Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “religion”

The witch hunts of Papua New Guinea

Last night I watched a BBC TV programme on The witch hunts of Papua New Guinea – BBC News, and was struck by the similarity with witch hunts that have taken place in South Africa in the last 25 years or so.

The programme had interviews with people who had been accused of witchcraft, and with some of the accusers, and there were many similarities. You can also read more about the Papua New Guinea witch hunts here: Malum Nalu: Papua New Guinea has a witch hunt problem.

I don’t know if there were any attempts by Christian groups to deal with the problem in Papua New Guinea, but in South Africa there was a reluctance to discuss it in missiological circles. The only Christian groups that seemed to have come up with a way of dealing with it were some Zionists, and most Zionists don’t have an academic bent, so not much has been written about it.I did write one journal article, which you can read here: Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery, but there has not been much response to it.

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Halaal food sparks fury

“Halaal food sparks fury” read the headline in today’s City Press.

I read the first couple of paragraphs, and, bearing in mind today’s date, dismissed it as an April Fool’s joke in rather bad taste. It seemed to diss Christians, trying to make it look as though they were a bunch of idiots.

The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) Commission has been flooded with letters from Christian consumers complaining that most food and beverages in their supermarkets are certified halaal, with some saying they don’t want to eat or drink anything “sacrificed to idols”.

Complaints received by the CRL against supermarkets and Muslim halaal-certification authorities show some Christians are furious about the prevalence of halaal-certified food in grocery stores and restaurants, claiming it violates their right to freedom of choice.

Is that for real? They’re joking, of course.

You can see an online version of the original article here.

But then it seemed that, if it was an April Fool’s joke, rather a lot of people seemed to have fallen for it and were taking it seriously.

I still haven’t made up my mind whether it is for real or not, but I thought I’d say something about it.

I am a Christian, and for more than 60 years I’ve been eating food that has been marked as OK for the dietary rules of other religions. As a schoolboy I liked Mozmarks Tasty Matzos, which was marked “Kosher for Passover”. I never heard anyone say or imply that it was bad for Christians to eat that.

And I loved Gold Dish Mutton Breyani, which was marked as Halaal.

No one ever said that Christians should not eat that either.

There was also Go0d Dish mutton curry with peas — those soon disappeared from the market, but they were replaced by mutton curry with kidney beans and mutton curry with vegetables. All were marked Halaal and I ate and e4njoyed them all. They are now almost unobtainable, and when you do manage to find them they have a “new and improved” recipe, which, like the WordPress editor, isn’t nearly as good as the old one.

When I lived and worked in the UK 50 years ago I used to eat a lot of breyani (or biriyani), as they spelt it there. It came from Pakistani restaurants and I’m pretty sure Pakistani cuisine is mostly halaal, because most Pakistanis are Muslim. I liked it a lot better than most English cooking, which consisted of things like “rice” (which turned out to be rice pudding, with custard) and macaroni & cheese with chips (British cooking has improved since the 1960s, perhaps as a result of all those TV chefs).

Illustration attached to City Press “Halaal” article.

One clue that suggests that the City Press article is an April Fools joke extracting the Michael is the bit about Halaal food being “sacrificed to idols”. Everybody knows, or ought to, that Muslims don’t do idols. So the City Press article is poking fun at Christians by making them out to be a bunch of ignoramuses. That is why I think that, if it is an April Fool’s joke, it is in pretty poor taste.

I will say, however, that I’m all for food being labelled to show that it meets the dietary requirements of religious and other groups. I’m happy to see food certified as “organic”, recalling that melamine and other inorganic substances were introduced into Chinese pet food a few years ago.

I’m happy to see some food labelled as “Kosher for Passover”, and am only sorry that I cant find food labelled “Nistisimou for Lent”.

I once attended an Aids symposium, where lunch was provided, and as it happened to be a fast day I was picking out tomatoes from the salads and leaving the cheese behind. Some helpful soul pointed out the “Halaal” table, and when I said that wouldn’t make it, they pointed to the kosher table. I said that wouldn’t make it either, but if it had prawns they would do.  They then offered me a cheese sandwich. No. But a nistisimou table would have been nice. The people who organised the symposium thoughtfully made special provision for the dietary needs of Muslims and Jews, but not for Orthodox Christians.

 

 

 

 

 

Myths of the world

Myths of the World: A Thematic EncyclopediaMyths of the World: A Thematic Encyclopedia by Michael Jordan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I took this rather pretentiously titled volume out of the library in the hope of finding some interesting or useful information, but was rather disappointed.

I suppose I should have been warned by the slimness of the book; a book that size cannot really be called an “encyclopedia”, and indeed it wasn’t. A more appropriate title might have been “anthology” — a selection of myths that appealed to the author, categorised by particular themes.

Of course it is not possible to do justice to myths of the world in one short volume, but it could easily have been doubled in size without making it too unwieldy.

The accounts of the myths were also less than satisfactory. They were somewhat woodenly told. There were several ancient Greek and Roman “classical” myths, but I felt I learnt more about them from the 3-5 line descriptions in Pears Cyclopaedia. Chinese gods seemed to be a better bet for Chinese mythology.

Michael Jordan also appeared to suffer from a strong anti-Christian bias. He included about 3-4 Christian myths, but lumped them in with gnostic ones, which are utterly different, and the selection seemed pretty unrepresentative too. There was a section on dragon myths, but it did not include the Christian story of St George and the dragon, which is probably one of the most widespread, being popular from England to India, and from Murmansk to Ethiopia. Perhaps he regarded it as a legend rather than a myth, but there are many instances of overlap between them, and I think the story has enough overlap to allow it to be included in a book that claims to be an “encyclopedia” of myths.

The book was published a year or two before Google made web searches so much easier, so most of what the book can tell you can be found more easily and more comprehensively by searching the Web, but a good encyclopedia of myth would still be useful, because the problem with web searches is that you don’t always know what to look for.

The title implies that a reference book, but it is certainly not that. There’s far too much missing.

View all my reviews

Julian, Gregorian, Mammonian: thoughts on the Festive Season

There was the Julian (Old) Calendar, then there was the Gregorian (New Calendar).

When those on the New Calendar (NC) are celebrating Christmas, those on the Old Calendar (OC) still have 13 days to wait. When those on the New Calendar are celebrating Theophany/Epiphany, those on the Old Calendar are celebrating Christmas Eve. But whichever calendar you are on, there are the Twelve Days of Christmas between the celebration of Christmas and Theophany.

Except that there is a still newer calendar, the ultramodern calendar, which I shall call the Mammonian Calendar (MC), which wants to move the Twelve Days of Christmas earlier still. As for example here:


If 14th December is the 4th day of Christmas, that means that Christmas day itself must be on the 11 December (Gregorian). That would put New Year on 18th December.

Such numbering gets even more confusing than the Julian/Gregorian one, so why not go the whole hog?

Make New Year’s Day the 1st December, and in the interests of the economy make all the days between Black Friday and New Year compulsory retail shopping days, on which all retail businesses must be open 24/7, and all non-retail businesses must close, to allow their employees  time to shop. The months could be given more appropriate names too. How about calling December Steinhoff, January Gupta, February Jooste and so on. Name them after all the heroes of Monopoly Capital. Even Cecil Rhodes could make a comeback.

But seriously, there’s a lot of confusion.

Think of all the places the 4th day of Christmas can be:

  • 14th December in the Mammonian calendar
  • 28th December in the Gregorian Calendar
  • 10 January in the Julian Calendar (with Gregorian notation)

Lots of my Western friends seem to think we keep Christmas on 7th January (Gregorian), but no, we don’t. Most Orthodox Christians in Africa follow the Gregorian calendar for the fixed feasts, of which the Nativity of Christ is one. Two parishes in our diocese follow the old calendar, St Sergius in Midrand and St Thomas’s in Sunninghill. Most of the rest are new calendar.

But business threatens to impose yet another layer of confusion.

My blogging friend Fr Andrew Stephen Damick has made a valiant attempt to chart a safe course through the muddied waters here How Many Days is Orthodox Christmas? — Roads from Emmaus.

And I’ve been doing my bit by posting “It’s the 5th day of Christmas” (that’s today, Gregorian) on Facebook, and hoping some of my friends might pass it on as a reminder to the confused which day it actually is. I don’t think many of my friends are on the Mammonian calendar yet, though Black Friday arrived on these shores a couple of years ago, and is probably here to stay.

The High Priests of Monopoly Capital also like to call the time preceding Christmas “the Festive Season”.

Not for Orthodox Christians it isn’t. For us the Festive Season begins on 25 December and lasts until 4 January. From 15 November till 24 December is the Fastive Season. No meat, eggs, or dairy products. On some days fish is allowed (it’s the main time of the year when we eat fish).

Hot Cross Buns are a relic of the fasting season in the Western Church. If they fasted on no other day, they did so on Good Friday (I don’t know what they do now), and so hot cross buns, if made properly, should be fasting food — no eggs, butter or other dairy produce. But on Boxing Day (the Second Day of Christmas) — no way!

On Christmas day this year we went to the Divine Liturgy at St Nicholas of Japan Church in Brixton, Johannesburg, 91.4 km at 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit, with no aircon in the car. We took Charles Nkosi down to be baptised (full story, with pictures, here). On the way home one of our number, Artemius Mangena, got a phone call from his brother, inviting him to a Christmas dinner…. a vegetarian Christmas dinner! So much for the Festive Season. I said he should at least try to eat some cheese.

 

 

Yet another reason to boycott Nestlé

Over the years there have been several calls to boycott Nestlé, the Switzerland-based food firm, which was originally known for producing chocolate, but has since branched out, more controversially, into baby food, bottled water, instant coffee and a few other things.

The latest boycott call, however, arises not from their products, but from their advertising and packaging — Orthodox Leaders Call for Boycott of Lidl, Nestle for Airbrushing Out Christian Symbols on Products:

Leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church are asking worshipers to boycott Lidl and Nestlé, which removed Christian symbols from their food packaging in an attempt to be “religiously neutral.”

Earlier this month, shoppers noticed that the German supermarket chain Lidl had used photo editing software to remove crosses on top of an iconic Greek church on its food packaging. Swiss food giant Nestlé and the local dairy producer Mevgal have also removed religious imagery from their Greek yogurts.

In response, the Orthodox Church in Athens is urging its members through sermons and on the internet to boycott Lidl, Nestlé and Mevgal, according to The Sunday Times, whom a spokesperson of the Church told the issue will be raised at a special synodical meeting next month.

In this, they seem to be trying to go out of their way to be offensive. The cosmetics firm Dove recently stirred up controversy by racially offensive ads. Now these firms, or at least two of them, are being religiously offensive. Perhaps Lidl didn’t intend their packaging to be offensive, but it was only after it had stirred up controversy that Mevgal and Nestlé introduced theirs as well.

No one is compelling these firms to put pictures of churches on their packaging. If they don’t like churches and what they stand for, then they could quite easily show pictures of something else. There are plenty of picturesque sights in Greece other than churches.

Some, especially those in the secular West, might wonder what all the fuss is about. It is easy for such people to forget that in the 20th century just about every country in Europe with a majority (or substantial minority) of Orthodox Christians was under communist rule until the 1990s. For people who remember that, and especially those who lived through it, removing crosses from churches is a bit like putting up a Whites Only sign in post-1994 South Africa. People will get offended, because they recall that the Bolsheviks removed the crosses from churches (and in some cases replaced them with red stars). Removal of the crosses thus has a flavour of arrogant bullying authoritarianism.

For the Bolsheviks in Russia there was a kind of standard procedure. First they would knock the crosses off, then the bells, and then they would urge (sometimes forcibly) the members of the congregation to chop up the ikons for firewood. Then they would convert the buildings to stables, warehouses, flats etc. Of course they themselves didn’t see it as oppression — in their minds they were liberating the peasants from superstition, but the peasants themselves didn’t see it as any kind of liberation, just as oppression worse than the Tsar’s.

When I visited Russia in 1995 many temples had only recently been handed back to the Church by the government, and most of them were in poor condition, needing extensive repairs. But almost invariably the first step in repairing them was the replacement of the cross on the highest dome. There could be cheap paper ikons stuck up with sticky tape; the paint could be peeling and the plaster crumbling; worshippers could be making their way across an unsurfaced floor all over steel reinforcing and electrical conduits, but at the top of the highest dome was a golden cross. Restoring it was a priority. Crosses were the first things the Bolsheviks broke down, and were the first things that the Christians replaced. For Orthodox Christians, removing crosses from temples is not trivial.

Today many countries in Europe are no longer under Bolshevik rule, but in the Middle East many Christians in countries with Islamist governments are not allowed to display crosses on their churches, and when commercial firms start displaying the same oppressive attitude, yes, it is offensive. And in the post-Cold War world it can also look like a bit of in-your-face Clash of Civilizations oneupmanship.

As one Greek bishop said:

Imagine the same thing happening in Russia, with products parcelled and plastered with pictures of Moscow’s gold domes, only without their crosses. They [the companies] would be paying each and every person there millions in damages. But here, they have not only stolen us of our voice … but they know that the cost of damage caused in this small country will be small.

So you can add this to the reasons for boycotting Nestlé. At least one Christian blogger I know displays this logo, and perhaps others should start doing so too. Here is a reminder of some of the other reasons for boycotting: 5 shocking scandals that prove it’s time to boycott Nestlé | The Daily Dot:

The company’s abuse of California’s resources is reason enough to be angry at Nestlé, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg for a firm with decades of controversy behind it. It’s been the target of multiple boycotts and protests, Twitter campaigns against the company, making it an almost irresistible target for ire among Californians angry about water bottling practices in the state.

Guptas’ troll armies trying to infiltrate Orthodoxy?

Some time ago I started a Facebook group for Orthodox Christians in South Africa to share news of events and happenings, so that people could learn about things that were happening in parishes other than their own.

Last week there was a flurry of requests from people wanting to join the group. Most of them were from outside South Africa, though they appeared to belong to several other Orthodox groups on Facebook.

Eventually I posted a request in some of those other groups asking that people not ask to join the Orthodoxy in South Africa group unless they had personal connections with the Church in South Africa, otherwise the South Africans in the group would soon be outnumbered by people from other places. There are plenty of worldwide groups they could join.

Some people from other places have joined the Orthodoxy in South Africa group and then post little devotional articles, which you then see several times a day, so that every Orthodox group on Facebook looks just the same, and you can’t see the real news for the padding, and eventually no one bothers to put any real news up at all.

For example, I heard rumours of a monastery being started in South Africa, but nobody said anything, even though several members of the group probably knew about it. That was real news, so why did no one in the group see fit fit to mention it? Why didn’t anyone post photos of it? Yet people post photos of monasteries on the other side of the world.

But something more sinister than devotional spammers has come up. On one of the groups where I pleaded with people not to ask to join the South African group unless they had real South African connections someone suggested that I Google “Putin’s troll army”

I Googled it and this came up — Invasion of the troll armies: ‘Social media where the war goes on’ | Media | The Guardian:

You can hire your own troll army if you have the cash. In 2011 the PR firm Bell Pottinger told undercover journalists that they could “create and maintain third-party blogs”, and spruce up Wikipedia profiles and Google search rankings. Indeed marketing has a rich history of so-called “astroturfing”, which is laying down fake grassroots. Take Forest, “the voice and friend of the smoker”, which at least admits in nearly invisible small print that it is paid for by the tobacco industry.

It’s that ubiquitous PR firm of Bell Pottinger again. PR firm Bell Pottinger ‘exposed’ as masterminding Gupta plots | The Citizen:

The extraordinary emails released on Sunday by both the Sunday Times and City Press have once again cast a light on the role played by British PR firm Bell Pottinger.

The firm dropped the family as clients last month in the wake of protests against their company for allegedly driving the attempt to repair the Gupta family’s image in South Africa.

Could it be that Gupta’s troll armies are trying to infiltrate our Orthodoxy in South Africa group? You’ve got to wonder when someone who asks to join says they live in Venezuela and come from Arizona, and belong to several Orthodox groups and 679 other groups on Facebook.

No one who joins that many Facebook groups can be legit, and I’m sure they don’t want to join the Orthodoxy in South Africa group- because they want to know about Benoni parish’s panigyri or the open day at Saheti School. It does make me wonder why they are members of all those other Orthodox groups as well.

Remember the 1990s TV series Pinky and the Brain, where in every episode they were planning to take over the world? Maybe Bell Pottinger have already taken over the world. Maybe they planted these trolls in all those other Orthodox groups on Facebook as well.

In South Africa Bell Pottinger came up with the phrase “white monopoly capital” as a diversionary tactic to try to take people’s minds off the dangers of Indian monopoly capital, where the Gupta family had their fingers in every pie. The ran a campaign of promoting naked racism, deliberately trying to stir up racial hatred in South Africa because they were paid by the Guptas to do so.

Maybe all this is turning me into a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but never forget the old adage: just because you’re paranoid it doesn’r mean that they aren’t out to get you.

Church and State and religious freedom

A couple of news items that appeared recently have important implications for religious freedom.

Man hauls 6 schools to court over religious teachings in state school | News24:

A Stellenbosch man is taking six schools to court over how far the institutions can go with teaching religion at state schools.

”It has been nine years that I have been on this case,” said small business owner Hans Pietersen on Friday, of a battle rooted in a ”Jesus Week” activity at his triplets’ school when they were still little.

”They wanted everybody to wear armbands for Jesus which immediately exposes everybody who is not part of those efforts,” explained Pietersen.

In contrast with that, I recall that when our daughter was at a church school Grades 1 and 2 were to put on a nativity play. There’s nothing unusual or controversial about that in a church school, but one of the teachers was careful to ask a Muslim pupil if her parents would mind if she took part. “I’ll tell them that they can be thankful I’m not the pig,” she said, and when the play was eventually performed, she played the part of a cow. But she was asked, and was not pressured into participating, unlike the children in the state school who were expected to wear armbands.

A more serious news item, however, is this one New laws to tackle commericalisation of religion in SA: report:

Government plans to introduce legislation to regulate faith-based organisations in South Africa, in an effort to cut down on religious leaders who are making millions of rands through legal loopholes.

According to a report by the Cape Argus, the new legislation will be heard in parliament in June 2017 following an analysis of the public complaints and interviews by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission).

“We are not disputing that there are still some good religious leaders out there, but as a country we are also faced with a challenge of people who run churches like family businesses and no one questions them on how the church’s money is spent,” said Commission chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi- Xaluva.

“We also have those who abuse their power and make congregants do all sort of things like drinking petrol and eating snakes. We can’t have things like that happening but they will continue if the industry remains unregulated.”

The word “industry” used in this connection is interesting. How does the government propose to deal with this?

One way to do it might be to follow the example of Botswana, where religious organisations are registered by the government, and the government has sometimes forced them to change their names. The Apostolic Spiritual Healing Church, for example, was forced to drop “Apostolic” from its name, because, the government said, there were already too many churches with “Apostolic” in their names, and so it was forced to become the “Spiritual Healing Church”, even though it was known as the Apostolic Spiritual Healing Church in Namibia and South Africa.

For many denominations, however, there is nothing they would like more than to register with the government, because this gives them a recognition they otherwise feel they lack.

This is marvellous for church historians trying to disentangle the skeins of South African denominational history. No sooner have two or three gathered in the name of Jesus than one (or more) of them are writing off to Pretoria to be recognised and registered. And for decades civil servants in Pretoria would write back saying that the religions of citizens were no concern of the government and there was no need to register. And the recipients of these letters would promptly put the file number of this correspondence on their letterheads, to show that they were recognised.

The civil servants were being rather disingenuous, of course, because black ministers needed special permits to buy wine for communion before 1962, and they also needed recognition for concession fares on trains. So there was a complex game being played.

In the 1960s, however, the government realised that it could up the stakes in the game by conning the churches into supporting apartheid.

They changed their policy and started officially registering black churches (or saying that they were), provided that the churches concerned had a clause in their constitutions to say that their churches were only for “Bantu” and only “Bantu” could be member or leaders of the church. That conned a lot of church leaders into signing a statement that explicitly stated that their churches supported apartheid.

So the history of government regulation of churches shows that it is not an unmixed blessing, and can have serious implications for religious freedom.

If some churches are doing weird stuff like encouraging people to drink petrol or rat poison, or collecting money in dubious circumstances, then perhaps it might be best to see whether they can be prosecuted under existing laws. After all, the Nationalist government did not have to pass a special law to prosecute John Rees, the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, for fraud.

On reading books you hate

Have you ever read a book you hate, right through, from beginning to end?

A waste of time, you may think. Toss it, before you waste any more time.

But this article explains why it is important to read books that you hate.

Why You Should Read Books You Hate – The New York Times:

Defensiveness makes you a better reader, a closer, more skeptical reader: a critic. Arguing with the author in your head forces you to gather opposing evidence. You may find yourself turning to other texts with determination, stowing away facts, fighting against the book at hand. You may find yourself developing a point of view.

But how do you know you’re going to hate a book before you’ve read it?

The first book I read that I was pretty sure I was going to hate was Atlas shrugged, by Ayn Rand. I had seen the book in a bookshop when I was a student in Pietermaritzburg, in about 1964. I picked it up and looked at the blurb — something about a man who had said he would stop the motor of the world, and did. I put it back on the shelf. Then, after a political meeting or demonstration of some sort, I was chatting to a fellow student who despised such things. I think it was a protest against the Bantu Laws Amendment Act, which would make life harder for black South Africans than it already was. He was doing a BSc in Zoology, and was into survival of the fittest and extended it to social Darwinism. He spoke about the philosophy of Ayn Rand, which sounded pretty unattractive to me.

A few years later, about 1970,  a work colleague was reading Atlas shrugged, and kept saying what a good book it was. So when he had finished it, I borrowed it, and after reading a couple of hundred pages told him that I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the characters, I didn’t like their lifestyle, I didn’t like their values, I didn’t like the style. He said, Ah, but it’s not about the quality of the writing, the thing that’s so good is the philosophy. I didn’t like the philosophy either, but I kept on reading, right to the end. That was partly because I knew that if I criticised it without having read it, he would dismiss my criticisms as mere ignorance.

The bloke who lent it to me was the third Ayn Rand fan I had met, and I thought that if this philosophy can get such a grip on people’s minds, I’d better find out more about it, so I went out and bought a book of essays by Ayn Rand and her associates, called Capitalism: the unknown ideal, in which she tried to do for capitalism what Marx and Engels had tried to do for socialism — turn it into a religion. And, far more than Marxian socialism, Ayn Rand’s capitalism was diametrically opposed to everything in the Christian faith. And the Neoliberalism that has dominated the world since about 1980 is largely a diluted form of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Being a sucker for punishment, I even read another novel by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, and a biography of her written by one of her disciples. The author of the article on reading books you hate apparently began with The Fountainhead, and his comments on that are worth reading too. Why You Should Read Books You Hate – The New York Times:

My taste for hate reading began with “The Fountainhead,” which I opened in a state of complete ignorance as bonus material for a college class on 20th-century architecture. I knew nothing of Ayn Rand or of objectivism. I thought it was a book about building things. I even showed it off to a French friend, an architect and a die-hard socialist, thinking he’d be impressed.

“How could you bring that into our house?” he asked in disgust. “But it’s about architecture,” I replied weakly. Or was it? Within pages, I found myself suffering at the hands of its tyrannical egomaniac of a protagonist, Howard Roark, forever plunging a fist into soil and holding forth. The lead female character, Dominique, who naturally took second place to the godlike Roark, kept striding across rooms in long, column-like gowns.

Still, I persisted. A hundred pages later, I was more of a French socialist than I’d ever been before or since. I finished every wretched page of “The Fountainhead” in alternating states of fury and despair, and when it was finally over, I tried to leave the vague echo of Dominique, stomping around in her evening gowns, behind. What stuck was the abiding knowledge that I was not, nor would I ever be, a libertarian.

Another book that I read, and also hated, was Interview with the Vampire by Ann Rice. At the time lots of people were discussing it online, and I thought I’d better read it just so I could know what they were talking about. I hated it even more than Ayn Rand’s books, and had to force myself to keep reading to the end. Yet another was The Da Vinci Code, though in that case I had already read the book on which the plot was based.

So yes, I think it is good sometimes to read books that you hate. It’s not a waste of time, and can give you a better idea of why you like the books you do.

Do something. Kill someone.

Over the last few days I have seen floods of emotional demands on social media that somebody should do something about reported gas attacks in Syria. These appeals are sometimes accompanied by gruesome pictures of unknown provenance.

I haven’t seen any actual media reports of these gas attacks. Perhaps that it because the South African media have been so preoccupied with reactions to Jacob Zuma’s recent cabinet changes that demands for regime change in South Africa have taken precedence over demands for regime change in Syria and the United States.

The demands on social media that someone should “do something” do, however, appear to be media driven, and there seems to be an Alice in Wonderland quality of unreality about them. As the Queen of Hearts proclaimed, it seems to be sentence first, then the verdict, then the evidence.

I think this article is worth reading Disharmony: The religious response to Syria’s travails is prolix and confused | The Economist:

Generally, the local Catholic and Orthodox churches remain reluctant to condemn Bashar al-Assad, whom they regard as their protector against the furies of Islamism. That in turn influences the hierarchs and adherents of those churches in other places. Meanwhile, some luminaries of America’s religious right (though not of the isolationist far-right) saw their country’s missile attack as a noble act by Donald Trump: a sign of his virtuousness compared with the wicked sloppiness of his predecessor.

I see media reports of a “US-led coalition”, but I seem to have missed the formation of this coalition, and its purpose. I know there was a “coalition of the willing” to bring about regime change in Iraq in 2003, and plenty of scorn from people in the US for the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” (the French) who didn’t join it. Someone pointed out that there seems to have been a coalition against ISIS, but the main aim of the current coalition seems to be to put ISIS, or some group very like them, in power in Syria.

The only constant and consistent factor in US intervention in the Middle East has been to establish more anti-Christian regimes, and has led to Christians being killed or driven from their homes in increasing numbers in a form of “religious cleansing” that parallels the ethnic cleansing seen elsewhere. It should therefore not be surprising that Christians in Syria generally take the attitude of “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Which of the groups seeking to overthrow Assad will treat them better?

But the “Do something” response shows that people outside Syria, including Christians, would behave no better than the people in Syria if they had the chance. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” who attacked the World Trade Center in New York on 9 September 2001. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” that bombed a Metro train in Moscow last week. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” who attacked the offices of a publication in Paris a couple of years ago.

In most of the social media calls to “Do something” about gas attacks in Syria the “something” was unspecified, but I’m pretty sure that in most of them the “something” that the posters had in mind was something violent.

We sometimes read about psychologists and profilers trying to understand the minds of terrorists. But they really don’t have to look far. We are all terrorists at heart, especially when we call on someone to “do something” when that something is violent.

Until we tame that “do something” in ourselves, there is little hope of it being tamed in anyone else.

Lent is over, but we still need to pray, Grant that I may see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother.

 

Kim revisited: imperialism, Russophobia & asceticism

KimKim by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The other day I came across an article about St Nicholas of Japan’s approach to Buddhism, and I blogged about it here Christianity and Buddhism | Khanya. St Nicholas acquired his knowledge of Buddhism at first hand, from Buddhist sources. He lived among Buddhists, talked to them and read and translated their scriptures.

My knowledge was much more remote. We learned something about it in history classes at school, and then, in our English classes, we were given Kim to read.

Kim is fiction. It’s about a 13-year-old boy in Lahore in what is now Pakistan who attaches himself to a Tibetan lama who is searching for a river of healing. Kim is a street kid. He is worldly wise, an expert beggar, and he is impressed that the lama, unlike most holy men of his acquaintance, is not in it for the money. As he sets off with the lama in search of the river, however, he is given a message and a packet by an Afghan horse trader of his acquaintance to deliver to a British colonel. At that time the British ruled India, and the message was an intelligence report. So Kim becomes a teenage spy.

After reading St Nicholas’s account of Buddhism, I looked at Kim again, intending to glance quickly at it to see where some of my earliest knowledge of Buddhism had come from. But I read it all the way through, for the fifth time, though the previous time was nearly 30 years ago.

Why read a book five times? I’ve read only a few books through five times, and it is because I found something new in them each time I read them, and this time was no exception.

One thing that struck me this time was that the last time I had read it, in 1988, the Cold War, which we had thought would last for ever, was about to end. And this time the Cold War is starting up again, and so a lot of things that passed me by in previous readings suddenly stand out.

trumprusOne of the themes of Kim is the clash between British and Russian imperialism. So in a sense it is very up-to-date. The Russophobia in the book reflects the Russophobia we see in the news and in social media every day. One merely has to mention the name of a Western politician as having a less than hostile attitude to Russia for that politician to be discredited, at least in the minds of some people. There is no need to say what the politician has done wrong, or what the Russians have done wrong. He talks to Russians, he’s a bad guy. It’s as simple as that. And so in the book, the bad guys are all those who make friendly overtures to the Russians, and the aim of the British spy network is to detect and neutralise them.

As the story goes on Kim himself is more deeply drawn into the spy network, and is educated and trained for the task, though his education is paid for by the old lama. During the school holidays, however, Kim goes back to the lama and joins him in his wanderings, much to the disapproval of the school authorities, who regard the lama as a street beggar.

On my first few readings the parts I liked best were Kim’s wanderings with the lama, and the accounts of the different religions, castes and cultures of India, the human variety, and the vivid descriptions of the different characters.

But always the lama stood out. from the rest as a centre of tranquility. It looks as though, in writing it, Kipling was himself torn between the worldly concerns, including the concerns of British imperialism, and the thought of the lama, that all this was illusion, and a hindrance to enlightenment.

I’ve never been to India, so I’ve no idea how accurate Kipling’s characterisations are, but they are certainly vivid and lifelike. He describes Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jains, and really just one Buddhist, the lama who is central to the story.

One difference between this and my previous readings of the book is that in the previous readings I had very little idea of Orthodox Christian asceticism, Since then I have learnt a bit more about it, and, as I noted in my article on Christianity and Buddhism, there are several external similarities. On rereading Kim the resemblances between the lama and an Orthodox spiritual elder (geron, starets) become even more marked. Both strive for dispassion (apatheia), and the lama repents when his passions get the better of him, as when one of the villains (Russian, of course) tears a drawing he has made of the Wheel of Life, and he reacts with anger. So, perhaps, an Orthodox monk might react if someone desecrated an ikon he had painted, and so might he repent afterwards. Only on the penultimate page of the book do the differences really stand out, and the impersonalism of Buddhism becomes really apparent.

Even the first time I read it, at the age of 14, I enjoyed fir first 100 pages, when Kim was wandering with the lama on his spiritual quest, more than the rest of the book, where the spy story seemed to take over. This time, however, it seemed different. The theme of the spy story is present from the beginning, only I had not noticed it so much before. And even in the last 100 pages, where it become central to the action and motivation of the characters (except for the lama) it seems that there is a contrast between the two ways — the violence of the world’s way, with the calm of dispassion, as the lama explains to Kim:

The blow was but a shadow upon a shadow. Evil in itself, it met evil in me — anger, rage, and a lust to return evil. These wrought in my blood, woke tumult in my stomach, and dazzled my ears. Had I been passionless, the evil blow would have done only bodily evil — a scar, or a bruise, which is illusion. But my mind was not abstracted, for rushed in straightaway a lust to let the Spiti men kill. In fighting that lust, my soul was torn and wrenched beyond a thousand blows.

Apart from the notion that a bodily injury is illusion, I see little there that might not have been said by a Christian spiritual elder.

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