Levinas on Léon Brunschwicg   (29.6.10)

My recommended reading for the day for Pope Ben:

[Brunschwicg quote:] "When we have to bear, as we do today, the weight of the whole world, examining our conscience is something that risks exhausting us without being of much use" (10 August 1942).

Who is this "us" that supports the weight of the whole world? It is not the Jew, it is the man who had won the Dreyfus Affair and the First World War. A Reason, a Conscience. To speak of the man Brunschwicg is to speak of the whole generation of which he was both a part and which summed up, those who fought during the Dreyfus Affair. They remembered less the fact that such an injustice had been possible in a civilised age than the triumph recorded by justice. [...] They showed the power of truth spreading through proof and not through propaganda, that terrorism of the mind. Their motives lay in justice and not in the will to power, their criteria originated in moral conscience rather than in the horrible prestige of the Sacred.

To identify with human conscience appears to have been the human life of Brunschwicg. That is why we do not find, in the Diary's entries for the whole of 1942, the slightest trace of a specifically Jewish reaction. Brunschwicg is wounded only in his human conscience, and certainly there is no dissimilation in this silence. He was a member of the Central Committee of the Israeli Alliance from well before the war and never tried to forget his origins. But it is perhaps through this that he represents, even for those who feel they are men only through their Judaism, a profoundly respectable form of successful assimilation (which is so decried, and with good reason). Assimilation for Brunschwicg proceeded not from betrayal, but from adherence to a universal ideal to which he could lay claim outside of any particularism.

—Levinas, Difficult Freedom, "The Diary of Léon Brunschwicg"

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Institutionalised and Insane   (27.6.10)

One day as he was teaching the people in the temple courts and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. "Tell us by what authority you are doing these things," they said. "Who gave you this authority?"

He replied, "I will also ask you a question. Tell me, John's baptism—was it from heaven, or from men?"

They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Why didn't you believe him?' But if we say, 'From men,' all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet."

So they answered, "We don't know where it was from."

Jesus said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."

— Luke 20: 1-8

Institutions have a tendency to atrophy: power corrupts. I presume this premiss to need no defence: western systems of government have evolved structural arrangements that defend against this phenomenon by separating legislative, executive and judicial institutions in a way that produces a better chance of serving justice and negating the corruption of power. Most of Europe has learnt about this hazard through experiences such as the French Revolution, fascism, and the Holocaust. Sadly, the Vatican (both in its sheer existence as simultaneously a political and a religious entity, and in the public pronouncements we hear as if through a sonic haze of lofty and unaccountable authority) amply demonstrates that it has learned nothing from experiences that shook the rest of Europe to the core of its humanity.

Belgium has had to deal with constitutional questions about power and accountability more recently than most. Its federal constitution was established as recently as 1993, and this political system must serve a linguistically and culturally divided populace. Given the Vatican's well-documented track record on dealing with criminal acts within the church, then, the latest clarion call from Pope Benedict sounds pretty pathetic. Beating the same hypocritical drum crudely woven from double standards, he calls the police raids on church offices a "moment of sadness":

"I want to express, dear brother in the Episcopate, as well as to all the Bishops of Belgium, my closeness and solidarity in this moment of sadness, in which, with certain surprising and deplorable methods, searches were carried out.

We now have it on record. The Holy Father believes that the rule of law, and the legitimate exercise of democratically mandated powers, to be a matter worthy of "sadness". What a more rational person might consider a matter more urgently worthy of sadness — nay regret, apology and criminal prosecution — is the failure of leadership, wanton inaction and secrecy of senior church figures in responding to the incontrovertible reality of entrenched cultures of abuse within the church. But, of course, the Holy Father does not express sadness for the victims of that abuse; what he is really sad for is the small chip that this police operation knocks off of the church's legitimacy and integrity as an institution. That's right: here he expresses a greater concern for the image of an institution than for the moral rights of individual persons; and indeed a greater concern for headlines than for the legal rights of the citizens of Belgium.

Institutions have a tendency to atrophy. And there is no surer sign of an institution's atrophy than its own obsession with the institution-as-such, especially when it is at the expense of the individual lives and individual dignities without which that institution would be nothing. Not just metaphorically nothing; literally nothing. As drenched as the Catholic church may be in heavy metallic ritual and obscene amounts of property, without persons its buildings would be worthless ruins, and its traditions meaningless relics. The only integrity an institution can ever claim derives from its attentiveness to the lives of those who would make it.

As if to make my point for me, Benedict continues,

I hope that justice will follow its course while guaranteeing the rights of individuals and institutions, respecting the rights of victims, [and] acknowledging those who undertake to collaborate with it.

Except, Mr Pope, there is no such thing as the "rights of institutions". "Institutional" rights can always be expressed as individual rights, and when they are, we often discover how pernicious the original claim to an "institutional" right was. What does he mean by "the rights of institutions", then? Group rights are often shorthand for the rights of a number of individuals within a group. For example, just as "gay rights" refers to the rights of all individuals regarding their sexual orientation, "Catholic rights" would refer similarly to the rights of all individuals regarding their religious beliefs. No institutional rights to be seen here. Unless, of course, Benedict is trying to claim some kind of special rights for those individuals simply on the basis that they are Catholic — in the Belgian case, on the basis that they are Catholic priests. If this is Benedict's opinion, it is, of course, scandalous. It implies that Catholic priests should be above the law.

But Lo And Behold! There's another Vatican idiot to make that scandalous point for him:

On Saturday Vatican officials compared the raids and investigation into allegations of child sex abuse with the treatment of the Church under communist rule.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, described the detention of priests "serious and unbelievable".

"There are no precedents, not even under the old communist regimes," he said.

So there we have it: an increasingly insane Vatican, convinced that the legitimate investigations of police forces in democratic countries amounts to treatment more "serious and unbelievable" than "under the old communist regimes". Most would take that as evidence of the corruption and injustice of those communist regimes. But this is the Vatican, where "Freedom is Slavery", etc. You do the math.

Jesus claimed no authority. The potential of the Christian message is to be found in disavowing the trappings of power in a most radical way; the Vatican couldn't be further from this truth.

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Buzz off   (26.6.10)

You said it, Shami:

What type of society uses a low-level sonic weapon on its children? Imagine the outcry if a machine was designed to cause blanket discomfort to one sex or ethnic group.

What more is there to say? The use of these devices is a sad indicator of the breakdown of intergenerational relationships in Britain, and it is we adults who are to be held accountable for that state of affairs. If a school is failing, do you blame and punish the children? Not even, I would suggest, in the depths of communist China.

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Balls, bridges and barriers   (22.6.10)

Television viewers in North Korea were yesterday able to watch live coverage of their team losing 7-0 at the hands of Portugal. As John Sudworth explains, such live coverage is an exceptionally rare occurrence in a country whose leader Kim Young-Il exerts obsessive and totalitarian control over every aspect of his subjects' lives. But Sudworth goes on to report that

Perhaps those who claim that sporting events of this kind can break down barriers and cultural divides have a point.

At the very least, for the duration of 90 minutes, information-starved North Koreans got a rare reality check about the limits of their nation's powers on the international stage.

There is certainly no sign of any opposition to North Korea's participation here in the South.

At bars in central Seoul you can find groups of South Koreans cheering the North as loudly as their own team.

"Our enemy is the leader of North Korea, not the people," one fan, Baek Kwang-gu, tells me.

"I always support our brothers when they're playing other countries."

This attitude seems to me hopelessly optimistic. It's the old cliché that sport can "rise above politics" and "break down barriers", as if somehow sport was more powerful than the enormous, insidious apparatus of a tyrannical state; as if the barriers to be broken down were, in Sudworth's words, only "cultural". It's an argument that fails to take account of the sheer size of the discrepancy between the power of a ball game and the power of a police state with absolute control.

Now, don't get me wrong. Unlike many who share my disdain for this cliché, I enjoy sport and share Norman Geras's view that sport is an expression of many things that are great about human nature: freedom, the pursuit of excellence for its own sake, co-operation and fellowship with others, and respect for one's opponents. These are, or certainly should be, traits that define our species. Insofar as the spectacle of a football match can inspire these aspirations in the North Korean public, perhaps it can make a difference. But what's more likely is that the decision to allow North Korea to participate in the World Cup, and the fact that no protest as such was visible in last night's match, will serve simply to endorse the "legitimacy" of a tyrant.

I've said before that those who think sport should rise above politics usually think so because they do not want to get involved in the dirty work of protesting, or even considering, the real political situation. I'm reminded of the great South African batsman Graeme Pollock, one of the greatest cricketers of the twentieth century. He played only twenty-three Tests because of South Africa's isolation from international cricket while under Apartheid. Interviewed recently on the subject, Pollock says, "If isolation meant changing South Africa's politics, then I'm quite happy at those stolen 22 years." When the South Korean fan in the bar says "Our enemy is the leader of North Korea, not the people," he is surely sincere. He expresses an empathy with the oppressed that we all share. But sadly, as Graeme Pollock humbly recognises, very often the methods required to rid the world of tyranny involve depriving the tyrant's subjects of international privileges. It is called political pressure, and sport is a perfectly legitimate instrument with which to apply it.

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Yes, No, Maybe   (18.6.10)

Only two years after Theresa May voted in the Commons against gay adoption, we are perhaps entitled to be a little surprised when we find her contributing an article to the Pink News stringing together a host of platitudes chosen to express support for the notion of gay equality. Now, May insists that she has simply changed her mind on the question of gay adoption. As I have said before, changes of mind are to be sincerely welcomed and applauded. If, that is, they really are changes.

There are good reasons to question May's sincerity. First is the fact that her voting record is tainted not only by repeatedly voting against gay adoption, but also by her absence from the immensely symbolic vote repealing Section 28, and by voting against lowering the age of consent. (To her slight credit, she voted in favour of the Civil Partnerships Bill, but with the party whip.)

Second, let's not forget that probably the most embarrassing moment of the election campaign for now-PM David Cameron was this fumbling interview with the Gay Times. It shows that the party is desperate to promote a progressive image, but also that (even if its progressive claims are earnestly held) the real thinking-through of the moral rationale and policy implications of those progressive convictions has not been done. May's sickly-sweet string of platitudes in the Gay News is evidence of the same phenomenon.

Third, her article is both misleading and cynically politicised: May claims that "We can be proud that the UK is a world leader in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality." Well, it may be true that it is a leader, but it is certainly not the leader, nor even is it close to being so. Note also the cheeky politically-loaded use of the first person plural "We". She's trying to steal some credit for the Tories in spite of their appalling voting record in almost all LGBT-related legislation. I could accurately complete May's sentence thus: "We can be proud that the UK is a world leader in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, but it's a shame that the Conservatives opposed every meaningful political move that took us there."

Actions speak louder than words. Changes of policy speak louder than changes of mind. Let's hope that this government can deliver both progressive policy and progressive action; if it can't, I think we'll have established just how much Theresa May's changes of mind are worth.

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Tit for Tatchell   (10.6.10)

On the subject of Peter Tatchell (gay rights campaigner and opponent of the Vatican) presenting a programme about the current Pope, Ann Widdecombe says "what's the point of doing it? It won't be sceptical, it will be hostile".

What's wrong with journalistic hostility? We don't protect freedom of speech to protect "the truth". We protect freedom of speech because truth is to be achieved through a labour of argumentation. This applies as much to the positive sciences as to journalism: truth is an accomplishment of a process in which diverse and contradictory possibilities are in turn heard, opposed and discounted. Tatchell might be hostile; he might also be right. The moral and political dangers of prejudging and silencing certain kinds of speaking are the very reason we are committed to freedom of speech.

We people of faith must be big enough and strong enough to hear the voices that oppose us. If the Catholic voices quoted in this article are seriously suggesting that journalism about religion should be a "sympathetic" pursuit, they do a deeper violence to the truth than Mr Tatchell.

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Winds of change   (6.6.10)

Most Rev Katherine Jefferts Schori responds to Archbishop Rowan Williams' letter of May 28:

A pastoral letter to The Episcopal Church

Pentecost continues!

Pentecost is most fundamentally a continuing gift of the Spirit, rather than a limitation or quenching of that Spirit.

The recent statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury about the struggles within the Anglican Communion seems to equate Pentecost with a single understanding of gospel realities. Those who received the gift of the Spirit on that day all heard good news. The crowd reported, "in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power" (Acts 2:11).

The Spirit does seem to be saying to many within The Episcopal Church that gay and lesbian persons are God's good creation, that an aspect of good creation is the possibility of lifelong, faithful partnership, and that such persons may indeed be good and healthy exemplars of gifted leadership within the Church, as baptized leaders and ordained ones. The Spirit also seems to be saying the same thing in other parts of the Anglican Communion, and among some of our Christian partners, including Lutheran churches in North America and Europe, the Old Catholic churches of Europe, and a number of others.

That growing awareness does not deny the reality that many Anglicans and not a few Episcopalians still fervently hold traditional views about human sexuality. This Episcopal Church is a broad and inclusive enough tent to hold that variety. The willingness to live in tension is a hallmark of Anglicanism, beginning from its roots in Celtic Christianity pushing up against Roman Christianity in the centuries of the first millennium. That diversity in community was solidified in the Elizabethan Settlement, which really marks the beginning of Anglican Christianity as a distinct movement. Above all, it recognizes that the Spirit may be speaking to all of us, in ways that do not at present seem to cohere or agree. It also recognizes what Jesus says about the Spirit to his followers, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come" (John 16:12-13).

The Episcopal Church has spent nearly 50 years listening to and for the Spirit in these matters. While it is clear that not all within this Church have heard the same message, the current developments do represent a widening understanding. Our canons reflected this shift as long ago as 1985, when sexual orientation was first protected from discrimination in access to the ordination process. At the request of other bodies in the Anglican Communion, this Church held an effective moratorium on the election and consecration of a partnered gay or lesbian priest as bishop from 2003 to 2010. When a diocese elected such a person in late 2009, the ensuing consent process indicated that a majority of the laity, clergy, and bishops responsible for validating that election agreed that there was no substantive bar to the consecration.

The Episcopal Church recognizes that these decisions are problematic to a number of other Anglicans. We have not made these decisions lightly. We recognize that the Spirit has not been widely heard in the same way in other parts of the Communion. In all humility, we recognize that we may be wrong, yet we have proceeded in the belief that the Spirit permeates our decisions.

We also recognize that the attempts to impose a singular understanding in such matters represent the same kind of cultural excesses practiced by many of our colonial forebears in their missionizing activity. Native Hawaiians were forced to abandon their traditional dress in favor of missionaries' standards of modesty. Native Americans were forced to abandon many of their cultural practices, even though they were fully congruent with orthodox Christianity, because the missionaries did not understand or consider those practices exemplary of the Spirit. The uniformity imposed at the Synod of Whitby did similar violence to a developing, contextual Christianity in the British Isles. In their search for uniformity, our forebears in the faith have repeatedly done much spiritual violence in the name of Christianity.

We do not seek to impose our understanding on others. We do earnestly hope for continued dialogue with those who disagree, for we believe that the Spirit is always calling us to greater understanding.

We live in great concern that colonial attitudes continue, particularly in attempts to impose a single understanding across widely varying contexts and cultures. We note that the cultural contexts in which The Episcopal Church's decisions have generated the greatest objection and reaction are also often the same contexts where women are barred from full ordained leadership, including the Church of England.

As Episcopalians, we note the troubling push toward centralized authority exemplified in many of the statements of the recent Pentecost letter. Anglicanism as a body began in the repudiation of the control of the Bishop of Rome within an otherwise sovereign nation. Similar concerns over self-determination in the face of colonial control led the Scottish Episcopal Church to consecrate Samuel Seabury for The Episcopal Church in the nascent United States – and so began the Anglican Communion.

We have been repeatedly assured that the Anglican Covenant is not an instrument of control, yet we note that the fourth section seems to be just that to Anglicans in many parts of the Communion. So much so, that there are voices calling for stronger sanctions in that fourth section, as well as voices repudiating it as un-Anglican in nature. Unitary control does not characterize Anglicanism; rather, diversity in fellowship and communion does.

We are distressed at the apparent imposition of sanctions on some parts of the Communion. We note that these seem to be limited to those which "have formally, through their Synod or House of Bishops, adopted policies that breach any of the moratoria requested by the Instruments of Communion." We are further distressed that such sanctions do not, apparently, apply to those parts of the Communion that continue to hold one view in public and exhibit other behaviors in private. Why is there no sanction on those who continue with a double standard? In our context bowing to anxiety by ignoring that sort of double-mindedness is usually termed a "failure of nerve." Through many decades of wrestling with our own discomfort about recognizing the full humanity of persons who seem to differ from us, we continue to work at open and transparent communication as well as congruence between word and behavior. We openly admit our failure to achieve perfection!

The baptismal covenant prayed in this Church for more than 30 years calls us to respect the dignity of all other persons and charges us with ongoing labor toward a holy society of justice and peace. That fundamental understanding of Christian vocation underlies our hearing of the Spirit in this context and around these issues of human sexuality. That same understanding of Christian vocation encourages us to hold our convictions with sufficient humility that we can affirm the image of God in the person who disagrees with us. We believe that the Body of Christ is only found when such diversity is welcomed with abundant and radical hospitality.

As a Church of many nations, languages, and peoples, we will continue to seek every opportunity to increase our partnership in God's mission for a healed creation and holy community. We look forward to the ongoing growth in partnership possible in the Listening Process, Continuing Indaba, Bible in the Life of the Church, Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, and the myriad of less formal and more local partnerships across the Communion – efforts in mission and ministry that inform and transform individuals and communities toward the vision of the Gospel – a healed world, loving God and neighbor, in the love and friendship shown us in God Incarnate.

May God's peace dwell in your hearts,

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

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Fred Kaan RIP   (1.6.10)

The death of Fred Kaan passed me by last October. Paul Oestreicher wrote an excellent obituary in The Guardian at the time. Kaan, a clergyman and hymnwriter, contributed some of the richest hymn texts of the last fifty years. Here are a couple of classic verses:

Give us an eye for opening to serve you,
make us alert when calm is interrupted,
ready and wise to use the unexpected;
sharpen our insight.

Lift from our life the blanket of convention,
give us the nerve to lose our life to others,
lead on your church through death to resurrection,
Lord of all ages.

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