The liberal sin of omission par excellence

A prolegomena 

I apologise but this will be a longish post because I need to preface Sunday's address - posted below - with something that came out of the conversation that follows immediately after I have given it and, then, in the hall over coffee and tea.

It was pointed out to me (correctly I think) that the reason right wing ideas (particularly as expressed by Nick Griffin and the British National Party - the BNP) seem to be gaining a foothold in the UK is because of the huge imbalance that now exists between the very powerful rich and the increasingly powerless poor. It's a growing group of people and one that, in the face of a lack of moral conviction and leadership from New Labour and the other mainstream parties, is inevitably leading people to consider the 'merits' of a group like the BNP.

The dreadful spectacle of someone like Fred Goodwin walking away from the mess that was RBS with a pension of £342,500pa (reduced from an initial £555,000pa) and an estimated £2.7m tax-free lump sum whilst regular workers are loosing their pensions to left and right and experiencing, if not pay freezes, then actual reductions in their wages, stuns one to silence and then begins to make one's blood boil. The continuing fact that those in financial industries (now supported by billions and billions of pounds of public money) are still claiming huge bonuses while the rest of the public continue to be squeezed financially in all kinds of ways beggars belief.

Am I angry - you bet your life.

But there is a problem. How do you get the (still) moderately comfortable middle classes to understand that there MUST be a radical shake up in our tax system to start re-balancing this situation whilst at the same time realising that this rebalancing is necessarily going to hit the pockets of many of them personally and that they have to take that hit? Very few are able to realise this must happen if we are going to secure the well-being of us all. So it should come as no surprise to see that most middle class folk prefer simply to hunker down and do nothing because they are not too badly affected at present and, anyway, maybe the bad times will eventually just pass away and we'll be back to 'normal' (a 'normal' which was about as abnormal and dysfunctional as you can imagine, but that's another story . . .). And so, in the meantime, the right slowly build their support amongst the disaffected, they win a seat here and there on a local council, they win a seat or two at the European elections, then they appear on television, then . . .. All the while the comfortable middle classes still do nothing, still hoping it will all pass.

My critical interlocutor - completely fairly - noted that THIS financial disparity between the rich and the poor is a major cause of the current mess we are in. It has to be dealt with. The criticism was that, in what follows, I was addressing a symptom rather than a cause. I partly agree but I also partly disagree because I am beginning to think that a tipping point has been reached and I still do not see the mainstream political parties acting on this need for fiscal and financial fairness in our society - the truth is that they are still in the pockets of the super-wealthy and are continuing to find ways to keep them that way whilst, at the same time, they are now looking to make cuts in the public sector, in both direct funding and wages.

If I am right and the mainstream political classes of this country are not going to act effectively on this matter then we can be assured that right-wing rhetoric will continue to persuade people to give its 'solutions' a go. Once those solutions start to gain ground and are begun to be implemented (even in minor ways) the people involved in them are no longer amenable to rational argument and those of us who want to challenge them cannot afford to think that our liberal rational counter arguments are going to be sufficient unto the day - the truth is that powerful cultural and socio-political forces will have come into play that can sweep unchecked across a society like a tsunami.

My address below - pessimistically - is predicated on thinking that we have in fact just inched into the arena of unreason - an arena liberals have traditionally failed to act well in. If we have moved into this realm then God help us. If we haven't, then maybe my 'false alarm' will at least have the practical consequence of giving those who read it an unpleasant foretaste of what might still happen if they don't get off their backsides and into the public sphere as activists committed to justice and fairness and the importance of genuine, reasoned public debate.

So, this is what I actually said on Sunday from the pulpit . . .

-o0o-

The liberal sin of omission par excellence

Early in the morning [Jesus] came again to the temple; all the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?" This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again." 
(John 8:2-11)

-o0o-

In this story, a free-floating fragment traditionally placed in the gospel of John at chapter 8, we see an outcome arrived through the collective use of reason. A group of people are gathered together all of whom in general terms value the 'Jewish law'. Importantly this could easily include 'the woman taken in the act of adultery' herself. Despite this common enabling stance, there are on display different interpretations of how this law should best be enacted. On the one hand, there is a view that it should be read at a rather literalistic level and that the woman should be stoned. On the other, we see a more wholistic approach which brings one part of the law to come into dialogue with another in order to allow what Jesus thinks is the combined overall weight of the law's intention to come into play - namely forgiveness.

As we look at the story we must not miss the fact that the 'scribes and Pharisees' desire to test Jesus but, again importantly, the test relates to how well and (therefore) how reasonably Jesus can interpret that same law. The test is not merely ad hoc and arbitrary and so, once again, we may note that the broad features (rules) of the game are agreed upon by the protagonists in this story. Jesus' human reasoning is what wins the day NOT Jesus' personality or presumed divine status.

Turning to the woman - it may be that she held a rather literalistic view of the law and so was doubly surprised by the outcome - a surprise which helped deepen her own desire to sin again no more. It may be that she believed, along with Jesus, that the law should not be followed literally and her desire not to sin again was simply deepened by the hope that Jesus could bring to the fore a more compassionate way of being Jewish than that showed by the scribes and Pharisees; she encountered a way of being Jewish that she could affirm. Of course, she may not have given a damn either way and gone off chuckling at the foolishness of the whole event. We don't know but that  doesn't matter for here we are not concerned with who is 'objectively' right or wrong - apart from the fact that I'm not sure this is an achievable aim, and anyway we simply don't have enough information about the proximate causes of this event; instead I simply wish to reiterate that we DO know that the proximate causes of this event were brought together within a group of people committed to working through the matter reasonably.

Also, unusually, we see a process illustrated that is vitally important to any reasoned debate, namely, thinking. In one of the most touching and human moments in the whole of the gospels we see him pause twice, once to give himself a chance to reflect on the matter in hand, once to allow his interlocutors to do likewise.

Now none of this means that any one of the protagonists cannot choose to kick over this particular board game and go rogue and start playing another game. In fact, because we know how the gospel story proceeds we can see that this is precisely what happens. In the gospel of John the dialogue about Barabbas is very long so I choose here to offer you the story as we have it in the gospel according to Luke:

-o0o-

Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him; neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him; I will therefore chastise him and release him." But they all cried out together, "Away with this man, and release to us Barab'bas" a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city, and for murder. Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus; but they shouted out, "Crucify, crucify him!" A third time he said to them, "Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no crime deserving death; I will therefore chastise him and release him." But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. 
(Luke 23:13-22)

Here we see an outcome arrived at through a process that does not rely so much upon the use of reason. Even so reason has its place and we see it displayed by Pilate in his interrogation of Jesus. This time two games are clearly in play, namely Jewish and Roman law. We don't see fully worked through arguments but Pilate finds Jesus not guilty under both laws and his reasoned arguments leads him to the reasonable conclusion: "Behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him; I will therefore chastise him and release him."

But as this story unfolds here there is no space given for reflection upon the arguments and the story's frenetic pace at this point is driven by a previously decided outcome expressed immediately by the crowd who cry "Crucify him!". Pilate continues (it seems) to apply reason but fails again and, as we know, the loud cries that Jesus should be crucified eventually prevailed. Reason no longer has anything like the upper hand.

If the Pilate of the story can be accused of anything it is of simply failing to see that the game had changed from a genuine process of legal reasoning to a head to head fight in which the loudest/most powerful physical position is going to win. However, it is not at all clear that Pilate did not see this was the case. Pilate may have also decided - along with the protagonists in the crowd - that Jesus needed to be executed and that decision may have been arrived at reasonably - i.e. it could reasonably be claimed that if Jesus was not executed then an uprising of some sort would ensue. If this were the case then Pilate's continued use of legal reasoning is merely a rhetorical device to allow him to claim a certain kind of innocence. The point being that although in this particular story there is a veneer of reason its use IN THIS SITUATION is clearly futile and redundant. The mob and the previously made political decision to execute Jesus has definitively trumped the further use of reason.

Now why am I rehearsing these two stories with you? Well, because this week we saw the extremely unpleasant spectacle of seeing a British fascist given prime-time TV space on the argument that his ideas must be brought into reasoned debate within mainstream politics and culture.

I would, perhaps (but only perhaps) - I would, perhaps, think this might be a good idea if our current mainstream political culture were strong and functioning well, i.e. reasonably. But this is highly questionable at the moment. We can all see that the levels of spin and straightforward misinformation are very high and many of us have begun to distrust our political culture. I'll spare you my own list at this point . . .

Now, into this already rather dysfunctional mêlée we at great risk are starting to invite smart operators like the BNP into the mainstream - smart, that is, only with regard to their proven ability to tap into the increasingly powerful forces of unreason and frustration that are present in our contemporary society. (Also, that the programme was clearly structured to be a ganging up on Nick Griffen played into Griffin's hands and revealed to me that we are have entered an arena of unreason.)

But, because we have been taught to value so highly rational thought, we can easily be duped into thinking it always works in all situations and that our public debates will always proceed a la the woman caught in the act of adultery. But that thought is itself unreasonable. History reveals only too clearly that there have been many moments that resemble Pilate's attempt at placating the mob.

I am extremely concerned that we on the liberal, centre and left end of the political spectrum don't suddenly find ourselves in the position of Pilate who might genuinely, but utterly misguidedly, continue to try to apply reason in the face of an unreasonable and violent ideology and then, when he inevitably looses the argument, decides that his naive and politically stupid avoidance of the real issue at hand allows him, at least in Matthew's account, to wash his hands and claim "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves" (Matthew 27:24).

There are times when even we have to stop relying 100% on reasoned debate and, on the basis of defending the long term future of the public use of reason, we have to intervene to stop something. Fascism is utterly unreasonable and it can only lead to violence for violence is built into it in a high level way that is not the case with almost every other political viewpoint - and it must be stopped.

I'm going to conclude with a call to arms but, before I do that, I'm going to preface it with one comment. As modern liberals we are aware that we cannot ever know absolutely that our analysis of the situation is correct - whether my fears are justified or merely delusional (I refer you back to my little prolegomena) but it is worth remembering that sometimes it is permissible (even rational) at times to act 'as if it were true'. Now I recommend we must act as if what I am about to say is true because if we do nothing by the time we do find out for sure it will be too late.

So, make no mistake if we do not begin to take a clear public stand against Griffin and the BNP then be assured there will be violence and death and in its wake we will not be entitled to wash our hands and claim innocence. So let us, like the woman taken in adultery, leave here passionately committed to sinning no more - not sins of commission (such as adultery) but the sin most often committed by liberals - the chief sin of omission, namely that of failing to act early enough. The brutalities in Europe during the twentieth-century bears witness enough to the truth of this.
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