Monday 30 July 2012

We must respect our opponents' humanity

It occurs to me that I never got around to posting my Guardian article published in the wake of the Arizona shootings last year. This is that

Sarah Palin
Comments by and about Sarah Palin over the Arizona shootings have underlined the importance of civility in the public sphere. Photograph: Randy Snyder/Getty Images

The question: Does civility matter?

The opening lines of the Buddhist classic the Dhammapada are "Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox." Thought precedes words, words precede deeds. Does Sarah Palin precede the terribleshootings in Arizona?
Arguably anyone who answers that question by saying "yes" could be accused of creating a climate which legitimises the assassination of Palin herself. Incivility is a vicious spiral. It is a continuation of war by other means. The point of attack speech is not to convince but to defeat by humiliation or other means. It proceeds from the conviction that our rightness, the rightness of our cause is more important than the mere persons of those who disagree with us. If our opponents are not people but "wing-nuts" or "lifestyle gays" then it doesn't really matter what we say. If they are cut they do not bleed.
It seems to me that for a Christian the starting point should be Christ. Not so much "what would Jesus do?" as "why did Jesus suffer?". I have never met a person that Jesus did not die for, I have never spoken about a person that Jesus did not love. When I am thinking about my best friend's best friend then I think differently than if I am thinking about some warmongering hockey-mom that wants to nuke Iran. And that should be reflected in how I write, how I speak, how I act.
Back in 1984 the IRA exploded a bomb in Brighton that very nearly killed Margaret Thatcher. Over the course of the next few days I lost count of the number of people I heard saying, on the street, in buses, at supermarket checkouts, how much they regretted that the IRA had failed to achieve its aim. These were not Republican sympathisers, these were people who hated Thatcher and without willing the means, terrorism, willed the end, assassination. And that at a time when dialogue had not been coarsened and brutalised in the way that appears to have happened since the culture wars began in the US. Which brings us back to thoughts preceding words preceding deeds. Unexpressed hatred is no less dangerous than its expressed variety, arguably it is more so. The supreme incivility does not consist of calling someone less than human. It consists in believing that someone is less than human.
In debate and discussion I usually (actually always) start from the assumption that I am right and that those who disagree with me are wrong. It seems pointless to argue from a point of view otherwise. What I do not begin with is the assumption that my correctness makes me a superior form of creature to those whom happenstance has placed in the camp of error. Being right is not the same as being better. And if I am not better than my interlocutor, why act as if I was? Civil discourse does not proceed from respecting your opponents' beliefs, which in the case of atheists are ludicrous tosh, but in respecting your opponents' humanity. Once you do that, your finger never tightens on the trigger.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Orange Dreams

I submitted this to the Guardian perhaps over optimistically

Reading Andrew Browns recent piece on Creationism at the Giants Causeway on the weekend before the big Orange Order 12th of July parades brings about an interesting juxtaposition of ideas. Andrew writes of the Young Earth Creationists-

 the world will not take much notice of my preferences, or yours. If we are to change it, we need reasons and explanations, not just wants. And we can't get the reasons and explanations that we need without reaching outside science, and outside the market. To the extent that creationists, too, are trying to do that, we should sympathise.

Which reminded me of these words of Patrick Pearse The Orangeman is ridiculous in so far as he believes incredible things; he is estimable in so far as he is willing and able to fight in defence of what he believes. It is foolish of an Orangeman to believe that his personal liberty is threatened by Home Rule; but, granting that he believes that, it is not only in the highest degree common sense but it is his clear duty to arm in defence of his threatened liberty.

Whilst Brown and Pearse are an unlikely pairing, one a dewy eyed romantic with mystical leanings the other an Irish Republican, they both point to an almost universal reality. People have a need to explain the world to themselves and to explain themselves to themselves. Many of the religious, philosophical or political belief systems which we have do not consist of people making things up, the "imaginary friend syndrome", they consist of people encountering facts which contain for them some kind of emotional content. The facts may be true facts but the importance they have for the one who attaches themselves to them in a partisan fashion is that they convey a personal emotional "hit". They are facts which make us feel that we understand more than we did before we encountered them.

I think that it is more or less inevitable that most of us seek out such emotional truths or at any rate encounter them. And our immediate and passionate attachment to them is also practically inevitable. What follows on from that, however, is much more dependant upon personalities or the contingent circumstances in which we dwell. The Young Earth Creationist and the Orangeman stick doggedly to their facts and will forever combatively assert them against all other facts for which they feel no positive emotion. The parade they make of their attachment through the public streets, and especially the "enemy" streets, is a statement that the explanation that they have found is the end of the search for meaning, take it or leave it.

More commonly I think is the experience of finding fulfilling facts but not thereafter entering into a solemn pact and covenant to ignore all subsequently encountered unfulfilling facts. Not least because all our fulfilment is only ever partial at best. We still hunger and thirst for more and better explanations and this need fuels our continuing search. We resist the notion that there are no such universal explanations, and those who believe such a notion are themselves simply attached to an emotionally satisfying truth. Another unlikely pairing, Marx and Augustine, perhaps have between them described this as well as anyone ever has.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.

 You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.

The important question each of us needs to answer is not so much "are the facts that I believe true?" but "are the facts that I ignore unimportant?" No universal explanation can ultimately satisfy us if, deep down, we know we are suppressing inconvenient truths in order to attach ourselves to pleasing ones.

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Monday 9 July 2012

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Enter the Logos (Pt 2)

At first glance to say "follow me" is much the same as saying "come and see". The Theologian, however, is laying another aspect of his Divine Master before us. Here it is the case that Jesus deliberately seeks out Philip and issues a specific invitation to him. What the Theologian tells us about geography is significant. Jesus is a Galilean from Nazareth, Philip is a Galilean from Bethsaida, at this point they are situated in Bethabara beyond the Jordan and Jesus has taken the decision to return to Galilee. In the Gospels Galilee often stands as a figure for the normal everyday working life of ordinary folk by contrast with the high tensions and festivals of Jerusalem. Philip and his companions have taken a time out from their ordinary lives to seek out the truth and meaning towards which John the Baptist points. Now our Lord seeks him out and invites him to return to the normal and the ordinary but to experience it in a different way. Philip will return to Galilee changed by baptism and will lead a life who's guiding principle has now become the following of Jesus. A Jesus who is present amidst the fishermen and tax gatherers, the sowers and the reapers. It is an invitation that tells us that Jesus is the incarnated one. He is in our midst as one like us and also as God Himself. He is our bridge, He is our vital link between the inward and the outward, time and eternity. He is the strong become weak that the weak might become strong. He is Emmanuel, God with us.

And who is the "us" that Emmanuel is most with? Nathaniel is our model here. " Israelite, a true one; there is nothing false in him." To travel in friendship with Jesus to and through Galilee there must be no barriers within ourselves to truth. A true Israelite is not one who pretends. Nathaniel says what he thinks, that is honesty. It is not stubbornness though, what he thinks will change as the facts change. The kind of charge that Jesus will later bring against the Pharisees is not that they are blunt but that they stand by their bluntness in pride rather than examine the possibility that they might have made a judgement based on inadequate information. Nathaniel is honest enough to adhere to things as they are, or as they become, rather than simply sticking to his previously expressed opinion as being once right always right. The prestige of the Pharisees amongst first century Jews rested precisely upon their reputation for honesty and truthfulness. Jesus in his description of Nathaniel and not Pharisaism as true Israel is making the point that inflexibility and an obstinate refusal to see is not truth it is falsehood elevated to a system. 

 “Before Philip called you, you were under the fig tree and I saw you. The Theologian allows us to see two things here. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, Jesus possesses great powers which suggest His divinity. Secondly, that He chooses to act through human agency. He could have called Nathaniel Himself but He did not. Philip performed that noble task. This I think links us back to the words of our Lord to St Peter. Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, has a mission as a human among humans using human means. He could, as it were, short circuit everything and achieve all His ends by direct Spirit to spirit contact but the Father does not will it so. It is His intention to save us and unite us to Him not as disembodied entities but as fully human persons with bodies as well as spirits, with weaknesses as well as strengths. And in service of that project He Himself takes on our frailty and uses that frailty itself; directly Himself and indirectly through His Apostles, disciples and friends to bring about the fulfilment of His plan. It would no doubt be more satisfactory to human imaginations if He used only perfect means to achieve perfect ends but He does not. He uses very imperfect means sometimes. Which is to say He uses you and me. If we are willing to do as Philip did. will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.  And so we come to the end of the Seven First Words. And the end is a promise. The promise of a new beginning. If, like Nathaniel, we follow Jesus into the Galilee of the everyday our journey will bring change. He does not promise and ever repeated sameness but an ever deeper and truer vision of Himself. However long we gaze upon Him He will never cease to be the carpenter from Nazareth. But we ourselves will change and will see that the fullness of divinity and the fullness of humanity are, in Him, not two things but one. And by His gracious gift when He looks upon us He can see that what He is by nature we have become by adoption on the day that we have, in our hearts, understood the question What are you looking for?”

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