Justine Huxley writes about the potential for crisis to reconnect us with what matters most. Can we use crisis to strip away what is false and put us back in touch with the values fundamental to human life? Where will we find the courage to walk that journey? And crucially, can we undertake it across divides, not just with those who share our politics, our culture, our racial or faith identity, or our views on the EU?
Eighty years ago, the city of Coventry was targeted by the Luftwaffe in the second war and endured a night of relentless bombing. Imagine how it must have been for the survivors emerging from their air raid shelters into the dawn of a new day, to find a ruined city. Thousands dead. Thousands more injured. Thousands of homes destroyed, and in the heart of the city centre, the cathedral rendered a roofless, smoking pile of rubble. There must have been immense shock and loss and trauma in that moment. We know from the survivors’ stories that the first few days were characterised by stunned helplessness, but it didn’t take long before the citizens of Coventry bravely began to pick themselves up, and to organise. We know that Coventry’s very close knit community worked side by side, ignoring the usual boundaries of class and background, and pulled together in a time of great need.
It was then that cathedral provost Richard Howard spoke his powerful prayer “Father forgive…”, words which called for Divine redemption beyond any notions of who is labelled victim or perpetrator. These words later played their part in inspiring Coventry’s focus on reconciliation and the Community of the Cross of Nails of which St Ethelburga’s is a part.
What would it be like to stumble out of those air raid shelters – not into an autumn morning in 1940 but into the world of 2020? Would we feel a different kind of shock, or experience another form of loss or devastation? In this new era of ‘great dying’ we are losing 150 species to extinction every single day. Our oceans are full of plastic and our soils depleted. The global pandemic we are navigating is also not separate from that ecological breakdown since zoonotic disease is linked to the destruction of natural habitats.
Emerging into the landscape of 2020, would also be to find division. Very different from a world war perhaps, but there are tensions we could not have imagined eighty years ago. In the place of a secure national identity, we have tribes and culture wars and are rapidly losing the ability to communicate with each other across these camps. We saw the US elections reveal dramatic fault lines, and although the picture here is complex (as the recent Britain’s Choice report demonstrates), we have our own fault lines in the UK. Real tensions are also inflamed and exaggerated by a miasma of fake news and a world where social media algorithms and echo chambers have the power to determine what many of us believe to be fact. In some parts of the world, there is also real concern that this potentially toxic combination of ecological collapse and intensifying polarisation could lead to authoritarian leaders taking control.
As with the citizens of Coventry, the enormity of it all can sometimes feel paralysing. Unlike in the blitz however, there doesn’t appear to be a single enemy towards which we can direct our fight. This is about everywhere and everyone. It’s about us. We are all complicit in harming our Earth, and it’s increasingly difficult to speak from a place that transcends division. Our leaders commonly adopt fighting metaphors to galvanise us, but such metaphors fail us when the enemy is ourselves. How then do we gather ourselves for the huge effort needed to tackle the profound social and ecological danger we are now in?
One of St Ethelburga’s core principles is to seek the opportunity that lies at the heart of crisis. Could one opportunity be to use this collective confrontation with our own mortality through the threat of climate breakdown to rediscover what is most essential to human life? Could we use it to see beyond these divisions and rebuild a sense of shared values?
When it comes to climate, interacting feedback loops mean that we don’t know for sure if it’s one minute to midnight or one minute past. If we face that knowledge with courage, if we allow the possibility of devastation all the way in – it can deeply change us. It can enable us to discriminate between what’s important and what is just surface noise. We can use it to strip away what is false and put us back in touch with what is most essential: the values fundamental to human life.
Where will we find the courage to walk that journey? And crucially, how can we undertake it across divides, not just with those who share our politics, our culture, our racial or faith identity, or our views on the EU. At the present time, we have all too few containers for dialogue capable of holding the twin truths of climate breakdown and societal division. There are new skills needed to hold us in relationship as we move beyond denial and paralysis to face the challenging reality around us. Those skills must also enable us to consciously reach out to those whose worldview may be an anathema to us – to begin the tough, demanding work of digging beneath the surface to reveal what binds us together as human beings. It is only from that place of hard won unity that we can work together or stand any chance of a future.
What’s more, that unity cannot just be limited to the human realm. We are also called to reach across the divisions and self-created hierarchies that separate us from the wider web of life. Our oldest and most damaging echo chamber is the one that arises from only listening to other people. Just as we need to facilitate dialogue that seeks out shared values across all forms of diversity, we need ways of coaxing ourselves back into what Wendell Berry called “the Great Conversation”, a deeper communion with all of the natural world, an ancient/new knowing of reciprocity and our true place of belonging as part of the living, sentient being of Earth. We need to remember how to listen to that Greater Whole, as well as each other.
Perhaps in the face of the impossible, we can find a way to come together, as the people of Coventry did eighty years ago. Covid-19 has shown us that we are capable of more, that we care, and have not forgotten how to prioritise the vulnerable. Perhaps from somewhere in the depths of our hearts, in the farthest reaches of our diversity, and with the weathered wisdom of a year in lockdown, we can summon a new kind of courage – a spirit of resilience that can enable us to pull together rather than fracture further in the face of hardship – a spirit that can help us dig through the rubble with our bare hands, and forge a radical new unity in the wreckage.
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This blog was drawn from a talk given to the Community of the Cross of Nails on the 80th anniversary of the Coventry bombing. With thanks to CCN for our long-standing fellowship and collaboration.