Coin sides and the shape of peacemaking processes

How many sides has a coin? When we toss a coin we call “heads” or “tails” because we assume that a coin just has the two sides. On the toss of a coin we are divided into winners and losers. The winners are able to claim that they won fairly (even though only by chance) and the losers have to suck it up. There are two sides now and both know whether they are on the side with greater chance or lesser chance. The losers’ last chance is to overturn privilege – and the odds are always stacked against them.

The 12 sided thrupenny bit was first minted in 1937

But there aren’t just two sides to a coin. There is another smaller side which nobody calls because it so disproportionately small that the chance of it landing on its edge are virtually zero. But then, who hasn’t spent time standing coins on their edge, and who of us of a certain age hasn’t enjoyed making the old thrupenny bit take its stand on one of its twelve sides (as opposed to its two large sides).

Just imagine twelve sides. That is precisely what our scriptures imagine – with the twelve tribes of the twelve sons of Jacob finding and founding society in the land they were caused to occupy. The early church shared that imagination, counting twelve apostles and replenishing that number when one fell out. The thrupenny bit represents a design to facilitate concelebration, conversation and dialogue – remembering that there are rarely only two sides to any question and that to resolve conflict many sides have to be considered. Sitting round a circular table is to adopt this design. Each person has their point of view, their side, in a facilitative process which intends to iron out the abuses of positional power.

Polyhedron 20 from yellow

Pope Francis, in Fratelli Tutti (2020), suggests the image of the polyhedron as the shape of better things to come. Promoting a “culture of encounter” he writes:

“The image of the polyhedron can represent a society where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreements and reservations. Each of us can learn something from others. No one is useless and no one is expendable. This also means finding ways to include those on the peripheries of life. For they have another way of looking at things; they see aspects of reality that are invisible to the centres of power where weighty decisions are made.”

Fratelli Tutti 2020

Colum McCann underlines how tricky it is to get beyond binary thinking about winners and losers and right and wrong in his novel Apeirogon. The title is a mathematical term for an object of an “observably infinite number of sides” – a shape that reflects that conflict can never be reduced to simple opposed positions. Apeirogon is based on the real life friendship between Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin, two fathers (one Israeli, the other Palestinian) united in their grief for their daughters – both killed in conflict. They both join the Parents Circle Families Forum – a group of people similarly bereaved who unite in their sorrow to press for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Apeirogon: a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. Countably infinite being the simplest form of infinity. Beginning from zero, one can use natural numbers to count on and on and even though the counting will take forever one can still get to any point in the universe in a finite amount of time

from The Apeirogon

And there’s another shape – the circle. The shape of things to come if ever we come to the time of resolution – when there are no sides to join or oppose, when the corners we tend to cling to are rounded off by our encounter with the various truths of any situation. The earth is well rounded as if prepared for peace making.

The Little Boy who bombed the Little Girl: a prayer for transfiguration

I did look for photos to illustrate this post. What I found were so awful and distressing – and what I would have used seemed so trivial in comparison. So I have posted Scott Butner’s photo of the statue of one of the so many tragic victims, Sadako Sasaki – she seems to be beckoning us into her “wishing well”.

Sadako Sasaki died when she was 12. She spent her life praying for peace. A sculpture of her in Seattle (pictured) shows her beckoning us to join her prayer. She was two years old when an atomic bomb was dropped on her town of Misasa Bridge in Hiroshima on August 6th 1945. This little girl survived the bomb but developed leukaemia. She is remembered for the thousand cranes she (nearly) folded before her death in 1955.

Her first crane was made by her best friend when she visited her in hospital and told her about the Japanese saying that one who folded 1000 cranes would be granted a wish. Legend has it that Sadako only managed to fold 644 cranes before she died, and that the other 356 were made by her friends after she died and buried them with her.

Ironically the bomb was called “Little Boy”.

Many people have made the connection between the Feast of the Transfiguration which the church celebrates every August 6th, and this act of disfiguration which took place on that August 6th. People in Japan celebrate August 6th as a national peace day.

Matthew (17:1-13) describes the Transfiguration and how disciples saw how Jesus’ face shone when he was seen on the mountain with Elijah and Moses. This was a meeting of three visionaries which not only transfigured Jesus’ appearance but also strengthened him for his journey to Jerusalem.

Many people will be taking their holidays at this time of year including some who, like Jesus, will be taking to the mountains. Can we pray that they will see life afresh and gain strength for the next stage of their journeys back to work against all that disfigures their own lives and the lives of others?

Besides the Seattle statue there is another in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. It has a plaque that reads: “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world.” That is a prayer of lament, a visionary prayer and a prayer that we may see the world anew.

This is based on words originally written for the Chester Diocesan Cycle of Prayer


To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralises his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

Thomas Merton in Confessions of a Guilty Bystander

Ah Bisto! Conspiracy Theories of Pentecost and Community


People who breathe together, stay together. People who can smell one another create community. The person who holds his nose because he doesn’t like the air that he is breathing is excluding himself from that community.

Ivan Illich reminds us of an old German saying: ich kann Dich gut reichen, “I can smell you well”. It captures well an apect of openness we often miss. We have our eyes and ears open, but rarely do we talk about having our nose open. I can smell you well. For me that adds another sense to the story of the Good Samaritan. Did the victim in the ditch smell so badly that people could not tolerate his smell, and had to walk by on the other side, holding their nose against the stink. With nose open, the Good Samaritan had his arms free to manhandle the victim to safety and recovery.

There is a custom in Christian liturgy called the “kiss of peace“, or osculum pacis – only recovered relatively recently in the Church of England. These days the kiss of peace isn’t so much a kiss as a handshake – very British – but at least it’s touching. Apparently in some places, until the 3rd century, the kiss was “mouth to mouth”, and was a sharing and mingling of breath. John’s story of Pentecost reminds us that Jesus breathed on his disciples, saying “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). They smelt each other well. They shared their breath in con-spiracy. The church formed conspiratorially to be a conspiracy. Illich writes:

“Peace as the commingling of soil and water sounds cute to my ears; but peace as the result of conspiratio exacts a demanding, today almost unimaginable, intimacy.”

Pax board, Early 16th century, in a frame from 19th century
16th century Pax Board from Budepest

The intimacy didn’t last as some regarded the practise as scandalous.  For example, Tertullian (in the third century) was rather worried about possible embarassment to “a decent matron”. The practice got well watered down. By the 13th century, the Catholic Church had substituted a pax board which the congregation kissed instead of kissing one another!

“Don’t imagine you can be friends with people you can’t smell.” That was the advice Illich was given. Friendships and communities develop amongst people who smell each other well, who can breathe in the air and the smell of their friends and neighbours, and who allow their own air and smell to be breathed by others. Friendships and communities are conspiracies – threatened in our de-odourised times of Lynx, Colgate and Ambi-pur where we struggle to smell anyone, or anything, well.

The playground cry “you stink, you stink” marks a cruel exclusion by those who won’t smell a person well – it is often accompanied with the gesture of the nose being held or up-turned. The person excluded has to find their friends who are prepared to smell. Above every friendship, every community, every conspiracy, there is a nose.

lop-sided truth


Channel 4’s drama series, The Promise, proved to be a powerful expose of the human cost of the protracted conflict on Palestinian soil. I was glad of the insight into this tragic (and for me, little understood) history spanning the last hundred years. (How is it so easy to remain ignorant of such significant events?). The story is based on a diary written by Len and held by Erin, his grandaughter. Len is a former British soldier who served both at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and in Palestine, in the tense months before Israel declared itself a state in 1948 when the occupying British army was subject to a sustained and bloody terrorist campaign by Zionist groups. Besides portraying the cruel hard-heartedness of Jewish people trying to make room for themselves and the violent disruption to the loves and homes of the Palestinian people, the series brilliantly portrayed the plight of the professional soldier and his role at the complicated heart of conflict.

The size of the problem! Photo by Jim Forrest

In my enthusiasm for The Promise, I searched for reviews in the blogosphere – just to validate my enthusiasm. I found a review in the New Statesman, complete with outrageous and outraged comments. Comments include “inaccurate”, “anti-semitic” and “one-sided”. It made me wonder how The Promise (or any account) can be other than one-sided. Anyone who builds a bloody great wall – designed to prevent their neighbour seeing over – is destined to be victim of one-sided accounts of history. In conflict there is no middle ground. There is one side, or the other. There is no dis-passionate observer sitting on the fence with a view of both sides. There can be no balance.

There can, however, be peace process. Prophet (and Jew) Amos, centuries ago (a farmer from Tekoa – another Jewish settlement south of Bethlehem), proposed the “swords into ploughshares” policy – an early disarmament programme. “Swords” represent all the paraphernalia of war – its weaponry, its defences and its propaganda – upsetting the balance of truth and jeopardising peace for generations to come. Conflict creates its own insecurity and reverses common sense  – requisitioning the economic tools for prosperity, to melt them down for the savagery of war. We can, even with our one-sided truth, work for this disarmament. Even me, writing this, has declared my one-sided hand in conflict against those who were outraged by the pro-Palestinian stance of The Promise. But I didn’t see the series as an incendiary device lobbed over a great wall of conflict – but as an exercise to expose what is happening. Truth and plight can only be exposed one-sidedly. It is up to us to make it “sword” or “ploughshare”.

Ringing bells with our wishing wells


World Peace Bell
World Peace Bell – Newport, Kentucky

Dan Clenendin highlights in his post, the outrage of outsiders, repeats depressing research findings from America (Kinnaman 2007) showing how 16-29 year olds regard the church. Here are the percentages of people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity:

antihomosexual 91%, judgmental 87%, hypocritical 85%, old-fashioned 78%, too political 75%, out of touch with reality 72%, insensitive to others 70%, boring 68%.

It would be hard to overestimate, says Kinnaman, “how firmly people reject — and feel rejected by — Christians” (19). Or think about it this way, he suggests: “When you introduce yourself as a Christian to a friend, neighbor, or business associate who is an outsider, you might as well have it tattooed on your arm: antihomosexual, gay-hater, homophobic. I doubt you think of yourself in these terms, but that’s what outsiders think of you” (93). This is a far cry from the reception of the first believers, who, according to Luke, “enjoyed the favour of all the people” (Luke 2:47). The church’s message isn’t ringing the right bells for generations of our people.

I wonder if we have forgotten to love our neighbour – that person who lives the other side of the fence with a different lifestyle and set of beliefs. In a fearful culture neighbours are suspect until they prove themselves otherwise  by “coming round” to our way of thinking. The first believers lived a different culture, being sent out to neighbours with the simplest of messages “peace to this house: peace to you” and with a love that was to overcome all sorts of barriers and offences. I wonder if we could ring more bells with more resounding wishing wells to those who now see themselves the other side of the wall – and the wrong side of-fence.

Twelfth Night Tense


Twelfth Night brings the Christmas tree, decorations and cards down, and the world seems to breathe a sigh of relief as life gets back to normal.  But let’s not be too hasty about dis-carding Christmas. Christmas isn’t just for retailers. Christmas is a revelation of our darkness, the depth of winter and the coldness of our hearts. Christmas presents us with guiding light, the promise of peace to thaw our bitterness and hearts that jump from fear to joy.

One last look at the Christmas tree celebrates an evergreen love of the three tenses captured by Dickens in the Christmas Carol. The light of God shone in the darkness (Genesis 1:3) long before there were sun, stars and moon. The light shone and shines in the darkness as our Lord is come. And before too long – just when the time is right – there will be no more darkness or night (Rev. 22:5).

Borg & Crossan, in their book, First Christmas, project a political context for the first Christmas. The darkness was the tyranny of empire with the background being “the day the Romans came” raping and killing in the villages around Sepphoris, including Nazareth. The light has not overcome the darkness. Borg and Crossan rightly point out that empire still exercises its dark powers “to shape the world as the empire sees fit”, achieving peace through war, violence, injustice and oppression. Christmas has its future in shalom – peace through justice, love – and US, because in the words of Augustine: “God without us will not; we without God cannot.”

Here is what Borg and Crossan write as they imagine Mary taking Jesus to the top of the Nazareth ridge:

“We knew they were coming”, Mary said, “but your father had not come home. So we waited after the others were gone. Then we heard the nose, and the earth trembled a little. We did too, but your father had still not come home. Finally we saw the dust and we had to flee, but your father never came home. I brought you up here today so you will always remember the day we lost him and what little else we had. We lived, yes, but with these questions. Why did God not defend those who defended God? Where was God that day the Romans came?” (p.78)


Two of our children bear Thomas in their name. Their grandfather was called Thomas. Thomas is highlighted in our Gospel today. What was he doing on this first day of the week when the other disciples were locked in in fear of the people’s anger? Did he not share the anxiety of the other disciples? Did he have more confidence?

Kate Huey, in the linked article, quotes Michael Williams’s comment about Thomas which contrasts with how Thomas is so often portrayed. He writes: “the only one amonmg the disciples who was not do filled with fear that he was unwilling to leave the disciples’ hiding place.” (see this Sunday’s gospel) Kate quotes Gail O’Day’s observation that “one week after the disciples have been visited by the risen jesus and received Jesuis’ peace and the Holy Spirit, they have once again locked themselves away behind closed doors.” Even after seeing the risen Jesus they still don’t live as an Easter people.

So was Thomas the one didn’t want to be locked away? Was he the one who wasn’t frightened? Was he the free spirit? Have we lost the truth by caricaturing him falsely as “the doubter”? And if he is the odd one out of the twelve? What does he have to say about the rest of them, and the rest of us who are similarly inclined to lock ourselves away (metaphorically) because we fear the people. What was Thomas doing?

Jan Richardson in the Painted Prayerbook has a different take on the locked room – the “secret room” as she calls this painting, and she suggests that every pilgrim needs a secret room.

She quotes Phil Cousineau’s The Art of Pilgrimage who writes this:

“Everywhere you go, there is a secret room. To discover it, you must knock on walls, as the detective does in mystery houses, and listen for the echo that protends the secret passage. You must pull books off shelves to see if the library shelf swings open to reveal the hidden room. I’ll say it again, everywhere has a secret room. You must find your own, in a small chapel, a tiny cafe, a quiet park, the home of a new firend, the pew wehere the light strikes the rose window just so. As a pilgrim you must find it or you will never understand the hidden reasons why you really left home.”

Here is sanctuary and indicates the need we all have for “retreat” for all the times when we have a choice of fight or flight and when fighting seems so hopeless. And does Jesus condemn us for locking oursleves away and trying to save our own skin? It appears not. Because to those first Christians locked in fear Jesus came with nothing other than peace. There were no recriminations for them running away or for their betrayal of his trust. All he does when he gets through their defences – past the locked doors is to “offer them greeting and gift” (Kate Huey) – “Peace be with you”.

> What is Remembrance Sunday about? How has it changed over the 90 years since Armistice Day?
These were some of the questions we looked at yesterday.
Remembrance Sunday remains a day of mourning. One day that we have set aside in our year to remember the victims of war, human nature and its consequences. But our thoughts will not be the same as those celebrating the hard fought peace of 1918.

Significant changes include
• The development of international institutions like the United Nations and the EU – great political achievements representing a cooperative relationships instead of the colonialism of the past.
• War has changed and its weapons have changed. Now civilian casualties are far higher. In WW1 civilian casualties were 5% of total casualties. Now that figure is 75%.
• Communications have changed. We now live in the “global village” where “everyone is networked and nobody is in control” – which makes wars far less winnable. As a child of the 50’s I was told how lucky I was that the wolrd was at peace. Now, because of news media and globalisation, we know that there isn’t likely to have been a moment of our human history when we haven’t been fighting one another.
• We know – especially as awareness of post traumatic stress disorder has increased – that, in the words of Jose Narosky “in war there are no unwounded soldiers”.
• We know more about “child soldiers”. Children as young as 8 are involved in conflicts in at least 17 countries – acting as spies, messengers and brandishing rifles.
• We know that there are over 34 million people displaced by war.
These are some of the things that come to mind as “I remember” – the thoughts for my two minute silence. I carry on remembering the “fallen”, those killed, their loved ones, parents and communities. I remember all those who have been on the front line. I remember the civilian casualties, the child soldiers and the refugees. I remember the violence that is part of being human and I remember that we are made in God’s image – and called to pray:

God our refuge and strength,
bring near the day when wars shall cease
and poverty and pain shall end,
that earth may know the peace of heaven
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(the poppy picture was pianted by friend Pam Kelly – member of St Andrew’s Painters’ Group)

Magic moments

Two chance encounters to report.

Shopping for food someone comes up to me and says “You married us 25 years ago today. We have just been out to lunch to celebrate”. He then brought his wife Julie over to say “hello”. They could have just passed me by and then dismissed the incident with a “isn’t that the bloke who married us?” Thank you Colin for stopping me and allowing me to be part of your celebration. It was one of yesterday’s highlights – and a eucharistic moment.

It was the second of the day. Halfway though our midweek Communion we were interrupted – at the exchange of the Peace – by one of (I presume) our refuse collectors who was asking to use our toilet. It was locked and we had to break from the service while I unlocked (I was the one who knew where the key was). We had as one of our readings a passage which included the words “practise hospitality”.

What was so special about that moment? It was the disruption made sacrament by a stranger who became a brother at that moment – whose work in many cultures and minds makes the likes of him “outcast”. (See Gehenna as example) Refuse collectors are part of our throw away world – what they collect is our refuse, collected into places we refuse to go to or think about. Heaven and earth came together in that moment and the Peace passed all previous understanding into a new realm of meaning. It was also a reminder that those who do rounds need toilet facilities!

[We] live after the central moment of history, the death and resurrection of Christ, which in turn came after creation, fall and the calling of Israel; but [we] live before the final moment of history. the full embrace of earth by heaven, the transformation of the whole earth into a Eucharist.
Sam Wells – God’s Companions p65