Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “ethics”

American elections: rhetoric and reality

The American general election is difficult to avoid on the Internet, as people are discussing it everywhere. As the election has drawn closer, the rhetoric has tended to become more and more intemperate, and I was tending to judge the merits of the candidates by the nastiness of their supporters, and blogged about it here.

But that is not the best way of becoming aware of the issues, or what the candidates stand for.

And then this came up on my Facebook thingy (I’m not sure if it’s a “wall” or a “timeline” or a “status”, but if you’re on Facebook you’ll know what I mean). It comes from an Orthodox priest — no names, no packdrill. I’m sure he is not ashamed of saying such things, but I am embarrassed for him.

Inspired by the comments of David French, in The Christian Post:
This election presents perhaps the clearest moral contrast of my adult life.

On one side is a candidate who is pro-life, and defends religious liberty. As governor of one of America’s most liberal states, he vetoed expanded access to the so-called “morning after” abortion pill and vetoed a bill permitting embryonic stem cell research, and was awarded by Citizens For Life for his prolife leadership.

On the other side is an incumbent who is radically pro-abortion (even supporting taxpayer funding of abortion), and has launched a frontal assault on religious liberty and the rights of conscience. After promising his healthcare plan would not include abortion, his administration redefined “preventative care” (which means to screen for diseases, such as cancer) to include contraception (as if pregnancy is a *disease*); he then redefined “contraception” to include abortion drugs (so his healthcare plan would require abortion coverage), and finally, his administration redefined “religious exemption” such that churches will be forced to pay for this murder of children.

On the one side is a candidate who supports marriage, both by policy and by personal example. In the battle for marriage, Maggie Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage, writes: “Mitt Romney didn’t just oppose court-ordered same-sex marriage with words, he fought hard, including behind the scenes.” On the other side is an incumbent who refused, as Chief Law Enforcement Agent in the Nation, to defend the federal law DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act (signed by Bill Clinton), and who recinded military policies in favor of a homosexual agenda, and who has come out publicly in favor of same sex “marriage.”

I’m not sure that political candidates in a democratic election present a moral choice that is that clear and simple, so I did a Google search for one of those quiz thingies that present you with policies of election candidates, and then tell you who comes closest to your moral choices.

I found several such quizzes, and did four of them.

One told me I should suppport Barack Obama, clearly and unequivocally.

Another said that I should support the Democrats and/or the Libertarians, as they fitted the bill equally.

The other two said I should support Jill Stein.

Jill who?

I had to Google to find out who she was.

It turns out she’s the leader of the Green party.

This is what one of the quizzes said:

I thought that that was also the best quiz, and you can see more about it here.

It has simple Yes/No questions, but if you want something more nuanced, it will show you more possibilities.

Of course I’m not American, and the things that are important to me might not be as important to those who live in the USA, and vice versa.

For what it’s worth, I answered the quiz from a strongly “pro-life” point of view. I marked the “pro-life” questions as “most important” to me — abortion, capital punishment, embryonic stem-cell research and the war in Iraq — and indicated that I was strongly against them all.

Of course in the interpretive summary, those are not all classified together as “pro-life”, but are divided between social, domestic, foreign and science policies.

But one thing I am sure of is that this election does not present the “clearest moral contrast” of anybody’s adult life.

The issues are not black and white, but varying shades of grey.

The greatest mistake would be to think that the election of one of the candidates would be a great triumph, or that the election of another would be an unmitigated disaster. Such an attitude indicates a kind of political messianism that is unbecoming for Christians, to say the least. “Put not your trust in princes.”

Is an abortion debate possible?

Abortion is one of the issues that I have generally avoided blogging about. The reason for this is, as the Opinionated Vicar, David Keen, puts it, that “the heat/light generation ratio is so dire”. The extreme bigotry of both “sides” in the abortion “debate” make it almost impossible to discuss.

And so a hat-tip to the same Opinionated Vicar for pointing me to Mehdi Hasan: Being Pro-Life Doesn’t Make Me Any Less Of A Lefty

What I would like is for my fellow lefties and liberals to try to understand and respect the views of those of us who are pro-life, rather than demonise us as right-wing reactionaries or medieval misogynists.

One of the biggest problems with the abortion debate is that it’s asymmetric: the two sides are talking at cross-purposes. The pro-lifers speak about the right to life of the unborn baby; the pro-choicers speak about a woman’s right to choose. The moral arguments, as the Scottish philosopher Alasdair Macintyre has said, are “incommensurable”.

Another problem is that the debate forces people to choose sides: right against left, religious against secular. Some of us, however, refuse to be sliced and diced in such a simplistic and divisive manner. I consider abortion to be wrong because of, not in spite of, my progressive principles. That I am pro-life does not make me any less of a lefty.

And that made me recall how gobsmacked I was when I first saw pro-abortion views described as “liberal”. That was back in 1966, when I had recently arrived in Britain as a card-carrying Liberal, having just escaped being banned by the South African government by the skin of my teeth (I have a copy of the banning order was signed, but not delivered, because I had skipped the country and sought asylum in the UK). Back then terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” had not been invented, or if they had, I had never heard of them. My first reaction, at the age of 24, on hearing a pro-abortion policy being described as “liberal”, was as follows (from my diary from 4th February 1966; I had been in the UK for about 2 weeks had was staying with an Anglican priest, Canon Eric James, near Herne Hill in south London):

I woke up relatively early, and while eating breakfast discussed with Eric an article in yesterday’s “Sun” on the subject of abortion. The thing that struck me was that they spoke of the “liberal and enlightened practice of legal abortion” and “a human approach unaffected by moral attitudes” which sounded completely nonsensical.

As they put it the whole thing sounded to me like fascist piggery based fundamentally on the idea that if the existence of another person causes me inconvenience or discomfort then I am morally justified in trying to get rid of the other person. And here the fact that many of the people involved (in abortion) were married women who already had children would seem to indicate a certain amount of selfishness. And once having established the practice that it is all right to get rid of inconvenient individuals in some circumctances, then the way is open for doing it on others. If unwanted babies are to be disposed of in this manner, then why not euthanasia, which could rid society of the mental defective and the physically deformed, and possibly the old people who can no longer look after themselves and so become a burden on society.

The practice might be extended to social misfits as well — those who, while having no obvious physical or mental defects, nevertheless fail to adjust themselves to society. Political deviates would be the next on the list. Why, we’ll be back to the good old days when Jews were liquidated in the gas chambers.

Of course the good doctor in Aberdeen might say that in a liberal and enlightened country things couldn’t escalate like that — but do we live in a liberal and enlightened society? And of
course a humane approach must not be affected by moral attitudes.

How lovely for Mr Vorster, I am sure. We can embark at once on a humane and enlightened programme for all Bantu women who become pregnant. Humane, because most of them have starving children already, and another mouth to feed when there is not enough food as it is could cause them worry, and damage their mental and physical health and well-being. And the world will have cause to be grateful, because we are solving the problem of overpopulation by a liberal and enlightend practice of genocide. The foregoing, of
course, is an extensive exaggeration of what the article actually said. But such escalation would really be perilously easy. Perhaps there is something in human rights after all; if it were enshrined in law — the illiberal, unenlightened and inhumane idea that every human being from the moment of conception, had “an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

Some time later it occurred to me that they might be using “liberal” in the sense of “permissive”. Liberalising the abortion laws would make it easier for people to have abortions, just as liberalising the gun laws might make it easier for people to own and carry guns. So one might advocate “liberal” abortion laws or “liberal” gun laws, but advocating or opposing such laws might not be a reliable indication of whether or not one was liberal.

After that, however, the “debate” hotted up, and the heat/light generation ratio got worse. There was so much bigotry on both sides that it became almost impossible to discuss it. Here’s one example of “pro-choice” bigotry A General Query | Clarissa’s Blog

Dear woman-hating anti-choicers, please go away to those badly written websites with horrible spelling and ridiculously stupid arguments where creatures of your ilk graze, OK? This is a blog for people who have a fully developed adult brain. You are not going to like it here anyways.

Strangely enough, I haven’t taken the advice to go away, and actually do quite like it there, because not all the posts are as bad as that one.

And then from the other side of the argument, there is this, equally bigoted: EXPOSING LIBERALS: Libs claim Abortion isn’t Murder | Rise Up America Party

Liberals are on a never ending futile mission to justify the senseless slaughter of innocent children. They claim that Abortion just kills a clump of cells, not an actual human life. Yet pictures like these tell a very different. Liberals want to rationalize what can and will not ever be rationalized: that killing babies is not Murder.

Liberals: Responsible for the biggest holocaust of our modern times since Roe Vs Wade.

So having learnt from opposite extremes on the spectrum that I am a woman-hater who lacks an adult brain and that I am responsible for the biggest holocaust of modern times, what can I say?

As Mehdi Hasan put it in the piece quoted above, the two sides were simply talking past each other. ‘The pro-lifers speak about the right to life of the unborn baby; the pro-choicers speak about a woman’s right to choose. The moral arguments, as the Scottish philosopher Alasdair Macintyre has said, are “incommensurable”.’

They are not talking about apples and oranges, which at least are both edible fruit; they are talking about chalk and cheese.

As the sociologists Peter and Brigitte Berger put it:

The issue of abortion has galvanized more passion, on both sides, than any other issue in the area under consideration here. This should not be surprising, in view of what is at stake here. For the one side, what is at stake is the fundamental right of a woman to have control over her own body and her own life. On the other side, what is at stake is the very purpose of society in protecting the life of even its weakest member. Clearly, there is an enormous cognitive gulf between the two sides, in terms of the understanding of the nature of the human person: Is the fetus a person, yes or no?

This is a cognitive issue, logically prior to any discussion of norms, for the norms of each side, one may assume, would be readily acceptable to the other side, provided the cognitive issue were resolved: The most ardent pro-abortionist does not recommend infanticide in the exercise of a woman’s right to control her own life, which presupposes that an infant has a different status from a fetus; and the most fervent anti-abortionists do not dispute a woman’s rights over her own body, but what they do dispute is that a fetus is simply part of a woman’s body.

The language used in this debate over abortion has systematically obfuscated this fundamental cognitive divide. This is already apparent in the appellations used by each side to describe its own position: “Pro-choice” versus “pro-life.” Pro-abortionists demand a woman’s right to choose for herself – which only begs the question as to whether, in the case of an abortion, she is choosing only for herself and not also for another human being. Anti-abortionists claim to be defending human life – which presupposes agreement as to when the life of a human individual begins. Both appellations, of course, have powerful emotional connotations. “Choice” is one of the key concepts of modernity, as we have argued elsewhere. Being modern entails a vast expansion in choices and thus in the control of human beings over their own lives. Conversely, to be “anti-choice” suggests a deeply reactionary and obscurantist attitude – a suggestion used to the hilt in pro-abortion propaganda. And “life,” after all, is one of the most potent words in the language. One can hardly say anything worse of political antagonists than that they are “anti-life.” As part of the language battle in this area, it is noteworthy how carefully words are chosen by each side. Pro-abortionists will always use language that avoids suggesting a human status for the fetus; anti-abortionists will regularly say “child” instead of “fetus.” Anti-abortionists, by the logic of their own position, must, then, speak of “murder” to refer to abortion and, in view of the number of abortions now taking place in the United States (more than one million annually), of “genocide.” Little room for compromise would seem possible under these circumstances, and the debates over other family issues seem mild by comparison.

Unlike Mehdi Hasan, I don’t see the question as divorced from religion. Back in 1966, when I wrote the piece quoted above, I was anti-abortion for precisely the same reason I was anti-apartheid. And the argument of the pro-abortion lobby about a women having the right to control her own body sounded very similar to the apartheid-government’s stock response to any criticism of its policies from abroad, “We will not tolerate any outside interference in our domestic affairs.”

I was a Liberal, and joined the Liberal Party because I was a Christian. And the Liberal Party, it seemed to me, advocated political policies that were most in accord with Christian anthropology. That is not to say that the Liberal Party was a Christian party. Many of its members were Christian, but many were Hindus, Jews, Muslims, atheists or agnostics. They might have had a variety of reasons for supporting such policies at the mundane level, and it was at that level that we agreed.

On the question of taking the life of another Orthodox Christianity seems to approach the matter differently from Western Christianity, or from Western secular humanism. In Western thought there seems to be a strand of legalism — the notion that there can be a “just” war, or “justifiable” homicide. In Orthodoxy killing someone, whether in battle or by abortion, is always a sin that needs to be confessed. One cannot say, “I am a soldier obeying lawful orders, and therefore killing the enemy is not a sin, and is therefore justified.” And the same with abortion. Whether it is legally permitted or not, abortion is a sin and to be confessed. But the Church does not exist to punish sinners, but it is rather a hospital in which they can be healed. There is thus a distinction between what is “right” and what is “moral”. It coincides roughly with the distinction between “law” and “gospel”.
As a Liberal, I support the concept of human rights because if applied properly, it can help to mitigate the effects of human unlovingness and human sinfulness. Laws cannot force people to love one another, but they can mitigate the effects of human hatred. Justice is good, but Christians are called to go beyond justice to love. At its best, justice is congealed love.

This difference, between rights and morality, between the legal rights of a citizen and the calling of a Christian, has been well expressed here Second Terrace: Fire in the Theater: Rights and Christians:

An American citizen has many rights. A Christian has none — all he has are invitations to virtue, and the promise of beatitude.

An American has a right to bear arms. A Christian may make such a claim, but not as a Christian. I’m sure that a Christian can go hunting and can even keep something for the defense of his home (although that possibility is even less supported for a priest). But I am even surer that a Christian — as a Christian — cannot ever demand the right to possess and traffic in assault munitions.

An American has a right to terminate a fetus. A Christian does not.

An American has a right to engage in sexual activity outside the contours of a sacramentalized union of a man and woman. A Christian does not. He or she, whether we like it or not, is asked to surrender not only homosexual activity, but also heterosexual activity that is before or outside of traditional marriage. He is requested to devote himself to not only physical chastity, but also to the “chastity of the imagination” — a concept, I’m sure, is not the most popular of positions.

An American has the right to accumulate wealth, and to deny comfort to his neighbor and pollute the environment in the process of doing so. A Christian does not. Wealth is given to Christians, as St. Paul and the Prophets and the Fathers make painfully clear, solely for the sake of “kenotic” giving away. It was only the Reformation that made the idea of “wealth-protection” a Christian possibility.

And the rest of that post is worth reading too.

Slavish morality

One sometimes sees interesting things juxtapossed on Twitter, which also illustrates the limits of Twitter as a medium (or must we call it a media nowadays)?

On my Twitter stream this morning were the following:

“Defend the poor and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and needy.” (Bible)

followed shortly afterwards by:

The church uses sophisticated propaganda techniques in order to implant a slavish morality in the hearts of the populace.

Reggie’s tweet is presumably an example of the church using sophisticated propaganda techniques (ie Twitter) to implant a slavish morality in the hearts of the populace.

I presume that an unslavish morality would take a more proper Übermensch tone, since I believe it was Nietzsche who came up with the term and described Christianity as a religion suitable only for slaves.


In my experience many people raise privacy issues in connection with web sites such as Facebook, or in genealogical research. But very few seem to be willing to discuss the underlying principles of the issues. In a recent blog post Matt Stone raises the same issues. Thinking biblically about privacy – Glocal Christianity:

I gather many believe privacy is a good thing; that it’s erosion is a bad thing. But of what basis do we found such beliefs? Is the foundation biblical, or merely cultural? How might we go about articulating a cross cultural ethic for instance?

I think that is quite important, because many people do not seem to regard privacy as an issue at all. It is simply not up for debate. They say “That’s private,” and for them that is the end of the discussion.

But as Matt Stone points out, it is an issue. It is debatable, because many people have different ideas about what is private and what is not, and how important privacy is. He asks if this is merely cultural, and I think that for most people it is. We each have our own ideas about what is private, and what is not; about information that we are willing to share with others and information that we do not wish to share. But because we rarely discuss these with other people, there is no common standard, and no shared understanding.

In our family history research we have come across relatives who are suspicious of the whole enterprise. They prefer the past to be forgotten, and rather resent our looking into matters that they think ought to have been buried and forgotten. This sometimes extends to things that one might regard as trivial. For example, when my father-in-law, Keith Greene, died in 1983, we wrote about it in a kind of open letter to friends and family members, and included a brief obituary, as a kind of appreciation for him. Among other things we included what we regarded as an amusing incident. He worked for a shipping firm, Rennies, in Durban, and travelled to Maputo in Mocambique once a month. Relations between apartheid South Africa and newly-independent Mocambique were not cordial, and Mocambique had many shortages, so he usually took a carload of groceries and things like toothpaste for people in the Rennies office in Maputo. On one trip they had two pigeons in a cage, and since the pigeons were livestock, and would have to be smuggled in, they stopped at a lay-by just before the border, and jettisoned the cage. But when they got to the border, they found it was closed for three days. They rushed back to the lay-by to get the cage again, but it was gone, and so they not only had to find a place to keep the pigeons, but also a car-load of frozen food, until the border re-opened.

We thought it was an amusing incident that threw light on life in South Africa, and its relations with Mocambique, but my mother-in-law was furious with us for putting it in the letter. “That’s private,” she said. End of discussion. She clearly drew the line between what was private and what could be shared with others in a different place from where we did. And we found that that was true of many of that generation.

On the other hand, I did draw the line somewhere. The letters were posted in addressed envelopes, and we intended that they should be read by the intended recipients, though we would not have minded if they had shown it to some of their friends. We did not intend to publish it a newspaper where it could be read by anyone. Nor did we intend that it should be intercepted by the Security Police and read by their functionaries, though we knew that that was a possibility. Since Keith Greene had died, he would not be making any more trips to Mocambique, so it did not matter if they knew that he once smuggled a couple of pigeons across the border.

On the other hand, I’ve been writing an article about the mentality of the Security Police in South Africa in the apartheid era, based on my own file, and their reports refer frequently to “a sensitive source”, and it is clear that this often refers to someone in the post office reading outgoing mail to foreign countries, which was illegal without a court order, but that did not deter the Security Police. Though we took it for granted that mail was intercepted and telephones tapped, we still regarded that as crossing the line, and as an invasion of privacy. So though we drew the line in a different place from my mother-in-law, we still drew the line somewhere, and if we had evidence of it happening today in the new democratic South Africa we would complain, probably to the Human Rights Commission.

A student friend of mine went to teach in the rural village of Postmasburg in the Northern Cape, and once in my travels I turned aside to visit her. She was amazed at the lack of privacy and the propensity for gossip. Everyone in town knew everyone else’s business, and the main souces of village gossip were the operators at the (manual) telephone exchange and the doctor’s receptionist.

A few years later, when we lived in a similar small town (Melmoth in Zululand) we discovered the same thing, except that an additional vector of gossip was the golf course. Local calls were free in those days, and if people were going out to dinner, they would call the exchange and let them know, and so calls would be put through to their dinner hosts. That was the equivalent of SMS, but considerably less private. And of course the party lines that went to the farms were notorious for people listening in.

So there are different privacy standards for rural areas and cities.

I think the idea of privacy is also very much linked to the modern worldview. The Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment encouraged the notion of the individual point of view, and perspective (based on a single viewpoint), and this notion also gave rise to the idea of privacy (see also Notes from underground: The ikon in an age of neo-tribalism).

I can’t recall that anyone has defined privacy, or expounded the principles on which it is based, or said how we should decide on the limits. And the Bible records the life of premodern societies, so I very much doubt if they had very much notion of “privacy”, so I don’t think we will find a “biblical” view of it, or succeed in defining it biblically.

Universal health care tends to cut the abortion rate

Apparently some people in the USA are opposed to universal healthcare on the grounds that it will increase the abortion rate. It seems that they are operating on a faulty premiss.

T.R. Reid – Universal health care tends to cut the abortion rate –

Increasing health-care coverage is one of the most powerful tools for reducing the number of abortions — a fact proved by years of experience in other industrialized nations. All the other advanced, free-market democracies provide health-care coverage for everybody. And all of them have lower rates of abortion than does the United States.

This is not a coincidence. There’s a direct connection between greater health coverage and lower abortion rates. To oppose expanded coverage in the name of restricting abortion gets things exactly backward. It’s like saying you won’t fix the broken furnace in a schoolhouse because you’re against pneumonia. Nonsense! Fixing the furnace will reduce the rate of pneumonia. In the same way, expanding health-care coverage will reduce the rate of abortion.

At least, that’s the lesson from every other rich democracy.

Moral regeneration redux

A friend recently wrote to me that he is in a quandary to know which party to vote for in next month’s general election that is:

  1. not corrupt
  2. not filled with monsters from the past
  3. not a joke

And I have to admit that I am in the same position.

COPE (the Congress of the People Party) in an apparently shrewd move, picked Mvume Dandala as their presidential candidate. A Methodist minister, and not a career politician, was perhaps a good choice to fight an anti-corruption campaign, but then they blew it by also choosing Allan Boesak. Of course the Pan African Congress (PAC) also chose a prominent Methodist minister, Stanley Mokhoba, in 1999, and still not no more than 1% of the vote.

In the 1990s, after the fall of Bolshevism, public opinion polls showed that in Russia the Church was the most trusted institution in society – above business, the army, politicians, academics. One resuly of this was that politicians were always looking for photo ops with church leaders, in the hope that some of the magic pixie dust would fall on them.

But when I was applying for a job at London Transport when I went to England as a student, and the only people I knew in England were clergy, they said that clergy were not acceptable as references. Anyone else but not clergy. Clergy, of course, as just as much sinners as anyone else, but in this case they were regarded as somehow more corrupt and even less truthful. So putting clergy as the public face of a political movement to show that it is honest can backfire.

A fellow-blogger and Methodist minister Dion Forster is involved in a new initiative to encourage ethical behaviour in all politicians, business people, civil servants and others, Unashamedly Ethical:

Unashamedly Ethical is a broad based, independent, initiative to promote ethics, values, and clean living among business and individuals. It challenges people to make a personal pledge to ethical living, and challenge others to do the same. In doing so we can turn the tide on corruption and poverty.

Now that could be a good idea, but I think some people are just too wedded to greed for it to make that much difference.

A pledge is a good thing. It is a good thing to encourage people to follow ethical values, and to agree to do so publicly. But perhaps something more is needed. Perhaps someone needs to record unethical behaviour as well. There are radio ads about not trying to bribe police officers, but how effective are they when police officers themselves solicit bribes?

Many years ago there was a court case when a Newcastle busnessman tried to bribe a traffic cop to quash a ticket. The traffic cop took the bribe, but the busnessman still had to go to court and pay his traffic fine, and he sued the traffic officer. The judge in that case threw it out of court, but not before making remarks about the unbelievable moral turpitude of both the plaintiff and the defendant. The trouble is that that kind of moral turpitude is now so commonplace as to be almost unremarkable.

As the Unashamedly Ethical web site says,

… people are tired of the injustice, abuse and lack of accountability we see all around us. People are constantly being challenged to change and to go public with their values and beliefs so that their peers and constituencies can hold them accountable.

But when foreigners are arrested and threatened with deportation by officials who threaten to destroy the papers that show they are here legally unless they get a bribe, it is often easier to pay the bribe. Thaking pledges are all very well, and can be good PR for business organisations, civil servants and politicians. It’s what happens when they break their pledge that might make the difference.

Unfavourable opinions of religions

In my previous post I commented on a survey that asked whether people had a favourable or unfavourable opinion of a religion (in this case Wicca), and said I would be among those who was neutral or had no opinion.

But the question was raised if the people who practised the religion did things one disapproved of, what then?

I disapprove of some practices of some adherents of some religions, but one can’t blame a religion for the behaviour of its followers.

Where a practice is something I believe to be wrong or immoral and intimately bound up with the practice of the religion, that is something else, and probably deserves a separate discussion, and is not something that can easily be determined by a survey questionnaire.

Let me give an example of practices that I believe to be wrong or immoral, but which are closely bound up with the practice of a religion.

When Protestant missionaries evangelised the Kikuyu (Gikuyu) people of central Kenya, they strongly disapproved of some features of Kikuyu culture, such as polygamy and female circumcision, and urged the British authorities (Kenya was at that time a British colony) to assist them in suppressing them. They demanded that all teachers in church schools (and all schools for Africans in Kenya were church schools) take an oath against female circumcision. As a result two independent school associations were formed, the Kikuyu Karing’a Educational Association and the Kikuyu Independent Schools Association. The former became affiliated with the Orthodox Church, and the latter with the African Independent Pentecostal Church (for more details, see my article on Orthodox mission in tropical Africa).

Female circumcision (female genital mutilation) was an integral part of Kikuyu religion and culture, but Christianity generally opposes bodily mutilation (Protestant missionaries in China, for example, started the Natural Foot Society to counter the Chinese practice of binding the feet of female children to keep them small). So the Protestant approach was to suppress practices that they regarded as immoral, and to seek the aid of the government in doing so, thus linking mission and colonialism.

The Orthodox Church, however, did not begin with moral denunciations of practices it thought immoral. Polygamists could be baptised, but after baptism further marriages were discouraged. Now, after 70 years, polygamy and female circumcision are not practised by Kikuyu people who are Orthodox Christians, but this was not achieved by a direct frontal attack on Kikuyu culture. The Orthodox approach was that people need first to know Christ, to worship the Triune God, and and then gradually be transformed into the image of God, not by human laws and prohibitions and sanctions and punishments, but by the working of the Holy Spirit.

Female circumcision is still practised in some parts of Africa, and some Westerners still make an issue of it, and those who do are not always puritanical Protestant missionaries, but are often quite secular. They regard African cultures that do such things as barbarous, and, like the puritanical Protestant missionaries, campaign for laws to be passed against them, yet their own cultures practise wholesale abortion, which seems equally barbarous to many Africans (and to many Christians outside Africa). What lies behind it, in the case of both the Protestant missionaries and the secular social reformers, is Western cultural imperialism.

So there are two things here.

One is the behaviour of some adherents of a religion. Is that adequate cause for indicating disapproval of a religion?

Some people cite the Inquisition and the Crusades as examples to show that Christianity is an evil religion that one should disapprove of. But I think it is silly to blame a religion for the behaviour of some of its followers. The Crusades and the Inquisition were products of certain periods of human history, and show that Christians, like other people, sometimes succumb to social forces and sometimes even mistakenly identify these with mandates of their religions. One can say the same of suicide bombings and pogroms and various other things.

In the case of Wicca, it is clear that some Wiccans have created a myth of “the Burning Times”, which they have quite deliberately and consciously used to fan the flames of hatred against Christians. Should I therefore disapprove of Wicca? No, because not all Wiccans do this, and some have spoken quite strongly against it. One cannot blame a religion for the behaviour of its followers, unless that behaviour is an integral part of following the religion.

And that brings us back to the second thing. Female circumcision was an integral part of Kikuyu traditional religion and culture, which is why the attack on it by Protestant missionaries was seen as a direct attack on Kikuyu culture and part of a scheme by the colonial government to deprive the Kikuyu people of their land. The Protestant missionaries demanded oaths against female circumcision, and, almost as a counter to that, the Mau Mau movement began demanding oaths to recover the land, and suddenly the Kenya colonial government began denouncing “oath-taking” as the greatest evil of all, and to punish people for doing that, and detaining them if they were even suspected of it.

And this is a point at which I follow the Orthodox missionary tradition, which is not to denounce the religions and cultures of others. All human religion and all human culture is fallen, including my own, and needs to be transformed by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit. This can be seen in the missionary instructions of St Innocent of Alaska

On no account show open contempt for their manner of living, customs, etc., however these may appear deserving of it, for nothing insults and irritates savages so much as showing them open contempt and making fun of them and anything belonging to them.

Even if one disagrees with their culture and customs, one can show respect for people. One can disagree with their theology, and can say why one does. as St John of Damascus did in pointing out where Islamic theology differed from Orthodox theology (he regarded Islam as a Christian heresy). But it should be done in an atmosphere of respect. It is fashionable nowadays in some Western to belittle the notion of respect, and to despise it as mere “political correctness”, and that is something I think worthy of disapproval!

St Innocent of Alaska also disapproved of the linking of mission and colonialism, when he said,

2. On arriving in some settlement of savages, thou shall on no account say that thou art sent by any government, or give thyself out for some kind of official functionary, but appear disguise of poor wanderer, a sincere well-wisher to his fellow-men, who has come for a single purpose of showing them the means to attain prosperity and, as far as possible, guiding them to their quest


12. Ancient customs, so long as they are not contrary to Christianity, need not to be too abruptly broken up; but it should be explained to converts that they are merely tolerated.

So tolerance is an Orthodox missionary principle. Some things cannot be tolerated, as contrary to Christianity, such as human sacrifice. In this, I think Fr Thomas Hopko’s account of tolerance is worth repeating:

Tolerance is always in order when it means that we coexist peacefully with people whose ideas and manners differ from our own, even when to do so is to risk the impression that truth is relative and all customs and mores are equally acceptable (as happens in North America).

Tolerance is never in order when it means that we remain idle before wickedness which harms human beings and destroys God’s creation.

To be tolerant is to be neither indifferent nor relativistic. Neither is it to sanction injustice or to be permissive of evil. Injustice is intolerable and evil has no rights. But the only weapons which Christians may use against injustice and evil are personal persuasion and political legislation, both of which are to be enacted in an atmosphere of respect. While Christians are permitted under certain conditions to participate in police and military actions to enforce civil laws and to oppose criminality, we may not obey evil laws nor resort to evil actions in defence of the good. This means that Christians are inevitably called to suffer in this age, and perhaps even to die. This is our gospel, our witness and our defence.

So generally my attitude towards religions other than my own is one of tolerance. I neither approve nor disapprove of them. I may approve of some of their beliefs or practices, and disapprove of others, but recognise that if these are integral parts of the religion that they cannot be abruptly separated without destroying the whole, therefore I cannot either approve or disapprove of the whole, unless the whole thing is evil or based on evil, and such religions are rare.

I disapprove of the Hindu caste system and sutti, I don’t disapprove of Hinduism. I disapprove of Jewish support for Zionism, but don’t disapprove of Judaism, and recognise that Zionism is a secular movement, and is no more necessarily tied to Judaism than crusades and crusading and pogroms are tied to Christianity.

There are also some aspects of these and other religions that I might approve of, though that does not necessarily mean that I approve of the religion per se, nor that it would be right for me as an Orthodox Christian to believe and practise them. I used to think, and to some extent still do, that Jack Kerouac’s Zen Catholicism was quite cool, but Orthodox Christianity has different, and I believe better, ways of achieving similar ends.

Brian Cloughley: Kid Killers are Barbarians

Brian Cloughley: Kid Killers are Barbarians: “People who kill kids, for whatever reason and no matter in what manner, are disgusting, murderous, cowardly barbarians.”

I take that to include aerial bombing, suicide bombing and abortion.

Hat-tip to A conservative blog for peace

Holy Poverty

In 1920 R.H. Tawney published his book The acquisitive society, in which he criticised capitalist morality and values. Fifty years later Lawrence Lipton, the chronicler of the Beat Generation, wrote:

The New Poverty is the disaffiliate’s answer to the New Prosperity. It is important to make a living. It is even more important to make a life. Poverty. The very word is taboo in a society where success is equated with virtue and poverty is a sin. Yet it has an honourable ancestry. St. Francis of Assisi revered poverty as his bride, with holy fervor and pious rapture. The poverty of the disaffiliate is not to be confused
with the poverty of indigence, intemperance, improvidence or failure. It is simply that the goods and services he has to offer are not valued at a high price in our society. As one beat generation writer said to the square who offered him an
advertising job: ‘I’ll scrub your floors and carry out your slops to make a living, but I will not lie for you, pimp for you, stool for you or rat for you.’ It is not the poverty of the ill-tempered and embittered, those who wooed the bitch goddess Success with panting breath and came away rebuffed. It is an independent, voluntary poverty.

In the 1970s Western Christian theologians wrote a lot about “contextualisation”, to such an extent that it became an almost meaningless piece of theological jargon. But the main idea is quite simple. It is an image taken from the weaving of cloth. The warp threads are stretched out along the length of the cloth, and the weft threads are woven in crosswise, so that in the finished piece of cloth the warp and the weft are inseparably woven together. So, the contextual theologians said, the gospel must we woven into society. Christianity must be a part of the society in which it finds itself.

For some contextual theologians, especially in South America, this meant a “preferential option for the poor”. If the gospel of Christ could not speak to the poor and become part of their lives, it would never be heard. In North America, on the other hand, a movement arose to contextualise the gospel for the acquisitive society. And this led to what is called the “prosperity gospel”. And so we discover that “contextualisation” doesn’t solve the problem, it just shows it. Do Christian values shape and inform society, or are they shaped by it?

That, in North America, often leads on to debates about “separation between church and state”, but I don’t want to go into that now. The more important question, the prior question, remains: what are my values? Are they shaped by the gospel, or by the world, by the acquisitive society?

The other side of the contextualisation coin is that in many ways the Church is called to be countercultural. St Paul said “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of contextual theology is that it sometimes leads to a conformity to the world’s values. In traditional Christian morality we recognise that we have to struggle against sinful behaviour. This spiritual struggle, spiritual warfare, is called podvig in Russian and ascesis in Greek. But contextualisation can sometimes lead to a different way.

Instead of struggling against sins like lust and greed, one simply redefines them as virtues. So for some in the West fornication is no longer a sin to be repented of or stuggled against, but rather extolled as a virtue, in the name of “inclusion”. For others, lust remains a sin to be denounced (sometimes self-righteously, especially in others), but it is greed that has been transformed into a virtue in the new “prosperity gospel”. And very often the pro-lust group and the pro-greed groups find themselves opposed to one another. The secular world has no such problems. Lust and greed go hand in hand in a symbiotic relationship, and the porn industry flourishes as never before. People from poor countries and regions are traded as sex slaves, and make their pimps very, very rich.

But this article is not about lust — that was just to show that the unintended consequences of contextualisation can take different forms. Whatever form it takes it means that one no longer even needs to pay lip-service to Christian values. But sometimes even lip service is better than nothing, and leads, however imperfectly, to an attempt to shape society by Christian values. St Constantine is often vilified nowadays since his introduction of religious toleration opened the way for the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. One result of the Christianisation of the Roman Empire was the attempt, at least to some extent, to manifest Christian values in public life.

The emperors participated personally in the care of the needy, e.g. by anointing lepers or sharing meals with the hungry. This must have provided them with political public relations benefits, but it also represents a crucial emphasis in Orthodox spirituality. To be complete, a charitable work cannot deal only with structures and institutions but must involve a direct relation between persons, who bear the divine
image. Thus Romanus not only funds the feeding of the masses but also invites a few at a time to his own table. Whether he does this out of genuine compassion or only from a desire to appear compassionate, he shows his respect for a spiritual and ethical principle which his society values highly (Harrison 1990:24).

The difference is that the acquisitive society does not value that spiritual and ethical principle.

Let St Ambrose of Milan have the last word

How far, ye rich, will you carry your insane cupidity? … why do you reject nature’s partnership of goods, and claim possession of nature for yourselves? The earth was established to be in common for all, rich and poor; why do ye rich alone arrogate it to yourselves as your rightful property? Nature knows no rich, since she brings forth all men poor. For we are born without clothes and are brought forth without silver or gold. Naked she brings us to the light of day, and in want of food and covering and drink; and naked the earth receives back what she has brought forth, nor can she stretch men’s tombs to cover their possessions. A narrow mound of turf is enough for rich and poor alike; and a bit of land of which the rich man when alive took no heed now takes in the whole of him. Nature makes no distinctions among us at our birth, and none at our death. All alike she creates us, all alike she seals us in the tomb. Who can tell the dead apart? Open up the graves, and, if you can, tell which was a rich man. . . .

But why do you think that, even while you live, you have abundance of all things? Rich man, you know not how poor you are, how destitute you would seem even to yourself, who call yourself wealthy. The more you have, the more you want; and whatever you may acquire, you nevertheless remain as needy as before. Avarice is inflamed by gain, not diminished by it…

You crave possessions not so much for their utility to yourself, as because you want to exclude others from them. You are more concerned with despoiling the poor than with your own advantage. You think yourself injured if a poor man possesses anything which you consider a suitable belonging for a rich man; whatever belongs to others you look upon as something of which you are deprived. Why do you delight in what to nature are losses? The world, which you few rich men try to keep for yourselves, was created for all men. For not alone the soil, but the very heaven, the air, the sea, are claimed for the use of the few rich. . . . Do the angels in heaven, think you, have their separate regions of space, as you divide up the earth by fixed boundaries?

How many men are killed to procure the means of your enjoyment! A deadly thing is your greed, and deadly your luxury. One man falls to death from a roof, in order that you may have your big granaries. Another tumbles from the top of a high tree while seeking for certain kinds of grapes, so that you may have the right sort of wine for your banquet. Another is drowned in the sea while making sure that fish or oysters shall not be lacking on your table. Another is frozen to death while tracking hares or trying to catch birds with traps. Another is beaten to death before your eyes, if he chances to have displeased you, and your very viands are bespattered with his blood…



Harrison, Verna, 1990. Poverty in the Orthodox tradition, in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 34(1). Page 15-47.


This post is part of a “Poverty, as seen from God’s perspective”.

Here are links to others blogging on this topic this month:

Phil Wyman: A theology of poverty and our personal biases
Adam Gonnerman: Echoes of Judas
Cobus van Wyngaard: Luke: The Gospel for the Rich
Lainie Petersen at Headspace
Steve Hayes: Holy Poverty
Jonathan Brink: Spiritual Poverty
Dan Stone at The Tense Before
Jeremiah: Blessed are the poor… churches…
Alan Knox: Boasting in Humiliation
Miss Eagle: Poverty and the hospitable heart
Jimmie: Feeding the poor
Calacirian: Fully known and fully loved

Moral regeneration, degeneration, confusion

There is much talk of the need for moral regneration. There is much talk of the need for values.

But it also seems that while many people agree that there is a need for values, they can’t agree on what those values are, and are determined to force other people to conform to their values rather than find what values they share in common, and agree to work together to promote those, and agree to disagree about the ones they don’t share.

There have been some examples in the news lately, and various people have blogged about them as well, including me.

Let’s start with the need for values.

Christian values only thing holding Britain together, says Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor:

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, on Monday said that “Judeo-Christian values” were the only thing holding British society together, the Guardian reports…

“People are looking for a common good in this country. A very large number of people are saying, ‘What is it that binds British people together?'” Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said. “There is no other heritage than the Judaeo-Christian heritage in this country.” Replacing that heritage with a “totally secular view of life,” the cardinal said, would lead the nation down “a very dangerous path.”

Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that many Jews find the “Judeo-Christian” epithet pretty offensive, regarding it as an attempt by Christians to co-opt them willy-nilly as part of a Christian agenda. Let’s look at the British “Judaeo-Christian heritage”. I can’t remember when it was that Jews got the vote in Britain, but I think it was some time after the Catholics.

So let’s leave aside the Jews for the moment, since they were excluded from contributing to the heritage for so long. Let’s look at the Christian part of that heritage. The Anglicans in England and Wales had votes before the Jews and Catholics did, but today they are tearing themselves apart because they can’t agree on sexual morality. As I noted in a post on my other blog, African Anglicans and homosexuality, the Anglican Communion seems to be having its very own clash of civilizations between Western and African civilizations.

In that post the point was that African Anglicans who lived in close proximity to Muslims, as they do in Nigeria and Uganda, recall the very beginnings of their church, which began with the martyrdom of Christian pages at the court of the King of Buganda, who “had adopted Arab customs of pederasty, and he expected the young men of his court to submit to his demands. But a growing number of Christian courtiers and pages refused to participate, despite his threats, and an enraged king launched a persecution that resulted in hundreds of martyrdoms”.

Think for a moment of those “Arab customs of pederasty”, and now switch to something I blogged about just a few days ago in this blog: Notes from underground: Muslim parents ask UK schools to shelve pro-homosexual storybooks for 5-year-olds.

It seems that the Anglicans are not the only ones who find it hard to agree on sexual morality.

And who was it who represented Britain’s “Judaeo-Christian heritage” — the school authorities who prescribed the story books, or the Muslim parents who objected to them?

Now the accuracy of the story has been questioned, but assuming that it is true in outline, what is doing on here?

Ostensibly the reason for prescribing such stories is to prevent bullying in schools.

Now I haven’t read the stories, and the descriptions in the news media may not be accurate, but the parental objections seem to be not that the stories are aimed at preventing bullying, but that they are teaching their five-year-old children sexual ethics that the parents disagree with, and don’t say much about bullying. I wonder if those stories would have dissuaded the King of Buganda from bullying his pages?

It seems rather disingenuous.

Think about it another way. I bet that quite a number of Muslim kids in Britain are bullied by non-Muslim kids who tease them and say that their big brothers are making bombs in the attic. So how should this bullying be dealt with? Write story books for little kids showing that it’s cool to make bombs?

One could go on multiplying examples to show that one of the main difficulties in the way of promoting moral regeneration and education in values is that people simply cannot agree which system of values to promote, and this leads to unedifying power struggles, with Anglicans in America suing one another over ownership of church buildings as a result of their failure to agree and determination to impose their set of values on everyone else.

In the mean time, things continue to get worse, as we see in an incident that took place closer to home, right here in Gauteng.

clipped from

While police are still in the dark about the identity of the driver who shot and killed a 12-year-old smash-and-grabber, it appears many South Africans have little sympathy for the young boy.

Comments on The Times website seemed to weigh in favour of the unknown gunman who killed the boy in Boksburg on Friday, with some even suggesting the killing of the youngster rid the country of a future criminal.

The boy was shot after he apparently smashed the window of a white Citi Golf on Rondebult Road in Boksburg, East of Johannesburg, and stole a cellphone. A witness claimed the boy ran away, but was chased by the driver who shot him in the chest and then fled the scene in his car.

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Yes, there does seem to be a need for education in values in our society.

It seems that nobody taught this boy “Thou shalt not steal.”

And nobody taught the driver of the car, “Thou shalt not kill.”

Or perhaps someone taught them that, but they didn’t learn it. As they say in edu-jargon, the learning outcomes were not achieved.

And the reported response of people to the incident shows that that failure is widespread throughout our society.

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