In mid-August we took advantage of Kids Week and went as a family to the Apollo, Victoria to see the Stephen Schwartz musical Wicked. Rebecca and I first saw this show in its opening week eleven years ago but not since and the girls had been desperate to see it for quite some time.
For the unaware, based on a novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked tells "the untold story of the witches of Oz" and, in so doing, purports to be the prequel to L. Frank Baum's classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
This then is a story of origins. Along the way, we see how the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow come to be, but mostly it shows us how Elphaba - someone who is essentially good - is made an outcast because of the colour of her skin (green) and declared to be the Wicked Witch of the West whilst Glinda, the so-called Good Witch of the North, becomes a publicity spokesperson for the new oppressive political order. This is a story that turns upside down our lazy assumptions about how things are.
Though clearly a work of fiction based on another work of fiction, Wicked offers us a powerful and stark reminder that history is written by its winners. It reminds us that we can no longer afford to believe that things are the way that they are - or happened the way we have been told they happened - just because that is what we have been taught; that there is always more than one side to any story and that, by delving deeper into history, we might well uncover a richer, deeper version of events.
Dealing with themes of marginalisation because of difference, regime change and the questioning of trust in government leadership, this is a musical for our own troubled times.
I had thought this when I first saw this production in those early post-Bush/Blair Iraq invasion days and still believe it to be the case today - when on both sides of the Atlantic migrants are repeatedly scapegoated, Muslims demonised and now, worryingly, hate-filled far right white supremicistsmarch and murder in the US without the immediate and unequivocal condemnation of its President.
In thinking about the musical's focus on difference, I am reminded of some words once uttered by Fergal Keane, the BBC foreign correspondent, on the first Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2001 - words that have stuck with me ever since.
He said, 'Every time you hear powerful men scape-goating people because of their race or religion you pause for thought. Every time you hear the outsider, the refugee, the minority demeaned and denigrated, you pause for thought. And in that pause, remember how genocide begins, remember exactly where it takes us.'
Recent weeks have seen a number of television programmes broadcast marking the seventieth anniversary of Partition, when India declared independence from the British Empire and was split to create Pakistan and East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. I watched a two part programme by Anita Rani, Partition And Me: India 1947, and wept as I heard story after story of violence, murder and bloodshed amongst people of different faiths who had previously lived harmoniously, side by side. 'How could this have happened?' is a question that I wouldn't have been alone in asking. 'How could people who profess to believe in a loving God act in this way?'
Within days of asking such questions, we were learning of Klu Klux Klan members marching with torches and flying Nazi flags in the US and were coming to terms with further terrorist attacks, this time in Barcelona, Spain and in Turku, Finland. That these crimes were carried out in the name of God beggars belief - but so too does the fact that the primary source of knowledge for the Ku Klux Klan is apparently the Bible. Members of the Klan believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Quite clearly, it is possible for people of all faiths to pervert the central messages of their scriptures.
All of this should make us more determined - as individuals and as a church community - to do all that we can to see past difference and work tirelessly to break down those barriers that exist and divide people one from another and from God. This is what Jesus came to understand his mission to be and this is what, as his followers, we are called to commit ourselves to.
In recent weeks I have found myself returning to one hymn in particular - 'There's a wideness in God's mercy' by Frederick William Faber (1814-1863). I do so because of lines that I believe sum things up perfectly:
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of man's mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify his strictness
with a zeal he will not own.
If our love were but more simple
we should take him at his word;
and our lives would be illumined
by the presence of our Lord.
With every blessing