Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Don’t pull your punches

These days people like to believe they’re speaking out courageously. They’re telling truths that others dare not tell, saying the unsayable and boldly articulating what no man has articulated before.

Anyway that’s what Bishop Tom Butler seemed to be trying to do on Today’s Thought for the Day. He had an anecdote for us about preventing extremism, which contained a knowing message, which I took to be:  All religions have nasty, violent and vengeful bits, and before true openness and interfaith understanding can be achieved these unpalatable passages need to be brought out into the open, and preferably rejected or at least adapted to fit civilised society. And Bob’s your uncle. Extremism tackled.

However, the anecdote he proceeded to deliver did not cite or specify the nasty, vengeful, racist bits in the Quran. You know, those parts which  inspire the particular ‘extremism’  that’s causing all the current difficulties.

No. Bishop Butler must have thought we weren’t ready to hear any of that; perhaps he wasn’t quite ready to say it.  Instead he used an analogy. Don’t bother to rack your brains any further, his tale concerned a Jewish rabbi.
At some interfaith gathering or other, the particular party game they were playing required all the multi-faith religious leaders to read out an uplifting verse from their own particular sacred scriptures.  But the rabbi was ill, so he had kindly sent his chosen verses (from psalm137) to be read out.

“You devastator! Happy shall they be who pay them back for what you have done to us. Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock” 

“There was a stunned silence. Later I met the rabbi and asked him why ever did you choose that lamentable psalm?” 
continued Bishop Butler, getting into his stride, and recounting the rabbi's reply as follows: 

“All our scriptures have difficult and even scandalous passages, and we won’t make real progress in interfaith relationships until we have the courage to discuss those with one another”

The Bishop followed this with what he undoubtedly intended as his TFTD message, although one might speculate that several unintended messages had already been delivered.
“As a Christian it made me think of the leader of the Jonestown community who, before they committed mass suicide, was fond of quoting to the Christian followers of his extremist sect the words from St. Luke’s gospel. “Whoever does not hate father and mother wife and children, brothers and sisters cannot be my disciple.”
It’s commonly said that people committing atrocities are not real members of the faith they’re dying for or killing for, but that’s certainly not their own understanding. They’re feeding on certain verses on their sacred scriptures or events in their faith history, which encourage them to act in extreme or even violent ways. Well the truth is that any world faith doesn’t have a single colour to its understanding of God and the world. It’s a spectrum of colours.”

Get it? Jews and Christians are potentially violent extremists too. We’ve all got an inner suicide bomber, and it’s still in there somewhere, just waiting to be ignited.
“That’s why it’s difficult to put our finger on real Christianity or real Islam or real Judy-ism, or even real Britishness”

It amuses me when people say ‘Judy-ism’. Punch and Judy are indeed a violent couple. Islam is Punchism, then. Islam is Mr. Punch to the Jews’ Judy. That’s the way to do it.

I see what Bishop Butler is doing here. He wants us to believe that Christians and Jews are inherently as hate-filled and vengeful as (so-called) Islamic State. There but for the grace of progress and civilisation, go we all.

But Bishop, Muslims are not the new Jews. Let’s call a spade a spade. No more moral equivalence. If you must besmirch Jews by bandying about colourful passages from the Hebrew Bible, or if you want to distance yourself from the bad bits in your own sacred verses by citing examples from extreme Christian sects, then go ahead. Be open, why don’t you. 

Most of all, if you want to be seen as a plain speaker don’t beat about the bush.  If you want to say that it’s high time Muslims brought their religion into the 21st century, just say so. 


  1. I didn't believe the story. Yes a rabbi may have chosen that verse but would he really submit it to an interfaith meeting without explanation? What if Bishop Butler or indeed any of the other participants had not heard the explanation? I suggest Bishop Butler embroidered the story to suit his purpose. If I was kind I would suggest he knew this verse and built his narrative around it. But I am not kind and I suggest that he dislikes Jews and therefore he knew if he scoured Jewish verses he would find something to fit.

  2. Hmmm...a lot to ponder here.

    The Bish is right to highlight that all religions have sacred passages that conflict with modern mores. The fact that they conflict and modern followers don't act on them is a big problem for religious people to explain why. It even affects Islam in its attitude to slavery - apart from Islamic State, few Muslim sects wish to identify themselves as favouring slavery - even though it has strong religious sanction in the Koran.

    I must say some of the most self-centred and uncaring people I have come across have been devout followers of religions. So I am not sure that the "good bits" are really quite as compelling as they should be.

    As for the Jonestown mob would appear more sensible to describe Jones' community as an heretical Communist community, one with Christian overtones. Jones was a lifelong supporter of the Soviet Union and had wanted to relocate to the Soviet Union.
    His decision to create a church appeared a deliberate, somewhat cynical move.

    The difference with Islamic State, is that they apply Sharia law as it has been understood throughout the ages. Their practice is not that different from Saudi Arabia or Iran. IS seek to emulate the Prophet in ALL matters. So it's not as though they have taken a verse or two and amplified those ot the exclusion of others.

    To the Bish I would say: "Nice try - you are at least groping towards a recognition of the problem - but the attempted equivalence is not that convincing."

    And the real reason is that Islam is not like most religions - a hodge-podge concoction authored by many hands. It is essentially the vision of one man. It is internally extremely consistent and tends to go with the grain of human nature rather than against it. It was early converted into a body of law which has ever since remained the bedrock of the religion (forget the five pillars nonsense).