Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Wall of separation – inclusiveness…

So far, in my four Paschal ‘meditations’ on Who is my neighbour?, not only have I written on four different subjects, I have also viewed those subjects from four different perspectives, and structured my thoughts around them in four different ways. What I think has united them – apart from the source document, of course – is my non-cynical, inclusive attitude to religion, despite being an atheist. (I am not what John Gray would describe as “evangelical”: and therefore do not share “the conviction that human values must be based in science”; or “claim that liberal values can be scientifically validated and are therefore humanly universal.”)

I grew up surrounded by the complex beauty of Anglican churches and cathedrals; performing the spirit-soaring music inspired, over five-hundred years, by various forms of Christianity, nearly every day: and I am pretty sure that these determinative experiences inform such a disposition. I do not believe in any god (and haven’t done for a very long time): but this does not mean that I don’t believe in the good that such an entity can galvanize in others (although I also appreciate that any god’s name can be taken badly in vain – as can science… – leading to acts of awful violence that are intolerable to those who profess and practise their religions’ peaceful views and laws; as well as to those, like me, who are not devout or godly in any way…). I also have an inbuilt respect for those who worship: promulgated, I think, by my saturation in Protestant ideology from an early age – my maternal grandad was a Methodist lay preacher; my paternal grandad walked to his parish church every Sunday, whatever the weather; one of the first books I remember reading was David Kossoff’s retelling of the Bible Stories (simply wonderful; and wonderfully simple!); and I was part of a cathedral choir from the age of four (until my mid-twenties: when I became a rural Church of England choirmaster…). Saint Ignatius may have said “Give me a child until he is seven years old, and he is mine for life” (or something to that effect) – but, with me, he was wrong (well, sort of – as this paragraph demonstrates…)!

I also grew up in an area where other religions were prominent (my primary school is now a mosque); and was intrigued – as I am by most things (a curiosity which fuels my writing) – by the similarities and differences in belief, practices, rituals, even wardrobe. These were merely outward signs, though: and it takes a lot more than spending a silent hour in the company of Quakers (which can be a non-belief-based practice: and which therefore appeals to me greatly); or having fun at a Jewish wedding (again: a religion which can be more a way of life); or singing carols at an ardent Baptist Christmas celebration; or spending an afternoon on a bench in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens discussing the various forms of Buddhism; to get to the heart of what particularities conglomerate to produce a specific flavour of ideology.

But inclusiveness isn’t just about religion, or religious tolerance, or – in my case – a partiality for most kinds of religion: is it? Any sort of ‘differentness’ can provoke reactions of hate or ridicule: including colour and race; being (yuck) “differently abled” (this, therefore, pointing to a small, but definite, link, with the first post in this series); supporting the wrong football team; not liking football, in the first place, or not being sporty; being in, or from, the wrong ‘class’; or even something as mindless as not wearing the ‘right’ clothes. To be eccentric, or unconventional, or singular, in any way, makes you, to some, a victim to be despised; a target to be humiliated; a threat to be eradicated.

But aren’t we all “singular”; unique? Don’t we all have different abilities? The Church of England bishops, in their letter (paragraph 2) “believe that every human being is created in the image of God” – but I’m sure they’re only being metaphorical, really: especially as, in its short ‘Equality – us and them’ section, they mention “the individual’s ignorance of those who are different”. Perhaps you are more tolerant, the less ignorant you are? Of people’s values, I mean. Perhaps you are more tolerant, the more you understand or know…? Anyway, here is that quote in context:

[76] …Stirring up resentment against some identifiable “other” always dehumanises some social group or people. Ethnic minorities, immigrants, welfare claimants, bankers and oligarchs – all have been called up as threats to some fictitious “us”. They become the hated “other” without whose presence among us all would be well. It is a deep irony that the whole political class is often regarded as an alien “other” by many sectors of the population.

[77] At first sight, the rhetoric of “us” and “the other” may sound as if it is talking about communities and significant social groupings – the opposite of individualistic politics. In reality, it represents no actual class or community but appeals to the individual’s ignorance of those who are different….

And that touches on an important point: a strong (conceivably instinctual) need, or want, amongst some people – maybe the majority – to be part of – and to be seen as part of – a community or “significant social grouping”. It is an aspiration, I am afraid, that I simply do not understand: as much as I desire, always, to see through other people’s eyes; to be empathic; to walk in their shoes. And it seems – but for other reasons – that those “alien” others who rule us have the same problem with their electorate. (It wasn’t always thus: once upon a time, MPs were dug out of the ground along with the coal of the north of England, by tough, muscled miners, grafted from the same rock they excavated. These politicians not only therefore empathized with their constituents – having shared their lives, and often employment, with the coalfaced pitmen – but took the conditions they lived and worked in as the starting point for the instinctive causes and deeply-held convictions that drove them towards Parliament. They had wrongs to right: and nothing would stop them. But they never really left their homes behind; or forgot them – not for a moment. Some of them – like Jack Ashley – were also disabled.)

The example set by “the whole political class” – from district to national – is not a good one, though, currently. It is certainly not an example I want to be led by. For instance, discussing the barracking that takes place, frequently – and usually of the very few female MPs – in the House of Commons, Zoe Williams writes, in The Guardian, that:

If debate is about the interrogation of ideas until the better one emerges through a process of illumination, this yelling and braying has the opposite intention: to throw the matter into darkness, to make the opponent slink off in shame. What they are supposed to be ashamed of is never clear: some unnamed combination of gender, class, intellect and belief means that they occupy a certain station, and that they got ideas above it.
     People who conceive of belonging as something exclusive (“I belong, so if you deviate from my beliefs it follows that you don’t”) are always more vocal than people who think of it rather as a collaborative concept (in which belonging is built by the nurturance of everyone who wants to belong). They are territorial in nature.
     This was manifested in another context in Newcastle at the weekend, when Pegida – the far-right group protesting against the “Islamisation” of Europe – had a 400-strong rally to press its strange case. A counter-protest, Newcastle Unites, mustered far more people: police estimated 2,000; its organisers said 3,000. Inclusivity is the more popular position by many multiples, and yet would never have mobilised except in answer to Pegida. Solidarity tends to comprehend the need for self-assertion only in answer to some external threat. This leaves it unable to prosecute its own agenda, only able to react to someone else’s. Often, therefore, the underlying truth is lost: that being racist, blaming Islam for Europe’s ills – and, for that matter, finding female MPs inherently ridiculous – are all minority positions. It is a trait of their proponents to be as loud as they possibly can, but that doesn’t make them any less niche.

For an organization whose every sitting commences with a prayer – “laying aside all private interests and prejudices” – this, to me, appears extremely irreligious; and must look so, also, to those with other faiths, and concepts of faith:

Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed. Amen.

It seems that the modern politician, therefore, has no concept of what the House of Bishops call “a Christian understanding of human social relationships”. They would do well to read Who is my neighbour? thoroughly, therefore; rather than excoriating it before even opening its pages.

And, while we’re discussing the letter’s contents, this seems the perfect place to list the relevant passages – all highlighted by the authors themselves. This is itemized under ‘Immigration’ in their guide; and comes from the introduction…

[1] We live in challenging but hopeful times. All political parties struggle to communicate a convincing vision. People feel detached from politics. Alongside a healthy openness to new ideas, worrying and unfamiliar trends are appearing in our national life. There is a growing appetite to exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers between people and nations. The issues around the election call for a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be.

…and this from the ‘Power, identities and minorities’ section of the letter:

[102] In the gospel, the question “who is my neighbour?” led Jesus to recount the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus makes two subtle points, first calling people to follow the example of the Samaritan, the foreigner who went to the aid of the wounded traveller; and secondly, answering the question by suggesting that neighbourliness may mean receiving care from a member of a despised social group. Neighbourliness, then, is not just about what we do for others. It is also about what we are willing to receive from those we fear, ignore or despise.

These paragraphs (listed under the ‘Integration’ part of the guide) complete that section:

[103] The politics of migration has, too often, been framed in crude terms of “us” and “them” with scant regard for the Christian traditions of neighbourliness and hospitality. The way we talk about migration, with ethnically identifiable communities being treated as “the problem” has, deliberately or inadvertently, created an ugly undercurrent of racism in every debate about immigration. Crude stereotyping is incompatible with a Christian understanding of human social relationships.

[104] But we also challenge the assumption that to question immigration at all must always be racist. Major trends in migration have brought about immense social changes in many parts of the country. Rapid change has often impacted most acutely on communities which are least equipped to handle it – partly because their experience has often been that change is to their detriment.

[105] It is unsurprising that communities which have faced deindustrialisation, the destruction of familiar streets and housing, whose pride in work and craftsmanship has been destroyed by the shift from manufacturing to services and for whom poverty has never been more than one step away should find the rapid shift to a multicultural society difficult to assimilate. Suspicion of people with other national and ethnic origins needs to be understood without being endorsed or excused. We need a dialogue about migration which ceases to use people as political cyphers and looks instead at who is being asked to bear the cost of rapid social change and what resources of community and neighbourliness they need to emerge stronger from change.

A recent article in The Guardian – ‘The rise in net migration shows up the hollowness of government policy’ (quoted from, below) – bemoaned what one subsequent letter-writer described as “the lack of a coherent, long-term policy on immigration”:

More generally, one can analyse immigration from three perspectives. There is the social conservative view, which would regard all of it with suspicion. This is most clearly articulated at the moment by the Ukip core vote. Then there is the perspective of market efficiency. As employers and even consumers, we want access to an eager pool of low-wage labour. The cost of an NHS which had to rely on home-grown labour would terrify any politician. Those two considerations tend to pull in opposite directions. In any case, both need be tempered by generosity, humanity and imagination. The reasons that immigration has made Britain a better place, and continues to do so, are not just economic but political, cultural and social. Institutionally, the role of generosity, humanity and imagination has been represented by the development of human rights legislation. This has not been entirely satisfactory, in part because these are qualities that cannot be codified…. No society can avoid an immigration policy and we need one that is honest, coherent, workable and informed by something more than short-term calculations of electoral advantage based on fear.

But, until we learn to discuss immigration – politically (and certainly not in UKIP’s twisted-make-it-up-as-we-go-along-but-we’re-not-really-racist fashion) – in the mature, perceptive and quiet ways that the bishops demonstrate above – with a “generosity, humanity and imagination” very rarely shown by those in power – it will remain contentious. This single section, to me, encapsulates why Who is my neighbour? is so important, and contributes so much to the forthcoming election. Not only does the Church of England stand outside (albeit with its toes on the touchline of) the rough-and-tumble game that is modern politics, dominated by loutish rugger-buggers; but it brings with it a view that has depth and subtlety, derived from centuries of discussion and development; and, increasingly, a willingness to change: to be more contemporary itself, more relevant. The bishops’ views are long-term; sensible; and, as I said in my original post, provide “a coherent, sincere vision that no political party, to my mind, has come within a country mile of”.

I’m not saying the Church of England is perfect, by any means, though. The fact that the first woman bishop has only just been placed on her cathedra in the last few weeks – despite protestations during her consecration that such an act was “not in the Bible” – is absolutely appalling: especially when couched in terms of inclusiveness. What inspires me, though, is the Church’s professed willingness to change; and to think things through, openly. Compared to the bragging, combative – “my manifesto’s bigger than yours…!” – preschool-type ‘messy play’ that Prime Minister’s Questions has become, the House of Bishops (although similarly lacking in female representatives) come across as a paragon of calm intellect – presenting their authority in a manner that is extremely refreshing.

As they themselves write – discussing the ‘Threat from extremism and religiously-inspired conflict’ –

[9] …It is a mistake to imagine that all manifestations of religion are essentially similar or always benign. But the challenge to politicians is to understand how faith can shape communities, nations and individuals for the good. The answer to “furious religion” (that is, the religious impulse turned in on itself or used to justify oppression and conflict) is not to marginalise religion in general or see religious faith as some kind of problem. It is to acknowledge that religious commitment is extraordinarily widespread and that people of faith within all the historic traditions have much to offer to a vision of a good society and a peaceful world.

– demonstrating the inherent value of their own words. All we need, now, is someone to pay attention to them.

I probably couldn’t write such things in some other countries. If you support freedom of speech – especially the ability to criticize the state, please sign this petition to help negotiate Raif Badawi’s freedom. Thank you.

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