Be Grateful for Small Wars

“The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light, by a series of perceptible gradations, began to fall upon the map of Europe.”

Such a beautiful sentence, written by Winston Churchill describing how, in July 1914, the attention of Britain turned from the crisis in Ireland to the looming war on the continent.

BBC 4 has just completed a chilling series – five 15-minute programmes entitled “The Month of Madness”, historian Christopher Clarke’s pellucid exposition of the appalling sequence of events which burst like a cataract of blood from the barrel of Gavrilo Princip’s pistol when he assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary.

All Princip wanted was a united Serbia. Bosnia, an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was in fact only 43% Serbian by ethnicity, but Serbian nationalists believed passionately that it belonged in the Kingdom of Serbia. The Black Hand, Princip’s armourers,  thought the assassination would cause a backlash from Vienna which would cause Serbs to rise and throw off the imperial yoke.

What happened instead was a war involving 65 million combatants, caused 20 million deaths and an uncounted number of broken lives, ruined four empires and triggered the Bolshevik revolution.

Objectively, the cause of the war was a chain reaction sucking one alliance in after the other. The Austrians were outraged at the murder of the moderate son and heir apparent to the 84-year-old emperor Franz-Josef. In their eyes Belgrade had done nothing to prevent the machinations of the powerful secretive organisation known as the Black Hand and must be punished.

They asked Germany for support and were immediately given a blank cheque: do what you like, we’re with you all the way. Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia, with no stated objectives and no exit plan.

The Russians had always seen themselves as part of a greater Slavic, Orthodox realm. It was inevitable and obvious they would come to Serbia’s aid. The Austro-Hungarians, records show, scarcely considered the issue. The Germans were more strategic – Russia was in a process of extensive military development and the Germans calculated that war with them, being inevitable, was better fought sooner than later.

France was a close ally of Russia. In an unfortunate accident of history a scheduled Franco-Russian summit took place in St Petersburg early in the crisis. The hawkish French president Raymond Poincaré urged the Russians to ‘be firm’ and, astonishingly, at the formal banquet he raised his glass to toast “the next war.”

Within days, the Russians were mobilising. France followed suit.

The British initially wanted no part of it. But when the Belgians refused passage to the German army to attack France the Germans charged in, something the British could not tolerate; they too, on the 4th of August, declared war.

From complete and unthreatened peace on June the 28th, it took only 38 days for the situation to spiral out of control and cause the Great War.

Why, really? I wrote about the ‘objective’ causes of the war, but they were in fact largely subjective. The real cause of the war, in my opinion, was the thirty years of peace which preceded it. Britain, with  the Boer war recent in its memory, was the lone reluctant party. Military hawks, with powerful armies, will not sit in their barracks forever. To them, a military career that never sees them fire a shot in anger is a disaster, a pointless life. Likewise their political masters, the war ministers (“Defence Ministers”) who deploy them, the cushioned politicians who spend their days with the generals endlessly discussing weaponry and its destructive capabilities and being whizzed around in helicopters, cruisers and jets, ogling the sexy paraphernalia of warfare and making patriotic speeches.

Even I am not immune to the effect of a gun in the hand. Many years ago I was one of a four-man crew conducting a geological survey of the Gibson Desert in Western Australia. I was the cook and logistics person and was often left alone for days while the geologist, his assistant and the mechanic made forays around the area. There was a shotgun. I had never used a firearm. Sometimes, in boredom, I would take it out. Break it open, look down the barrels, fit a cartridge, lock and cock it.One day I was doing this when a crow walked into the clearing in front of the camp.

The crow strutted around in that amiable, cocky manner common to crows. I took aim. And then I pulled the trigger. I was horrified. I like crows. But I had just killed one. Why? Because the gun was such an interesting thing. For its mechanics, its aesthetics, its precision and power. I wanted to use it for what it was designed for.

I feel the guilt of that crow’s death even to today. And if I was susceptible to such a trivial influence as the attraction of a mere shotgun, how much more the hawkish by nature?

So, let us be regretfully thankful, if such a thing is possible, for the Korean and Vietnam wars. They probably saved the planet from nuclear destruction; the generals had drunk their fill of murder and destruction, the populace had witnessed it in horror, and no-one pressed that button.

My thesis: hideous they may be, but small wars kill the appetite for great ones.



The Buddha Christ – Pagola Erects a Lighthouse

A postscript to : That Wondrous Camino. My faith was, as reported, robustly restored by that long walk, but since reading Jesus: An Historical Approximation by Fr José A Pagola, the astounding product of thirty years’ study of everything – historical, archaeological, cultural, philological and linguistic – that can currently be known about Christ, I have acquired a much more nuanced acceptance of the modern church. Among many other of Pagola’s revelations is the clear understanding that the real Christ had no wish to start an hierarchical religion. What emerges is, in fact, astonishingly similar to the compassion-centred teachings of the Buddha. Why am I not surprised?

Pagola’s is probably the most deeply-researched book I have ever read, enriched with footnotes on, I think, every page. Some sections had such impact that I turned back and reread them at once. I began to count his bibliographical references and gave up at 43, covering A to E. Hundreds. His methods exemplify what is being called the ‘third wave’ of Christology, an explosion on multiple research fronts dating from around 1980. The denial of the historical Christ is a dead duck – he is mentioned, among others,  by Jewish contemporary historian Flavius Josephus, by Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and several times in the rabbinical sources which began to accumulate after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD.

From deep linguistic study, scholars are now in broad agreement as to which words in the New Testament can be attributed with confidence to the mouth of Christ. The ‘New Testament’ can be understood to include the lost Q source which shows up in numerous identical fragments in Mark and Luke and the apocryphal Gospel of St Thomas, the latter now considered authentic although ‘tainted’ with Gnosticism.

It is utterly fascinating. Stripped of the redactions of the gospellers, parables appear with new and often different meaning. Luke 8:9-14, for instance, portrays the Pharisee praying in the Temple, thanking God for his virtuous life, as a hypocrite. Jesus intended no such thing; it was perfectly in order for someone to be grateful for the opportunity for righteousness, so important to observant Jews. Luke adds that the humble tax collector beating his chest at the back of the Temple ‘… rather than the other, went home justified before God.’ Not what Jesus was saying at all, apparently.

Another snippet: Matthew, writing around Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple, constantly vilifies the Pharisees. At the time, with the Temple gone and the ruling Sadducees broken, the Pharisee movement was hard at work saving the Jewish faith and culture, bringing them up against the flourishing Christian community. In fact, the Pharisees of Jesus’ time were a disparate, devout ginger group who probably respected Jesus, although they certainly debated with him.

So what emerges from the distortions of the gospels and the outright wreckage wrought by the guilt-ravaged, misogynistic and probably self-hating homosexual Paul? The message can be summed up as what Jesus himself consistently called ‘the good news’ that the poor and the rejected need not be down-hearted because, seen through enlightened eyes, the whole of creation is already the ‘reign of heaven’. (As anyone who has taken mescaline or psilocybin in the right circumstances may have glimpsed.)

This, I  am sure from reading his account in The Seven-Storied Mountain/Elected Silence, is what Thomas Merton experienced during his famous moment of satori on the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets in Louisville Kentucky. Finding no satisfactory explanation  in Christian sources, he found his way to meetings with Tibetan Lamas in Calcutta, became an advocate for a close ecumenical relationship between Christians and Buddhists, and, at an ecumenical conference in Buddhist Bangkok, was apparently murdered. At the behest of what dark hand, we wonder?

Why am I not surprised that Christ’s message turns out to be so like that of the Buddha? At the centre, universal compassion and acceptance. Not so much the destruction as the disregarding of hierarchy, the rejection of rejection. Condemnation of the objectification of women and children.  And a teaching that, to those with open hearts and freshly opened eyes, heaven is already all around us, in ‘the birds of the air and the lilies of the field’. Sin is something to be cast aside, not agonised over, because the state of grace, what he called the father’s mercy, is neither rationed nor earned. The quality of mercy is indeed not strained.

His enemies called him a drunkard and a consorter with prostitutes and tax collectors. In fact, apart from his healing and preaching, these deeply significant meals were his principal activity. To eat with someone, and especially to recline while doing so, was to honour them. Note that he was never reported to dine with thieves and bandits, just the outcasts – the ‘sinners’ of the day. To understand why, we need to understand who these people were.  A wife was merely a man’s property and could be cast aside like any other thing, for any or no reason and without further obligation. Their only choices -beggary, prostitution, or both.

The tax collectors referred to were not swaggering thugs going about expropriating the fruits of people’s labour. They too were social rejects, frequently men who, for one reason or another, had been booted out of the protective family circle and left with neither status nor property.

Their choices – beggary, or a miserable life sitting in a booth on a wharf, or at the gates of a town, taking a cut for Herod, or the tetrarch Antipas in Jesus’ home territory of Galilee. Hounded from above to increase their takings, constantly reminded there were plenty of others who would take the job (sound familiar?), despised by all who passed by, riven by guilt at their unrighteous life.

Pagola’s revelation of Christ’s passionate defence of women is one of a number of areas where he directs us to conclusions impolitic for him, a priest and a seminary professor, to articulate. The Church’s stand on divorce for instance. The sole New Testament teaching against divorce is in Matthew 19: 3-12. Consider what Pagola writes about Matthew and the Pharisees. Now see that Christ specifically repudiates the Mosaic law authorising divorce in answer to a challenge from ‘some Pharisees’. The context is all-important. My conclusion? If Christ said it at all it would certainly have been in condemnation of the brutality of divorce as practised at the time. Imagine – the woman would never have been allowed to take her children, certainly not sons, anyway, who would remain within the extended family. She literally had the status of human rubbish.  Would the real Jesus have condemned a divorce within the framework of fair, judicial property and custody settlement? Of course not. This is one of several inescapable conclusions that Pagola avoids putting into words, but his signposts are large and clear.

Again, when Jesus says, “I come to bring not peace but a sword … to set father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law,” he was not speaking of anything like the families we know, so transformed by two millennia of Christianity. He was referring to roles within a merciless, virtually life-or-death authority structure.

No wonder, in spite of the fact that Pagola’s book has sold more than 150,000 copies, many to Christian clergy who rave about it and convene study groups around it, that Spain’s arch-conservative bishops have succeeded in having it banned in Pagola’s own country. A futile rear-guard action of course – the original Spanish edition had sold 60,000 copies before they got their way. These are the same people who are so entrenched in their defiance of the spirit of the Second Vatican Council that they send out spies to report on priests who share the wine of communion, even those who give the host dipped in wine.

A mad world, my masters. But a glorious one.


Reading Pagola launched me on a difficult journey. Since my return to Christianity I had been nourished by it, relying on the steady, gentle cycle of the ritual year to give balance and continuity to my always chaotic life. In my darkest hours, the final years of my marriage, St Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland had become a second home, a place where I would always be greeted as a friend. I knew that nothing, nothing I could say or do, would ever cause its doors to close against me.
Now all this was thrown into question and it would be painful months before I came to this understanding: whatever the Christian churches may have been at times, or may be now, they embody the authentic continuity of Christ’s primary intention to create communities where compassion, gentleness and worship flourished. Does the modern Catholic/Anglo-Catholic church meet this description? Absolutely, if not uniformly. Settling back into the community required a degree of surrender, a conscious act of intellectual humility. But I’m back. And grateful to be so.

My thanks to the remarkable Fr Michael Elligate, SJ, Order of Australia, of Melbourne University, for the generous gift of his time and the recommendation of Jesus:An Historical Approximation, by José A Pagola, Fourth (Revised) Edition, Convivium Press 2013, translated by Margaret Wilde.

Tale of a Shirt


Sometimes an object becomes so special that it just deserves its own special tribute. This is actually three objects, all of the same design. In 1992 Linda and I went to the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s equivalent of Ascot. While there I bought two identical, expensive white shirts made of Indian khadi (handspun, handwoven fabric, lionised by Gandhi as the quintessential, noble item of Indian cottage industry.) What brilliant shirts! Loosely woven, cool in the hottest weather. I loved them.

Fast forward 22 years. One has vanished, the other is looking decidedly frail. We are off to India when, almost at the last minute, I realise this is my chance to have them copied. Woohoo! Into the suitcase it goes.

Darjeeling, March. Opposite my hotel is a little tailors’ shop – two men wielding ancient machines, with a third, foot-cranked one to cover for the frequent power outages. Tailoring in India is often a Muslim occupation, and I spot a calendar with Arabic writing on the wall. Putting my best foot forward, I greet them with ‘Salaam eleikum.’ Back comes ‘Eleikum salaam.’ A good start.

They inspect the shirt. Yes, no problem. This is good news – the neck and yoke are, despite their apparent simplicity, clever and complex, the reason they sit so well. I want three. Yes, no problem. How much? 350 rupees – £3.50. I’m hardly likely to quibble. How much fabric? They measure, look at me, suggest they might be improved with a little more length, give me a number.

Off I toddle to the Government of West Bengal khadi shop. Bizarre. In spite of Gandhiji’s emblematic khadi being, like mine, loosely woven and white, there isn’t a single length of white fabric in the shop.

Down to the bazaar. Nope. Nobody sells white khadi, or anything that looks like it. One particularly friendly trader suggests that ‘Sa’ib might find this an acceptable choice’ and shows me incredibly fine, soft, white, almost transparent pure cotton fabric, doubled over on the roll, i.e. very wide.

“Hmmm. Perhaps. What is it?”

“Bed sheeting, Sa’ib.” It’s perfect.

Because of the double width, he recalculates the amount needed. I huff and puff my way back up the mountain, gasping in the thin air, to the tailors.

“Atcha. Good. But not enough for three.”

I’m not up for another climb. Living here in my 20s, even as a weed of a junkie just released from three months lying around on starvation rations in a Thai prison I never suffered from the altitude. Now, 65 years old and fit, it’s exhausting.

“Is there enough for two shirts, one with a double layer?”

He brightens; clearly thinks this a good idea.

“Yes, Sa’ib.”

Two days later I pick up three shirts of the same design – one single weight, one double weight, and the skilfully repaired original, thrown in gratis.

An entirely lovely transaction.

Three weeks later I am in Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago. What am I wearing? The double-weight shirt. It’s superb – soft but strong, warm in the sometimes chilly early spring, breathes better than any synthetic, dries quickly. But comes back with a blue stain across the back from my back-pack. I treat it with a product for whitening ladies’ underwear, which replaces the blue with a yellowish stain, which I treat with a good soak in bleach and voila! – a spotless white shirt again.

This is not the shirt in the picture. That is the single-weight version. Back in England, in a heatwave, I walk in it, charging up hill and down dale at 7 km/hr, my daily regime since the Camino and the reason I have gone from a 38″ to a 34″ trouser size and from intermittent depression to persistent cheerfulness. It is once again a brilliant garment. I can wash it, hand-wring it, hang it on the line for ten minutes and chuck it on again, its residual dampness dispelled by my body heat in minutes.

What a complete, simple pleasure it is to have these shirts. No-one would look at them twice, but they are gorgeous, swimming with history, precious beyond rubies.

I love them.