Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Apple Trees and Honey Bees and Snow White Turtle Doves

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--There's never a villain dwelling in all Denmark, but he's an arrant knave
--There needs no ghost, my Lord, come from the grave to tell us this.

The Church of England has announced the True Meaning of Christianity.


Our old friends the Vicar of Putney and his boss the Archbishop of Canterbury both contributed essays to the Guardian over Easter. Or rather, they both contributed the same essay. It seems that, over the Easter Vacation, they have been studying the works of a French lepracologist named Girard. Girard believes that societies have a tendency to invent enemies, particularly at times of crisis, in order to create a sense of unity. This can be very uncomfortable if you are one of those who gets labeled as an 'enemy'.

Well, golly-gosh. I'm astonished no-one has spotted that before. Giles Fraser gets very excited about this new insight:

At times of tension or division, there is nothing quite as uniting as the 'discovery' of someone to blame - often someone perfectly innocent. For generations of Europeans, the Jews were cast in the role; in the same way women have been accused of being witches, homosexuals derided as unnatural, and Muslims dismissed as terrorists.

Rowan Williams puts it like this:

In recent years a number of Christian writers – inspired by the French critic and philosopher, Rene Girard - have stressed with new urgency how the Bible shows the way in which groups and societies work out their fears and frustrations by finding scapegoats.

Williams and Fraser take it for granted that this 'scapegoating' is a Very Bad Thing. They think that the Easter story offers some kind of solution.

Fraser says:

The the story of a God who deliberately takes the place of the despised and rejected so as to expose the moral degeneracy of a society that purchases its own togetherness at the cost of innocent suffering.....The new society he called forth - something he dubbed the kingdom of God - was to be a society without scapegoating, without the blood of the victim. The task of all Christians is to further this kingdom, 'on earth as it is in heaven' .

Well. That certainly sounds religious. 'God-identifies-with-the-outcasts' is definitely the kind of thing we'd expect a Vicar to say. And the 'despised and rejected' bit – that comes out of Handel's Messiah, doesn't it? So if we aren't careful, we won't spot that Fraser isn't actually talking about religion at all. For him, Easter isn't about God or Heaven or Jesus risen from the dead or anything like that. Oh dear me no. Jesus died in order to make the point that selecting social or racial enemies is a really, really bad idea and that it would be much better if we didn't.

Clergy are always drawing social messages out of religious stories. There is nothing wrong with saying 'Jesus was an innocent person executed by the state – and by the way, wouldn't it be nice if our state stopped executing innocent people?' or 'Babyjesus ran away to a foreign country because Herod wanted to kill him – and by the way, wouldn't it be nice if we welcomed foreign people who came to our country instead of, say deporting them to places where they'll probably be hung'. But Fraser appears to be saying that this is the whole point of Easter, not a secondary message that you might want to draw out of it. Why did God 'take the place of the despised and rejected? In order to expose the moral degeneracy of society. The Crucifixion illustrates the point that picking on the fat kid in the playground is a bad idea. The Kingdom of God means 'the kind of playground where the fat kid doesn't get picked on.' For this I got out of bed on Sunday morning?

The Archdruid is marginally more coherent. He's been watching the BBC film version of the Passion and thought it was quite good. He says that, at the time of Jesus, the Jews and the Romans both hated and feared each other. That hatred and fear had become part of their group-identity. Their leaders tacitly kept it going. But:

Jesus offered a perfect excuse for them to join in a liberating act of bloodletting which eliminated a single common enemy. The spiral of fear was halted briefly.

The Jews and the Romans both thought that beating up someone would make them feel good for a bit and picked on Jesus as a likely candidate. For a short while, killing Jesus did indeed make them feel good (Pilate and Herod became friends, didn't they?) But this sort of thing doesn't work for very long.

It's a dubious reading of the Bible (and, indeed, of the BBC film). Far from thinking that a bit of blood-letting would be therapeutic, Pilate bends over backwards to get Jesus off the hook. Far from hating Jesus, Caiphas is a cold-blooded machiavell. He can only maintain his religious authority by appearing to accept the Empire's secular authority. If there is a big religious revival under Jesus, the Romans might see it as a threat and close down the Temple. By presenting Jesus to Pilate as a secular rebel (which he knows to be false) Caiphas can end Jesus' ministry and deprive the Romans of a possible pretext for a crackdown. True, he says that it's sometimes necessary for one man to die for the people; but so far as he knows, he's only talking about political expediency. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

But let's grant the Archdruid's fanciful idea that the Jews and the Romans decided to work out their frustration on Jesus as a kind of primal scream therapy. What follows from this? Williams' explanation lapses into that particular dialect of gobbledegook only spoken by clergymen:

Frequently in this mechanism the victim has little or nothing to do the initial conflict itself. But in the case of Jesus, the victim is not only wholly innocent; he is the embodiment of a grace or mercy that could in principle change the whole frame of reference that traps people in rivalry and mutual terror....Thus the scapegoat mechanism is exposed for what it is – an arbitrary release of tension that makes no difference to the underlying problem. And if you want to address the underlying problem, perhaps you should start listening to the victim.

Following C.S Lewis's advise, I propose translating this into English.

Frequently in this mechanism the victim has little or nothing to do the initial conflict itself.

'When we are very scared of another group of people, we sometimes feel like hurting someone. Sometimes, this seems to help. But a lot of the time, the person we pick to beat up isn't even one of the people who we were originally scared of.'

But in the case of Jesus, the victim is not only wholly innocent; he is the embodiment of a grace or mercy that could in principle change the whole frame of reference that traps people in rivalry and mutual terror.

'As a matter of fact, Jesus didn't do any of the things he was punished for. God gives us good things regardless of whether we deserve them or not (= 'grace' ) ; and he doesn't do bad things to us even when we do deserve them. (= 'mercy'). Jesus was the best possible example of a person who gave good things to people who don't deserve them, and didn't do bad things to people who did. If we were all like this, then we wouldn't ever be scared of other people or hate them. So we'd never want to hurt or kill them. This would be a good thing.'

Thus the scapegoat mechanism is exposed for what it is – an arbitrary release of tension that makes no difference to the underlying problem.

'Picking on innocent people and hurting them doesn't really help, although it may seem to for a while. That's because the real problem is that we hate people and are scared of them in the first place. Picking on an innocent person doesn't change this.'

And if you want to address the underlying problem, perhaps you should start listening to the victim.

'If you want change the fact that there are people who we hate and are scared of, then you should pay attention to what Jesus said -- that we should give nice things even to people who don't deserve to have nice things, and not do nasty things even to people who deserve to have nasty things done to them.'
Even in translation, I don't think this makes a great deal of sense. I don't see how you get from 'Jesus was killed for things he didn't do' to 'We'd all be happier if we stopped hating each other'. I don't see why it has become easier or more practical to stop hating because someone a long time ago was killed for things he didn't do.

He goes on:

The claim of Christianity....

Not 'a claim': the claim.

.... is both that this mechanism is universal, ingrained in how we learn to behave as human beings, and that it is capable of changing. It changes when we recognise our complicity and when we listen to what the unique divine scapegoat says: that you do not have to see the rival as a threat to everything, that it is possible to believe that certain values will survive whatever happens in this earth's history because they reflect the reality of an eternal God; that letting go of the obsessions of memory and resentment is release, not betrayal.

Which is to say, being interpreted:

'We all have people who we fear and hate; we all think that beating up an innocent person will make us feel better. But we can stop feeling that way if we want to. First, we have to admit that we ourselves have bad feelings. Jesus says: 'It would be a good thing if we admitted that we have no good reason to hate our enemies. Even if lots of bad things happen in the world, it's okay to carry on believing that good things are good and bad things are bad. If we stop hating our enemies, we will feel much happier.' We should pay attention to this because Jesus was a good man who was killed for things he didn't do.'

Or, more simply: 'the solution to hatred is to stop hating people'.

Verily, verily I say unto thee: duh!

There is nothing wrong with the occasional moral platitude. We all need to be reminded of the bleedin' obvious from time to time. But why does the Archbdruid think that bringing Jesus into it helps? How is his argument – essentially 'Hate is bad and love is better' -- made clearer by adding 'Because a good person who was killed by bad people said so'?

Again, in the original gobbledegook:

People may or may not grasp what is meant by the resolution that the Christian message offers. But at least it is possible that they will see the entire scheme as a structure within which they – we - can understand some of what most lethally imprisons us in our relationships, individual and collective. We may acquire a crucial tool for exposing the evasions on which our lives and our political systems are so often built.

By 'the scheme' he means: 'A long time ago, two sides in a conflict both picked a third person, who had no part in the conflict itself, said he was their enemy, and killed him in a horrible way. They thought this would bring their two tribes together. But it didn't do any good.' How is this supposed to help us understand 'what most lethally imprisons us' (presumably 'the need to pick common enemies'?) In what sense is this a 'tool' ?

And, finally:

The point of the Church's presence in our culture....

Not 'one of the points': the point:

Is not to be a decorative annex to the heritage industry, but to help us see certain things we'd rather not about common responsibility - and the costly way to a common hope.

Does he really believe this? Does he really think that the reason we have cathedrals, confirmation classes, creeds, jumble sales, synods, the monarchy, sacraments, archbishops, coffee mornings, Sunday schools, the Old Testament, hymns, Easter eggs, septuagesima and nativity plays is in order to remind everyone that 'Picking on people doesn't really do any good; much better to kiss and make up?'

In modern, informal English 'scapegoat' generally means 'someone wrongly blamed for something they didn't do' or 'someone held completely responsible when they were really only partially responsible.' When the police picked out, more or less at random, some Irish petty criminals and framed them for a series of terrorist attacks in the 1970s, it was said that they had been made 'scapegoats' because the cops couldn't catch the real villains. When the Hutton enquiry showed up all sorts of bad practices at the BBC, only Greg Dyke, the director, lost his job: people said he'd been made a 'scapegoat' for many people's failures.
But this wasn't the original meaning of the term 'scapegoat'. The Archdruid and the Vicar somehow neglect to mention that the idea of the 'goat-that-escapes' originates in, er, the Bible.

According to the book of Leviticus, on the Day of Atonement, the following ceremony is to be performed:

But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness...Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and and all their transgressions and all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities into a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness

Now: Aaron didn't hoodwink the Israelites into thinking that it was really the goat who'd been responsible for the recent outbreak of ox-coveting. And I imagine that relatively few of the BBC staff thought that their sins had been supernaturally transferred onto Greg Dyke. The Biblical 'scapegoat' is a component in a magic spell which is believed to actually make a difference. By performing the ceremony, the consequences of all the bad things which the Israelites had done in the previous year were taken away. This was important to them, because they thought that only pure people were allowed to talk to God. Doing bad things – and also touching yucky things – made you impure. Everybody sometimes does bad things; so without this special ritual, no-one could ever talk to God.

Some of my more astute readers may possibly be able to spot where I am going with this.

The prophecy of Isaiah talks about a human being who takes on the role of scapegoat -- not in the modern sense of 'dude who gets blamed unfairly' (although he's that as well) but in the original sense of 'supernatural cleaner-upper.'

He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief....He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him: and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way, and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of all.

Christians have always said that Isaiah's human scapegoat is Jesus. (The point is made explicitly several times in the New Testament.) The Vicar of Putney, by quoting the 'despised and rejected' bit, indicates that he agrees with them. But he is only interested in Jesus as 'the person who unfairly got the blame', and not at all in the idea of a 'supernatural cleaner-upper.' Quoth Giles Fraser:

Easter is not all about going to heaven. Still less some nasty evangelical death cult where a blood sacrifice must be paid to appease an angry God. The crucifixion reveals human death-dealing at its worst. In contrast, the resurrection offers a new start, the foundation of a very different sort of community that refuses the logic of scapegoating.

Christians have always taught that Jesus is like the Old Testament scapegoat -- and also the sacrificial lamb, especially the one killed at Passover. There's really no getting away from this. John introduces him as 'the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world' and the Bible ends with the whole universe worshipping him under the title of 'the Lamb that was slain'. The anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews (or, if Richard Dawkins is still reading this 'St. Paul') goes so far as to say that all the scapegoats and sacrificial lambs of the Old Testament were shadows or reflections: the Crucifixion is the Real Thing, the Original.

Granted, there have been lots of theories about how and why this works: some of them quite outlandish. Few modern Christians would find the idea that the incarnation was a clever ruse to fool Satan into exceeding his authority very helpful. I happen to agree with Fraser that evangelicals should be careful of using language which seems to present Jesus as a cosmic Tom Sawyer, volunteering for a beating in order to save Becky Thatcher from getting one. Push that too far, and God becomes a nasty old school teacher who isn't particularly interested in distinguishing the innocent from the guilty provided someone cops it. But all the theories agreed that the point of Easter was that it re-connected human beings with God. Even the weird fringes of Christianity which thought God was evil, Satan was the creator and Jesus was a hologram believed that. It's only this new Anglican version that has discovered that Christianity was never really interested in putting human beings in touch with God. It was only ever about demonstrating some principles about how human beings should interact with other human beings.

Of course, I agree with those principles. I agree that it is silly to pick groups of people as your enemies. I agree that cathartic blood-letting, even if you happen to have arrested the right man, never helps. I agree that it is shameful that some of our allies continue to practice torture and that our own leaders condone this. I think that love is better than hate. I am against wickedness and in favour of happiness. I just don't understand why it helps to use obscure theological language to state and restate the terribly, terribly obvious.

It must be hard to find yourself in charge of a religion that you never actually believed in. It must be horrible to get ordained because you sincerely want to spread the message that love is better than hatred and discover that you've actually committed yourself to a cult about apple-stealing and blood-drinking and persons with two essences but only one substance, or possibly vice versa. It must be awful to have to twist your very clever head so that 'Hallejulah, Christ our Passover is Sacrificed For Us!' really means 'Why can't people just be nice?' I can see how this might drive you to speak gobbledegook. I can see how, in the end, it might actually drive you insane.

But it's no excuse. I try to picture the Giles Frasers and Rowan Williams of this world running their little parishes. I try to imagine a church full of people with black ties and the remains of, say, a ten-year old kid in a box at the front. I try to imagine them getting to the bit where they have to say 'I am the Resurrection and the Life, says the Lord'. What do they do? Cross their fingers behind their backs and say, 'Well, of course, 'resurrection' is gobbledegook for 'the foundation of a different kind of community that refuses the logic of scapegoating'. But next Easter, I shall change my mind and say that's it's gobbledegook for something else entirely.' 

How do they sleep at night?