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.
Tony (not in the photo left!) was one of my wonderful old Gateshead clergy colleagues. He used to threaten or promise (depending on your viewpoint) that when he retired he would stand for Council as a true left-wing Christian Socialist, and generally kick over the traces like our shared holy ratbag guru Jesus. Sadly Tony died before he could make good on that intention. Yet he remains an inspiration to me, not least because, for all his faults, his heart was true and he loved his people and his God. He also never gave up, even when it might have been far more convenient to do so. Every time I hear the words of Chumbawamba's Fade Away (i don't want to) I think of Tony and resolve never to fade away, albeit not necessarily as a left-wing politician/activist.
Now I don't have a problem with those who live in quiet retirement, particularly not those who are an immense source of prayerful strength and gentle kindness in Toowoomba! Possibly God, or life, will also have some way of turning me also into a prayerful watcher at a later age, like my near namesake the formerly chaotically activist Lincoln Imp. I will wait and see. What I do know is that I am not alone in not wanting to fade away Arriving at retirement age, uncle David for instance (that is his photo above) has recently struck out in a new direction, taking on a new charge as chaplain to the Anglican community in Warsaw in Poland. Putting aside any possible concern - he is my last surviving uncle! (and delightfully warm and encouraging to boot) - I am impressed. It is an exciting new responsibility but not one without its challenges, and not just those of the Polish winter and language. As Pope Francis has this week observed, Europe is full of much angst and the European Community has lost much confidence in its founding principles of human dignity and international unity. This is a concern both for Europe's minorities and for its poorer peoples, not least the Poles. The Anglican Church in continental Europe is often in a significant minority. This is certainly the case in traditionally deeply Roman Catholic Poland. Yet the Anglican presence is an important one for international understanding and solidarity, as well as in offering opportunities for worship and support for emigres (including growing numbers of African Anglicans) and others. I am therefore following my uncle's next vocational step with great interest, rejoicing that he at least has not settled for simply fading away - as if...
For more about the Anglican Church in Poland, go to http://www.anglicanchurch.pl
and to follow the Rev David Brown, go to http://revdavidbrown.com
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.