Posts Tagged ‘History’

The (very) long view of history.

April 24th, 2017

Many moons ago, my son was presented with an essay title for his History GCSE, which was on the causes of the First World War. He decided to talk to me about it.

The immediate cause was, of course, the network of alliances which had grown up between European powers which was intended to create a sort of detente, a situation where no-one could afford to be aggressive because of the likely invocation of alliances bringing in the then “big players”. History records, of course, that an agression by one of the more minor players, Serbia, via a terrorist act, resulted in the whole structure being mobilised – as were troops all over Europe. This is beautifully lampooned in a joke comparing the whole thing to a bar fight. Current commentators worry, not without reason, about minor players like the Baltics and Ukraine drawing Nato into a world conflict in the same way.

Looking to expand his appreciation of the broad sweep of history, I encouraged him to think about why there were competing ethnicities and religions in the area, and we traced that back by stages. His eventual essay (which got him an A*) stopped at Trajan’s Dacian wars – he was probably sensible in not going all the way to where our discussion ended, something like four hours after we started.

However, we didn’t stop there in conversation. The Dacian wars were at least in part caused by population pressure from the east. It was thus one of a series of waves of pressure on Europe from that direction, as tribes moved west over the whole area from Mongolia to the borders of Europe, each pressed by those to the east of them. Sometimes, the more eastern tribes actually managed to conquer and form alliances well enough for their members to arrive in Europe itself; the Huns were the first, followed by the Mongols; the Turks were another. In Trajan’s time, however, the Dacian movement was a knock-on effect. The Dacians were pressed by those east of them, such as the Scythians.

Why, we asked, did this set of waves of migration actually occur, and why hadn’t they happened earlier in the history of the Roman Empire? My best guess at this rested on climate change. Where there was a relatively wet, cool period, the homelands of the more eastern tribes and their natural raiding areas (largely China) became more fertile, producing an increasing ability to support population. The period in question was marked by a set of cycles of cool wet weather followed by warm dry weather, though, and when it turned warmer and dryer, the population in the east couldn’t be supported there any more. At the same time, warmer, dryer weather dried out the immense areas of marshland along the Dnepr river (including the well known Pripyat marshes) and lesser ones along the Don and Vistula rivers. What was, in wet weather, a hostile landscape for horse-warriors became plains which were ideal for large mounted operations, and effectively created a highway all the way through to the Balkans in the south and Germany in the north. It wasn’t just Europe which suffered this way; the Middle East had its own waves, for example that under Timur Leng which ended the golden age of Islam, that under Ghengis and Kublai Khan which replaced the native Chinese empire with a Mongol one for centuries, and that under Babur which founded the Mughal Empire in North India.

The ultimate cause was, therefore, changes in climate, which interacted with the predominantly horse-oriented nomadic culture of the eastern part of north Asia to produce very massive population movements.

I’ve been reminded of this by reading a New York Times article on how climate change produces migration. We focus a great deal when talking about Syria or Yemen on political issues, but the map at the beginning of that article makes clear the unacknowledged fact that from Syria down into the Arabian Peninsula, climate change is affecting the ability of the land to support population, and that is going to produce increased competition for the increasingly scare resources, wars and both economic migrants and those fleeing war and civil disorder. The same goes for a swathe of land through Sudan to the horn of Africa, and for areas in central West Africa as well, those being the source of much of the migration trying to cross the Mediterranean from the more Western points such as Libya. Americans should notice the intensity of red dots in the north of South America and in Central America.

Rome, of course, eventually collapsed in the fact of these waves of migrants, unable to stem the tide; the Goths, Vandals and Franks were pushed (largely by the Huns) westward, and took down the civilisation in the Western Empire; in the Eastern Empire it was the Turks in a later wave who dealt the coup de grace, though there had been an earlier Arab expansion (which I can’t connect to climate change, but which may well be another instance) which had done immeasurable damage first.

We’re a lot stronger than Rome was in Europe and America, of course. But we should perhaps wonder whether we can actually get away with merely building a wall along the Mexican border and fences along the long European border to the east. The Chinese had a frontier-long wall as well…

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The value of a life in “The Bridge”

August 23rd, 2015

Following my previous post, which dealt with boundaries we draw when considering moral issues, and attempted to problematise where we draw some of those boundaries, I watched an episode of “The Bridge” which brought up some linked thoughts.

I hasten to say that I don’t usually enjoy having to read films and TV programmes (the series is in Swedish and Danish with subtitles), particularly when the language is close enough to my own to keep making me think that if I listened just a bit harder I would understand it (I live in a part of England with a lot of dialect and accent influence from Scandinavia), but I got sucked in by a somewhat bizarre start point (which got more bizarre before the end of the first episode) and by the interplay of two detectives with hugely different characters, one of whom is “a bit diferent”.

In that episode, the background is that an apparently socially conscious serial killer has kidnapped a bus full of schoolchildren and has promised to let them go, but on the condition that buildings belonging to five companies all of whom profit from child labour (in effect, slavery) are burned (slightly complicated by the fact that the perpetrator has identified them only by what they sell…). This becoming public, various people duly go and commit arson, and there’s a nailbiting finish as there’s a fire at a chocolate factory moments before the deadline runs out, and the box saying “chocolate” winks out; in the newspaper offices where this is being watched, a cheer goes up – and the viewer is inclined to cheer with them.

The thing is, even in that episode, you have to think that the background is that everyone dealing with those companies has been contributing to child slavery; why is it that five schoolchildren of the same nationality have to be in danger of dying in order to focus people’s minds on the destruction of the lives of many more children in other countries? Why do we think that very significant acts of arson against private property should be celebrated, and do we think that those five children’s lives are worth enough to justify this criminal behaviour? Why especially as, in order to save a little money ourselves, we have been buying from the slave-labour companies?

Earlier episodes, in fact, highlighted the lack of concern of many people to the death of several homeless people, an immigrant and the ambivalence of the slow, public death of a very violent robber and bully by the draining of his blood.

One cannot avoid thinking that there’s huge concern about five children, but very little about those homeless people, an immigrant and the violent guy. We may, perhaps, say that all life is sacred, but we act as if children are more valuable than adults as long as those adults are people we don’t identify with or who aren’t of specific economic benefit to us (there’s an issue in a later episode about how a rich guy who has killed someone by drunk driving has got away with it, for instance). We act as if the mere fact of the life of a child is valuable, but the quality of the lives of a greater number of children is not.

In fact, we seem to think that children, including the unborn, have infinite value (as long as they’re fairly much like us), but adults have a specific financial value, and those who are socially marginal have little or none. At least, we do outside the realm of the UK courts, where the value of a human life is routinely assessed based largely on earning potential; this tends to result in fairly low figures for infants, whose earning potential cannot be assessed. Things are somewhat different in the US courts, where damages are assessed by juries; I’ve occasionally suggested that as the value of a life is incalculable, the States puts a mind-blowingly high value on it, while the UK basically says it has no value in and of itself, just what it can be predicted to provide for others in the future.

In fact, things are different in a lot of other places and cultures, from the far lower amounts which some systems allocate to any lives to those which are still operating (if not notionally, then on a cultural level)  according to the kind of rules which operated in Biblical times, when children were basically of no value at all until they’d reached the age of a month and were a possession of their father thereafter until some arbitrary age when they were decreed adult (if male) or married off (if female) – or even those of still earlier times when unwanted children were just discarded, exposed to the elements and the local wildlife which was in those days generally entirely capable of eating a baby or three.

We also seem to have an elevated view of the character of children – “innocents” is the watchword there. I don’t think this is due to Jesus’ statements in Matt. 19:14 or Matt. 18:3, either; both were largely ignored in the notionally Christian western Europe until at the earliest the early 19th century. However, psychological studies seem to demonstrate that the very young are fundamentally sociopathic narcissists, who think only of self (once they form the idea that “self” is not continuous with the rest of the world) and are born manipulative; my own observation of children doesn’t disagree. Only later do a sizeable proportion become socialised and fit to be regarded, in my eyes, as fully human. Some, of course, avoid this socialisation and become criminals or company executives.

We then proceed to have a confused idea of when to promote people to having full adult responsibility. Not infrequently, we allow teenagers to fight for us, but not to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco; ages of consent for sex vary vastly depending on what country you are in, as do ages of legal liability for criminal offences and ages when the punishment of offenders is upgraded to “adult”. In this week’s Global Christian perspectives, Elgin Hushbeck bemoaned the fact that we allow teenagers freedom without responsibility, but we also impute some of them with responsibility without freedom. It is hardly surprising that many of them seem confused as to what they actually are!

It seems to me that we are operating by taboo when we so protect the very young, a taboo which I think was born of Victorian sentimentality (which, on the good side, also ended child labour). We are not operating logically, nor are we operating out of the Christian value of valuing life irrespective of its utility to society or conformity with social norms. What motivates us is taboo, prejudice and, sometimes, xenophobia. This really will not do.

Personally, I think this is an area in which we have to make hard moral choices, as indeed some of the cast of “The Bridge” are presented with. We could say that the mere existence of human life is a good so great that anything else should be sacrificed in comparison. In that case, we would also, in order to be rational, have to forswear capital punishment, war and lethal force in self-defence or even law enforcement. I suggest that rationality would also demand that we then also collectively provide for every human life within our society to at least a basic level, say level 2 (so that both physiological and safety needs are provided for everyone); maybe even level 3, providing also for love and belonging. The mere presence of life, it seems to me, is not sufficient when that life is going to be, as Thomas Hobbes put it “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Alternatively, we can attempt the extremely difficult task faced by the courts in cases of civil actions for wrongful death, and value every life as dispassionately as we can. And if we do this, as the experience of the courts shows, the very young and the very old have very little value.

What price the busload of children under that paradigm?


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Dentists, lions, symbols and Satans

August 10th, 2015

Some readers who connect via facebook will already have seen a link, but I can announce that every Friday at 7.00 UK time, 1 pm central time, I am co-hosting Global Christian Perspectives with Elgin Hushbeck at Energion, so those who are interested can see me and hear me as well as reading me. Elgin is from the States, and tends to the conservative by US standards, whereas I’m from the right hand side of the pond and the left hand side of almost everything else, which means we fairly rarely agree about anything. Each week we tend to have one or two guests to add a little more interest to what might otherwise just be left and right locking horns and struggling mightily to no great effect!

So far, at least, the format is that for the first half hour we talk about a number of topical news stories, with a Christian spin, and for the second half hour we look at something in a little greater depth. On Friday last week (31st July) the topics were the Planned Parenthood videos, the banning of the GMO Golden Rice, Cecil the lion and, for the last half hour, whether government or the market is the best solution to problems.

Obviously, ten minutes each with three speakers isn’t much to explore topics which can have many levels of significance, so I thought I’d delve a little further here.

My position on Planned Parenthood is that yes, the videos make me feel squeamish – but then, so do most surgical procedures, and feeling squeamish isn’t a reason to ban something; it is by no means clear to me that the Biblical witness is univocally against abortion, particularly bearing in mind the injunction to stone disobedient children to death in Leviticus – clearly, the Biblical view of the value of the lives of the young, even after birth, is not the one we tend to have today.

Once you have a situation where there is living tissue from a dead human being (or proto-human being), the issue as to whether you can “sell” it is an entirely different one from whether the death should have occurred (and I’m reasonably satisfied that “sell” is not an accurate term; reimbursement of expenses would be more reasonable). I can see no good reason in Christian thinking not to allow the use of such tissue to save or ameliorate the lives of the living. Yes, some of those videoed were talking in a rather crass and insensitive manner, but we’re talking about medics here, and just thinking back to MASH indicates that this kind of talk isn’t exactly unusual, though in MASH it was enlivened by being funny. If there’s an issue to my mind, it’s that in the States parts for transplant are a commodity, and one worth considerable amounts of money – and that isn’t the fault of Planned Parenthood, but of a system which puts a price on everything.

On Cecil the Lion, my main comment was that there are at most around 30,000 African lions, while there are over 155,000 American dentists. I highlighted that we should be good stewards of creation, in accordance with Genesis 2:15 – I could equally reference Psalm 50:10-11 and point to animals as God’s personal property; the fact that lions are an endangered species promotes their importance. Yes, I note arguments that the public reaction was greater to the killing of Cecil than to (for instance) reports of the killings of individual humans, which was broadly Elgin’s point. There are, of course, over 7 billion human beings – and the numbers do not mean that we should therefore treat human lives as worth very little, whether in comparison to a lion or in comparison to (say) their ability to earn large amounts of money.

Both of these items raised issues of where we draw lines. In the case of abortion, it is clearly possible to take the position Catholicism was taking some years ago, and suggesting that contraception was evil as it prevented the possibility of conception (“every sperm is sacred” as the Pythons put it, a view which few non-Catholics here regard as anything other than ludicrous). There’s Biblical backing, perhaps, in that Onan was condemned for refusing to impregnate his deceased brother’s wife, in accordance with the good Biblical principle of levirate marriage. Once conception has taken place, most places which allow abortion take some point during the pregnancy, often an estimate of when a child might be born viable (which presents problems as science allows earlier births to survive), as being a cutoff time. Historically, the moment of actual birth has been chosen as an easily established one.

Once born, until relatively recently in history, children were not regarded as full human beings until some point when they were considered mature, and as late as the early years of the 20th century this was reflected in UK law in that the killing of an infant by its parents had to have a separate offence of “infanticide”, as no jury would in those days convict a parent of murder; the stoning of the disobedient child is part of a spectrum in which lines have been drawn at various points historically.

All this goes to show that, to my mind, there is no absolute way in which we can determine where the line should be drawn which is not subject to objections.

How about the line between human and animal? Might Cecil in fact be worth more than an American dentist?

This might seem far more obviously not the case. Some commentators have described Cecil as a “feral cat”, which is accurate, if misleading by omission, but strongly argues thinking from an absolute divide between human and animal. However, having referenced Genesis 2:15 earlier, let’s turn to some following verses, Gen. 2:19-23. We might consider whether these show animals as in principle of less worth than women; it is Adam’s choice, not God’s, which makes the distinction here.

The master Biblical passage for both of these is, of course, “thou shalt not kill”, which is more accurately “don’t murder anyone”. The trajectory of interpretation has meant that just as children have become increasingly protected, so have we moved in the direction of taking this more as “kill” than as “murder”, and I note that as “murder” is a legal term, “child-murderer” for someone performing an abortion in a state which permits abortion is inaccurate, as it isn’t murder, but a lawful killing. I do consider it ironic here that most of those who consider abortion to be child-murder have no problems with the death sentence or with killing in war, both of which offend “do not kill”, even if not “do not murder”.

The thing is, by many standards, an embryo is a lesser being than, say, a dog or cat. It’s thinking capacity is smaller, it’s physical abilities vastly inferior and its ability to survive unaided is zero. Yes, it has the potential to become an independent human being which animals are never going to achieve, but potential is not actuality (otherwise “every sperm is sacred” becomes entirely serious).

We do very commonly value some species over others – those who bemoan Cecil’s death would no doubt be markedly less concerned about other species; among mammals, for instance, it is difficult to elicit much human sympathy for rodents; snakes are not well regarded, and when it comes to insects and arachnids, we are inclined to swat them without a second thought. As for bacteria or viruses – no-one would weep were we to eliminate Ebola from the face of the planet. Or, at least, almost no-one, as no doubt there exist a very few microbiologists who would feel that the elimination of even that species was a loss.

I actually think that this trajectory of interpretation is a good one, as my mystical experiences, breaking down all divisions between myself and the other, vividly makes clear to me that in a fundamental way I am one with all other organisms within that-which-is-God; that God is immanently present in all these other forms of life, and that killing them is in a sense a crucifixion. Yes, even Ebola.

To kill anything is a wrong. In that sense, I’m pro-life – but I’m more pro life-with-quality than I’m in favour of creating lives with no hope and no prospects. I don’t think that lives should be a matter of “pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap”.

However, I am wholly sensitive to the fact that there is no way I can exist on earth without killing things; meat or even vegetables are formerly living, and even were I to turn fruitarian, I cannot continue to live without the deaths of countless bacteria and viruses which, even if I take no antibiotics (and I would have died many years ago had I not), are daily killed by my immune system. I am equally sensitive to the fact that there is a spectrum of living organisms and that choices must be made on where lines should be drawn between what I would not kill, what I might kill in certain circumstances and what I would in general kill without too much guilt. That leads me, on abortion, painfully to decide that we probably set the dividing lines in about the right places in the UK at present.

The standard retort at about this point is that I’m a moral relativist, which seems to be in the eyes of some an argument-clincher. It’s probably accurate. I am, however, confident that everyone is a moral relativist to some extent. Those who draw an absolute line as far as abortion is concerned at conception, I find, often tend to temper their “do not kill” with “except in self-defence”, or “except in a just war” or “as a punishment for heinous crimes” – and that’s equally relativism. A line drawn in law ends up having exceptions – there’s an old legal maxim that “hard cases make bad law” and I have rarely found a law to which some bright individual couldn’t find a circumstance in which, morally, the law should be broken – and those where I think I have found one are probably awaiting a slightly brighter person to propose a counter-example.

It has to be a greater crime (or sin) to wipe out a whole species than one member of an abundant one, and the closer you get to that last member (or, more accurately, to the point at which the breeding population drops below viability) the greater the crime becomes. Thus, I am not surprised to find people making more fuss about Cecil than about poor Zimbabweans – there are a lot of poor Zimbabweans, and the supply of more is not in peril.

That brings me  neatly to a second point, the suggestion that the real fault is with the Zimbabwean authorities who did not prevent the hunting of an endangered lion, or (to stick with the poor Zimbabweans for a moment) who did not provide for Zimbabweans well enough to ensure that hunting an endangered lion would not be an attractive prospect, given enough money. The dentist paid a LOT of money to hunt Cecil, and in Zimbabwean terms, that was a fortune which was going to circumvent any legal restrictions.

Now, Cecil is also a symbol for other endangered species which we have already allowed to become extinct, commonly by hunting them to that point. The Dodo, the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon are well-known examples, but there are very many others – and all those who haven’t been hunted, but whose natural habitats mankind has removed or rendered unlivable. I think we need to take into account that symbolic position when understanding the distress over Cyril.

However, the dentist is a symbol as well; a symbol of the ability of very rich people (and he would qualify as very rich by Zimbabwean standards) to overcome governmental principles, to buy their own “justice”. We adverted to this somewhat in the section regarding markets -v- democracy, and Elgin’s book “Preserving Democracy” laments the ability of money to subvert at least the US democracy while suggesting that the market is a better way of promoting human wellbeing than are governments, as he did in the show on the 31st.

Cyril stands as an object lesson that markets are not a good way of promoting the conservation of endangered species – it was clearly very economically sensible for the hunters to lure Cyril out of the protected reserve so he could be shot, given the amount of money available. Markets also, of course, decree that a human is commonly worth more as a set of carefully preserved body parts than as a whole human being; this is the case in the States, evidenced in the Planned Parenthood vidoes; it isn’t so much in the UK, as the UK decided some while ago that body parts were not a commodity to be bought and sold at profit.

Markets certainly have no regard for human beings just in themselves – if there is any value, it is in what they can produce, and that means that those who for reasons of personal capacities social acceptablility, education or sickness are unable to produce much are not valued at all. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are among the categories whom Jesus commanded that we put first.

Markets can be regarded as a kind of impersonal force, not subject to the same temptations as are given representatives in a democracy, and, indeed, that is how they generally function. We all contribute our little piece of supply or demand, but there is no individual human oversight – and, of course, no point at which compassion or human feeling can creep in; the market is predicated on the greed of sellers to get, if possible, a high price for very little good and on the greed of buyers to get, if possible, a great deal of goods for a very small price.

It plainly does not work to produce anything remotely like fairness, or even a balance between seller and buyer. Unrestrained capitalism rewards money with more money and punishes lack of money with forced purchases of the necessities of life at whatever price the seller wants; it tends in the direction of monopolies and cartels, where the sellers can dictate the price (and the wages they pay employees) irrespective of any principle of reason. It concentrates money in fewer and fewer hands, and thus concentrates power in the same way. In particular, it concentrates money in multi-national companies which have profit as their only motivation (not making a bigger profit tends to get you fired when employed by one of them…)

The love of money, says Jesus, is the root of all evil; power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Voltaire said. Voltaire was notoriously anti-religious, but Jesus before him shockingly said “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”. Market capitalism says “blessed are you who have much money, for you will be given more”.

Is there any room for surprise that, in an earlier GCP show, I called market capitalism a Satanic system? It is one which we all do our little bit to create as long as we participate in society, and is contrary to human flourishing without allowing us clear moral choices. Clearly it must be restrained, and the only thing we have which can restrain it practically is government. Where that government is democratic, it has the merit of being one in which we all have a say. (The alternative, of a widespread movement to not cooperate with the system, seems to me doomed to failure, but I mention it in passing).

For those outside the States, it is probably also true that the USA is currently seen as the preeminent representative of the corrupting influences of money and power, and so our dentist manages also to be a symbol of that. Up to sometime in the early 20th century, my own country had managed that distinction for rather over 100 years, gaining in the process names like “perfidious Albion” and song lines such as “we were bought and sold by English gold; such a parcel of rogues in a nation”. This is, I suspect, at the root of various ayatollahs describing the States as “The Great Satan”. They confuse the symbol with the system, to my mind.

One might almost think that having the words “Novus Ordo Seclorum” on your Great Seal was an acknowledgement of the intention…



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The multinational in “Wolf Hall”

March 8th, 2015

The excellent series “Wolf Hall” has recently finished on the BBC. Here’s a link (at least for a while!) to an interview with Mark Rylance, who plays the central character, Thomas Cromwell, and the director, Peter Kosminsky. I find a section from Kosminsky at about 22.30 (noting that at the time Wolf Hall is set, Christianity was about the same age Islam is now, and was beheading and burning people on a regular basis over small differences of religious interpretation) particularly interesting to reflect on, given all the news about ISIS, but this is just one among many ways in which I think we can find lessons in the history of the period.

The series majors on personal relationships in the Tudor court, and brings home wonderfully the ever present atmosphere of danger for those trying to operate in and exercise any influence in an atmosphere where failure tends to result in execution. As a result, the parts dealing with the really major political and religious development of the period are somewhat underplayed. Henry VIII is seen as instituting the takeover of the church in England by the state as largely a means to get his way in being able to divorce and marry as he wishes without being dependent on the Pope, and the economic and political implications are not stressed as much as they might be.

These were, however, of huge importance. At the commencement of Henry’s reign, the church was governed from Rome, and the Pope and his favoured monarch, then the Emperor (as the Hapsburgs were Holy Roman Emperors and also rulers of Spain at the time) could dictate a significant amount of policy. Henry’s declaration that he was head of the church in England was calculated to bring this influence to an end; the conflict with Thomas More which is dealt with in Wolf Hall stemmed from this, More considering that loyalty to Rome as a Christian took precedence to loyalty to Henry as his most important minister (Chancellor). The implications for today, when we are prone to consider Muslims suspect as potentially having an allegiance to an outside power which is potentially inimical to the interests of our nation are obvious, though we are inclined to forget that only a small minority of Muslims actually support the Islamic State, while at the time all Christians unless they had undercover sympathies with the followers of Luther were potentially suspect.

The church also, primarily through the monasteries, had control over vast tracts of land in the country – and by and large this was exempt from taxation – as churches in many countries still are. The extent of this control had concerned English monarchs for many years; Edward I had in the 13th century passed the Statutes of Mortmain (the term translates literally as “dead hand”) to try to limit the increase of these estates. The form of taxation on land (which in those pre-industrial days was by far the principal form of wealth) was on succession, and the monasteries didn’t die, come of age or become attained for treason, so no taxes. Of course, control of the land was also in the hands of bodies which were a kind of corporation, and the ultimate authority for them was abroad – often immediately, as many monasteries were part of a larger grouping the mother houses of which were abroad, but in any event with the ultimate authority being the pope.

In other words, the monasteries were the multi-national corporations and offshore residents of their day, largely immune from tax (and so from contributing to the common good of the state in which their wealth worked for them) and from the control of the state. They also, of course, provided no soldiers in times of war, the concept of the “fighting cleric” having happily fallen into disuse by then. While, of course, Henry VIII was an autocratic ruler and regarded the public purse as his own, nevertheless out of it he did provide many of the benefits which a more modern state offers its citizens, most notably defence and law and order. There was, to be fair, some primitive semblance of democracy in the form of the House of Commons (lower house of parliament), but at the time this had a largely advisory role.

My last post criticised trickle down economics. By and large, however, it was talking of individuals from whom wealth is supposed to “trickle down” and doesn’t. It “trickles down” even less from corporations, even if these are actually resident in the country where their wealth is produced.

There is thus a problem for governments very similar to those faced by Henry (and earlier kings). Henry’s solution was to dissolve the monasteries and confiscate their assets, which gave him the significant bonuses of a major one-off boost to the treasury and the ability to cement the loyalty of some of his supporters by grants of land often at knock-down prices. He and his son Edward who succeeded him also confiscated a sizeable amount of church valuables, also swelling the treasury and, incidentally, returning into the then money supply significant amounts of gold and silver which had been outside that system for some time (an analogy would be of corporations retaining large cash reserves which are not invested).

As an aside, he achieved this by votes of parliament; this proved to be a significant move in the direction of power being vested in parliament, albeit a relatively small one. That said, within 100 years, parliament was flexing its muscles and ordering the death of a successor king (Charles I).

I think there is also at least an argument that the freeing up of land (and thus effective capital) and production may have been the single most important factor in allowing the country to experience the world’s first Industrial Revolution, which was in its infancy shortly after the repercussions dealt with in the last paragraph started to subside, i.e. the early eighteenth century.

I have strong doubts that anything similar to Henry’s action could be attempted in the case of multi-national and corporations now without consequences even graver than those the country faced under him and his successors – years of instability as rule switched from pro-Rome to anti-Rome monarchs and back, eventually culminating in revolution and civil war 100 years later; political isolation from the largest powers in Europe and interruption in trade with them and with their colonial possessions; a paranoia about loyalty of those expressing religious views not in tune with the current norm, which took until at least the late 19th century to reduce. Offshore corporations as vehicles for tax avoidance, however, are a significantly easier target, as are expatriates who still make most of their money in this country. Should the attempt be made, however?

The answer “yes”, of course, assumes that we regard democratic nation states as a better repository for power and control of capital than we do corporations (or multi-national religions organised on an autocratic basis). Or, indeed, in the case of offshore tax-avoidance corporations, individual very rich people. Henry’s semi-autocratic England was perhaps a better repository for this power than was the monolithic Catholic Church of the day, but the nation became a far better one as it became closer to a democratic ideal over the next 350 years or so.

Not necessarily the easiest question to answer, and one which I think I’ll come back to…



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Trickling down.

February 28th, 2015

It has become abundantly obvious in recent years that “trickle down” economics doesn’t work. Here’s the redoubtable Elizabeth Warren voicing it in respect of the States; the Thatcherite revolution here has produced exactly the same phenomenon. In both countries, the concept that if you give the rich tax breaks, these “wealthy creators” will distribute the money and it will naturally flow down to the lowest levels and thus benefit everyone has been demonstrated not to work, not just not to work well, but not to work at all. We have had a thirty year experiment, and this is a failed theory.

What has happened is that the rich have become substantially richer and everyone else has become relatively poorer. Both the States and here have managed to produce the fabled “rising tide” which is supposed to lift all boats, i.e. the economy has improved. The only boats which have lifted have been those of the rich, strongly indicating that there’s something deeply wrong with the metaphor; I’ve seen it suggested that it wrongly assumes that we all actually have boats – in which case I’d comment that the working class have no boats and are drowning, the middle class have boats with a huge hole in them and are bailing like mad just to avoid drowning.

Unfortunately, there will be some people who read this blog who will still agree with, in the States the Republicans and in the UK the Conservatives, and say that we just need to get more money into the hands of the rich (or the bankers) and suddenly the theory will work. I have also heard it said that the definition of insanity is keeping doing the thing which hasn’t worked time and time again and expecting the result to be different this time (this is a twelve-step concept, so addiction may be a factor here…). I have no idea how to persuade these people otherwise; they seem to think the theory is so neat that it has to be true, no matter what the evidence shows.

In passing, I have my own theory, which is that “trickle up” economics is what actually works; if you give the poor tax breaks, or a living minimum wage, or better benefits, given a little time all the surplus money will be back in the hands of the rich anyhow. This is not, of course, to say that taking this to extremes (for instance raising minimum wage to some ridiculously high rate or taxing the rich 110%) would work; it almost certainly wouldn’t, though Sweden did manage to operate with marginal tax rates that high for quite a while.

For completeness, I mention that Karl Marx predicted many years ago that trickle down economics would not work, and it seems that in that, he was right. However, his competing economic theory has also been tried, and there’s absolutely no evidence that that works either.

However, it strikes me that there is something which does obey the “trickle down” principle, and that is unmerited good fortune. Every so often a story goes around about someone on the streets who is given something and who promptly gives some or all of it away to others. The picture of the winning gambler who expansively treats everyone around him is a cliche, so often does it happen.

This fortune doesn’t have to be in the form of money or things, either. I know that (for instance) when I’m driving and someone lets me into a stream of traffic, it’s far more likely that I’ll then let others into it in my turn. Small acts of kindness have a tendency to replicate themselves.

In the Lords Prayer, we thank God for our daily bread, and one implication is that this is given to us by God rather than something we earn. A well-known hymn says “All good things around us are sent from heaven above, so thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all his love”. I contrast this with the ideas of libertarian economics, which revolve round the “wealth creator” keeping everything they create, anything else being an infringement of their liberties by “the state”. In the Christian view, we are the lucky recipients of the grace of, among other things, our daily bread; in the libertarian view we have created the wealth to buy it, and woe betide anyone asking us to be grateful for the ability to have done that or to spread our good fortune around.

As another aside, there is a strong positive correlation between feeling grateful and feeling happy, which comes close to making me feel sorry for the Libertarian!

Now, as it happens, I do not eat courtesy of handouts (though I have in the past for a while), and I could take the Libertarian view and say that I’ve worked hard and “created the wealth” on which I’m now living in semi-retirement (although to be fair, I have inherited a fair amount of it…). Yes, I have worked hard, but I had a number of entirely unmerited advantages. I was born with a reasonable intellect and without serious physical or mental impairment. I have always had family money on which I could if necessary call. I have been lucky in being in the right place at the right time on occasion, and in having contacts which have opened opportunities and friends who have supported me in difficulty. None of that has been “worked for”. There are countless people who have worked just as hard as I have or much harder and who have far, far less than I have. People who have not received unmerited good fortune. People who are not intellectually agile, or relatively healthy, or from a well-off family, or blessed with some amazing friends, or who have just been unlucky. Oh, I’ve had some bad luck as well, and I didn’t work for that either, and as a result I’ve been in some difficult times and I’m not in quite as wonderful a situation as I might have been in, but broadly I’m OK, and I’m lucky to be that way.

So I’m happy to have some of this good fortune trickle down from me, and if the government (which is representative of the society in which I live) wants to make some of that trickling compulsory, how can I remotely complain, when I don’t deserve it in the first place?

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24) “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Justice and mercy tend to go together, and mercy is akin to graceso I will pray “let mercy and grace roll down like waters”, rather than just trickle down.

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Dissenting is dangerous.

June 30th, 2014

In 1534, Henry VIII of England famously separated the English church from Rome.  As I learned this originally, there were two main reasons: firstly, he wanted an annulment of his marriage (in order to remarry and hopefully have a suitable heir) in circumstances where the Pope wouldn’t allow him one, and secondly he saw the money and land the church held and thought it would be better in his hands than those of the church. Neither of these is, in and of itself, a particularly laudable objective, though the dissolution of the monasteries was significantly more justifiable than might meet the eye, as very many of them suffered from the same kind of faults as Martin Luther had earlier complained of in the Catholic church in Germany. There was, however, another important reason, which was that England was becoming increasingly oriented towards the ideas of the Reformation. Without that, Henry would doubtless not have felt able to take this step, nor would he have been likely to succeed.

The result was, of course, the Anglican Church. Britain has since that time had an “established church”, a national church, but one which as a result of missionary and colonial activities is now a lot more than just a national church, although in England it is still exactly that, and Elizabeth II is its titular head.

That said, it is necessary for some of my readers to underline the fact that this was not a takeover of the nation by a religion (i.e. a theocracy), it was a takeover of the national religion by the government. It’s not quite an unique occurrence – Hitler, for instance, effectively took over the German churches as a national protestant church (which they already de facto were), although in fairness Hitler didn’t declare himself the head of his new national church, so Henry is as far as I’m aware unique in that respect, at least in the last thousand years or so.

The Nazi takeover resulted in a fair amount of opposition – the Confessing Church, of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a prominent member, is an example. The same was not immediately the case in England, for a number of reasons. Firstly, England was fairly insular with respect to continental Europe by this time, and the Pope’s refusal was (in part rightly) seen as being for reasons of international politics – he wanted to keep the Holy Roman Emperor happy. Secondly, reformation ideas were growing in strength in England, largely at this point within the church, and separation from Rome was not seen as all that bad an idea. Thirdly, Henry very sensibly kept the outward appearance of things virtually exactly the same, so the impact on “the man in the pew” was minimal.

I should here stress that in effect every nation in Europe at the time had a national church. In France and the south of Europe this was the Catholic Church, in northern Europe it was one of the Protestant churches (largely Lutheran, some Calvinist) which were by and large specifically national churches. There was no thought in Henry’s mind of detaching the state from religion, in this case specifically Christian religion. There was, however, plenty of thought of detaching himself from the awkward position of having a national church of whom the head was a foreigner, and a foreigner with a state of his own (the Papal States in Italy) and with interests which were distinctly different from those of England. In theory, therefore, the Pope could command the Catholic faithful not to obey the government of England (i.e. at the time largely Henry, as parliament did not then as yet have much effective power) and be obeyed. In fact, the Pope did just that, and was by and large not obeyed.

The situation changed under Henry’s successors. Henry was succeded by his son Edward, who was significantly influenced by advisors who were impressed by Luther and Calvin, and there started to be major changes which “the man in the pew” could see. Duffy’s “The Stripping of the Altars” is a magnificent, if somewhat lengthy and slightly Catholic-biased account of this process. Now there started to be serious unrest, with significant support from Catholic interests outside England, of course at the instigation of the Pope. There started to be significant persecution of those who opposed these changes.

Edward was succeded by Mary, who was Catholic, and sought to return the English Church to obedience to Rome. Now there was unrest in the opposite direction, and significantly more persecution. Mary married Philip of Spain, the premier Catholic monarch, and there was substantial resulting interference in England by foreign Catholic interests. Her sister Elizabeth I succeeded her, and reversed the process. One result was an attempted invasion by Spain at the instigation of the Pope (the Spanish Armada), foiled in part by English seapower and in part by the weather.

The common factor between all these monarchs was, of course, that supporters of whichever was for the time being not the national religion were seen not just as followers of a different faith, but insurrectionists and traitors in the pay of a foreign power (the foreign power in the case of Mary being the German protestant princes). Under Elizabeth, the Act of Uniformity was passed in 1558, imposing significant penalties for non-attendance at Church of England services; the general direction taken by Elizabeth was to have the Church of England steer a middle path between the Catholics and the more liturgically minded Anglicans and the Lutheran, Calvinist and Anabaptist influenced individuals and groups who wanted to have a far more puritan aspect (as had to some extent been seeming the likely movement under Edward). This was felt oppressive by the puritans, some of whom left for the liberal state of the Netherlands. Of course, as history shows, Holland was far too permissive for their taste, resulting in the voyage of the Pilgrim Fathers and the foundation of the Plymouth colony.

It is, of course, ironic when set against the common myth of foundation of the USA that they were fleeing not repression in England, but a liberal state in the Netherlands, and that they did it with the aid of a land grant from England (which stipulated that they do not make their dissenting type of religion that of the colony, which they of course proceeded to do). In addition, although they were not exactly “persona grata” religiously (full toleration of nonconformists would only happen in 1828), the extent of actual persecution was minimal by the time they crossed the Atlantic, although the penalties for non-attendance at church were not formally relaxed until 1662.

James I (formerly James VI of Scotland) followed without too much disturbance, but he was succeeded by his son Charles I, who was a distinct Catholic sympathiser if not actually Catholic (he had married a Catholic). That is not the only reason why the English Civil War broke out, but it is a more serious contributing factor than is commonly accepted, as most histories concentrate on Charles’ fights with parliament and the issue of who was paramount, king or parliament. Among the factors leading to Charles’ attitude was the concept of “divine right of kings”, which had grown up in the Catholic monarchies, which were very autocratic compared with the parliamentary monarchy even pre-Civil War. A Catholic monarch, it seemed, was absolute.

The result was the Interregnum, which lasted for 11 years from 1649, mostly in the form of the Commonwealth (not to be confused with the current British Commonwealth of Nations). During this period, religious radicals had significant sway, the Church was forced into an even more radical mould than during the reign of Edward, and among other things public music and dancing was forbidden and the theatres closed for a time, following the puritan ethos. On the whole, England wasn’t much in favour of this, and on the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the church was reestablished as well, in pretty much its former configuration.

Over subsequent years, the Church of England became increasingly a broad tent, much as Elizabeth had envisaged, under the requirement to be a church for the nation, the nation being disparate. Nonconformists became progressively less disadvantaged until they were largely the equals of Anglicans; it took rather longer for the animus against Catholics to subside (after all, the Armada had attempted invasion, and a Catholic plot had attempted to blow up parliament and the king). As late as 1780, there were riots in London at the concept of relieving some of the constraints on Catholics, and even in 1829 (the Catholic Emancipation Act) not every restriction vanished – it would take until the closing years of the century for that to be the case. Even then, for me, growing up in a Nonconformist household, there was some suspicion of Catholics even in the 1950s and 60s.

Let me underline a few salient points from this piece of religious history of England. First, whatever else the monarchs (or parliament) did, there had to be a state religion, and that had to be some species of Christianity. This was the case everywhere in Europe, and had been from about the sixth century (earlier in the areas which formed part of the Roman Empire). It was the case even in the religiously very liberal Holland of the 16th century onward. This was a relic from the days of Constantine, who adopted Christianity as the religion of Empire. England was perhaps unusual in that it had a monarch at the head of its church, who would hire and fire bishops (thus avoiding the more or less perennial conflicts between rulers and their national churches which bedeviled a large amount of Europe through the first 1500 years or so after Christianity took root). However, from a dispassionate point of view, this was fairly close to what Constantine had effected. The former non-violent and radical church of the oppressed and marginalised became the church of empire and domination, developed a theory of “just war” and had its symbol, the cross, carried in front of armies from Constantine onwards. Some of those armies had the specific purpose of attacking other religions or other branches of Christianity – this happened in England during the Civil War and on a few occasions after that, but the nadir was no doubt the Crusades, with special mention for the Fourth Crusade (which ended up sacking Constantinople, the centre of the Orthodox Church) and the Albigensian Crusade, which more or less wiped out the Cathars, considered an heretical sect, and with them the tolerant and vibrant culture of Southern France (Languedoc). However, all of the crusades had the overt intention of killing Muslims, and if a few Jews were killed as well on the way (as they usually were), that was by no means contrary to the objectives.

Secondly, as soon as you have a state church, other religions or sects become a threat not just to the religion but also to the state, as thousands of Catholics and Protestants in an England which swung between the two over 100 years or so could testify (or in Northern Europe more generally during the wars of religion). They become not just heretics of unbelievers, they become traitors.

The chief sufferers from this in Europe throughout the fifth to the twentieth century were however the Jews. Although this culminated in the Shoah (or Holocaust) in Nazi controlled Europe between 1939 and 1945, persecution of the Jews was endemic throughout Europe during the whole period. Judaism was, of course, a religion without a home after the Romans sacked the Temple in 70 CE (and particularly so after they banned Jews from Judaea after the Second Jewish rising of 135 CE), but it had been under foreign domination for most of its history even in Palestine, whether Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek or Roman. Indeed, during the “Babylonian captivity” it subsisted principally in the large proportion of inhabitants of Judah forcibly transported to Babylonia.

Now, I must stress that in my analysis following, I do not in the slightest condone the treatment of the Jews by any of these imperial powers, especially by Christianity. While the Shoah was carried out by a government which was not particularly Christian (arguably it was anti-religious and merely used religion as a tool towards a purely political end), it was the culmination of sixteen centuries of persecution of Jews by Christians within nations which had some form of Christianity as their national religion. Without that history of persecution, it would probably not have occurred. In addition, the vast majority of those actually carrying out the orders were at least nominally Christians.

That said, the way in which Judaism survived as a religion (and the Jews as a people) was to preserve and accentuate their difference from the nations into which they were scattered (or earlier in which they were imprisoned, or which had included them in their empires). It has been a remarkable achievement, against forces of assimilation (sometimes forced assimilation) and coercion, frequently involving massacres, of which the Shoah was merely the largest and near to the last.

This strategy, however, brought on itself the inevitability of Jews being easily distinguishable as “different” from the people around them, and those who are different have long been targets for others. As we have seen above, being of a different religion where there is a national religion brings with it the additional charge of treason, and so it was in the growing nationalism of Europe over that period. That said, it was a charge leveled also by the Romans.

Early Christianity was similarly persecuted by the Romans on exactly the same basis, that they were traitors; they did not admit Caesar as being Lord (as they confessed “Jesus is Lord”). They trod there the same path as had the Jews under the Seleucid Greeks and under the Romans, and initially the Romans found difficulty telling the difference. However, as we know, Christianity flourished and spread despite the persecution and eventually became the religion of Empire – at which point it promptly became the persecutor.

It is deeply unfortunate that Christianity had in its scriptures from the beginning relics of the initial struggles between Christianity as a sect of Judaism and the remainder of Judaism, resulting in, for instance, the “blood libel” in Matthew and the persistent use of “judaeoi” in the Fourth Gospel. It is also unfortunate that it has in the scriptures adopted from Judaism, notably Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges and Chronicles, the history of the relation of the Israelites (and Judaeans) with people of other religions. Seeing themselves as inheritors of the tradition of Israel, very many of the Christian persecutors have laid into those they regard as heretical, or Jews, or members of other religions with a cry of “smite the Amalekites”.  Sadly, Israel carries within its scripture a history of persecution when Judaism (or at least its forerunner) was a national religion of an independent state.

Now, of course, Israel is once again a nation state with Judaism as its religion, and sadly exhibits much of the same attitude as did their predecessors and their Christian successors; the Palestinians, whether Muslim or Christian, will bear witness to that. But then, Islam, after some promising beginnings giving a somewhat protected status to its predecessor “religions of the book”, now appears to take the same line everywhere where it is the state religion; in relation to its own successors (the Sufis and the Baha’i religion) it has always been the persecutor. Further afield, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism are by no mean innocent either.

My conclusion is that history has proved that national religions are so prone to oppression and atrocity, not to mention the other sins of being in a position of power, that it would be best if none were ever in that position. Although it does seem to me that the Church of England may have reached a position of toleration (after persecuting Catholics and Dissenters for many years) where it is no longer a real threat to dissenting voices, possibly in part due to its control by political forces through Parliament, even there I have misgivings. Should Charles ever actually become King, I note with favour that he intends to style himself “Defender of Faiths” rather than the traditional “Defender of the Faith” (a title given to Henry VIII by the Pope before their disagreement).

What of the history of Judaism, of Huguenots in France, Hussites in Germany, Catholics in England, all vigorously persecuted in part for being potential traitors, among other things? I have to say that I consider them entirely justified in their refusal to conform, but that in a very small measure their persecutors were correct. They had a loyalty greater than loyalty to the state in which they lived could ever be, and that is dangerous to any nation state.

For me, God is king, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland must take second place.

But I refuse to kill or oppress in the name of either of them, because Jesus is Lord.

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Historical echoes and Mandela

December 8th, 2013