Weekly Comment

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Redefining Self Defence

This week, in addition to its murderous campaign against Palestinians in Gaza, the so-called Israeli Defence Force has attacked Lebanon, bombing the country’s International airport, blockading all shipping and wreaking havoc with its infrastructure. As I write 50 civilians have been killed and dozens more injured. The General in charge of the action claims to be killing Arabs in order to protect Israeli citizens. The West as usual refuses to make a moral stand and refuses to condemn the reign of terror that Israel has perpetrated against Arab communities for more than fifty years. President Bush, visiting the neo-con German Chancellor, no doubt with an eye to wooing her and Germany into a closer alliance with US global ambitions and policies, said on BBC lunchtime radio news that “Hamas don’t want peace; Hizbullah don’t want peace, but the US stands with all those who do want peace”. Given that Bush and his puppet Blair are single-handedly responsible for the enormous escalation of violence in the Middle East by determining to attack Iraq whether or not weapons of mass destruction were discovered, such a statement beggars belief.

As a social scientist I am well aware of the limitations of public polls on controversial issues. They are not necessarily objective or definitive, but they can indicate trends in thinking and behaviour. My internet provider AOL regularly runs reader polls on its daily news items and on Thursday it asked two questions about Israel’s behaviour.

In response to the first question Are Israel’s attacks justified? Thirty-five percent of respondents agree that they are, but 65 percent assert that they are not. That figure remained constant throughout the day.

In response to the second question, of the 40,000 people who voted on whether they think that Israel’s actions will provoke a wider conflict across the Middle-East, eighty-two percent say that it will, and only eighteen percent think that it won’t. Throughout the day these figures too remained remarkably constant. All we can say of this poll is that those United Kingdom AOL readers who choose to take part in these polls seem firmly of the view that Israel is not justified in its actions and even more firmly convinced that the middle-east crisis will escalate. Should such statistics turn out to be the view of the majority of the UK’s citizens, let alone world citizenry, then Israel could not avoid being labelled as a rogue state.

And what are these two conflicts ostensibly about? The return of one kidnapped Israeli soldier in Gaza and two kidnapped Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. The logic which believes that the massacre of innocent lives in these areas will ensure the safe return of the soldiers is misplaced. These are professional soldiers who expect to come under fire and be ambushed: that’s how skirmishes are conducted. The exaggerated Israeli response mirrors that of the Coalition’s campaign in both Afghanistan and Iraq. When six British soldiers lost their lives within a few weeks in the former, its soldiers went out and killed ‘a hundred’ members of the Taliban, although we know that soldiers don’t always stop to confirm that those in the gun’s sights are in fact Taliban. And in yet another abuse of human rights under investigation in Iraq, US soldiers are alleged to have massacred a large number of civilians in retaliation for the death of one of their comrades. The impression we are given is that this is how soldiers operate. The accompanying moral argument is that they are justified in doing so.

Massive and inhumane retaliation seems to be the order of the day. No matter how much the Israelis, the Americans and the British maintain that they are carefully selecting targets to minimise civilian casualties, the statistics speak otherwise. In the Israeli case the bombing of Lebanese highways, the port area, the international airport and power stations, brings suffering to the whole population. In Gaza the destruction of water and fuel supplies, as well as the general supply routes has created a humanitarian disaster. Lebanon has for most of its history served as the arena for other people’s battles and the Israeli destruction of its infrastructure, patiently rebuilt over the past ten years at huge cost, should be recognised as a crime against humanity. Israel’s ambitions are clearly to wage economic warfare on its neighbours to make certain they will always struggle to survive.

We are all aware of Israel’s ability to remove its enemies by assassination, a policy supported by the United States. Its agents operate all over the world. Some months ago three agents were apprehended in New Zealand in a passport scam which would no doubt have seen Israeli agents posing as New Zealand citizens visiting Arab countries. So why doesn’t Israel employ its very effective assassination policy in this instance? Perhaps it is because the world finds the assassination of an eighty year old paraplegic as happened ion Gaza, morally repugnant, but the killing of civilians more acceptable on the grounds that Blair and Bush and their cronies advance of the right of any state to defend itself.

But there may also be another reason. Hamas and Hizbullah are not simply movements which have sprung out of situations in Gaza and in Lebanon. Their backers and political masters are in Syria and in Iran. The problem is a far greater one than simply dealing with its local manifestations. To really resolve these crises on its borders Israel would need to launch a war against both countries. Many believe that this is Israel’s ultimate ambition, but one imagines that behind-the-scenes pressure from the US and its allies advocates against such a reckless act recognising that the entire Middle-East would erupt in a conflict that could have damaging results for the West, and in particular the supply of oil upon which its economies are dependent. How much easier, and morally, politically and economically safer it is for Israel to reduce Lebanon and Gaza to ruins.

There can be no doubt that no matter how much the tactics of Hizbullah are to be criticised, the opening of this second front on Israel’s northern border has to be recognized as an act of solidarity with the suffering population of Gaza. Bush and Blair’s various pronouncements about road maps to peace have proved to be nothing more than empty political posturing. If the West lacks the will to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it will necessarily be left to radical Muslim movements to fill the vacuum. Little wonder that 82% of those polled by AOL this week believe that the conflict will engulf the Middle East.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Animal Welfare

Fifty years ago a young man was mowing hay on the family farm. About to make the last two cuts in the centre of the field, he checked to see that all wildlife had escaped the area. He failed to notice a brown hare crouching in the golden grass. And his last sweep with the tractor mower severed the hapless animal’s legs. The hare lay writhing and screeching in agony until the youth, unable to bear that sight and sound, took a spade from his tractor and with a single blow killed the animal. He was overwhelmed with a sense of loss and grief, remembering that it was only a couple of decades earlier that the men had hand mown the hay with huge hand scythes and how much more protective of wildlife that mowing had been compared with contemporary intensive farming mechanisation.

One of the documentaries as part of a week long series on climate change from the BBC last week, featured David Attenborough, the doyen producer of all those brilliant nature programmes which have brought oceans, deserts, forests, mountains and an incredible range of animal life and behaviour into our living rooms. Through his passion for wildlife many of us have watched spellbound as he has revealed to us the way that great apes fashion and use of tools, male seahorses give birth to the their young, and the complex community life of those lovable meerkats. An old man now, Attenborough has undergone a conversion. His engagement with so many features of life on our planet has made him aware of the catastrophic effects of global warming. He expressed regret that even the very making of his wonderful programmes, through its consumption of fuel and other resources has contributed to the crisis of the animal kingdom to which he is so obviously committed.

The issue of animal welfare was the subject of another news item this week. For several years now Oxford University has been trying to complete a new building to house its extensive animal testing programme. The building programme has been subject to widespread disruption by demonstrators opposed in principle to testing new drugs and medical procedures upon animals. The opponents’ sustained and very effective campaign led Oxford University to some time ago seek an injunction limiting protests. Last week the University applied for an additional injunction to further limit protest activities in the city. The injunction was granted even though it places severe limits upon Britain’s long protected rights of protest. It seems bizarre that the rights of humans should be curtailed in order to help promote the allegedly cruel treatment of other species which evidently have no rights.

One of Oxford’s eminent scholars, brain scientist Professor Colin Blakemore, head of the Medical Research Council, who is an outspoken supporter of animal testing, buoyed perhaps by the University’s success in legally limiting opposition to testing, proposed that the eight year old British ban on using apes for medical testing, should be lifted. Admittedly Professor Blakemore was cautious in his advocacy of relaxing the ban, arguing that in the case of a massive pandemic, it might be essential to experiment upon apes which share 96 per cent of their DNA with humans. But still he would like to see Britain join those nations, Japan, the United States and the Netherlands, which permit medical experimentation upon great apes.

Sir David Attenborough was among those who responded in opposition to the use of apes in invasive medical research. The conservationists’ arguments are that the apes share with us characteristics such as compassion, empathy, self awareness and a sense of mortality which we regard as fundamentally human. Their social, mental and emotional similarities to us, along with their incarceration in cages in medical laboratories raise fundamental moral questions. Given that the UN Environmental Programme has concluded that all great ape species are facing the probability of extinction within the next fifty years, our focus surely needs to be on ensuring their survival rather than hastening their demise.

Another Oxford academic with very different views from those of Professor Blakemore, is Professor Andrew Linzey who holds a post in Ethics, Theology and Animal Welfare, the first of its kind. The writer of many books including Animal Theology, Linzey is concerned with the way that humans relate to animals arguing that while animals are an integral part of God’s creation, historically Christianity has failed to address practically and theologically how animals should be treated. Far from being a maverick, Professor Linzey stands in an honoured theological and historical tradition which sees concern for the animal kingdom as springing from the very fundamentals of Christianity. As Cardinal John Henry Newman put it 150 years ago “Cruelty to animals is as if man did not love God”. Thus in his book Christianity and The Rights of Animals Linzey argues:

"Since an animal's natural life is a gift from God, it follows that God's right is violated when the natural life of his creatures is perverted. Those who, in contrast, opt for the welfarist approach to intensive farming are inevitably involved in speculating how far such and such may or may not suffer in what are plainly unnatural conditions. But unless animals are judged to have some right to their natural life, from what standpoint can we judge abnormalities, mutilations or adjustments? Confining a de-beaked hen in a battery cage is more than a moral crime; it is a living sign of our failure to recognize the blessing of God in creation."

Linzey promotes a theology of creation which as he puts it “rejects the idea that the rights and welfare of animals must always be subordinate to human interests, even when vital human interests are at stake”. This is for him the fundamental moral issue. He insists that the “Christian paradigm of generous costly service” should be applied not only to human society but to the entire natural world. He further argues that Christians who claim to model their behaviour on that of Jesus Christ should, in the exercise of human dominion over creation, follow the example of Jesus in whom we see power expressed as powerlessness, and strength expressed in compassion.

The building of Oxford’s new laboratory for animal testing is justified by many on the grounds that without it, medical research which will benefit humans will be set back decades. Professor Linzey maintains that the Christian Generosity Paradigm, means “that humans must bear for themselves whatever ills may flow from not experimenting upon animals rather than sanction a system of institutionalised abuse”.

But it’s not only the issue of animal testing which is of concern, for across the globe intensive mechanised farming and forestry is doing untold damage to wildlife habitats. As it is the case that one person’s death diminishes me, so the needless destruction of natural life, diminishes the beauty and integrity of creation. And in case you’re still wondering who the youth on that hay mower all those years ago was, that was me.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Iraq Revisted

Matthew Herbert is a British pop musician, better known as Dr Rockit, who delights to meld pop with politics and creates music which makes unusual connections between apparently unrelated things, like battle tanks and food. In an interview published last weekend the musician says:

“There’s a war on imagination at the moment led by the US government, a war against imaginative and complex responses to things. There were imaginative and complex responses to the Iraq situation from everyone from church to academics, but they chose to ignore them and go to war. Mind you, in one way you have to admire Bush. He is actually himself a radical and imaginative president. He’s imagined the world as a worse place, and made it so”.

The simplistic world view that Bush and Blair have embraced not just in Iraq itself but in terms of international security, becomes daily more of a nightmare. Last week two UK national dailies front-paged the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The Independent instead of the usual front-page picture carried the following text in large letters: “Across central Iraq, there is an exodus of people fleeing for their lives as sectarian assassins and death squads hunt them down. At ground level, Iraq is disintegrating as ethnic cleansing takes hold on a massive scale. The state of Iraq now resembles Bosnia at the height of the fighting in the 1990s”. The paper’s editorial, noting that 1.85 million Iraqis have been issued with passports over the last ten months, highlights the ‘brain drain’ as middle-class Iraqis emigrate. It also opines that the presence of Coalition troops is making no difference, and the question of whether troops leave or stay is no longer relevant to the unfolding civil war.

The same day’s Guardian took a similar view. With reference to the swearing in of a government of national unity in Baghdad, the front page says, “much will be made in London and Washington of the fact that this completes a democratic transition that began in December with the election of its parliament. But the reality encountered during three weeks behind the barricades of Baghdad’s increasingly bloody sectarian conflict has more in common with the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Balkans than the optimistic rhetoric to be heard on the manicured lawns of the embassy compounds and in western capitals”. Inside the paper, a two-page spread documents the horror of Iraq’s ‘hidden war’.

Yet still Bush and Blair want to assure us that things are under control and that progress is being made. But both were discomforted during this week’s summit in Washington where Blair did not pick up his Congressional Medal of Honour awarded to great applause in 2003. The fact is that had he accepted it and further demonstrated himself to be the lackey of US foreign policy, his days as Prime Minister, already numbered, would have been dramatically foreshortened. Both men religiously recited their mantra about ‘democracy’ with Blair adding that he had arrived hotfoot from Iraq where he had seen “a child of democracy struggling to be born”. Both are seemingly oblivious to the way that what they understand by democracy has unleashed a reign of terror and oppression, which matches anything that Saddam managed to achieve in that arena. The Bible’s description of the sequence of events in this kind of tragedy is ‘sow the wind; reap the whirlwind’.

Yet both men, for the first time acknowledged that mistakes had been made. With the ratings of both of them being so low in the polls of their respective nations, deep down they must realise that the game is up, and that all they can do is to salvage what is left of their reputations. George Bush admitted that his “tough talking” and his taunting of Osama bin Laden were mistakes but, clearly trying to apportion more serious blame elsewhere, said he thought the greatest mistake had been that of abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison. Tony Blair admitted that they had underestimated the challenges that the invasion would throw up, and in an apparent criticism of US policy said that it had been a mistake to have barred members of Saddam’s Ba’ath party from government after the fall of Baghdad. He thus echoed what a number of pundits have said: that the Ba’ath Party managed to foster the most secular regime in the Middle East and could have played a vital role in preventing the current descent into sectarianism. But both men however, must now be aware that the fundamental mistakes were to invade Iraq in the first place and to try to justify invasion on the grounds of the detection of weapons of mass destruction, rather than being honest about the real objectives, the securing of oil supplies and execution of the policy of regime change.

As I write, news of the death of more British soldiers has been broadcast and the investigation into the massacre of 24 civilians in Haditha by American troops revealed. Lest we forget Afghanistan and the continuing fight against the Taliban, there have been riots on the streets as news broke that an American army convoy had killed a number of civilians. John Simpson, the BBC’s senior political journalist appeared on TV news today to announce that fifty people have died in Iraq today. That includes soldiers, journalists and civilians. According to Simpson the situation is daily getting worse, but the West appears to have lost interest in what is happening.

Only Bush and Blair seem to have a heart for this war. Yesterday’s TV news highlighted an organization established by British soldiers opposed to the war which is hourly receiving e-mail and telephone calls from combatants who no longer believe they are fighting for a just cause. To date over one thousand British soldiers have deserted and 800 of those have not been tracked down. When those on the ground can no longer commit to the battle, it is left to the leadership to perform absurdly the roles they believe history has conferred upon them. Meanwhile hundreds of civilians die because of the hubris of ideologically driven political leadership and we are left to beg the question of whether the current violence, oppression and ethnic cleansing in Iraq is not every bit as oppressive and dehumanising as that perpetrated by the former Ba’athist regime?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Codes and Conspiracies

In his Easter Day sermon the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a veiled reference to the media frenzy which The Da Vinci Code has prompted, warned people against participating in the plethora of conspiracy theories in which contemporary society tends to delight. I was one of that post-War generation brought up to believe that our national leaders were trustworthy and morally upright people, and that the policies and programmes of government were accountable and transparent. When I went to university in 1956 to study history and politics these views were hardly challenged, apart of course from learning about wicked old Machiavelli and the corrupt nature of politics in mediaeval and Catholic Italy. But he of was a foreigner, and the British don’t behave like that! I considered myself to be a child of a much more enlightened free and democratic polity immune to political conspiracies.

My disenchantment began when undertaking postgraduate studies in the USA during the Viet Nam War, where it became apparent that the leadership of the so-called Free World was manipulating the media to obscure the truth of what was happening. They justified it later as necessary propaganda to keep up the morale of the nation. Since then experience has taught me to be increasingly distrustful of politicians and the way they handle information. Lately, with both George Bush and Tony Blair having been economical with the truth about weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s Iraq, and with the securing of oil supplies and ‘regime change’ now apparently having been the true motivations for the disastrous war in Iraq all along, who can blame a sceptical public for being acutely aware of conspiracy theories? They are of the essence of the way we are governed today.

The release of the film of The Da Vinci Code this week has prompted a flurry of media attention. There have been countless TV documentaries looking at aspects of the background to the novel, from the non-Canonical Gospels, to the Knights Templar, to the Roman Catholic society Opus Dei. There has been a flood of letters to the editors of newspapers, and a spate of organizations springing up to persuade people either not to see the film at all, or to employ its ‘false teachings’ as an opportunity to proclaim the True Faith. Typical of these ad hoc groups is the US based Interfaith Coalition Against the Da Vinci Code which maintains that the book and film defame Jesus Christ, undermine people’s faith in the Church, and celebrate paganism and satanic rituals.

There appears to have been a sea change in the Roman Church’s perspective on the film. With that Church, particularly in Italy, initially taking an extremely negative attitude with one Cardinal urging Roman Catholics to boycott the book and the film, the Church now seems to have succumbed the view that any publicity is good publicity. It is now being suggested that the controversy the book and film have aroused present a wonderful opportunity to set the record of Jesus straight and to proclaim the orthodox position that he lived and died a chaste and celibate man. English critic A N Wilson, a former Anglican ordinand, sees this as a crucial moment in the Church’s history and suggests, I suspect rather tongue-in-cheek, that the Church has been forced into the position of making a forceful response, otherwise its authority will be eroded for ever. Even Opus Dei, that conservative and largely secret organisation upon which The Da Vinci Code’s Priory of Sion is allegedly based, is admitting that what was originally taken to be negative publicity has had the beneficial effect of making the organisation much better known and even attracting people to joining it. So much for the Archbishop of Canterbury’s warning that we should be wary of conspiratorial theories and organizations. Apparently ever more of us are rushing to embrace them.

All this publicity may have placed the Roman Catholic church centre stage but by no means all publicity this week has been good publicity. Firstly came the news that the Vatican will continue to keep a tight lid on historical documents from the Pontificate of Pius XII, of whom it is alleged that he appeased the Nazi regime. The argument that the Church does not engage in secrecy and conspiracy instantly evaporated. Then Tony Blair, having been forced by his image as a lame-duck Prime Minister to make a radical reshuffle of his Cabinet, filling it with loyal Blairite New Labour supporters, has moved prominent Opus Dei member, Ruth Kelly from Education to a portfolio which embraces issues of equality and inclusion. Tackled by reporters eager to expose her conservative religious views, she consistently refused to say whether gay and lesbian citizens should be afforded equal treatment. Nor would she say whether homosexuality is a sin, although her Church teaches it is more than just a sin, rather a disorder and “tendency towards intrinsic moral evil”. The media was quick to point out that Ruth Kelly has absented herself from all Parliamentary votes on gender and sexual orientation issues including the controversial new legislation approving civil partnerships. She maintained under questioning that her personal religious views were not carried over into her government work. Given that one of the basic tenets of Opus Dei is that members must reflect their Christian convictions in their work and workplace, this has placed her in an untenable situation and there have been calls for her resignation.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy O’Connor, tried to support Ruth Kelly’s position by insisting that the Church had always had an inclusive view of homosexuality. This prompted a flood of letters to the papers, especially in The Times, from people who posed such questions as whether it is possible for a person who believes homosexuality to be morally evil to honestly defend the rights of gay people. And the Cardinal’s intentional language was a few days later betrayed by his personal behaviour when it was revealed that his one-time Press Secretary had been dismissed from his post on the grounds that he was gay and that it was not appropriate that a gay person should hold such a post within the Roman Catholic Church. Such highhanded behaviour within church circles which patently pay no respect to inclusion or rights continues to fuel the beliefs that first, the Church is a very secretive organization, protective of its image, and secondly that there is an enormous gulf between what it says and what it does. And this is the stuff of which conspiracy theories are made.

Most of the reviews of the film of The Da Vinci Code are not very complimentary about it, and it may not achieve the blockbuster status of the novel. This fictional work does however prompt us to reflect upon the way that throughout history much of the Church’s life has been compromised by social and political conspiracies. We might join the Archbishop of Canterbury in wishing otherwise, but so long as we inhabit a political and economic culture which abounds in deceit, secrecy, crime, manipulation, propaganda, corporate raiding, asset stripping, industrial espionage and sleaze there is little chance that people will stop putting their faith in conspiracy theories.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

A Meddlesome Priest

“Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” are words which Henry II is alleged to have used in reference to Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. They may well be words that have sprung to the mind of the present Archbishop of Canterbury as he contemplates the role that Lord Carey of Clifton, his predecessor as Archbishop, has been orchestrating for himself in the Anglican Communion. Everyone is aware of the precarious position that Archbishop Rowan Williams is in as he tries to hold the Anglican Church together in it's struggle to resolve enormous internal tensions. His leadership has been consistently undermined by Lord Carey, who in his retirement has been offering comfort and support to dissatisfied evangelical Anglicans. Many conservative American Anglicans, openly disparaging the efforts of Rowan Williams, fete Carey’s visits as if he were still the Archbishop.

Lord Carey’s leadership as Archbishop helped create the turmoil that has engulfed the Communion. It was for example, his personal intervention during the last Lambeth conference that helped engineer the resolution on human sexuality that has split the Church. His appointment to Canterbury from being Bishop of Bath and Wells was unanticipated, and rumour at the time had it that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, when handed the traditional list of two names, was so ideologically opposed to the first and obvious name, allegedly that of the then Archbishop of York, that she plumped for Carey. The new Primate, a novice to the international politics of the Anglican Communion, set about promoting his evangelical agenda which included his over-hyped announcement of a Decade of Evangelism. Far from revitalising the Church of England’s fortunes, this mammoth effort saw membership of the Church fall below 1 million for the first time. It also spawned an air of conspiracy amongst the bureaucrats of Church House who would publicly proclaim the decade to be a success despite their private knowledge that it was a singular failure.

When the time came for Archbishop Carey to retire, he did this less than gracefully with the press highlighting his attempts to manipulate the situation to ensure that his successor was someone of whom he approved and who would build upon his evangelical legacy. The one person he didn’t want to succeed him appears to have been Rowan Williams, a hero of the liberal wing of the Church. Again the press suggested that there was a feud between the two men, dating from Carey’s blocking of a proposal that Williams, at the time Bishop of a Welsh Diocese, should be translated to the English diocese of Southwark.

In his retirement, Carey has consistently proclaimed his ministry to be that of a reconciler. His actions say otherwise. Some will excuse those actions as being naive. But it is difficult to believe that a person who has held such an important and demanding post as Archbishop for such a period of time, did not developed a certain sophistication when it comes to Church politics. The consequences of his behaviour will not have gone unconsidered. So we must assume his actions to have been deliberate. Amongst the many examples of his meddling, several stand out.

Firstly there was his widely reported lecture at a College in Rome in 2004. Speaking it is to be noted on the eve of a seminar of Christian and Muslim scholars in New York led by Rowan Williams, he launched what the Telegraph called “a trenchant attack on Islamic culture saying it was authoritarian, inflexible and under-achieving”. He went on to criticise not only suicide bombers, but the absence of democracy in Islamic countries, and also suggested that Muslim faith and culture had contributed little of major significance to world culture for centuries. The timing of his lecture speaks for itself, and the thought that this intervention was intended to be a form of reconciliation defeats the imagination.

A year later The Telegraph openly voiced criticism of Lord Carey’s behaviour. An article on May 30th begins: “Lord Carey of Clifton seems unaware of the convention that former archbishops of Canterbury do not implicitly criticise their successors or interfere in ecclesiastical affairs. Either that, or he has decided to ignore it”. The particular reference is to a sermon Lord Carey preached in London in which he argued that the Church of England should appoint bishops who have worked ‘at the coalface’ (presumably like he himself had done in Durham), rather than those who have spent most of their lives as academics (which is in fact the case for Rowan Williams). The article goes on to criticise Carey for his perception of himself as “the Church’s Henry Kissenger, attending the Davos World Economic Forum and advising multinational corporations on ethical business practice”. It concludes by noting that in his retirement David Hope, Archbishop of York, has returned to the role of a full-time parish priest, and recommends that Lord Carey if he feels so strongly about ‘the coalface’ should similarly return to ‘digging’ rather than ‘stirring’.

A final example is but one of the many instances in which Carey has on his US tours aligned himself with self-styled ‘Orthodox’ Anglicanism as opposed to what they refer to as ‘Revisionist’ Anglicans. In March 2006 he wrote a letter endorsing a questionnaire seeking to revisit the issues of the election of a gay bishop and the advocacy of same-sex unions sent out by an Orthodox group to the US House of Bishops. Virtue Online, which purports to be the voice of Anglican Orthodoxy, reported that Carey “commended this initiative of concerned lay Episcopalians who wish their church to remain faithful to Orthodox Christianity”. Carey is entitled to his views, but seems oblivious to the boundaries he is traversing, and to the fact that his American followers increasingly regard him as an alternative centre of unity for the Anglican Communion.

This week’s religious news in the UK press has focussed upon a letter initiated by a friend of mine, the Revd David Wood who is a priest in the Australian diocese of Perth and to which clergy around the world, myself included, have become signatories. It is an open letter to Lord Carey asking him to observe the conventions of being a retired Archbishop and to stop interfering in the affairs of the Anglican Communion. Responding in a radio interview Lord Carey claimed that his actions have been misunderstood and that the signatories of the letter should have first approached him to establish the facts of the matter. But the facts are that he has clearly and deliberately set out his stall in opposition to Rowan Williams and expresses no apology for doing so. In the interview he urged the signatories of the open letter to reflect and repent, exactly what the open letter is urging him to do. Meanwhile he continues to serve unapologetically as an advocate for those determined to create division within the Church, all the while proclaiming himself to be engaging in a ministry of reconciliation.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Memories of Cuba

In this year which marks the eightieth birthday of two world leaders: the British Monarch and Fidel Castro, I chanced upon an article by Richard Gott, author of Cuba: A New History. Gott argues that the legacy of Castro’s revolution depends upon its constant reinvention and paints a picture of a man cast not so much in the mould of an ideologically driven communist bureaucrat, but in that of a leader who has been able both to accommodate and promote change. Castro’s political life was launched when as a middle-class law student he became president of Havana University’s student union. He would subsequently become first a revolutionary guerrilla with the dream of creating a new society, and after the revolution had succeeded and the USA had placed Cuba under an economic embargo through which it hoped to strangle the country into submission, he retrospectively adopted a Marxist-Leninist stance which endeared him to the Soviet Union and ensured a basic level of economic survival. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and some extremely difficult economic times, with Cuba’s economy today recovering, he still describes himself as essentially a socialist and even as a green campaigner. His revolution, constantly innovative, serves as a model for other poor Latin American countries and as testimony to the inability of its USA neighbour, a mere ninety miles away, despite being the most powerful country in the world, to consign Castro and his revolution to oblivion.

The article reminded me of my own visit to Cuba in November 1979 as a participant in a World Council of Churches’ consultation “Education for Development: Action for Justice”. In those days one of the two air routes into Cuba was via Mexico City, and because of a national strike by airport workers, I had to spend a few days in that city waiting for flights to resume. One of the guests at the hotel was an American who had arrived in a big black limousine accompanied by several bodyguards in black suits and sunshades and a bevy of beautiful young women. I imagine he was a mafia boss, and when one evening I was invited to join him at the bar and told him I was en route for Cuba he became practically apoplectic and raved on about ‘those commie sons of bitches’. He told me however, that he had been speaking to Washington that very week, and that the American administration had assured him it already had boys working in Cuba to engineer the collapse of the Cuban regime and that the country ‘would go democratic before the year’s end’. He clearly hankered after pre-revolutionary Cuba which had become under mafia domination a centre of widespread and often illegal business in drugs, booze, money-laundering, gambling and prostitution. One of the worst examples of American imperialist sentiments, the country was awash with money going into the pockets of a few while the majority of the indigenous population lived in poverty.

I won’t pretend that Cuba in 1979 was a paradise on earth, but compared with other Third World countries I and my colleagues at the consultation were familiar with, Cuba had made extraordinary progress in terms of providing for its citizens’ basic needs in social housing, superb medical and hospital facilities and schools. For the week prior to our actual meeting we were guests of the government and travelled to a range of these projects, as well as to cooperative sugar farms and cattle ranches. And we met with various community organizations charged with the responsibility of defending the revolution. While we didn’t actually meet Fidel Castro himself, we did have meetings with the Minister for Higher Education and with the Secretary for Religious Affairs. In a country whose revolutionary achievements were constantly under attack from its powerful neighbour, we were conscious of the propaganda battle being waged both by Cuba and the USA. The important thing was we were conscious of it!

When on my return to New Zealand I was asked what had most impressed me about Cuba, amongst the many good things I had seen one struck me particularly. That was the way in which an adult literacy project had been launched and staffed from within the churches – Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican (The Roman Catholic church was still at that time involved in its ridiculous charade of being persecuted by the State and driven into silence). With seventy-five percent of the Cuban peasantry illiterate, volunteers from the churches, most of them young people, went out into the countryside to share the lives of the poor, and to teach them to read and write. To this day UNESCO rates this as one of the most effective literacy campaigns ever to have been conducted. The real significance for me lies not in its measurable success, but in the way that these churches understood that the revolution was initiating positive changes for the Cuban people and they wanted to make a significant contribution towards the revolution rather than to be perceived as resisting it.

In two very important ways my visit to Cuba has had a profound impact upon my life. The first relates to my political analysis. My experience in education for development had made me acutely aware of the way in which market-driven capitalism with its ‘trickle-down’ theory was a major obstacle to development. But I voiced also lots of questions about the way that the Cuban revolution was being institutionalised and how, following institutionalisation, the almost missionary fervour of the revolution could be maintained. Cuban ideologues were clearly uncomfortable with my persistent questioning and it all came to a head when one Cuban official told me: ‘You have as many questions to voice about socialism as you do about capitalism. You are an obstacle to the Marxist-Leninist revolution. You are an anarchist’. My initial reaction was one of bemusement, but I subsequently thought that if that is how people see me, I’d better find out more about this anarchism. I embarked upon a programme of reading, and quickly discovered strands of anarchism which had developed in Christian thought and practice from the Middle Ages onwards and which continue now to inform my political perspective.

Secondly, when worshipping in Cuban churches I became acutely aware of the way in which sermons were couched within what I perceived to be Marxist categories and constructs. Was this not a form of political domestication of the Gospel? It was only upon my return home, when I began analysing sermons there more consciously that I became aware that in my culture, the Gospel had equally been taken captive by capitalism. Thus began a period of study, reflection and teaching which continues to this day.

That uniquely Latin-American forms of socialism are alive and well today can be gauged by the level of hysteria that emanates from President Bush and his cronies. Having singularly failed to discredit Castro and the Cuban revolution, America views the growing current leftist mood in Latin–American politics with alarm. And Fidel is for Latin Americans as Richard Gott puts it, ‘one of their most popular and respected and figureheads, recognised by new generations as one of the great figures of the twentieth century’. Happy birthday Fidel .

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Rehabilitation of Judas

I’ve always had rather a soft spot for Judas Iscariot. Given that Jesus had indicated that he was travelling up to Jerusalem where he would be betrayed and, having reached the city, making it clear that the betrayer would be one of his trusted inner circle, the Bible account suggests that the betrayal of Jesus was an essential element in God’s master plan for the salvation of the world. It seems rather ungracious of the Church to have vilified Judas for his pivotal role in the drama of the Passion down through the centuries. Had Judas not fulfilled the role prophesied for him, we might still be awaiting salvation!

The Bible attributes the basest of motives to Judas. On the one hand we are told that the Devil had put it into his heart to betray Jesus, and on the other much is made of his initial acceptance and later rejection of the blood money, those infamous thirty pieces of silver. When I studied theology in the revolutionary days of the 1960’s some biblical scholars were arguing that Judas’s real motives may have been entirely honourable in that he was a member of the revolutionary Zealot movement, which wanted to see the end of Roman occupation. Judas wanted to crystallise the revolutionary moment by provoking the arrest and trial of Jesus whom he regarded as King of the Jews and the focal point for Jewish resistance to the Roman state. That seemed an entirely feasible argument in those days when the politicisation of Christianity into anti Viet Nam war and pro Civil Rights movement stances prompted a radical re-examination of scripture.

It seemed appropriate that during Holy Week when the events of the final week of Jesus’s life are dramatically re-enacted in the Church’s liturgies, that Judas Iscariot should feature in the media headlines. This time it was because of the publication of the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, an ancient text which purports to give Judas’s side of the story. The history of the discovery of the papyrus, the damage it suffered and its patient reconstruction, reads like a mystery story. Scholars date it to the third century, although because it is mentioned by Irenaeus in 180 AD it must have been written prior to that and its suggested date is between AD130 and 170. This restored version is assumed to be a third century Coptic copy of the original work.

The discovery of new Gospels, albeit fragmentary, is not unusual. Scholars suggest that there are some fifty works which purport to be Gospels, and that 21 of these can be dated to the first and second centuries. Some works that have been cited by others seem to have totally disappeared. The Gospels of the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus are cases in point. But others have been reconstructed so that we now have substantial parts of, for example, the Gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and Judas Iscariot.

If there are so many Gospels around, why does the Bible contain only the four familiar ones? The history of the early years of Christianity is characterised by debates and contestations over what could and could not be defined as orthodox Christian beliefs and doctrines, with the losers of these debates being declared heretical and excluded from the Christian community. One of the key tests of orthodoxy was to do with the writings about Jesus and the early Church which could be regarded as authentic. Various councils of the Church like that in Rome in 382, Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397 and 419, reached decisions on which documents would thenceforth be regarded as comprising the canon of Scripture, and which were unacceptable. Among the criteria used for reaching that decision were whether the book had been prepared by an Apostle or under the direction of an Apostle, whether the book was recognised and used by the Church, and whether the doctrine it embraced tallied with that of books already regarded as authentic. On the basis of these kinds of criteria there was no chance that declared heretical writings could be recognised as being within the canon.

One of the heresies proponents of Christian orthodoxy were determined to reject was that of Gnosticism which laid claim to special or secret knowledge to which the adherent had access. The combination of Gnostic and Christian belief proved to be a heady mix, which the defenders of orthodoxy were determined to marginalize. And one of the tactics in achieving this was to ensure that Gnostic influenced writings like the Gospels of Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot would never be regarded as part of the canon. Despite this defeat, these extra-canonical books are still valuable insofar as they represent an alternative voice within the early Christian communities.

The Gospel of Judas Iscariot portrays him as a hero. Far from being the rejected disciple, he is the most trusted of the disciples to whom Jesus has alone given the inner secrets about the nature of the Kingdom. And far from betraying Jesus, Judas does exactly what Jesus expects of him. Jesus tells him that he will exceed all of the other disciples “for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me”. The Gospel suggests that by assisting Jesus to rid himself of his physical flesh, Judas becomes the instrument through which Jesus’s true spiritual self is liberated. And though he comes to an ignominious end, Judas’s role has been to sacrifice himself for his master. As Jesus puts it, “you will be cursed by the other generations – yet you will come to rule over them”.

It is amazing that Gnostic texts like these continue to pose an enormous threat to Christian orthodoxy. Orthodox Anglicans sent Bishop John Pritchard of Jarrow out to bat for them. “This document”, he said, “is an interesting piece of evidence about how one part of the early Church, in all its diversity, tried to understand Judas’s treachery, but it isn’t going to tell us anything more about either Judas or Jesus”. His sub-text appears to be that Christian orthodoxy must remain impervious to the challenge of diverse understandings.

The Vatican rolled out the biggest gun of them all, no less a personage than the Holy Father himself, both in his present role and his former, a noted proponent of orthodoxy. Preaching on Good Friday in the Basilica of St John Lateran, the Pope was clearly arguing against any rehabilitation of Judas. Reasserting the orthodox view, the Pope pictured Judas as a greedy liar whose lies had thrust his life into a downward spiral, and said of him “He became hardened, incapable of conversion, of the trusting return of the prodigal son, and threw away his ruined life”.

I’m suspicious of those who insist on defending orthodoxy at all costs. It seems to me that most of the problems facing both political and religious establishments these days derive from their commitment to the non-negotiability of orthodoxy. A good draught of heresy – religious, economic or political – is an excellent and necessary tonic for the closed mind.