Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “religion”

SABC: Sport and Faith

A few months ago there was an intense public debate about the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and its former head, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. I don’t know if the SABC has a new head yet, or if it is still drifting along flapping its wings like a headless chicken, but yesterday we were made acutely aware of two things that the new head, who ever that many be, should look into.

Sport

Yesterday there was a cricket match where the South African national team was playing against New Zealand. But only the rich could watch it on TV, and it wasn’t broadcast on steam radio at all.

Now this might not matter if you think that sport is a luxury, especially for spectators. No one actually needs to watch other people playing, and there’s nothing to stop them getting out and playing themselves — they could probably do with the exercise.

But the government also keeps banging on about “transformation” in sport, by which they mean that the demographic groups represented in national sports teams should reflect the demographic make-up of the country. But if only the rich can watch those sports on TV or radio, then only the rich will tend to play those sports. Those who can afford to pay to watch those sports on TV will also be the ones who can afford to send their children to the fee-paying schools where those sports are played and effectively coached. If you want to level the playing fields (pun intended) then you must make it possible for the widest range of people see our national teams play. And the government, which controls the SABC, needs to make sure that the SABC encourages this transformation by broadcasting matches where the national teams are playing, both home and away.

Faith

For the last few months, on Sundays when we go to church in Atteridgeville, we’ve caught the second part of a radio programme on SAfm called Facts of Faith. The first few times we heard it, it sounded like a paid denominational broadcast. There was a group of people drawn from various religious traditions who were asked to challenge the views of a very fundamentalist speaker, who then demolished their objections to his point of view in a rather condescending manner.

For a while we wondered which denomination was sponsoring the show. Was it Seventh-Day Adventists? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Or some new fundamentalist sect from the USA trying to gain a foothold in South Africa?

We listened to the end of the programme, but they never said which denomination was sponsoring it. It was followed, at 11:00 am by the Sunday morning church service, where one was told which church the service was in, so at least one knew what one was getting.

Eventually we looked up Facts of Faith on the web, and found that it apparently was not intended to be a paid denominational broadcast, however much it sounded like it. Instead it was

Facts of Faith is a platform for religious and faith communities to have a say in social, political, cultural, sexual and general issues. Facts of Faith affords the country and the general SAfm audience’s the benefit of hearing what faith communities have to say about the issues of the day.

Now that sounded as though it could be interesting, except that one wonders why they would broadcast it at a time when most Christians in the country would be in church, and so would not be able to hear it. That too seems a very sectarian thing to do. Nevertheless we continued to listen to the second half on the way home just because we found the main speaker so overbearing and annoying.

But yesterday’s one took the cake.

They were talking about women’s leadership in church, and there was a Muslim, and a bishop of something or other, and someone from the ACDP. We didn’t catch the names because we only started hearing it halfway through.

solascripAt one point they took phone callers from outside, and one caller said he could offer an interesting instance of something in African history that could illustrate women’s leadership from the point of view of Christianity, Islam and African Traditional Religion. He was quickly ruled out of order by the boss of the show (he was the boss, not a chairman or moderator or anything impartial like that). The name of the show, he said, was Facts of Faith, and that meant that they did not accept anything from history, or culture or tradition. It had to be from Scripture and Scripture only. Well that certainly confirmed the fundamentalist bias of the programme, and I was sad, because I would like to hear what the caller had to say.

And I wonder which “scriptures” are used by African traditional religions.

 

 

What should we wear?

The recent controversy in France about what one is permitted to wear on certain beaches is not so much about dress codes as it is about religious freedom. Secularism is a kind of civil religion in France, and secularists can be just as intolerant as the followers of any other religion when their religion is allied to state power. The laws that prevented Muslim women from wearing a burkini applied just as much to Christian or Buddhist monastics, Sikh turban wearers, and perhaps Hindu loin-cloth wearers as they did to Muslim women. Fortunately a higher court has found such laws to be ultra vires, so they may soon be scrapped.

Matt Stone asks a more general question about dress codes on his blog — Where do you draw boundaries on dress codes? (Curious Christian):

What would a universally acceptable dress code even look like? In some (sub)cultures full body coverings including face coverings are mandatory for all. In some (sub)cultures clothing is optional. Two extremes on a spectrum. In my own culture jeans and shirts are the norm, with bearing shoulders and midriff common in summer in informal settings. Head coverings are acceptable but face coverings of any sort are seen as subversive and banned in high security areas.

Concerning face coverings, in Western culture there is, of course, the stereotype of the masked bandit, so people who cover their faces must be up to no good. But this does not apply to the French “burkini bans”, because in those garments the face is not covered.

helmetBut Western culture also has the tradition of the masked ball, and there are people who wear celebrity masks in public, which cover their faces and make them look like someone else. Are those illegal or frowned upon in Australia? And don’t American kids wear masks at Hallowe’en?

So where do you draw the line about face coverings?

In some circumstances they are permissible, but in others there is the assumption that someone who covers their face in a way that makes recognition difficult is suspected of having criminal intentions.

anonymousAnd even when they are not regarded as criminal, sometimes masks can be seen as subversive.

So should all face coverings be banned? Or just criminal ones? Or just religious ones?

Though face coverings may be part of a dress code, they are also a special case, and perhaps one should separate the question of dress codes from the question of face coverings.

It is also important to make a distinction between secular and secularist.

Secular is a descriptive adjective, while secularism is an ideology with religious overtones.

A secular society is one in the law does not impose any religious or theological view on people. The law is neutral in matters of religion. Thus a secular society can allow freedom in matters of religion. A secularist society, on the other hand, will seek to suppress religion, and curtail religious freedom.

The French towns that have sought to restrict the kind of clothing that can be worn on beaches have done so in the name of the ideology of secularism. The reason they give for this is that the wearing of clothing that reveals the religious views of the wearer could lead to public disturbances.

I thijnk these are sisters of the Community of the Holy Name, whom I knew in Zululand. If certain French mayors had their way, they would niot be permitted to do this in France

I think these are sisters of the Community of the Holy Name (CHN), whom I knew in Zululand. If certain French mayors had their way, they would not be permitted to do this in France

As is seen in the picture above, recently posted on Facebook, some Christian monastics wear distinctive dress. And many monastics also have dress codes and other restrictions for people who visit their monasteries. A secular society would respect such codes, but a secularist society might not. People can often be hypocritical in demanding that “freedom of expression” be allowed in other societies and cultures, which they would not allow in their own — see Pussy Riot, freedom of expression and Western hypocrisy | Khanya.

Is a dress code imposed by a monastery on its visitors comparable to the code imposed by municipal authorities on visitors to a public beach? Is there a difference between public and private spaces, and if so, what is it?

And this by no means exhausts the question of dress codes and their significance. For a different aspect, see Izikhothane: a new word for an old fashion? | Khanya.

 

 

 

Nouns, adjectives and political allegiance

According to a UK newspaper web side, the way people use language can show how politically “left” or “right” one is:

Quiz: Can we guess your political allegiance –

with three simple questions?: New research published by the University of Kent suggests that the way you use nouns and adjectives is indicative of how right- or left-wing a person is.

If you haven’t already done so, go to the site and do the test, and see how accurate you think it is.

The web site claims to have a simple answer  determined by a simple test, but it actually opens a huge can of very wriggly worms, and raises far more questions than it answers.

leftyWhen I did the test, the page told me “You are a lefty”, and went on to say “Research suggests that left-thinkers tend to use more abstract terms, and are less likely to use nouns.”

That’s OK, in the sense that I do tend to think of myself as more “left” than “right” politically, but the answer, and the reason behind it, bothered me.

If you’re willing to follow my convoluted reasoning, here’s why it bothered me.

I read quite a lot of whodunits, and enjoy watching detective stories on TV. Recently we’ve been watching two crime investigation series we have on DVD — Silent Witness and New Tricks. And one recurring theme in that genre is that if a person is guilty of one crime, they are not necessarily guilty of another. Evidence that shows that they committed one crime is not necessarily sufficient to prove that they committed the crime they are now suspected of committing.

This is an elementary principle of justice: Produce the evidence.

It’s the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning.

Deductive reasoning works from the general to the particular: this person is a thief, therefore this person must have committed this theft.

Inductive reasoning works from the particular to the general: evidence shows that this person stole various items on several different occasions, therefore this person is a thief.

Both types of reasoning have their place, but the three questions in the quiz call on us to make a choice between two kinds of judgement: judging people and judging actions.

And it is that, rather than nouns or abstraction, that the quiz tests.

The choice in the answers is clearly between saying “this person is bad” or “this behaviour is wrong”.

And the quiz is therefore clearly prejudiced against conservatives, because it is saying that “conservatives” are more prejudiced than “leftys”.

My answers are also influenced by my Christian outlook. As Christians, we are told “Judge not, that ye be not judged”, and are told to be merciful to others, just as God has been merciful to us. Most Christians pray every day “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Man judges by the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Publican_PhariseeAll this is summed up in the adage one sometimes hears, “hate the sin but love the sinner”.

And that is precisely what the quiz measures — the extent to which you hate the sin but love the sinner.

And what the interpretation of the quiz tells you, categorically and unequivocally, is that “leftys” are Christian, and “conservatives” are not. So just when you are feeling smug about how unprejudiced you are because it tells you you are a “lefty”, it encourages you to become the most prejudiced of all and say, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this conservative (Luke 18:11).

How’s that for a Catch 22?

And that’s only the top layer of the can of worms. Wait till you get further down.

At the level of the quiz, one can quite easily say that it is better to judge actions rather than people. If we are to judge, or condemn, then we are to judge or condemn behaviour, not people. It is what people do that can be condemned, not what people are.

But if you go a bit deeper, it’s actually the other way round. What we are is more important than what we do.

As Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway put it in their book Up to our steeples in politics, “We agree with those who have reminded us in recent years that the Christian faith is indicative (the fact that God reconciles the world in Christ), not imperative (Go to church! Do not drink bourbon! Feed the hungry! Search and destroy!). But we believe that St Paul’s use of “reconcile” calls attention to a special kind of behavior by the Christian toward the world. Behavior which “does” by being, “acts” by living – that is, being and living as God made us in Christ.”

When we look at other people (as the quiz invites us to do, for the most part) we are to look at actions, at behaviour, and make judgements about what the person does rather than what the person is.

But when we look at ourselves, when we confess our sins, it is the other way round. Yes, I should confess that I lied, I cheated, I fornicated, I slandered, I got angry, but the really serious thing, the root of all this, is what I am, alienated from God. The root of the matter is not so much individual sins, but the sinful state, the fallen state, that I have fallen short of the glory of God.

The Publican in the story realised this, the Pharisee didn’t. And the quiz tempts me to emulate the Pharisee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The War on Christmas

The modern War on Christmas began when Ariel Sharon, then the Prime Minister of Israel, provocatively went for a walk on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in September 2000. thereby sparking off the Second Intifada. This turned Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, into a no-go area, just in time for the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ, which Christians might have wanted to observe with special celebrations.

XmasWarThe song of the angels, heard by the shepherds, was more than a little ironic:

Luke 2:14  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

King Herod, who started the first War on Christmas, apparently showed very little goodwill, and over the last 200 years, little has changed.

Global Research is a somewhat tendentious web site, and I usually take what it says with a pinch of salt, but when it comes to the War on Christmas, I think they got it right. US-NATO’s “Counter-Christmas Crusade” against the Cradle of Civilization and the Holy Land | Global Research – Centre for Research on Globalization:

…a region now decimated by that created by George W. Bush’s and Tony Blair’s “Crusade,” not to mention Obama and Cameron’s “humanitarian bombings” of the Land of two Rivers.

Ur was vandalized by the US army, who arrived with Bibles in vast stocks, missionaries and plans for proselytizing those who had nurtured and stewarded the region’s wonders of all religions for centuries.

Al-Qurna was stormed and devastatingly damaged by British, Lithuanian and Danish troops, the Tree of Knowledge whose legend and life seemingly spanned the mists of time, died, near certainly from the poisonous pollution of battle, more poisonous even than that which destroyed over half all fauna and flora after the Desert Storm 1991 onslaught, leaving the soil dead and infertile for years afterwards.

Syria’s tragedy in the ongoing Crusade, determination to redraw the map of the Middle East and steal all natural resources rather than purchase them, is outside the scope of this article.

And Christmas is not the only Christian activity that has been disrupted by these Middle Eastern wars. Now there is this: Last-minute politics overshadow historic pan-Orthodox council – The Washington Post:

A religious summit last held more than 1,200 years ago suddenly risks being downgraded or postponed because of Syria’s four-year civil war. This unexpected twist has come as the world’s Orthodox churches, the second-largest ecclesial family in Christianity, were supposed to be only months away from their first major council since 787.

Now it is no longer clear when or where the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, a summit first proposed at least as far back as 1961 and provisionally scheduled for May in Istanbul, will be held.

Merry Xmas, everyone!

The Limits of Discourse : As Demonstrated by Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky : Sam Harris

For decades, Noam Chomsky has been one of the most prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy, and the further left one travels along the political spectrum, the more one feels his influence. Although I agree with much of what Chomsky has said about the misuses of state power, I have long maintained that his political views, where the threat of global jihadism is concerned, produce dangerous delusions. In response, I have been much criticized by those who believe that I haven’t given the great man his due.

Last week, I did my best to engineer a public conversation with Chomsky about the ethics of war, terrorism, state surveillance, and related topics. As readers of the following email exchange will discover, I failed. I’ve decided to publish this private correspondence, with Chomsky’s permission, as a cautionary tale. Clearly, he and I have drawn different lessons from what was, unfortunately, an unpleasant and fruitless encounter. I will let readers draw lessons of their own.

via The Limits of Discourse : As Demonstrated by Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky : Sam Harris.

An interesting discussion, and worth reading.

It seems that the “old atheism”, that of the Bolsheviks, was associated with left-wing politics, whereas the “new atheism” of Harris, Hitchins et all, is linked to the politics of the right.

Now all we need is some sociological or anthropological studies to come up with some reasons for this.

 

What’s really going on in Ukraine?

For the last year or more, Ukraine has been descending into violence. This week, we are told, a group of leaders are meeting in Belarus to try to find a peaceful solution to the problems, but nobody seems very hopeful that a solution that all interested parties can agree on can be found. Leaders locked in Minsk talks on Ukraine ceasefire | World news | The Guardian:

Russian, Ukrainian, German and French officials, as well as separatist leaders and officials from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OECD) are locked in talks in Minsk trying to smooth the way for a summit deal leading to the demilitarisation of eastern Ukraine.

The leaders of the four countries are expected to meet in the Belarusian capital on Wednesday in an attempt to secure a ceasefire in the region, where pro-Russia separatists have been expanding the territory under their control in recent weeks.

Fighting raged in east Ukraine on Tuesday as both sides tried to make territorial gains before the proposed summit, which is being billed as a last chance to prevent the conflict from spiralling out of control.

It would be nice if they could find a peaceful solution, but I doubt that they will, because no one really seems to want one. And it is also very difficult to know what is really happening there, because most of the media reports one reads are tendentious and biased to one side or the other, so one has to read between the lines, and reading between the lines is often a misreading.

So here is the picture I have.

It is probably simplistic, and possibly wildly inaccurate, but I have no way of knowing, because the news media can’t be trusted.

I tend to interpret what is happening in Ukraine in the light of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory, because it seems to have predicted such clashes with uncanny accuracy, and what is happening in Ukraine seems to be almost a paradigm case.

Huntington identified nine civilizations, and compared the boundaries between them with the geological fault lines between tectonic plates. He predicted that most post-Cold War conflicts would take place along these fault lines, and that when they did, the more powerful countries in the civilizations would tend to be drawn into the conflict, and often use a local conflict on the fault line as a proxy for larger civilisational conflicts.

Civilizations and theoir boundaries, according to Huntington

Civilizations and their boundaries, according to Huntington (1996)

There is one inaccuracy in the map, however. According to Huntington’s theory, the fault line between the Western and the Orthodox civilizations should run right through the middle of Ukraine, though the map does not show that clearly.

In Western Ukraine Ukrainian nationalism is stronger, and more people speak the Ukrainian language (as opposed to Russian). In the past it was ruled by Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and there were significant minorities of Poles and other peoples. In much of Western Ukraine the Roman Catholic Church was strong, either in its Latin form, or in its Eastern Rite (Uniate) form. These characteristics tend to put it into Huntington’s Western Civilization.

Eastern Ukraine, by contrast, has many people who speak Russian in preference to Ukrainian, and the strongest church is the Orthodox Church, linked to the Patriarchate of Moscow. It was never ruled by Western empires, except briefly, in the 1940s, by the German Third Reich.  This tends to put it into Huntington’s Orthodox Civilization.

The differences between east and west tend to shade off towards the centre of the country with a more mixed popularion. Eastern and Western Ukraine have tended to support different political parties, though all seem to have been characterised by corruption. The parties supported by western Ukrainians have tended to be supported by Western Europe, and have tended to favour trade and cultural links with Western Europe. The partes supported by eastern Ukrainians have tended to be supported by Russia, and to favour trade and cultural links with Russia.

Here’s my take on it:

It would be in the interests of a stable, free and prosperous Ukraine if there could be a balance between the interests of east and west, so that one would not dominate or threaten to dominate the other.

The present crisis started when President Viktor Yanukovych (whose support was mostly in the east) cancelled a proposed trade agreement with the European Union (EU) and proposed making one with Russia instead. Those in favour of closer ties with the West protested, initially in the main square in the capital Kiev, but also in other centres as well. The protests became increasingly violent, with violence being used by some protesters and the police. It was at this point that several clergy and monks were seen standing between protesters and the police, praying for peace.

Clergy and monks pray as they stand between demonstrators and riot police in Kiev

Clergy and monks pray as they stand between demonstrators and riot police in Kiev

On 21 February 2014 President Yanukovych fled from the capital, perhaps fearing a coup, and the following day the Ukrainian parliament voted to depose him (unconstitutionally, and apparently with unseemly haste). Russia gave asylum to Yanukovych, and said that his deposition was a coup, and said it would protect Russian speakers in Ukraine; the West supported Yanukovych’s opponents, and the pressure from these outside interests gave it all the marks of a classic clash of civilizations.

And now some of the eastern parts of the country want independence, and this has developed into a civil war, which is also, because of the backers of each side, a proxy war in the clash of civilizations.

If there is to be any peace in Ukraine, then it’s time for the big boys to back off, and not to back one side or the other, but simply to back peace. In other words, the civilisational leaders must stop playing a zero sum game, and must help the Ukrainians to look for a win-win solution. I suspect that the current talks will fail because the participants are not looking for peace, but victory, which would be the conclusion of trade agreements that would favour one side and not the other — in other words, a zero-sum game. But I pray that it is not so, and that there will be at leasst a glimmer of sanity.

Now my view may be ridiculously simplistic, and I have been assured by one blogger that it is based on totally wrong premises, and that there are no differences or differences of opinion between Eastern and Western Ukrainians, and they would all live together in perfect peace and harmony and unanimity if it weren’t for the evil Russians, or rather, one Russian in particular, the evil Putin.

Well, not having been to Ukraine myself, I’m in no position to refute it, but I do regard it with a great deal of scepticism, because everything I’ve read about the history of the region indicates that there is no unanimity between Eastern and Western Ukraine, though I do think they might do a better job of sorting out their problems among themselves if they weren’t being egged on by Russia and the West.

So I reject that interpretation, and still haven’t seen a better one than the one I have given above. Does anyone else have one that isn’t driven by blind nationalism or civilizational loyalty?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charlie Hebdo, polarisation, Quakers, Orthodox

The Charlie Hebdo murders have sparked off widely-differing reactions around the world, and ripples of solidarity and hostility that go way beyond the original event.

It seems that people are being friended and unfriended on the basis of Je suis Charlie and Je ne suis pas Charlie. I had two such opposite reactions to one of my blog posts on the subject.

A few days ago I posted a blog article Je ne suis pas Charlie.

One person posted a comment saying

Thank you Steve for your post. It has given me courage to post my own views on Facebook which I copy below. On Facebook, I can be found as Brigid O’Carroll Walsh. I am also interested in your comments, Steve, about modernity and fundamentalism and think that this is an idea well worth exploring. Anyway, thank you and here is what I said on Facebook:

Dear Facebookies, All the stuff I am reading about the protests of the dreadful killings in France seems to me to leave so much unsaid. My own view, I think, is a minority view and I did not want to air it because I fear a thoughtless howling down. However, this post by my oldest internet friend, Steve Hayes, has given me courage.

Another, an old friend I have known for nearly 50 years, not only online but also face-to-face, wrote in a very different vein, on Facebook:

Steve Hayes, I find your whole attitude offensive in the face of such sad events. I think you are being deliberately bloody-minded. You are very close to being unfriended so please keep your comments on this issue to yourself from now on, or at least don’t post them on my page.

So the events of last week have certainly polarised people, and seem to have lost me an old friend, which makes me very sad.

And that would be the end of my sad story, but for one thing that strikes me as curious. Both the friends who reacted in such very different ways are Quakers, and I wondered about other Quakers’ views. Someone posted some links in a comment on  my encouraging/offending blog post, which included this one from a Quaker. I find myself in broad agreement with it.

QuakersI have quite a number of Quaker friends, including some linked on Facebook, but not many of them have posted anything directly on this issue. But some of those who have have seemed to wonder how one can do peacemaking in this kind of situation.

Most of us are a long way from Paris, and it is impractical to do anything there, but the division seems to have spread so widely that it would be worsh looking to see what it is that is causing it. How is it that two Quakers can have such radically different views?

One thing that strikes me is that it could be a misunderstanding, and that instead of “unfriending” and breaking off relations in other ways, we should be talking through our differences. Modern technology has made communication much easier in many ways. This should, in theory, make it easier to discuss and resolve differences, clear up misunderstandings etc.

But very often it has the opposite effect. If you had a friend on another continent before about 1990, you could send one another Christmas cards once a year, and not be aware of any fundamental differences of opinion. Modern communications technology makes it more obvi0us and immediate. In some ways, ignorance was bliss. As one person put it, we live in an  age of communicati0n without community.

So one of the challenges of peacemaking and peacebuilding is to see how we can use the advances in communications technology to build community, and try to reduce misunderstandings.

I’m not a Quaker, but an Orthodox Christian, and some see the two as very far apart. Fr Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox theologian of the last century, told of attending an ecumenical conference as an Orthodox delegate. One of the organisers offered to seat him with the “high church” group — Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and the like. He saw this as the organisers puting him in a box of their own making, and he said Why not with the Quakers? They share our emphasis on the Holy Spirit?

Fr Alexander went on to say:

The important fact of Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement and in the encounter – after so many centuries of almost total separation – between Orthodox and the West is precisely that the Orthodox were not given a choice; that from the very beginning they were assigned, not only seats at a certain place, role and function within the ecumenical movement. These ‘assignments’ were based onWestern theological and ecclesiological presuppositions and categories, and they reflected the purely Western origin of the ecumenical idea itself. We joined a movement, entered a debate, took part in a search whose basic terms of reference were already defined and taken for granted. Thus, even before we could realize it,we were caught up in the essentially Western dichotomies – Catholic versus Protestant, horizontal versus vertical, authority versus freedom, hierarchical versus congregational – and we were made into representatives and bearers of attitudes and positions, which we hardly recognized as ours, and which were deeply alien to our tradition. All of this was due not to any Machiavellian conspiracy or ill will, but precisely to the main and all-embracing Western presupposition that the Western experience, theological categories and thought forms are universal and therefore constitute the self-evident framework and terms of reference for the entire ecumenical endeavor

And perhaps that illustrates the kind of assumptions we make about each other, that leads to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and, sometimes, hostility.

I think that is one of the obstacles to attempts at peacemaking. And perhaps it is something that Quakers and the Orthodox Peace Fellowship could work on together.

Freedom of Expression: lip-service to a Western idol

The murder of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris this week has sparked off the biggest orgy of hypocritical handwringing about “freedom of expression” from Western politicians, journalists and other pontificators since the verdict in the Pussy Riot trial was announced two years ago.

I’m not trying to condone or justify the murders in any way. The murders were horrible, and I hope the killers are caught and brought to justice.

But the reaction I am talking about there is not a reaction to human beings being killed. It is rather that it was seen by many of the pontificators as an attack on “freedom of expression”, which was the same spin that the put on the Pussy Riot affair.

I have commented elsewhere that this seems to indicate that there are two fundamentalisms confronting each other here — Islamic fundamentalism, and a Western fundamentalism of “freedom of expression”. The almost identical reactions to the Charlie Hebdo killings and the Pussy Riot affair makes this quite clear.

There seems to be a huge reaction, quite out of proportion to the events themselves. Yes, it is horrible that 12 people were killed, but how many people were killed by Obama’s drones last week? Why doesn’t that stir more than a murmur of protest, and that only among those far from the centres of power in the West?

A ‘free speech’ machine. It looks for people who do not have enough free speech and then gives them some

A ‘free speech’ machine. It looks for people who do not have enough free speech and then gives them some

Here’s something that happened in the same week ‘Burned to the ground’: Boko Haram razes at least 16 Nigerian villages | Al Jazeera America:

Boko Haram razed at least 16 towns and villages in northern Nigeria and may have killed up to 2,000 people since the weekend, officials said Thursday.

After capturing a key military base in northeast Nigeria on Saturday, members of the feared armed group used crude bombs to level entire towns, according to local authorities.

But was it published in the Western media? No, it was published by Al Jazeera, a broadcaster with links to Islam. that great enemy of “freedom of expression”. The attack in Nigeria was probably intended to deprive those who were killed of their freedom of expression and their freedom of religion too. But in the scale of values of the Western media, the voice of the 1%, 12 white lives are enormously more valuable than 2000 black lives, and so deserve more column inches, and more talking heads. And they are just as dead as the French journalists.

The problem is that the “freedom of expression” angle is simply the spin put on the events by the Western politicians and media. Charlie Hebdo: This Attack Was Nothing To Do With Free Speech - It Was About War:

In less than an hour of the dreadful shooting of 12 people at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, the politicians had already started to lie to their own public.

John Kerry, US Secretary of State, declared that, “freedom of expression is not able to be killed by this kind of act of terror.”
The media lapped it up — the attack was now spun as an attack on ‘Freedom of Speech’. That cherished value that the West holds so dear.

The British Government was so in love with it, that they were passing laws that demanded nursery school teachers spy on Muslim toddlers because they had too much of it. Toddlers were ‘free’ to speak their mind as long as it agreed with UK Government policy

For many people in the West, “freedom of expression” is a value that is held with religious, even fundamentalist fervour. But the politicans and media moguls who put this spin in it don’t really believe it themselves; they pay lip-service to it, but ignore it when it suits them. The people who are telling us that an attack on journalists is an attack on freedom of speech don’t seem to have had any love for freedom of speech 16 years ago.

How is this different from the Charlie Hebdo attack? Is it any less an attack on freedom of speech? Serb TV station was legitimate target, says Blair | World news | theguardian.com:

Nato leaders yesterday scrambled to justify the bombing of Serbia’s state television station in an attack which killed a number of civilian workers and marked a further widening in the scope of targets now considered legitimate.

The attack on the building in the centre of Belgrade – which contradicted an apparent assurance by Nato this month that only transmitters would be hit – was condemned by international journalists’ organisations, representing both employers and unions.

I see no difference.

If those who ordered and carried out one attack were criminals, so were those who ordered and carried out the other. If one was a “legitimate target”, then so was the other. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are no different from those anomymous marked gunmen. Why weren’t they arrested and charged with war crimes?

Je suis Charlie? Bah, humbug.

As the author of this article says Charlie Hebdo: This Attack Was Nothing To Do With Free Speech - It Was About War:

“to bring an end to this — we’ve got to do something differently, because what we are doing now — isn’t working”

Dissolution: how revolutions consume their own children

Dissolution (Shardlake Series)Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Historical novels are not my favourite genre, as I tend to spend too much time looking for anachronisms, but C.J. Sansom seems to get around that. I first read his Winter in Madrid, set in the Spanish Civil War, and then [boo:Dominion], which is a kind of “what if” novel — what if the UK had surrendered to Germany after the fall of France in 1940?

Dissolution is set in the period of the English Reformation in the 1530s, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, and is a combination of historical novel and whodunit, a genre popularised by Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose.

Ruins of an English monastery

Ruins of an English monastery

In Dissolution Thomas Cromwell, who masterminded the English Reformation, sends a commissioner to the monastery of St Donatus at Scarnsea on the Sussex coast to arrange for its dissolution and surrender. The commissioner is murdered, so Cromwell sends another, Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, to continue the work of the first one and also to investigate the murder.

I ought to know something about the English Reformation, but I don’t know as much as I should. When I studied church history at St Chad’s College, Durham, in the 1960s, it formed quite a large part of the syllabus, but it was not a period that particularly interested me. I was more interested in the missionary period, which, where historical novels are concerned, is covered by Melvyn Bragg‘s Credo. I suppose that’s why I became a missiologist rather than a church historian.

Reading Dissolution reminded me of why I did not much like reading about that period of history, whether church or secular history. There is no doubt that the English Church wanted reforming, but the cure was worse than the disease, and C.J. Sansom brings this out clearly in his novel. None of the characters is particularly admirable. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, suffers from a physical deformity, which seems to reflect a spiritual deformity as well; he is naive and ambitious. He does have a sense of justice, but when push comes to shove, it makes way for ambition and political correctness every time.

Destruction_of_icons_in_Zurich_1524One of the things I did know about Thomas Cromwell was that he ordered the clergy to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, which I have found useful for family history, among other things, but most of what he did seems to have been bad, and motivated by greed and ambition. I have little reason to suppose that C.J. Sansom got his character very wrong. So the book gives something of the flavour of the times, even if the actual events it describes are fictitious.

But like much historical writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, it also carries “the burden of the present”. George Orwell‘s Animal Farm is an allegory, a parable about how revolutions consume their own children. It is set in a differnt period, and uses different literary techniques, but the same message comes through. The dissolution in the title of the book is not merely about the dissolution of the monasteries as institutions, but the dissolution of the people whose lives are disrupted in the process, and the dissolution of the English Reformation into a cesspool of corruption and greed.

The Pilgrimage of Grace

The Pilgrimage of Grace

There was a protest against the dissolution of the monasteries, called The Pilgrimage of Grace, which tunred into a rebellion. It was defeated after its leaders were given a safe conduct to travel to London to negotiate, and were then brutally murdered.

And so there is much in it that reminds me of the dissolution of South African democracy, twenty years after its inauguration, where the high ideals with which we began have dissolved into patronage, greed and corruption. Apartheid was South Africa’s Lent, 1994 was its Easter, the following 7 years were its Bright Week, and now it is winding down.

The character in the book for whom I felt most sympathy was the exiled Carthusian, Jerome, who was regarded as mad and dangerous, but retained something of the original monastic ideals, and his integrity.

For more on this, and its relevance to our times, see Notes from a Common-place Book: Philip Jenkins on the Reformation, both Protestant and Islamic

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Iconoclasm and the Reformation

A very interesting post by my blogging friend Terry Cowan, on the real meaning of iconoclasm in the Protestant Reformation and in Islam:

Notes from a Common-place Book: Philip Jenkins on the Reformation, both Protestant and Islamic:

For anyone living at the time, including educated elites, the iconoclasm was not just an incidental breakdown of law and order, it was the core of the whole movement, the necessary other side of the coin to the growth of literacy. Those visual and symbolic representations of the Christian story had to decrease, in order for the world of the published Bible to increase. In terms of the lived experience of people at the time, the image-breaking is the key component of the Reformation. In the rioting and mayhem, a millennium-old religious order was visibly and comprehensively smashed….in effect removing popular access to the understanding of faith and the Christian story.

It’s worth reading, as is the article it refers to and quotes from.

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