Anyone whom Adolf Hitler put a large portrait of prominently over his desk must have a dark side. This is certainly true of Frederick II of Prussia, commonly known as Frederick 'the Great'. A brilliant military general, he took full advantage of his father's consolidation of Prussian military power and became a potent symbol of German militarism, administrative efficiency, duty and enhancement of glory. Among his worst aspects was his treatment of Poland. Indeed, among his the oppressions which resonated with later Nazism, he boasted that he would gradually rid the world of Poles.
The other side of Frederick was his so-called 'enlightened absolutism', which first drew me to him when I studied the 18th century 'enlightened despots' at school. Fascinated by radical thought and a leading sponsor of music, fine architectural buildings and the arts, Frederick was, for example, a notable patron of Voltaire. In some respects he also offered significant religious toleration within his realm, albeit with disdain for genuine religious faith, particular acts of active opposition to Polish Catholicism and with little real time for Jews. Whilst historians argue over his sexuality, with women certainly finding little place in his world, there may be some grounds for seeing positive aspects of homo-erotic life, albeit distorted by power. Aspects of his governance were also certainly forward-thinking, including sponsorship of immigration, recognition of the new United States of America and of the rights of prisoners of war, criticism of hunting, and protection of some plant life.
The ambiguity of Frederick the Great, on so many levels, is partly explained by his context and upbringing, not least the brutality of his father's treatment of him and the deep-seated aggressive insecurities of Prussia as a whole, consequent on the bitter experiences of the Thirty Years War and other catastrophes. Understandable, if typically one-sided and distorted, Nazi enthusiasm for him has meant that both Eastern and Western Germans have subsequently been wary of his legacy. Yet he remains, in various senses, a fascinating figure, both as a symbol of the bad and good in German history itself, and of the human character.
Looking back on 2015, there have been several major events in my life's journey. One was most certainly my visit to Berlin. It was the culmination of 50 years of longing: beginning as a young child when, in the magazine Look and Learn, I read about the beauty and history of the city and its division with the Berlin Wall. The desire was immediately kindled one day to walk through the Brandenburg Gate - in peace and not, like so many, for glory born of violence - and along Unter den Linden (see left, my longing finally fulfilled). The Brandenburg Gate and its surrounds in themselves have enough tragic, and sometimes liberating, history to touch my European and historian's heart for ever. As a history student, I also studied so much German history that led me further to Berlin. For the city as a whole is a symbol of the great human longing for hope and renewal, as well as a location of some of the very worst aspects of the human soul. Reading Rory MacLean's brilliant book Berlin in the months before further deepened my quest. For my closest life partner, it understandably felt at times a 'heavy' city, full of such a legacy of pain and struggle. Yet, for me, it was an amazing, if sometimes chastening, journey at every turn. After all, as a life-long border-crosser, where else could a blessed imp be drawn?
Like her or loath her, Melinda Tankard Reist has made an impact. Listening to her in Toowoomba yesterday, I was struck by the challenge and cost of the activism she lives and calls others into. I would not personally agree with exactly everything she says. Yet she remains one of the foremost contemporary 'pro-life feminist' voices and her grassroots campaigning movement Collective Shout is a lively force against the objectification of women and the sexualisation of girls in media, advertising and popular culture. Melinda is also a powerful encourager and embodiment of activism. Indeed, as the Glennie School and others locally have found this week, she is a particular inspiration to girls and women to stand up for themselves and for the needs of others. Does Melinda sometimes overestimate the negative effects of pornography and over-emphasise prohibition and protection rather than choice and liberation? Perhaps. Does her socially conservative background cause liberal concern? Maybe. How far does she contribute to the deep and thorny challenges of working through shame and honour, economic, cultural and gendered power, and the place of eros, sexual identity and expression in our contemporary world? Feminists seem divided on whether they agree with her or not, and how she contributes to their cause. Yet, whatever her own failings - and all activists have them - all would surely agree that she is an impressive agent provocateur for activism...
When I was younger, I spent much time in the delightful cathedral city of Lincoln, close to where I was raised. That city's great symbol is the Lincoln Imp, found today in its majestic cathedral's Angel Choir and the emblem of my, all too often wayward, childhood football team. About the Imp there are many stories. At the legend's heart however is the transformation of evil into good and the coming together of dynamic playfulness and ordered truth and beauty. Playfulness can become destructive mischief and ordered truth and beauty can become confining. Yet, when entwined in grace they are hallowed and hallowing. Maybe that is part of what John Bunyan meant in my favourite hymn. For life is not about being a hobgoblin or too pious. To be a pilgrim is to become a blessed imp, simul justus et peccator. Just as the Lincoln Imp is transformed at the top of Steep Hill, so may our wayward 'daimonic' energies be transfigured on the holy mountains of our life journeys.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.