Is a church an appropriate place for political messages? There are two aspects to this question. The first is whether activists should protest in a Church. Was the uninvited ‘hooliganism’ of Pussy Riot justified? I cited the example of Jesus himself, who caused havoc in the Temple in what was surely a political as well as spiritual protest (see, for example, Mark 11-15). Continue reading On Politics, Power and the Pulpit
Yesterday I expressed some unease at the way the theological and philosophical debate about blasphemy obscures other reasons why there are protests in the Middle East. This article from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times is an excellent example of what I mean:
“PISS CHRIST,” a famous photograph partly financed by taxpayers, depicted a crucifix immersed in what the artist said was his own urine. But conservative Christians did not riot on the Washington Mall.
“The Book of Mormon,” a huge hit on Broadway, mocks the church’s beliefs as hocus-pocus. But Mormons haven’t burned down any theaters.
So why do parts of the Islamic world erupt in violence over insults to the Prophet Muhammad?
Note how the two examples of religions tolerating satire are drawn from the US? Kristof then goes International to talk about the violence of Islam.
A more apt comparison would have been with how American Muslims react to satire and ridicule. I do not doubt they raise protest – just as Christians raised protest over the “Piss Christ” art – but they do not engage in violent protest. For one thing, the police are strong enough to put a stop to such violence. But also, society is strong enough that chaotic protests, effigy burning and death are non-existent. Kristof’s sleight-of-keyboard suggests he might be pursuing and ideological agenda, rather than honestly compare like-with-like.
A better example of how to tackle this point was given this morning by none other than Douglas Murray. The Spectator columnist is a known Muslim-baiter, but during his appearance on Sunday Morning Live today, he was keen to point out early on that the protests we have seen this week were isolated and localised to particular countries, and that it was wrong to treat all Muslims as a monolithic block.
The ‘Innocence of Muslims’ nonsense also raises the questions on the other side of the controversy: should the American filmmakers have published the video? Should they have been are allowed to upload it to YouTube?
First: The principles of free speech are pretty clear cut in this case. The video is pretty awful, but does not call for violence towards anyone. So banning such a video would set a terrible precedent. It would allow the religious to censor criticism of their religion… And God knows, the Christian fundamentalists in the USA would relish that opportunity.
However, the question of whether the authors should have made the video is another matter. I wish they had not. They did it for hateful, disrespectful reasons. It comes from a bigoted mindset, and is designed to provoke and inflame. People who make that kind of art tend not to be very nice, interesting, or intelligent. But, to repeat the key point of the article I wrote about Günter Grass for the New Statesman, To say this is an act of artistic and moral criticism, not a statement on the principles of free speech.
Finally: should YouTube have removed the clip or suppressed it in certain countries? They did precisely this in Egypt, I believe. I think that this might be the most interesting part of the whole affair. On the one hand, YouTube is a private company, with its own Terms & Conditions that are distinct from the law of the land. If it wants to set a higher bar for free expression then I suppose it has the right to do that. On the other hand, YouTube has become so ubiquitous that It has become part of our public square, a shared communal space that is essential for democracy. Perhaps it has to act more like a government than a private company, and take a more permissive attitude to free expression.
Let’s have a think about this report by the Church of England, warning that gay marriage will ruin its ability to perform marriage.
First, the church says that marriage has/will become a “hollowed out” shell of its former glory. Personally, I do not think that allowing people who love each other to have access to the stability and security that marriage brings is a “hollowing out”. As I have argued before, in refusing to countenance gay marriage, religions forget their core mission. Instead of fostering community, inclusion and family stability as they claim, they instead promote ostracism, division and exclusion.
The Church also says that new proposals will mean that they will end up not performing any marriages. Campaigners dismiss this will actually happen, but I wonder whether principle says that it should. The conundrum arises because Churches are technically state institutions… And our modern principles of equality demand that everyone be allowed access to them. If priests are adamant that they will not marry some (gay) people, the only way to achieve that consistently is to not marry anyone in a Church.
The Church raise this point because they think the logic points to the absurdity of gay marriage. It does not. Instead, it points to the absurdity of an established Church. In this multi-faith era, how can any particular faith have the backing of the state? Issues of equality and conscience and tradition are bound to collide, with people compelled to take part in situations they would rather not, due to their personal faith. The answer is disestablishment. An unfettered Church of England would be free to persue its conscience into the same marginalised corner of society as the Catholic Church. Of course, that would mean renouncing the Bishop’s seats in the House of Lords, and presumably a lot of the power, property and prestige that comes with being Established. But I think it would be for the best.
More on the issue of gay marriage. The Network of Sikh Organisations sent me a press release over the weekend. I can’t find a link online, so the whole thing is reproduced below. It begins:
Lord Singh, Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, supports Anglican and Catholic Bishops in opposing Coalition’s legislation to distort the meaning of marriage.
Along with Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, who is an advisor to the Chief Rabbi, Lord Singh accused the Coalition of launching an “assault” on religious values.
I disagree with Lord Singh on this. I think the “assault on religion” argument is invalid. It implies that religion (any religion) has a fixed and inmutable view of marriage, which they palpably do not. The definition has evolved over the centuries within religions, as well as without.
His stance also claims a primacy for religious definitions over secular society’s definitions, which doesn’t hold in the 21st Century. Why do religions to which I do not subscribe get to define “marriage” for me and my friends. Rather the secular, democratic parliament (if anyone), following society at large.
Lord Singh and the others should make clear that no Gurdwara or Mandir or Synagogue or Church will ever be compelled to perform or endorse a homosexual marriage. He and his co-dissenters know this is the case, but it is missing from their rhetoric. Not one Sikh marriage will be damaged or changed by this… though lesbian and gay Sikhs will be driven away from their faith, which is a shame.
I also think the parity between Civil partnerships and Marriage is overstated. One has an important social element, the other is merely a legalistic device. Denying gays the social recognition of their love and commitment is, to my mind, wrong – but it seems to be the precise intention of this cabal. I discuss this in the comments on this post.
Since religious communities are supposed to exist precisely to encourage strong inter-personal bonds and social stability, it’s actually odd that they choose to condemn this extension of the marriage “franchise”.
Feminism enabled gay marriage, and that’s a good thing.
Last week we heard the Catholic bishops parroting the tired old line about marriage being “between a man and a woman”, and that the secular government was somehow redefining the concept for the rest of us. This argument sounds more and more pathetic every time I hear it.
Marriage has often been redefined! In the Old Testament we had polygamy, a practice that continues in many parts of the world to this day. When that fell out of favour, the bond of marriage was still very much a transaction in which the girl had no input. This practice, of a father arranging a marriage on his daughter’s behalf, is still very popular in many parts of the world and many British citizens still submit to it. The idea of romantic love leading to marriage is also a new innovation (at least, new when compared to the idea of marriage itself). Literature, from Tristan & Isolde, to Romeo & Juliet, to the Jane Austen œvre, is full of stories of romantic love colliding with the more traditional view of marriage as a financial arrangement.
Earlier this week we had one of those cultural moments when ideas of atheism, secularism and religion were debated. In an obviously provocative manoever, Baroness Warsi spoke of ‘militant secularism’. Militants like Richard Dawkins rose to the bait, apparently affirming her pronouncements, while less militant atheists like Alain De Botton adopted a more conciliatory tone on twitter. Several people pointed out the oxymoronic notion of a ‘militant secularist’ by incorrectly quoting AC Grayling, who last year equated militant atheism with “sleeping furiously”.
There is lots to be said about this perjorative term ‘militant secularism’. It is a form of victimology that social conservatives like propagate. Sayeeda Warsi has form on such issues, naughtily spreading the ‘Winterval’ myth when she knows it is a lie. It enables bigots, who like to use religion to excuse their prejudices, even when those values are very much at odds with the tolerant philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.
As tweeted yesterday, I was asked onto Paul Hammond’s morning show on UCB Radio, to discuss Norwegian gunman Anders Behring Breiviks’ manifesto, which has been published online. I made the case that, unpleasant though Breivik’s views are, censoring his manifesto would only give him a martyrish status. Also, the reasons given for suppressing such writings would quickly be used to attack and censor other books (like the Bible).
On the UCB’s Facebook page, a few people raised dissenting views.
… surely the human rights of the Norwegian students and there families should be held in higher esteem the Anders Behring Breiviks. He gave up his rights the moment he blew up the building in Oslo.
I think this is just a confusion of the concept of human rights. Of course rights such as free expression may be lawfully removed, but its wrong to say that a killer or any other hated person in society can forfeit their rights in this way. If that were the case, we would call them ‘privileges’ not ‘rights’.
Another common sentiment:
But I would caution against publishingg such material. Not everyone has the wisdom or intelligence to be able to read it. God forbid but what if there was to be a copycat killing because of publishing this?
To this, I am reminded of Bronwen Maddox writing in The Times, discussing the ramblingsof another killer, Cho Seung Hui:
The accusation that the NBC broadcasts may provoke copycat attacks — the most serious charge against the network — appears to rest on a notion of severe mental illness as contagious, common and predictable.
UCB is a Christian radio station, and as such there were a few comments invoking the more nebulous concepts of God and Satan:
He had his foot in satans kindom, he is a freemason wich is v evil ,he also listend 2 chantin an playd demonic games on computa,he gave the devil an entrance 2 his mind.ther so much ocult activities that warp the mind an insesetive the value of life
I don’t think this is helpful. Evil and even satanic Anders Breivik may be, but these are adjectives to describe his end state of mind, not the process by which he became like that. Explaining a good or a bad act as being the work of God or Satan is a way of avoiding hard thoughts and (maybe) a difficult truth.
Many wry smiles and twittered Lolz at the news this week that Kate Middleton has been confirmed into the Church of England.
Is it appropriate for a British subject such as myself to comment on our Queen-elect’s faith choices? Probably not, firstly for reasons of deference, and also because to question such an act is to risk being patronizing and a bit sexist. If I express cynicism about Ms Middleton’s faith, then am I not suggesting that she is not her own woman?
In this case, I actually think some comment is justified. Faith should be a private affair, and had Kate chosen to have a quiet confirmation, with no associated press strategy from Clarence house, then the rest of us would do well to shut up. However, since the news has been released by her own media team, I see no reason why we should not raise a few questions about the act.
And anyway, the Faith of the Royals (and Kate Middleton will very soon be the very Royal ‘Princess Catherine’) happens to be a topic of public interest, public discussion, public concern. This is the way our country is constituted. Fact. Catholics are constitutionally demeaned, and should any future heir or near-heir to the throne marry outside Europe (very possible as the world and the Royals become increasingly cosmopolitan) the current system would bully the unfortunate spouse out of their original faith, in favour of Anglicanism.
And ‘bullied’ appears to be what has happened to Kate M. At the very least: ‘pressurized’. No-one who heard or read the news reports would have considered for a moment that this decision was taken by Kate Middleton alone. Rather, we are all entirely certain that this is a cynical and pragmatic act in order to sidestep a theological conundrum that, in Twenty-First Century Britain, is increasingly absurd.
Kate Middleton is not alone in paying lip-service to a religious faith, having previously demonstrated no interest in it. Couples routinely attend church for the minimum number of weeks specified by the vicar, before the picturesque parish church wedding will be sanctioned. Others even sign a statement, saying they will bring up any children of the marriage on the Catholic faith. And I’ve known a few people who have ostensibly converted to Islam in order to marry a Muslim, while demonstrating very little interest in, or knowledge of the religion itself.
I should not care about any of these instances of hypocrisy. After all, it is not my faith that is cheapened by these all-to-convenient faux-Damascene moments. But nevertheless, it still irritates me. In being so casual and opportunistic in their conversions, Kate Middleton and hundreds like her cheapen the covenant that the true adherents have with their church. With this confirmation, the message that Wills, Kate and the Royal Establishment have conveyed is that Church-going and church-membership is a mere accessory, a thing of necessary convenience like a new SIM card or an MOT. Something borrowed. For ordinary subjects to behave in this manner is hypocritical. For the future heads of the Church to do the same is gross negligence, a dereliction of duty, a desecration of the Church of England, cheapening an institution that is already weak and belittled. There is no better argument for disestablishment than a rushed and panicked Royal confirmation.
Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps Kate is being genuine, and the timing is just bad. After all, if being chosen as the next Queen of England doesn’t inspire faith in a Higher Power, what would?
A depressing story to kick-off the New Year: The governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, has been assasinated. The perpetrator cited Taseer’s support for the repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy law as the motive for the murder.
Human Rights campaigners often spend their time lobbying for the formal abolition of laws. For example, at the end of 2009 I was involved in a free speech campaign to repeal the archaic law of seditious libel. Some argued that there was little point in wasting time abolishing laws that have fallen into disuse. They are de facto abolished anyway: Couldn’t parliamentary time be better spent?
Certainly not. There is always the chance that the law might be used by some future, illiberal government. And in the case of blasphemy in Pakistan, we see how an oppressive law (for that is what the offence of blasphemy is, and must always be) can be used as an excuse for violence. Supporters of Mr Taseer’s killer now cite the existence of these little-used as their excuse for righteous murder. You don’t actually need to charge someone under a particular law, for that law to have a horrible chilling effect.