A juxtaposition: “Time Team”; Nando’s “Peri Peri Sauce”; contracts of employment
In one of our prayers today (by George Kimmich Beach) we will hear the line "Once we asked for rules to tell us what was good; with growing maturity, we outgrew the way of unthinking obedience." Given this I wanted to remind you all of the paradigm case of how we were once given moral and ethical rules to follow with unthinking obedience, namely, the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17)
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
But most of us here today will question whether this is, in fact, the best way to inculcate good behaviour and the common good and anyway, many of us will also no longer have any strong belief in the idea of a god who can impose upon us their divine laws and justice from on high. Given this, in a world without an ultimate why it can be quite hard to make strong moral judgments or give to others strong moral commands to do this or that or desist from doing the same. The philosopher Raymond Geuss ponders this problem in his essay “A World Without Why”. He thinks there are three basic ways one may continue to act morally in a world without why. The first two he doesn't think are, for him, ways to go down (I disagree with him in this but hey, that's OK, we're allowed to disagree). The first would be to "be clever enough to turn the why-game against itself from within"; "the second possibility is action" because "one deed is worth any number of words." Tempting though it is I don't want to challenge him about the first two possibilities because I want strongly to agree (and use in the body of this address) his third possibility, the invitation.
Here's what Geuss writes about that:
. . . in particular the invitation to observe, look at or consider something. One kind of thing one can be invited to consider is a juxtaposition: masses of anonymous people storming the Winter Palace and two stone lions standing up on their pedestals, or the Prime Minister oleaginously addressing the House of Commons and a pile of bodies in a ditch in Iraq. By putting two (or more) separate “things” next to each other and inviting people to look at them together, one is not necessarily asking or trying to answer the question “why.” A poem may cause someone to ask a question or to initiate a line of reflection, or even to develop some hypothesis or theory, but then a clap of thunder or a sudden pain in the chest may do the same— that does not make either the pain or the poem a theory or a “line of argument.” A word in a good poem is not a concept. Since neither a picture nor a poem is an argument, neither is a suitable object for counterargument. Paul Éluard’s La terre est bleue comme une orange [The earth is blue like an orange] is not best understood as “asserting a proposition.”
[. . .]
You can’t refute an invitation (although you can refuse it, closing your mind and heart to it): it makes no claim. At the end of all the talk, the poem, if it is good enough, is still standing there, waiting. An invitation has neither the direct constructive or coercive power of action, nor the indirect coercive power of ratiocination—Habermas’s “peculiarly uncoercive coercion of the better argument.” If one is lucky enough to live in a society in which a sphere of “free” artistic activity is permitted to exist, no one is forced to look at one’s picture, listen to one’s poem or read one’s novel. Still the work of art need not be without effect on those who accept its invitation.
Simple juxtaposition of external objects, persons or events not usually seen together has a number of variants which are perhaps no less interesting and “compelling” (to use the peculiar expression that seems natural here). Rather than allowing the sewing machine to encounter an umbrella on the dissecting table, one can invite the reader to pay attention to something usually overlooked or taken for granted, which seems to have a unity that upon inspection dissolves. The world can occasionally turn itself inside out or upside down. No one who lived even in complete personal security through the period of the Vietnam War could thereafter ever hear the sound of a helicopter in exactly the same way again.
A juxtaposition: “Time Team”; Nando’s “Peri Peri Sauce”; contracts of employment
Many years ago I was told a humorous story about a minister who takes up a new job in a church in a North American logging community. The text for his first week was (Exodus 20:12) the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal” and he gave his new congregation a sermon on the general importance and ways of understanding the commandment not to steal. On leaving the church he was thanked heartily by all present for a fine moral message. Later that week, whilst getting to know the town, its people and problems, he discovers that there has been a spate of thefts in which logs, which were being floated down stream from where they were being felled to the saw-mill down-steam, had been pulled out of the river and rebranded with a different mark identifying who felled the tree, and then sent on again down stream. Effectively this meant that a tree felled by logging team A was being stolen en-route by logging team B.
Disturbed by this the following week the minister goes back to church and gives a sermon on the subject, “Thou shalt not steal thy neighbour’s logs.” This sermon was still reasonably well received by his congregation but, because the commandment was beginning to come home, it has to be said that it was received with slightly less enthusiasm than the first. However, during the following week, he discovers there has been no discernible change in the number of logs being removed from the river and rebranded. The third week he realises that he must preach on the subject once again only this time he decides he must title his sermon, “Thou shalt not steal thy neighbours logs by pulling them from the river, cutting off your neighbour’s felling mark, rebranding it with your own, and then putting them back into the river as if they were your own.”
This time, as the congregation left the church there were no effusive thanks because the crime had been named directly and since all of them had, in various ways, been involved in the practice they had been called to account. They may have loved to hear a message about the goodness and desirability of the general commandment but they didn’t like it when the commandment came home to roost.
It’s a reminder to ministers of religion that many times the specific moral/ethical point or issue you feel the need to raise is not best served by pointing only to an abstract general rule, sometimes you have to ground the rule in the specific problem where you see it being broken. This can, of course, make you unpopular, as the minister in the story discovered. His community loved the idea of the general rule but disliked it when it was made real and present amongst them.
Today I want to bring you an example of something similar — I want to bring before you a grounded something which, it seems to me to requires a call to “Thou shalt not . . .”. It might seem, at first, something of no great importance but I think you will see that it touches upon something very important that is occurring all the time in our wider society and culture.
But, you ask, “thou shalt not what?” Well, I’ll get to that in a moment because, firstly, I need to remind you that in our present cultural/religious/political climate “Thou shalt nots” are no longer as effective as they once were. We live in a culture where we know there are many different understandings of God or the gods which come (for their believers) with different immutable commandments which can be found in different authoritative texts concerning what is good or bad.
In a liberal religious context such as this, which self-consciously acknowledges the existence of the diversity of belief and opinion I have noted, as well as a general disbelief in the existence of any immutable authority — any preacher who has the temerity to stand up and says “Thou shalt not” is increasingly liable to be shot down in a hail of objections and equivocations. Questions of who says so and on what authority jump up, questions of personal choice in the matter of doing x rather than y come to the fore, expressions of the need to live and let live and not to judge leap out at one. In short the response to a “thou shalt not” approach to many moral issues is generally along the lines of “who the hell are you to tell me what, or what not, to do; I’ll make up my own mind thank-you.” And, for the most part, I'd feel the same if someone tried to give me a thou shalt not command.
But this makes liberal religion — and liberal ministers of religion — rather ill-equipped to offer up any strong moral or ethical “nos” which are able to draw, if you like, strong collective lines in the sand. Now, since the kind of post-truth world into which we seem to be heading is more likely to be one which we will mostly want to resist and to which we will wish to say “no” way more often than we are going to be inclined to go with and affirm it, this weakness is a problem for us.
So how, then, can this tradition, how can I as a minister, offer up to the world any kind of strong (enough) moral guidance? Well, a while ago I said to you that I thought that one of the ways I might go about constructing this kind of address in the future was more regularly to invite you to observe, look at or consider something and let that juxtaposition alone carry any moral or ethical weight the address might have. In our readings I reminded you of Raymond Guess’ words on this matter. So, in place of an address that offers you a “thou shalt not”, today (as a kind of experiment), I’m going to invite you to consider a three-part juxtaposition.
Here’s the first part. I love the Channel 4 Programme called “Time Team” which was broadcast between 1994 and 2014. It was presented by the actor Tony Robinson and each episode featured a team of specialists carrying out an archaeological dig over a period of three days, with Robinson explaining the process in terms accessible to non-archeologists like myself.
The modern discipline of archeology is concerned to take full account of all the evidence and never to read into that (often quite minimal) evidence more than it can reasonably bear. It’s concerned with ascertaining as far as is possible the truth. The programme also requires the archaeological team to be themselves honest and careful, loyal to the truth themselves. Also, in order to get the dig done properly in three days everyone is required to be disciplined. So, for example — an example highly germane to the juxtaposition which follows — it is not to get too tanked up in the pub where the team would often meet up in the evening to sum up each day so they would be late for work in the morning.
In short we have here a powerful presentation of the value of genuine evidence, a concern for and loyalty to the truth and the necessary discipline of turning up on time to get the job done.
Now here’s the second part. On 4oD, where the programme is archived online, these old programmes are interspersed with current adverts. When Susanna and I re-watched them through September and October this year one advert was for Nando’s Peri Peri Sauce, a sauce made “with spices, sun-ripened lemons, onion and a dash of garlic” and “African Bird’s Eye Chilli.” The advert unfolds as follows.
We hear a dramatic musical “da, da dah” and immediately see a digital alarm clock reading 8:15 surrounded by a text saying, “Argh! Late again!” We then cut to a smart phone where someone is writing a text which reads, “ Sorry! Train delayed.” He then attaches a photo, already stored on his phone, of the digital railway noticeboard at London Bridge Station saying the 08:45 is delayed. He sends the text and photo. We then cut to a shot of a fridge being opened out of which he takes a packet of bacon which he struggles to open. Then he turns on a gas ring, puts two slices of toast in the toaster and the we cut to a shot of four slices of bacon in a frying pan. The toast pops out, we see him butter the slices and put the bacon on one of them. He goes back to the fridge and gets out a bottle of Nando’s Peri Peri Sauce which appears with the text “Give it some Nando’s.” He puts it on the bacon and, taking the other slice of buttered toast, makes a bacon sandwich which appears with the text, “They’ll have to wait . . .”. We immediately cut back to him finding another picture on his phone of the same noticeboard at London Bridge Station but which this time says the train is “Cancelled”. The advert ends with an empty plate and the text "Available in supermarkets".
Should you wish you can also see it at this link: https://youtu.be/oupjxIwNf0E
In short we have here a powerful presentation of the perceived value of someone offering up false-evidence, engaging in straight-up lying, and displaying an utter lack of concern for truth and any sense of loyalty to your employer to turn up on time.
And, finally, here’s the third juxtaposition. Take a look at any of the contracts imposed upon employees by multinational companies like Nando’s. There are many things I would want to (and could) say about these kinds of contracts but, today, it suffices to say that none of them tolerate any lateness and dishonesty of the kind promoted by Nando's and displayed in their advert.
“Amen” number one.
And that’s basically my address. I’m not offering you a “thou shalt not” address, all I am doing is simply inviting you to observe, look at and consider these three things and let this juxtaposition alone carry any moral or ethical weight this address might have and I await your reflections on it with interest.
But, as a kind of second, exceptionally brief address, I’d just like to make the point that I think we, in liberal circles, are going to have to do similar things more and more in the coming years and over matters more morally obviously and immediately pressing than the one I’ve brought before you today. Although we must never lose the ability to make intellectual moral and ethical arguments for why we think we should do this or that and not do this or that, in the post-truth context that we are increasingly seem to be finding ourselves, we need to recognise the usefulness and need to find effective ways to make powerful juxtapositions that are, potentially anyway, able to hit people like a poem, a clap of thunder or a sudden pain in the chest, juxtapositions that can suddenly turn the world inside out or upside down and which, in turn, are able to reveal the depths and extent of the lies and the deceits that are continuing to fill our daily lives and which are hollowing out our sense of in what might consist a mature, common, global ethics.
“Amen” number two.