jewish State of Israel, the threat to its existence remains and hence the necessity of the military occupation of the territory of any future State of Palestine.
The suffering of the Palestinian People under an illegal military occupation and Israel’s fears for its long-term security are both set to continue until sufficient pressure can be brought to bear on Israel and on a united Palestinian authority to agree to the formation of two viable independent states, as determined by the United Nations. Whatever the history may be, both peoples have acquired a right to statehood. Given the political will, particularly by the United States of America, this could be achieved. However, the will has, to date, been markedly absent. The threat to the peace of both peoples remains unresolved.
OF HUMAN LIFE
In 1968 Pope Paul VI in the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, against the advice of a majority of a Papal Commission, ruled out the legitimacy of artificial contraception. Ethically, this is not widely accepted outside the Roman Catholic Church or even in practise among its world-wide laity. This teaching has not, however, been formally elevated to the level of a Roman Catholic doctrine. Teaching and practice remain at odds.
On abortion, there is no Catholic ambivalence. It is root and branch rejected by Roman doctrine. However, the ethical debate has not been resolved nationally or internationally. In Britain, 1967 had seen the first abortion law reform bill. Liberalisation has come to stay. It divides Christians and others in theory and practice, women as well as men. Ireland is a case in point. Whatever the law, terminations happen in large numbers and will go on happening everywhere. Good sex education is part of the answer. Prison, never.
In 1963, while a BBC radio producer, I was able to make a reflective contribution to a national debate that was just getting under way. In a radio feature which won a prize in the US: Never to be Born, I enabled eight women who had all had an illegal abortion, to tell their stories, each very different. Some regretted it, most did not. This was not propaganda for either side but a description of human experience, sometimes, but not always, tragic. Leslie Smith, the empathetic interviewer, deserved the prize, as did each of the brave women. Experience surely trumps doctrine.
In April 1968, in an English Midlands city, a conservative politician who had once been a professor of classics in Australia, tried to light a fire. Let me call it arson. He held black immigration to Britain to be of the devil. In a speech that will not be forgotten, Enoch Powell M.P., this would-be prophet, declared that ‘rivers of blood’ would flow in England’s ‘green and pleasant land’.
They did not, and - pray God - will not. Powell’s name became – for all but an incorrigible few - unmentionable. His Tory Party disowned him. However, to take his warning lightly is to ignore the darkness in many hearts. Jo Cox, a deeply humane young woman, and Member of Parliament was murdered in 2016 in precisely the way Powell had predicted. One murder is not a lynch mob. Not, we must hope, yet. Fear of the stranger and its underlying violence is alive and well everywhere. Is Brexit in England not warning enough?
Some years after that speech, travelling on the London Underground, Enoch Powell sat opposite me. He knew who I was. His reputation was for meticulous politeness. He recognised me and, uninvited, rose to his feet, lifted his comme-il-faut hat and said, ‘Good Morning, Canon’. What should I have said?
Two Americans shot dead, one black, one white.
In 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated, a special word for the famous. So was Robert Kennedy like his brother before him. How many ordinary Americans were shot by other Americans, more black than white, in 1968? I cannot recall the name of a single one. In India, the Mahatma, the other apostle of peace, was also slain. So were millions of uncelebrated Muslims and Hindus, known only to those who loved them.
I dedicate this essay to the unknown victims of hate and fear, worldwide, both before 1968 and since.
The Tragedy of Vietnam
At the heart of this reflection I choose to place the victims of the year’s most tragic war, though I might have added Biafra to the many war dead of 1968. Vietnam, initially a French colonial defeat, became a classic example of an unjust war, of America’s hysterical fear of world Communism.
Agent Orange, chemical warfare, poisoned the land. Somewhere between 347 and 504 children, women and men were massacred in the village of Son My (My Lai) on March 16, 1968. Women were gang raped. Let that be a symbol of America’s and modern civilization’s moral degradation. The classic quote of this War, perhaps any war, is this: ‘We had to destroy the village to save it.’ It all ended in America’s humiliation. A peasant people had won.
After the massacre, one soldier was made the scapegoat. Lieut. William Calley Jr. was sentenced to life imprisonment. He served three and a half months under house arrest. Justice?
What ended the war? Largely the growing revulsion of public opinion to more and more American deaths alongside the impressive integrity of men and women breaking the law, prepared to go to prison in opposition to this needless slaughter. And the iconic picture of a Vietnamese little girl, set on fire by napalm.
Father Daniel Berrigan SJ and his priest brother Philip were the spiritual leaders of the protest. They made the cover of Time. The trial in May 1968 of the ‘Catonsville 9’ who made napalm to burn the call-up papers of men to be drafted, led to their imprisonment. Dan, a poet before he was a priest, went underground before he gave himself up and, as a fugitive, wrote some of the finest American literature of protest. As the papers burned, he said: ‘Our apology, good friends, for the burning of paper instead of children.’
More such direct actions of peaceful protest followed. Significantly, so greatly had public opinion changed, that many juries were no longer prepared to convict these self-confessed law breakers, these prisoners of conscience.
While on the run, prior to his imprisonment, Dan wrote to his fellow Jesuits:
… very few of us have the courage to measure our passion for moral change against the sacrifice of what lies closest to our hearts - our good name, our comfort, our security, our professional status. And yet, until such things are placed in jeopardy, nothing changes. … Unless the cries of the war victims, the disenfranchised, the prisoners, the hopeless poor, the resisters of conscience, the Blacks and Chicanos – unless the cry of the world reaches our ears … nothing changes. Least of all ourselves; we stand like sticks and stones, impervious to the meaning of history or the cry of its Lord and Victim (Berrigan, America is Hard to Find, Doubleday, New York, 1972, p. 37).
Muhammad Ali and the 1968 Summer Olympics
Stripped of his world heavyweight crown, the proud self-designated Muslim fighter said no the Vietnam War. By 1968, 19,560 Americans and countless Vietnamese had died. Martin Luther King, denouncing the war, quoted the great boxer: ‘We are all black and brown and poor – victims of the same system of oppression’. Sentenced to five years in prison, he spent four years out of the ring. His rhetoric improved even though many vilified him. He brought black radicalism into the mainstream. His popularity began to soar. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico he influenced John Carlos and Tommie Smith to raise their fists in the black power salute, endorsing all human rights. Pete Hamill wrote in Life magazine in October 1968: ‘Ali hummed a song in the cold evening air, walking with the bright swagger of a champion. ‘Look at me’ Ali said softly. ‘Bigger than boxing. As big as all history.’ The Supreme Court quashed his conviction. In 2005 he accepted the nation’s highest honour, the Medal of Freedom, at the White House. ‘The American People’, said President Bush (!), ‘are proud to call Muhammad Ali one of our own’.
The Music of 1968
Rock and Roll had had its day. ‘68 was a politicised music scene, the time of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and Peter, Paul and Mary. They held people in their compassionate hands. Bob Dylan had written ‘The times they are a changin’ in 1964 and released an album, of that name in 1968. The anti-Vietnam protests in 1968 and 1969 further popularised ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone?’, composed in 1955 by Pete Seeger and since recorded by countless artists including, famously, Marlene Dietrich in German as ‘Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind.’ The New Statesmen in 2010 counted it among the Top 20 Political Songs. 1968 was also the year of Hello Mrs Robinson, Hey Jude (so much compassion) and The Yellow Submarine. Are the Beatles timeless? Joan Baez was hauntingly in the present moment, and still is. Her magnificently humane and peace-loving interview in Playboy (yes) still deserves an honoured place in my library. It was more than just ‘of its sexualised time’, a time that changed a culture for good and ill. The new music – and that was not new – was also and often excitingly black.
The Power of Prayer
In 1968 the Pastor of an inner-city Cologne church had an idea. Why not harness prayer to politics, or politics to prayer? He started what he called Politisches Nachtgebet: political prayer by night. Dorothee Soelle, much better known as a protestant mystic, was doing much the same thing. It began to catch on in the Lutheran Churches of East Germany, where many people were desperate to influence the politics of their country peacefully. Public protest was only for the bravest few. But would the secret police stop Christians from praying in their churches?
By 1988 this had become a movement centred on the Nikolaikirche (St Nicholas)in Leipzig. The numbers became ever greater. The Pastor, Christian Führer, had become known nation-wide. That felt threatening to the keepers of law-and-order. The police were out in large numbers, not only in Leipzig but in Berlin and Dresden and elsewhere. They did not touch Pastor Führer (his name, just think back, actually means leader…. in Germany not ’39 but ‘89! In many towns the numbers were too great to stay in church. They took to the streets with one motto, one demand: KEINE GEWALT! NO VIOLENCE!
The rest of the story is well known. Candles in thousands of hands lit a political fire that peacefully swept Stalinism from power in East Germany and in much of the rest of eastern Europe. Prayer by night in Cologne had unforeseeable consequences. It brought down The Wall It changed the face of Europe.
Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Transfiguration of Jesus
David was a little boy, my friend Peter Price’s son. He was born in 1945 on August 6, the Feast of the Transfigured Christ. May David never cease to live in the light of the Love of Jesus. May he and I and all of us never forget that on that fateful day when I was fourteen, another LITTLE BOY, as its makers called the first Atomic Bomb, turned to ashes 100,000 Japanese children, women and men. Humanity had entered a new, terrifying age - from transfiguration to disfiguration, from Heaven to Hell.
In my New Zealand home town, I cycled to school in the rain on that fateful day. Even at 14, I was a news junkie. New Zealand time is ahead of Japan’s. I already knew, but I didn’t understand. We asked our physics master to explain. He tried, but we still did not understand. At the end of the lesson he turned back and said to us: ‘One thing I can tell you. Either we now abolish war, or war will abolish us.’
Knowing of this great peril, it was in 1968 that the Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed by most of the world’s nations. No further nations, it stipulates, should acquire nuclear weapons while those that have them, should work towards their elimination. The world still awaits its implementation.
Matters have gone further. In 2017 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. A United Nations draft treaty awaits ratification. It would make the use and possession of nuclear weapons illegal. Between hope and fulfilment, a yawning gap remains.
So, let me return to our beginning. Karl Barth and Thomas Merton, who died on December 10, 1968, Monk and Theologian, were brothers in spirit. They passionately opposed war and nuclear weapons. They understood politics and practiced it. They both loved laughter. And they loved Mozart, Barth famously.
Believing that ‘the root of all war is fear’, Merton wrote to his friend:
‘Fear not Karl Barth! Trust in the Divine Mercy. Though you have grown up to be a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than you might think. There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation.’
Mozart died young. Barth died in old age but remained childlike. I was present in Barmen at Barth’s last lectures. There, in the 1930s he had drafted the famous declaration of the German Confessing Church. It clearly stated that Christians owe allegiance to Christ alone, to none other. The Humanity of God was the title of one of Barth’s last books (1960). He radiated that humanity, and ended his last lecture with a twinkle: ‘I believe with certainty in only two things: first, that God loves us, all of us, and second, that I am not a Barthian!’ Merton would have said Amen to the first. And the Monk, a Mertonian? Thomas, the holy doubter, gets closer.
Are the times now not such, that they cry out for a new Barmen Declaration?
Much left unsaid
Creating a portrait of this one year has been an eye-opener. So much has changed since then; so much augured in 1968, still remains to be changed. The remarkable synchronicities, suggest that history is never just a random chain of events but that there is an underlying human and perhaps more than human set of connections that make up civilisation - or perhaps simply life itself. There are then, to misquote, more things under heaven and earth than 365 days can reveal. Maybe ‘the answer is blowin’ in the wind.’
The Political is Personal: my Postscript
South Bank Religion, the Diocese of Southwark’s avant-guard life style, was alive and kicking by 1968 when Bishop John Robinson offered me my first and only job as a parish priest. He wanted The Ascension, Blackheath to become a place of experiment and innovation. Our parish tried to live up to ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’. The folk poet Sydney Carter (Lord of the Dance) composed and sang The Bird of Heaven at my induction, a paean to freedom. Women were still fighting for the right to be ordained; reason enough for a deaconess to take over the pastoral care of the parish. Elsie Baker was ultimately ordained at 82. Our curate and his wife, full of enthusiasm for Mao’s China, established the Blackheath Commune. A decade later, Bob Whyte had become the Archbishop’s advisor on relations with the Church in China. Symbolically, we agreed to throw away the keys to our beautiful 18th century church, never to lock it by day or night, inviting the men-of-the-road to stay and sleep on the way to or from London. A neighbour, Cecil Day-Lewis, was made Poet Laureate in ’68. He wrote a Requiem for the Living and Donald Swann, the music. The famous ‘how to treat your baby’ Dr Spock, came to denounce the Vietnam War. The racist National Front staged a demo, disrupting our worship. Honoured by their opposition, I refused to call the police, but offered them the pulpit. They declined. While Vicar, I accepted the Chair of Amnesty International UK. In 1981 the parish could hardly fail to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt, when John Ball, Wat Tyler’s chaplain, preached of equality and human rights to the peasants gathered on Blackheath, preparing to march on the King’s Palace. Like the Latin American Jesuit martyrs, he paid with his life. Archbishop Runcie presided at a Mass on the Heath from the back of a lorry to commemorate the martyrs of every age. A passionate South African preacher echoed John Ball’s cry for justice. As a parish, we celebrated radical, holy diversity.