Posts Tagged ‘Morality’

God’s culture of dependence

August 27th, 2015

If you’ve watched or listened to any episodes of Global Christian Perspectives, you’ll have probably grasped the fact that my co-host Elgin Hushbeck and myself don’t see eye to eye on very much, whether it be Christianity or politics. One of the points on which we differ most is the question of social welfare; Elgin has gone so far as to write a book “What is wrong with Social Justice”.

One aspect of Social Justice, to my mind, is providing for the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged. I see this as an absolute Christian duty. Elgin, on the other hand, thinks that social security can “encourage a culture of dependency” and as such is a bad thing. This, to me, has the ring of pronouncements by Ian Duncan Smith and others in our current Conservative government; Mr. Smith has the weird notion that it is actually helping people to strip them of their social safety net, as they need the spur of absolute destitution to persuade them to get a job.

In the world IDS lives in, it seems that there are abundant jobs which are well within the capabilities of all the people who are receiving benefits, including those who are partially (and sometimes extensively) disabled, and all they need is to be bullied in order for them to go out and get a job. I am not sure where this world is, but it isn’t the Britain of 2015, and it equally wouldn’t be the USA of 2015.

I have three really major problems with this approach. The first is that no sane person who is able to go out and do a job which will return a reasonable wage sufficient to live on adequately is going to sit back and try to subsist on the level of benefits which either government currently provides. While I keep hearing people on the right talking of hearing someone say “You’re a fool to work when you can live on benefits”, I have yet to hear anyone actually say that, and no-one I know who is living on social security or disablement benefits would not give their eye teeth to be able to get a job which would provide them with a reasonable standard of living.

Of course, in actuality the lowest paid jobs, which are generally all that is available to the less able, do not actually pay enough to keep someone clothed, housed and fed adequately, at least not unless you work two or three of them; in addition, there just are not enough jobs. IDS is saying “Just go and pick an apple from that tree”, and you look, and there is no apple on the tree. This is just wanton cruelty. That, however, leads me on to my second problem.

I spend some of my time as, in effect, a kind of technologist; I do some part time work with a company which develops and optimises chemical processes. This helps me appreciate the thrust of technology, as does a long-term interest in history. Technology enables us to save labour, to produce more using less labour. In the process, it removes less skilled jobs, but in fairness it tends to create more skilled jobs. Unfortunately, a sizeable proportion of humanity are not able to acquire the kind of skills which are increasingly required in order to earn enough to live on. This is particularly pointed as technology is now replacing even the actions which used to require a fairly high level of intelligence and many years of training. I could joke and say that not everyone is ever going to be able to be a brain surgeon, however much tuition and practice they have, but actually there’s some danger that even brain surgeons may be replaced by robots in the future…

Of course, there are always going to be jobs in personal service, but care assistants and burger flippers are never paid enough to live on.

I know that this directly contradicts what seems to be a portion of the myth of America, that if you only work hard enough, you have the opportunity to become rich ( a myth which seems at the moment to have corrupted the minds of our Conservative party). The trouble is, it is a myth not in the sense of an inspiring story by which you can live, but in the sense of a falsehood.  You can work 120 hour weeks in most of our low paid jobs and still never have a hope of managing a really decent standard of living, let alone becoming rich.

If we are to have a future in which most people have a decent standard of living, it seems to me that we are going to need to start valuing people for being human, rather than for what they can do – because we increasingly are not going to need humans to do anything.

I should perhaps remind Christians that we regularly pray “Give us this day our daily bread”, relying on God to provide this. God’s hands for achieving this are, in my way of seeing things, those of other people. Jesus lauds the lilies of the field, who toil not neither do they spin (in the KHV, which I tend to remember). Clearly, he does not think that working is an essential in order for God to provide.

My third problem with this outlook is this. It assumes that being dependent is a thoroughly bad thing. Another plank of the American way is individualism, the cult of the man who is not dependent on anyone but makes his own way, proudly refusing all assistance.

However, as a species we are born the most dependent on earth; we do not become truly able to cope for ourselves for years, whereas even other live-birth mammals manage the feat within at most about a year. Unless we are eking out an existence as subsistence farmers or hunter-gatherers in some third world country, we continue to be dependent in ways which individualism would like to deny; we are dependent on the culture we live in, and the contributions of all the other people (and, these days, machines) in it; we are specialised in what we can actually do (assuming we are lucky enough to be born with the capacity to learn an useful trade and the health to pursue it) and depend on other people who are specialised in their own ways.

I blogged about some aspects of this issue from a different perspective recently, where I suggested that the least we should expect from our community is that it provide for Maslow’s levels one and two; we also have a need for Maslow’s level three, love and belonging. It is, to me, fundamentally wrong that we regard ourselves as primarily individuals without responsibilities to each other; “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main” as John Donne memorably wrote.

Indeed, the Bible from very early times talks about the tribe, the people, the children, the group, the disciples, the Church. Not much about the individual, and even there, I think that should be read against the background of an assumption that the listeners and readers understood that they were a people of God, not individuals of God.

This has been a lesson which I have learned only with huge difficulty; I’m an introvert and have always suffered from some social anxiety (and now have a fully fledged anxiety disorder), so groups of people are not my favorite location; I’m a solitary contemplative in terms of my deepest spiritual practice (I seem to have had that foisted on me, not that it was in any way contrary to my nature); I’ve always thought that I should make my own way in the world, reliant on no-one else (such as my parents and their willingness to pay for an extended education); I was born with a decent mind and natural abilities which have made it easy for me to acquire skills in several areas and change direction when one became difficult or impossible to pursue. I should be a natural candidate for thinking that I, as an individual, am the captain of my ship, the master of my fate. However, illness and minor disability has taught me that I am absolutely dependent on others; I would not be here absent a twelve step community which recovers as a group where no individual could recover by themselves, or absent a wife and family. Or absent God.

I suggest that we should confess our dependence, accept it and strive to give effect to the economy of God, in which no person should go unprovided with food, shelter or clothing. Or love.


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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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Depression, politics, the church and the social gospel

May 18th, 2015

Courtesy of a link from a post at Partially Examined Life’s facebook feed, I listened to a talk by Catherine Malabou recently. (“Emotional Life in a Neurobiological Age”) I don’t necessarily recommend listening unless you’re both philosophically inclined and reasonably comfortable with “continental philosophy” to be honest; I’m not really either of those things, but keep plugging away at PEL in the hopes that one day I will be comfortable with the more philosophical end of theology.

There are, however, some very interesting parts of her thesis, particularly for me. She is particularly interested in the phenomenon of loss of affect, i.e. people who develop an inability to feel emotion.  This is well established as a result of brain lesions and of epileptic absences, and she comments further that it can be the result of  PTSD or profound depression.

That is where my interest is piqued, as I have personal experience of being in this state, described by her, in which it may be that the reasoning faculties are completely intact, but the person suffering the condition is entirely unable to make decisions as they are wholly apathetic as to the result. I have been there, done that and, as they say, bought the t-shirt, and in hindsight it may well have been a subconscious self-preservation mechanism which finally tipped me over into it, as before that I was actively suicidal; after the depression (and or PTSD) became that severe, there was no longer any particular reason to prefer death over life (or, of course, vice versa), so I was relatively safe as long as I had a minder to ensure (for instance) that I did get out of the way of oncoming buses.

This may all appear of only historic interest to me on a personal basis, but she goes on to comment on the phenomenon when applied to a body of people in a political milieu; as she says, though I paraphrase, if the people can be persuaded to feel a total lack of ability to alter anything, and in addition develop an apathy towards the situation, then those ruling them have won unbridled power.

Looking back after our hotly debated recent election, it seems to me that this syndrome affected a substantial number of previous Liberal Democrat voters and workers between 2010 and 2015. If they had been anything like left-leaning, the idea of a coalition with the Tories was anathema in the first place, and thus even after being rarities for the LibDems and getting an MP of their party elected, as happened in 52 constituencies in 2010, their perception was that they just got a Conservative government anyhow. Why bother?

OK, granted the coalition did not do some of the nastier things the Conservatives will now push through, and did not cut as hard and as fast as the Tories wanted (which as per my last post would have been at a minimum unnecessary and more probably  have earned a total lack of recovery and calls for even more austerity). The left-leaning LD, however, was never looking for small adjustments in the direction of reduction of the welfare state, but of increases to it, not reduced taxes for the wealthy but substantial increases.  From their point of view, the coalition was a total fail.

Depression, the Church and the Social Gospel

In conscience, I cannot be other than a “left-leaning” Liberal Democrat myself.  I completely fail to see how it is possible to take seriously the agenda laid out in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew 25 and not to attempt to ensure that the body of which we are all, perforce, part, namely the United Kingdom, complies with the obligations to support the poor, the sick and the otherwise disadvantaged, to welcome the stranger and, well, just be civilised.

Don’t tell me that “the poor will always be with us” – perhaps they will, but that doesn’t negate the imperative to reduce poverty. Indeed, it seems to me emblematic of the depressive “we can’t make any difference” attitude.

Don’t tell me that this is the responsibility of the churches. Firstly, with single-figure percentages of regular attenders on Sundays and even less who take the absolute instruction to assist the poor seriously, they are in no position to do that. Secondly, they don’t even manage to do that for their own members. There should be no churches where there are regular attenders who are homeless, for instance – no church I know of has a congregation with less spare bedrooms than the number of homeless members. OK, I grant that if that situation were put right, there soon would be churches in that situation as news of their generosity of spirit spread! Here again, the depressive “we can’t fill the need, so why do anything” seems to me to come into play.

Equally, don’t tell me that this is taking from the individual and giving to “the government” as if government was something apart from the people; as we live in a Democracy, the government is not different from the people, it is the joint expression of the community. (If you consider, probably with some justification, that the government doesn’t express the community very well, the remedy is to revise the way in which we govern ourselves, not to stop it fulfilling a communitarian ethos – indeed, if you stop it fulfilling a communitarian ethos, it will become something other than an expression of the community). If you live in a community, or trade in a community, you should contribute to it. You do, of course, have a vote – unless we’re talking of a commercial trading entity, in which case you have persuasive muscle well beyond a mere vote.

Once it is established that you should contribute to it, given that you have a vote, it being a democracy, you will (I hope) vote for provisions which comply with the directions of Matthew 5-6 and Matthew 25 in any event, and if you are a Christian there should be no “I hope” about it. How, I ask, can you at the same time consider that the poor, the sick and the marginalized should be cared for and vote for an administration which does not intend to do this? I would hope that further than that, you would involve yourself actively in the political process, working for parties which would pursue a “Sermon on the Mount” policy. We are not, here, talking of “render unto Caesar” separation from the ruling power, as you are yourself a part of the ruling power.

If you do not do this, whether your psychological state is indeed the depressive, disconnected apathy Catherine Malabou speaks of or just a decision not to be involved, the effect is exactly the same as if you were indeed apathetic, depressive and disconnected. You will be contributing to rule by those who do not adhere to Jesus’ precepts.

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Giving it away

March 27th, 2015

Small groups at my church are looking at Acts 2:43-47 over the course of four weeks: 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This passage, it seems to me, holds out a picture of the early church in Jerusalem as the ideal of how we should live as Christians, and indeed the themes for these four weeks are along those lines.

However, it gives me a problem; I do not hold my property or income in common with others (well, apart from my wife and, before they left home, my children). I will grant that the way the passage is being presented, it is not arguing that we should actually be forming a communist group, but that is the way it reads if you take it reasonably literally, and I do not see any reason not to take it literally.

In particular, I note that shortly after this passage is the tale of Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:1-11), in which Ananias sells a plot of land, but gives only part of the proceeds, with his wife’s knowledge, to the community; both of them are struck dead when confronted by Peter. Now, the immediate response when I raised this argument with a group member who is considerably more conservative and literalistic than I am myself was that the fault of Ananias and Saphira was lying to the community and representing that they had paid in the whole of the proceeds (which is certainly what Peter reproaches them with, but is not apparent from the account of what they actually did), and that we should not take either passage as advocating communistic living, but only considerable generosity.

I could make the same argument myself, and I have, over many years, but it doesn’t seem to me to be more than an excuse for not living fully into the Christian life. Granted, I have a great sympathy with Maya Angelou’s celebrated comment “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian. “I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.” This is a place where I fall down, and am likely to keep falling down.

It seems to me entirely in line with Jesus’ teaching as we know it: the story of the rich young man which appears in all the synoptic gospels ends in him going away saddened because he is not going to sell all he possesses and give the proceeds to the poor.

That said, I don’t think my church, or any other church I know of, is actually going to be doing this (and not just the person who downplayed my argument). Indeed, aside from a few notable individuals such as St. Francis, it doesn’t seem to have been the norm except in the very early church – and I strongly suspect the reason is that it isn’t actually viable. After all, we find in Romans 15:25-28 that Paul is taking a subscription to the Jerusalem church, and I can’t help thinking this might be because they ran out of money…

I’ve no taste for being the only person around doing this, quite apart from the fact that as things are, it would land me too on the list of those asking for charity (or, at least, State support as due to my health I couldn’t now expect to be able to support myself by my own labour), nor for being one of a small number who do it, landing them communally in the same position. I do wonder, however, how much that is real pragmatism and how much a frantic wiggling to avoid the consequences of really following Jesus.

Could a communitarian ethos work in a wider sense, I wonder? Just to push the pragmatic view a bit more, however, I can’t find an example of a completely communitarian society of substantial size anywhere. The countries where communism has been tried are object examples of failure (though, to be fair, none of them has actually achieved a truly communitarian society – the vast majority of them look like something between dictatorships and oligarchies). Note that when I say “failure” there, I am not talking of measures of success such as gross national product, national or individual wealth or income; the failures have been in not providing a free society and in not producing a system in which everyone is provided for “according to their needs” and is reasonably content.

I do know of a reasonably substantial number of small groups which have seemed to operate the communitarian principle with some success (not, of course, material or monetary success, but those are not only not relevant to the objective but arguably completely contrary to it), but those seem to rely partly on being small and partly on operating within a larger society which works on a market economy basis, often by accepting social payments, or by having a backer who does not operate by these rules and supports the community from excess income. I do note that the model for the slightly later church seems to have been groups supported by such rich backers, and it seems to have persisted where communitarian living has in general not.

The nearest to examples of success I can find are social democratic countries, in particular the Scandinavian ones, but there seem to me problems there: some have taken steps back from egalitarianism recently and reduced welfare spending on the basis that their welfare states were proving unsupportable (and I suspect globalisation to be the main culprit; it is difficult to maintain a welfare state when in direct competition with capitalist states operating wage slavery systems, and they worked much better before globalisation really took off), and also the populations do not actually seem to be as content as one would hope – the suicide rates, for instance, seem rather high, as do incidences of depression.

There is, however, an aspect I have not yet considered, and this is very much a feature of the story of the rich young man. “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’. When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” (Matt. 19:21-22). There is a great freedom in letting go of an attachment to worldly possessions and wealth, both of which can easily obsess the mind to the exclusion of any kind of spirituality, and even just enjoying life; I know this not because I’ve ever voluntarily given away all or even most of my possessions, but because circumstances took them away for a time, during which I had an estimated “net worth” which was substantially negative and no reasonable prospect of employment due to illness. Now that I again have a positive net worth, can actually work again to a limited extent and have a modest but adequate pension income, I am, I think, on the right side of a paradigm change with respect to money and possessions.

I grant that giving away everything you have is a draconian way of achieving that freedom, but it may, I think, be the only option for some of us, and I think the rich young man saw that, and knew himself unable to take that step.

Against all this pragmatism, however, is the bare fact that Jesus consistently spoke against money and possessions and in favour of leaving everything and following him. That at least makes it an objective to be aimed towards, even if it’s an unattainable ideal. There is within me an urge to just believe and do, and trust that the outcome will be good, but it remains balanced by a reluctance to take a step when every indication is that it would be a disaster.

With Maya Angelou, the best I can say is that I’m working at it.

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Dawkins and Downs

September 1st, 2014

I saw the first facebook mention of Richard Dawkins’ recent comment about it being (potentially) immoral not to abort a Downs Syndrome foetus and winced. For a very bright guy, occasionally Dawkins shows all the mental acumen of the average flea.

Firstly, a Twitter message is clearly entirely inadequate to do justice to the moral implications of the situation. I’m not sure the several additional messages and articles which have appeared following that tweet are adequate either, but a tweet is just blatantly a stupid way of doing this.

Secondly, within his own rationale (of reducing suffering), he was unable to arrive at the conclusion he did on the basis of the information available. He didn’t know enough about the circumstances.

Thirdly, he seems to have ignored the testimony of very many parents of Downs Syndrome children and of those who know Downs Syndrome people, which should have led him to question his blanket assumption that they were likely to suffer. In fact, on the evidence I have (which is also inadequate), it seems to me that a majority of Downs Syndrome children lead very happy, if tragically short, lives.

However, a principal reason why I winced was that I anticipated the storm of comment likely to emerge from conservative Christian voices. I needed only to wait for Sunday, and a sermon in which this was mentioned. This thing was, the preacher added that in a way he respected Dawkins for following his atheism to it’s rational conclusion, whereas so many atheists didn’t. His assumption, of course (shared by the vast majority of his congregation) was that any Christian would know that this was just wrong. Not necessarily wrong because of any consideration of the life quality of a Downs Syndrome person, but because abortion is just wrong in every case. Wrong because it is forbidden to kill another human being, and because a foetus is another human being.

It is not clear to me that the general course of Christianity historically has held this, far less the previous course of Judaism. It is correct to say that from a very early stage, Christianity generally has frowned on all forms of preventing new life arising from sexual relations, but the rationale for this has not historically been avoidance of killing, but the transmission of human life as a primary purpose of the sacrament of marriage. The focus was, therefore, on banning contraception until the mid 20th century. This is not, I think, now the majority position within Christianity, although it is still the declared position of the Catholic Church. Abortion, of course, was a somewhat aggravated case of contraception from the point of view of the Church.

I do not think, given the current overpopulation of the planet, that Christianity should be advocating for unlimited increase of humanity any more.

As the tenor of thinking in society generally shifted in favour of planned parenthood, abortion became the touchstone, but in conservative protestant churches on the alternative ground that it was the killing of another human being. This required a shift of thinking, as prior to then, a foetus had only generally been regarded (as were sperm) as a potential human being. Indeed, if you go back to (say) the Middle Ages, it is uncertain whether the church generally regarded under age children as being fully human beings; various states had “lesser crimes” of infanticide for small children, for instance, and children still lack many of the same rights or privileges attaching to adults more or less everywhere. An abortion, in other words, was wrong, but a far lesser wrong than was murder.

It has thus become an entirely tenable position within modern Liberal Christianity that, in certain circumstances, abortion is permissible; indeed, a major factor in decision making should be the alleviation of suffering (just as Dawkins proposed) both of the anticipated child, if born, and of the mother.

As it happens, as a result of my panentheism, I do think that abortion is always a wrong, as it results in the death of a living organism. I do, however, see a spectrum rather than a somewhat arbitrary fixed line, so it is also a wrong to kill a sperm (but a far lesser wrong), and it becomes progressively more wrong as a foetus progresses towards birth. But then, I also see it as a wrong to kill any living thing (a wrong which I commit on occasion, including euthanising pets who are in extreme pain and swatting insects, and which is extremely frequently committed on my behalf, bearing in mind that I eat meat – though vegetables are also alive…). I am not convinced that we draw the line between permissible and absolutely wrong in the right place. Indeed, I am not completely sure that a line should be drawn on one side of which is an absolute.

Of course, in point of fact, most laws in ostensibly Christian countries allow (and have allowed since the earliest Christian country) the killing of even adult human beings in some cases; self defence or the prevention of serious harm to others, for instance, war (which I massively disapprove of, though I’m not necessarily a pacifist – yet) or, in some places, as a punishment for offenders (which I might countenance only on the basis that it’s a better option than life in some prisons, and then as an option offered to the prisoner). There are even a few prominent Christian voices supporting voluntary euthanasia in some extreme cases, to reduce suffering (using, so far as I can see, the same “social hedonism” utilitarian argument which Dawkins was using). In Christianity, therefore, the killing of even another human being is at most a wrong which can be outweighed by a greater wrong.

Why not in the case of abortion? It clearly cannot be because killing is always an absolute wrong, because that is not what Christianity has historically held or what conservative Christianity holds now. Is it, perhaps, because it involves the killing of “an innocent”? How can it be, given that conventional Christianity has the concept of “original sin”, and there are therefore arguably no innocents anyhow?

The answer, I think, does not lie in logical argument. In fact, it lies in an emotional revulsion to using logical argument in the case of the taking of human life. I feel this myself (for any readers who wish to take exception to my argument, rest assured that I can echo Peter Rollins and say that I may offend them, but hey, I offend myself as well). I don’t think this is something for which we can find an answer in logic (although we may well find it in evolutionary biology). I have never killed another human being myself, but having at times spent significant amounts of time with soldiers (courtesy of being a Civil Defence Scientific Advisor) I know both that they more or less unanimously attest that there is something viscerally different about killing another human, something with a deep emotional impact which surprised some of them, and that meeting people for the first time, one of the questions everyone wants to ask (although some are hesitant to do so) is “have you ever killed someone?”.

Dawkins, in other words, was going to places which we are typically both fascinated by and repulsed by, and seemed unmoved by that. That isn’t the hallmark of an atheist, it’s the hallmark of someone who is intellectually brave. There have been plenty of intellectually brave Christian thinkers, and sometimes their logical excursions produce stomach-churning results too (and I’m thinking of Calvin’s predestination here).

Or maybe the intellectually foolish. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between brave and foolish.

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Have you understood nothing?

August 22nd, 2014

There is an article in New Scientist by a couple of eminent professors, one of Hebrew Bible and one of New Testament, dealing with a variety of leaders of Christian groups who ascribe the Ebola epidemic to a divine punishment.

I have absolutely no time for people who do this, and still less for people who do it and then fail to render assistance to those who are suffering because “it is God’s will”. I agree with everything the writers say, in fact.

But I am surprised that neither of them marshals specific arguments from the traditions they teach. Where, for instance, is the reference to the book of Job (by either of them) in which, inter alia, Job is afflicted with a number of diseases through absolutely no fault of his own, and his “friends” who suggest that this is divine punishment for him secretly having been a bad lad are roundly criticised by God? Where is the reference by Candida Moss to John 9:3, in which Jesus says “neither this man nor his parents sinned” in response to his disciples asking why a man had been born blind?

I rather suspect the authors of the Fourth Gospel of having minimised the acerbity of Jesus’ comment here; this was, after all, someone who consorted with all the kinds of people whom the ilk of leaders who make these remarks regard as “undeserving”, i.e. with agents of a foreign invader, members of despised religions, extorters of taxes, prostitutes and other sinners, and who healed profligately and in circumstances distinctly frowned on by the religious authorities of the day. He was quite commonly acerbic with those religious leaders, and (particularly in Mark) not terribly polite to his disciples when they failed to understand things (Peter being told “get thee behind me, Satan” springs to mind).

I can easily insert words which the Jesus of my understanding may have said and which have been left out here, such as “have you understood NOTHING?”

And that is pretty much my response to any leader describing himself as Christian who makes such crass remarks.

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Fun with Fritz

July 23rd, 2014

Fritz Leiber was an American writer, chiefly of fantasy and SF, probably best known for his “Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser” series. One of his early books (1943) was called “Conjure Wife”. It may not have been his best work, but it’s the one which has kept coming back to me most. It’s still in print today, it seems.

Briefly, the plot involves a young scientific rationalist professor who discovers that his wife is a witch. She has been preparing a load of charms. Our hero manages to persuade her that this is superstitious nonsense, and to remove all the charms from the house and give up this practice.

At that stage, he becomes horribly unlucky (to say the least), and eventually realises that his wife’s charms have been protecting him all this while from the offensive magic of all the other witches around. That’s all of the plot I want to give away…

This came to mind last week when I was thinking about prayer. Now, I’m moving in some circles where lots of people talk as if prayer is an extremely effective force. Granted, most of them don’t actually act that way – in general, they act extremely prudently, but also pray, perhaps following the maxim that you should pray for assistance but also take all steps possible to encourage your desired outcome to happen, and accept any assistance you actually get even if that doesn’t look much like a miracle.

I am not personally particularly convinced that prayer has ever worked for me in a tangible way, and more or less stopped doing petitionary prayers many years ago. OK, there have been occasions when I have asked for something for myself since. Apart from a few occasions when I’ve received a conviction about the next thing to do (as I follow the maxim that I should pray only for knowledge of God’s will for me and the power to carry that out), I can’t say anything I’ve asked for for myself or another has actually happened.

But what if the world is something like the one portrayed by Leiber, but instead of spells and hexes, it operates on petitionary and imprecatory prayers? Maybe there don’t even need to be imprecatory prayers involved, but the side effects of one person’s petitionary prayer may be bad results for another (and reason tells me there’s a substantial probability that this is usually the case, even if I didn’t know stories like “The Monkey’s Paw”)? No-one I know well admits to imprecatory prayer, so I sort of assume the second “maybe” would have to be dominant, or at least I do until Leiber’s paranoid fantasy bites again, making me paranoid about everyone’s motives and honesty! (Just for a moment, OK?).

That’s the snag with paranoid fantasy, it gets directly at the emotional, non-rational bit we all have (mine, I call “EC”, for “Emotional Chris”), and has a tendency to sideline your reason, either for a few moments or, sometimes, for a lot longer.




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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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The fall and rise of original sin

April 23rd, 2014