Saturday, May 14, 2016

Sunday Bible Study

A not very nice man from a not very nice political party has reportedly "invaded" a meat production plant and harangued the staff because he does not think that halal meat ought to be available in this country.

"In ths country" seems to be the crux of his argument: if the newspaper reports are to be believed, he basically shouted "this is the United Kingdom, this is the United Kingdom" over and over again as if that settled matters.

One of my co-workers once told me that they wouldn't buy a sandwich from Subway. In fairness, this is a pretty sound moral principal. Only a barbarian would toast a tuna mayo sandwich, and why do you have to go through the ritual of choosing between six different kinds of bread roll when they all taste identical, although I must admit I like the cookies. When I went to America, Subway seemed exciting and exotic, but then so did Starbucks.

My colleague's objection to Subway is that they serve halal food. Certainly the branch near us does: given that there are quire a lot of Muslim people in the area, this seems to make sound commercial sense. (I do not know if Subway is kosher in majority Jewish areas: perhaps there aren't enough majority Jewish areas for that to be a question.) 

I am pretty sure that a Spicy Italian contains salami; and I am pretty sure that salami is made from pork; and I am pretty sure that pork is not halal. Maybe you can make convincing salami out of fish? Maybe the lamb and beef is halal but they take it for granted that observant Muslims wouldn't order pork to start with? They put cheese into all their sandwiches unless you beg them not to, so presumably Islam doesn't have the meat/dairy restriction that Judaism does?

Halal simply means "permitted", as opposed to haram which means "forbidden". And jihad means "struggle", and hijab means modesty and shariah means "law" and Allah means "God". (Arabic speaking Christians call God "Allah".) But I suppose most people take halal to mean "filthy foreign food" and shariah to mean "chopping peoples heads off" and jihad to mean "terrorism". Up to 10th September 2001 it was common enough to hear boring men in pubs and the leader column of the Daily Telegraph explaining that you can say what you like about Johnny Foreigner but criminals who have had their heads chopped off hardly ever go out and do it again, which is more than you can say for this country. There seems to be a widespread belief that you can catch Islam off a halal foot-long pepperoni with salad but no olives and conversely, that you can cure someone of Islam by throwing bacon butties at them.

This article covers the inconsistencies in the not-very-nice man's approach quite comprehensively. Why was he singling out halal slaughter houses for his animal welfare initiative, when kosher butchers use pretty much the same methods: indeed, the one sometimes supplies the other? If the objection is that Muslim baa-lambs are not stunned before having their throats cut, then actually they usually are. Hard, in any case, to suppose that the religious slaughter of chickens is a bigger welfare concern than your average bootiful factory farm.

But what interests me is the specifically religious question.

The not-very-nice-man is alleged to have asked "Don’t you realise you’re in Great Britain?.....Why are you offering these animal up to Allah, a fake god, Satan. Do any of you have any morals?....You are in Great Britain....This is a Christian country and the Bible says no Christian should eat meat offered to a false god."

Quite a lot of questions are raised here. 

I am not sure if any good Christian has ever believed that other monotheistic faiths are indistinguishable from Satanism. I think that he may be falling into Dawkins Seventh Fallacy, which states:

a: The gods of Christianity, Muslim and Judaism are separate and distinct non-existant entities, in the way that Captain Ahab; David Copperfield and the Tooth Fairy are separate and distinct non-existent entities

b: When a Christian says that he disbelieves in the Jewish and Muslim deities, he means the same thing by "disbelieve" that an atheist does when he says he disbelieves in all deities whatsoever

c: Christians are therefore the same as atheists with respect to two out of the three major monotheistic faiths, and might as well go the whole hog and disbelieve in all of them. In the real world, people who believe in God invariably say that other people who believe in God believe in the same God they believe in, although they very frequently say that they've got special inside knowledge that the others haven't got, or that the others have picked up some wrong ideas along the way. 

But even if you do think that Dio is a false God invented by the evil Italians, "this is Great Britain" seems to me to be a bit of a non sequitur. People In Great Britain have been perfectly free to worship Satan since 1735: certainly since 1951. Religious tolerances is one of the things which makes us Great and British. David Cameron says so. 

But the bit which really intrigued me was the bit about the Bible saying that no Christian should eat meat offered to a false God. 

Where does it say that, exactly?

The Christian Bible contains the complete text of the Jewish Bible and therefore contains a lot of passage about which kinds of food are kosher and which kinds are terefah. (I looked it up.) No pork, no shellfish, no lamb cooked in its mother's milk, wash your hands carefully, put the toilet a long way from the kitchen, and so on. But the Christian "New" Testament contains a number of passages in which Jesus permits his followers to apply those rules with leniency, or to set them aside altogether. Sometimes he seems to be saying that his own presence puts the rules on hold temporarily; sometimes he seems to be saying that the rules, as practiced at that time, went way beyond what God had intended or that they were being applied in an unspiritual, rules-lawyering way. But some of his clearest and least equivocal statements say that eating the wrong kind of food doesn't affect your spiritual status one way or the other: 

There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man....Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man it cannot defile him. Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?

Naturally, the gentile converts to Christianity found it much easier to accept this idea than the Jewish ones; and it was a point of contention in the early Church. About the only thing we know about Paul's personal relationship with Peter is that they had a public falling out over whether Christians needed to keep kosher. 

The not very nice man seems to have had one of Paul's letters in mind: 

Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake: "For the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof." If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.But if any man say unto you, "This is offered in sacrifice unto idols", eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: "for the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof" Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man's conscience? For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?

Whatever is sold in the market, just eat it, and don't ask questions, because everything in the world belongs to God. It is hard to see how you can read that as saying "the Bible forbids us from eating mean offered to false gods". It actually seems to be saying the very obvious. 

Obviously, Paul isn't talking about halal meat, but he is talking about meat which has been offered to the gods of the Greek pantheon. He is quite clear that it doesn't make any difference if an animal was killed in the temple of Jupiter or in front of a statue of Hercules because Jupiter and Hercules don't actually exist.

But there's a problem. Monotheists have always said "There is no other God but God, so whatever you do, don't worship any of the other Gods" and "Idols are totally meaningless, so whatever you do, don't worship them." Paul seems to be saying that idol-worship is, so to speak, a subjective sin: if you think of a statue of a pagan god as just being a lump of dead marble, then it is; but if at some level you think of it as a rival deity, then you'd be cheating on God by worshiping it. People who converted to Christianity from Greek polytheism might well still think of the statues as potentially being gods of some kind; so if they had a sandwich which they thought might have been used in the worship of one of the Greek deities then they might be committing idol worship in their head. 

C.S Lewis said that the generalization of this principal was "on non-essential matters the person without scruples should always give way to the person with scruples." It leads to all sorts of uncomfortable conclusions. If my weaker brother honestly believes that playing Dungeons & Dragons is a kind of devil worship then I (knowing very well that it is not) should never play Dungeons & Dragons again for fear of leading him into subjective sin. I suppose we all accept that we shouldn't have a drink in front of a former alcoholic; should we refrain from eating meat around vegans because meat is murder to them even though to sensible people it isn't?

The not-very-nice-man asserts that the Christian Bible teaches that Subway sell demonic sandwiches. It does not. Even on the assumption (that I am very far from accepting) that the God of Islam is, from the point of view of a good Christian, a false god on a level with Baal, then the Christian Bible is perfectly fine with me eating halal because false gods are precisely that: false. The Christian Bible says that when I go into a sandwich bar, I shouldn't ask questions about the religious affiliation of the sandwiches. It doesn't matter either way. However, if someone tells you that the food is halal and if that person honestly believes that eating a big hearty Italian is pretty much the same thing as drawing a pentacle on the ground and sacrificing a goat to it, then I shouldn't eat sandwiches in their presence. Or maybe at all. If they think it's wrong, then it's wrong for them.

Nothing remotely suggests that Paul thought that the Greeks shouldn't be allowed to carry on performing their own ceremonies in their own ways. The idea that there is a continuity between "I will not eat halal meat"; "No Christian should eat halal meant" and "Muslims living in the UK should not be permitted to eat halal meat." is clearly nonsense. It might be that the not-very-nice-man thinks that there should be no mosques, temples or synagogues in England and that all the Jews, Muslims and Hindus should be rehoused in the American mid-west. But in modern times, countries with Christian majorities have always permitted other religions to be practiced in their borders. There have been Mosques and Temples in the the UK since Victorian times, and Synagogues since the the time of Oliver Cromwell. 

So. It's quite awkward. It's none of the unpleasant man's business whether I go to Subway or not; and it's certainly none of his business whether Muslims do. But what does his conscience tell him? If he feels that he is eating the devil every time he worships a sandwich then I should not encourage him.

So: tell me, Mr England First. 

Do you consider your own faith to be a bit on the weak side? 


JWH said...

Just a typo spot: the Arabic for forbidden is "haram" not "haran". Like in "Boko Haram".

Sam Dodsworth said...

I missed the not-very-nice man incident, but it sounds like they're also a bit confused about the difference between ritual purity and an offering. Which I suppose is hardly surprising.

Meanwhile, the question of Subway salami turns out to be a complex one. In the States it's made from turkey, as is the ham and bologna. Outside the States, they appear to use pork but there don't seem to be any up-to-date UK ingredients lists. Their UK website says anything they sell in a halal shop will be halal, so I imagine if they offer salami it'll be turkey-based, like the ham and "rashers". They also say only certain specific shops are halal and they're all clearly labelled as such, so your racist colleague can always go to another branch if they really want a sub.

Oh, and they do apparently have some kosher shops - at least in the States.

Lirazel said...

I am by no means an apologist for liberalism (classical or neo) or capitalism (industrial or otherwise), but I do greatly appreciate the capitalist tolerance that says, "I don't care what you believe, as long as it makes me money." Subway will sell food that conforms to the dietary beliefs of any of its customers, as long as the profit is there--and as long as turkey processed into a ham-ish substance also is tolerated.

Capitalist tolerance can seem insulting or uncaring or morally unacceptable (can one eat meat that is offered to Mammon?), but it does allow quite a bit of consumer freedom.

Andrew Rilstone said...

No reason to think that my colleague is a racist. They may be worried about animal welfare.

I didn't actually link to the article I was referring to in above piece: it's at

Sam Dodsworth said...

Seems oddly specific to be concerned about halal slaughtering and not (say) battery farming, but you know your co-workers and I don't.