Martin Palmer is a fearless, theologian, broadcaster, translator, environmentalist and to some fundamentalist Christians in the 1980s a forerunner of the Antichrist! Palmer is not afraid to speak his mind on religious, ethical, environmental and historical issues and appears regularly on television and radio. He has advised eminent world figures including The Pope, and has worked with The Duke of Edinburgh on environmental projects. A passionate religious scholar and committed Christian, Palmer has written or co-written several seminal books, including translations of Chinese texts, and The Dangerous Book.
In 2018 his translation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms was published by Penguin Classics. He has also worked with UNICEF and the UN and leads FaithInvest, an international organisation which advises faiths on moving their investments to more sustainable, environmental and ethical opportunities. The son of a Bristol vicar and agnostic mother who worked in psychiatric care, Palmer for a short time turned his back on his vicarage upbringing. His father knew that ‘God was love’ but his growing son never understood why, so in the typical fashion of a questioning young man set out to debunk the whole thing during his A-Level theology studies. He said: “We moved to Swindon when I was 15 and I became an atheist, I think when you grow up in a vicarage you have to become an atheist at some point because you’ve got to move away in the same way that you leave home.”
Martin wanted to study Geology at A-Level but was unable to take the course because of a lack of interest among his peers. At that time he was ‘terrible’ at languages, so opted for Theology in an attempt to debunk the religion which had underpinned his childhood. He said: “I took theology having no idea what it was and fell in love with it. I went into it as an atheist and came out of it as somebody who realised that there was a voice there that I could not get rid of. When I went into it we were studying the synoptic gospels and I thought great, I am going to bring historical and literary criticism to bear on these texts and show there is no Jesus, that this is all fake. I went in to demolish the gospels. I thoroughly enjoyed myself stripping back the stuff, but in the end, there was a voice I couldn’t ignore. And then almost as soon as that happened Godspell the musical came out. That was very influential to me too because it got away from the stained-glass window Jesus that I have never believed in.”
Before taking a place at university Palmer travelled to Hong Kong, and it was there that he learned the Chinese language, sparking in him a love and passion which shaped his life forever. Palmer went on to study Religion and Theology at Cambridge University and later travelled to China, and so his career began. He incorporated his love of the natural world, his fears for the future of the planet and his understanding of world religion into his work.
A recent project was creating the Education For Sustainable Development Tool Kit, which was launched by the UN through UNICEF. Palmer and his team created the first-ever faith-based toolkit, to help motivate and inspire religious groups through gratitude. Palmer believes that the most pressing issue when it comes to our environment is our lack of gratitude and the perception of doom and gloom which he believes is unhelpful. He said: “The environmental movement has become like a bad religion, and a bad religion doesn’t give you hope, it tells you that you are sinful, wicked, bad and awful. And the only hope you have is if you join this peculiar sect that will then tell you exactly what to do and think. We should start by being thankful that we live on this amazing planet. When was the last time you heard a conservation group talk about thankfulness?”
For many years Palmer has advised and sought support from some of the most powerful religious and secular leaders in the world. And credits challenges from childhood with his ability to adapt and get the best out of many different types of people. He said: “We grew up on a council estate on the outskirts of Bristol and that was very formative for me because at home I spoke like this (well-spoken accent). I remember when we moved there when I was five, and after a week in my primary school, I realised that I was going to have to speak differently and I was going to have to swear. And so I adapted, and one of my friends who is an anthropologist always says that’s why I can work with different religions because I grew up in two different cultures. That was quite challenging. The reason I will be meeting with them is because they share some aspects of my passions.
Whether that is for faith or the culture of China. Or environment, history or religion in general, there is always a reason we are meeting. I was brought up by good socialist parents who treat everybody the same, and very often my approach is to use a lot of humour and that’s quite a surprise to some people. It was quite a surprise to The Pope, and it was quite a surprise to Prince Philip, but he can ‘outhumour’ me, we have had some long joke-telling sessions. None of which we should probably repeat!”
But, sometimes even master communicators get starstruck, and one religious figure got the better of Palmer, in an event which would lead to a long friendship. He said: “Only once have I ever been completely flustered, I’ve met the Dali Llama, I’ve met the heads of most major religions and so on. But I was flustered when I met for the first time someone who became a beloved friend. This was Kushok Bakula Rinpoche the 20th reincarnation of the Buddha’s disciple Bakula, and he was a royal prince from Ladakh in Northern India. He had been one of maybe five Buddhist MPs in the early Parliament of independent India, and then in 1989 when he was already quite old, he asked if he could be made the Ambassador to Mongolia because Mongolia was still then a Communist country, and his tradition of Buddhism which is essentially Tibetan is the same as Mongolian Buddhism so I thought ‘great I’ll go be the ambassador and this will mean maybe going to one formal dinner a week, the rest of the time I can sit in their national library which has the only surviving copy of the full Mongolian Tibetan sacred text and I can study’. Within six months of arriving Communism had been overthrown, the leader of what had been the Communist Party had become a Buddhist while studying atheism in Moscow, invited Kushok Bakula to become the head of the Buddhist movement in Mongolia and within six months there were 600 monasteries and temples! So I was going to meet him in about 1992, and for various reasons, he was back in India, so I agreed to meet him in a very simple hotel in Delhi, and all my Buddhist friends said ‘This is the real thing’, this is the most astonishing man. So I went up and we were sitting and having a nice cup of tea and I was lost for words! “I said, ‘It’s wonderful to meet you how are you?!’ and then thought ‘how are you?! How lame is that!’ Anyway, he doesn’t speak any English so he has a translator, and the translator starts translating this and I was thinking ‘Oh no please don’t let’s start again!’ Anyway, then there is this long reply! I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, he’s got cancer, he’s about to die, what have I said? What have I asked?! Have I just asked the 20th reincarnation if he’s not feeling very well?! Then back comes the reply, and the translator says: “We are enjoying this life. Not as much as the 13th, but considerably more than the 9th! And then we became the best of friends!”
Palmer is not afraid to speak his mind and has garnered criticism from many evangelical Christian groups and detractors for his forthright views on the meaning and value of faith. When he translated Jesus Sutras, the oldest Chinese Christian text, Palmer’s depiction of a generous form of Christianity which absorbed and re-understood itself away from Judeo-Christian language and saw itself primarily Daoist with an element of Buddhist, he was branded overzealous by some. As well as being denounced in books and evangelical newspapers for his environmentalism, and multi-faith outreach, protestors tried to set fire to Canterbury Cathedral with Palmer and delegates inside at a multi-faith event.
During this time Prince Philip broke royal protocol to write an article which went into The Times and Evening Standard in his defence. When speaking about those who criticise his work, Palmer said: “The first time that happened to me was in 1987. In 1986 with Prince Philip, I’d done this big event in Assisi which was the first time the major religions came together with all the major environmental groups. It was an amazing achievement, it was extraordinary because we were live on 81 national television stations that day including China. Which was fascinating. Then the next year I went to Berkeley in California to give a talk at a conference on Christianity and ecology, at the great theological college there which is a very liberal one. And when I arrived at the airport they said ‘we do apologise but we are going to bring you in via the service entrance’. When I asked why they told me that there were 500 people outside protesting about my talk! They were fundamentalist evangelicals and they disliked me because I work with other religions and I am a Christian, they say you can’t be a Christian if you work with other faiths because you should be denouncing other faiths. The second reason was because I believe in saving the planet, and they believe that the Book of Revelation is coming true. The Book of Revelation is a terrifying depiction of where we are headed, and in certain circles then, not so much now, it was believed that therefore Jesus would return quite soon and that trying to stop the destruction of the planet was stopping Jesus from coming back. So, I was labelled a forerunner of the Antichrist which quite frankly was a little bit disappointing, I wanted to be the Antichrist, not somebody’s bloody forerunner, how wet is that!
I am not mainstream by any stretch of the imagination, and that does rile and upset people.”