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Friday, December 14, 2007

Did you hear the one about the Archbishop, the Muslim and the Good Samaritan?

Better late than never department: that Rowan Williams interview again. The Times report has a 'Read the interview in full' link which actually just gives you the cover of the Muslim magazine which published it. This is the correct link, though it still isn't 'in full', just a fuller version as editorialized for the mag (the link has an impermanent look to it, so catch it while you can).

Actually, I would very much like to read/hear the thing verbatim, since that would allow me to judge how far the Archbish is the innocent victim of a stitch-up by his interviewer.

For Sarah Joseph is, I fear, a distinctly slippery customer. Take her reference to:-

'the Danish legislation that banned its citizens who are under 25 from marrying a foreign national, and other such repressive moves throughout Europe'

Well, I couldn't believe that, so I googled it and came up with this, which, whilst it contains more than enough nonsense, is quite sufficient to convict Ms Joseph of not letting the facts get in the way of a good victim whine. I'd like to know whether the Archbishop, too, smelled a rat, or whether he took her claim at face value.

This is plainly pure editiorializing on Ms Joseph' part:-

'Indeed, Israel’s "security fence" is made up of a triple layer of concrete and metal, equipped with electronic sensors and patrolled by army jeeps, ostensibly to keep out the terrorists, but in effect keeping ordinary civilians caged.'

No quotes, so the Archbishop certainly didn't say it, and I have not quite abandoned the hope that, if she had said it to him, he might not have let that supercilious 'ostensibly' pass. It would be nice to think that he might have queried whether it was meant to imply (a) the absence of a genuine terrorist threat or (b) that physically keeping terrorists out is a wholly ineffective way of preventing them from killing people or (c) that the Israeli government are too depraved to be capable of a sincere concern for the lives of their fellow citizens. Hope, I remind myself, is a theological virtue.

So I also hope that this does not represent the totality of the views he expressed about the security barrier (you see, there's really no need to choose between "wall" and "fence"):-

'He condemns the wall which cuts in half that most special of places where the Christian narrative says Christ was born. "Whatever justification given for the existence of the wall, the human cost is colossal. We saw that for ourselves." He is adamant in calling it a wall and not a fence, "I haven’t seen very many fences of that size and thickness."'

I hope that he also pointed out the not insignificant human cost paid by hundreds of Israeli civilians for not having a barrier, and that this bit was quietly excised by Ms Joseph. That is to say, I hope that he is, at the level of basic moral judgment, fit to be the leader of the Anglican Communion.

I leave others to tackle his effusion of nostalgia for the Raj; this post does the job well, despite the slight whiff of Spartishness, and this one covers the same ground from a different angle. I digress, but a particular worry about Bob from Brockley's post is that a book entitled Late Victorian Holocausts has already committed a cardinal sin on its front cover. There has only been one Holocaust, and the only events which have a claim to be like it are instances of the systematic extermination of an entire ethnic group - to which Imperial Britain's guilt over famines in India, however great, does not amount.

I will just observe that, although the 100% Muslim people of Afghanistan are so far from being misty-eyed about the Raj that they still have mixed feelings about us Brits, a whopping 71% of them are glad to have American troops defending them, and the government which even more (84%) want to see running the country, against the Taliban. Does the Archbishop have any inkling that this is the case? If he does, you wouldn't guess it from the article.

And with that I pass on to one more source of annoyance - this time theological rather than (or as well as) political:-

'I ask him if Christians have become tame. He agrees, "We listen to the most extraordinary and outrageous things in the New Testament and we doze through them." He cites the example of the Samaritans, a people reviled at the time of Christ, but who we now associate with righteous deeds. "To get the full force of the parable of the Good Samaritan we have to use another word: the good asylum seeker, the good Muslim, the good teenager in a hoodie. You have got to get the sense of the unexpected, the despised. That’s what the parable is about."'

So, His Archdruidliness's idea of "extraordinary and outrageous", in the context of a cosy chat with a Muslim journalist, is to raise the suggestion that Muslims are capable of good deeds. Wouldn't it have been just a little more incendiary - if not for Ms Joseph, at least for some of the readers of Emel magazine - to have made the same suggestion about, for instance, gays or Jews?

It's a variation on a trope which one hears regularly from liberal preachers: the congregation are invited to bask in self-congratulation over their inclusiveness towards people they've never particularly felt like excluding. Which is simultaneously an invitation to construct an Other - the racists, the homophobes, the Islamophobes, the nasty, non-inclusive Christians - which becomes the object of actual exclusion.

'And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.' (Luke 18:9-11)

In the interview, likewise, there's an Us and a Them being constructed. 'All those people out there who could never imagine a Muslim doing anyone a good turn - thank goodness you and I know better!' Not just comfortable complicity between Rowan and Sarah, but encouragement to her and her readers to feel misunderstood and victimized by the Other - encouragement which (cf. Ms Joseph on Danish marriage law) tends to be superfluous.

The parable is abused here because it is not about Jesus expounding the post-ethical pseudo-ethic of multi-culti political correctness. Note first that he doesn't say that the Samaritans had a great religion that was just as valid as that of the Jews. In John 4:22 we see that, whilst Jesus has no qualms about talking to a Samaritan, he is forthright about the shortcomings of Samaritan religious practice. We need only recall how central the Psalms and Prophets are to Jesus's faith to realize how mutilated a religion which accepted only the Torah as Scripture must have appeared to him.

And the punchline of the parable is not (as reading the ABC might tempt one to suppose) "think respectful and inclusive thoughts about Samaritans". It's "Go, and do thou likewise". That's the bit that's always too radical for us. Much, much easier to think those respectful and inclusive thoughts - and tell ourselves what splendid people we are for doing so.


bob said...

Thanks for the link - and for the post. "Slight whiff of Spartishness" - I guess I can live with that!

bob said...

On the word Holocaust: I do not like the title "late Victorian holocausts" either. I do not like the idea that all and any instance of large-scale killing should be called a holocaust. I am not sure, however, that I agree that one should only ever use the term for the Shoah, and to seperate out the Shoah as utterly and ineffably unique, but I would prefer to err on the side of doing that than on the side of relatavizing it away.

However, the Mike Davis book, though far more Spartish than my writing, and rather polemical, makes the important point that what is represented as ecological disaster (famines in the late 19th century) were in fact, to a greater or lesser extent, engineered by the colonial authorities. It's a heart-rending book.

In general, great post, and am exploring the rest of the blog.


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Mr B snatched the words from my mouth. Great post indeed, Cyrus!