Right-wing and Left-wing, traditionalist and progressive, are terms often used to describe the nature of the fault lines in contemporary Catholicism. Millions of Catholics, of course, don’t fit these categories. Pope-centred Catholicism of Right-wing traditionalists, loyal to a fault, is fast disappearing. Open opposition to Francis has broken out.
Catholics believe that the Petrine Office, as the name suggests, was first given to the apostle Simon Peter whom the Gospel writers present as a man who made mistakes. By getting it wrong the reader is shown how to get it right. But on the vital faith-defining and definitive question, “Who do you say that I am? “ Peter expresses his faith: “You are the Messiah. The Son of the Living God” and receives the response “Thou art Peter and upon this Rock I will build My Church”.
Catholics are traditionally loyal to their popes. On 19 April 2005, the day Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, I was homeward bound waiting on Lille-Europe Eurostar platform. A call came from BBC Radio Ulster. Would I comment live in about forty minutes? Should I say what I thought? That the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger perpetuated Eurocentrism within a global Church, or loyally point to him being a pious, principled and sophisticated theologian? The drum-beat of an Ulster Protestant pipe band beat in my head. Or was it just a stress headache? Eurostar saved the day. The train went into the Tunnel.
From the first moments of his papacy in 2013, Pope Francis, Argentinian of Italian origins, personified a global Church. He brought to Rome a manner and direction derived from Latin America. Its piety, theology and “option for the poor” permeated the Ignatian spirituality of his Jesuit training. It showed in his unostentatious life in Rome, in his inclusive, sympathetic treatment of gay people, and in his open-minded approach to other contested issues in the Church. He was fiercely critical of the clericalism and closed culture he encountered in the Vatican. His first visit was to highlight the plight of refugees on Lampedusa. Within four months of his election, Francis was addressing Brazilian bishops in Rio, highlighting the needs of indigenous people, and praising the pastoral work of the Brazilian Church. Two years later in 2015 came his encyclical Laudato Si on care for the planet which established his global standing as a leader of opinion. There was much traditionalist grumbling but no outburst.
Public criticism emerged a year later. Fear of his weakening the ban on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving the Eucharist, an internal matter, surfaced four traditionalist Cardinals who sent Francis a letter with five questions, seeking answers. The Pope had deliberately, and unusually, raised an issue without settling it. On 8 April 2016, Francis published Amoris Laetitiae, (The Joy of Love), an ‘apostolic exhortation’ developing his thinking in the light of the recent Synod on the Family, encouraging ‘pastoral mercy’, in other words compassion - or laxity - depending where you stood. This time 19 Cardinals wrote to challenge his approach. And the letter was leaked.
Conflict, which had never gone away, intensified in 2018. A former Vatican ambassador to the USA, Archbishop Carlos Viganò, published a 7,000 word document accusing the Pope of blatant lies and calling for his resignation, a call without precedent. Viganò claimed that Francis knew that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, a prominent US Church leader with access to Presidents, was suspected of sexual abuse of seminarians, and Francis had been culpably slow in forcing him to resign. Viganò went on to blame a homosexual conspiracy which he alleged had taken over the Vatican. An accomplished conspirator himself, he had, whilst the Pope was visiting the USA in September 2015, snared Francis into a meeting with Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk who had served five days in jail for refusing a court order to issue a marriage licence to a gay couple. The cultural conflicts of the USA were a communications minefield for the Pope. The meeting, of course, hit the headlines. And Francis sacked Viganò.
In the USA right wing electoral politics chime with right wing Church politics. Not long after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis on 25 May, Viganò sent a public letter to President Trump. In it the Archbishop set Black Lives Matter and the Covid Lockdown in an apocalyptic campaign by ‘the children of darkness’ against ‘the children of light’. Dating from the 4th century, this Manichean imagery of spiritual warfare - unconnected to skin colour - illustrated the mental world Viganò inhabits. Trump tweeted in reply that he was “honoured”.
Opposition to Francis in the USA moved on from a call for resignation to political organisation. The US Better Church Governance Group began ‘political opposition research’ scrutinising Cardinals’ records for what they termed a ‘Red Hat Report’. This year, two books both called The Next Pope were published in the USA. One, by the veteran lay conservative, George Weigel, is sub-titled “the office of Peter and the Church in Mission”. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, sent this book to all the world’s 222 Cardinals (124 are eligible to elect the next Pope) thanking the publisher. The rejection of Francis’ entire approach is not too disguised. The other book, by Edward Pentin, is subtitled “the leading Cardinal Candidates”. Pentin is Vatican correspondent for the US National Catholic Register – linked to the Republican religious mouthpiece, Eternal Word Television Network, ETWN. And the leading candidates are 19 Cardinals opposed to Francis. Do none recognise the inappropriateness of this démarche?
The right wing of the Catholic Church has learnt lessons on impropriety from US secular politicians. Viganò writes of the “deep Church…. that betrays its duties and forswears its proper commitments before God”, the invisible enemy within, modelled on the “deep State”. You would be forgiven for thinking that the Republican/Catholic Right coalition can’t wait for the Pope to die and that their aim is to control the election of the next Pope. The traditionalist view used to be that this was the role of the Holy Spirit in the papal conclave.
The Catholic Left is often charged with ‘meddling in politics’. But they remained loyal over the years despite censure. The American Catholic Right has binned traditional loyalty. It is now introducing the methodology of politics as well as the ideology of the Right into the Church.
Francis will be 84 on 17 December. Ad multos annos.
See TheArticle 28/07/2020
The surreal poisoning of the Skripals in March 2018 shocked Britain. I became aware of the threat of nerve agents in 1989 after apartheid police, using Paraoxon (made from the lethal insecticide Parathion), attempted to assassinate a friend of mine, Reverend Frank Chikane, then general-secretary of the South African Council of Churches. It later emerged his murder was signed off by the Police Minister, Adriaan Vlok.
Frank was a victim of Project Coast the regime’s secret biological and chemical warfare unit led by a sinister cardiologist, Dr. Wouter Basson. During a visit to Namibia, to ensure maximal absorption through the skin, a set of his underwear was impregnated with lethal organophosphate nerve agent. After recovering in South Africa, Frank paid an official visit to the USA and went to Madison to see his wife at University of Wisconsin. Here he suffered again from outbreaks of vomiting, loss of muscle control and acute respiratory problems. He would have died had he not been admitted to St. Mary’s, the University Hospital. The FBI analysed his clothes and found Paraoxon. Swift treatment saved him.
Frank played a leading part in the story of Christian participation in the struggle against apartheid. He was close to Nelson Mandela and later became Director-General in the Presidency, Thabo Mbeki’s chef de cabinet. But he was also part of another story, that of States manufacturing nerve agents, a class of poisons known as ‘cholinergic’: inhibitors of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which destroys the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and cause disruption of the entire nervous system with dire consequences. Parathion, an early cholinergic poison, was first made as an insecticide in Nazi Germany during the Second World War by Dr. Gerhard Schrader.
In 1938, Schrader inserted cyanide into an organophosphate creating a new compound. In his recently published and authoritative Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents , From Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia Dan Kaszeta writes that “a quantity as small as one thirtieth of a grain of rice could kill a (experimental) Barbary macaque”. The Nazis had other targets than monkeys in mind. With the help of Otto Ambros, an executive of the chemical conglomerate IG Farben, and the Wehrmacht’s chemical warfare unit, ‘Tabun’ (taboo), as it was nicknamed, joined Mustard Gas and Phosgene in the armoury of the Third Reich.
By inserting a fluorine atom instead, Schrader hit the Nazi jackpot. The new compound created was highly toxic, odourless and more easily volatilised. It killed rapidly by inhalation rather than contaminating ground like the ‘persistent’ Tabun. In the right conditions a kilogramme could kill many thousands of enemy troops. And your own troops were able to advance. Enter ‘Sarin’ - still in use today.
It was one thing to make a small quantity of nerve agent in the laboratory, quite another to mass produce it. Manufacture demanded complex fabrication of precursors, sequentially creating new contaminants. Nerve agents proved deeply corrosive, due to impurities or reactivity and so difficult to deliver whether in a bomb, a rocket or from aerial spray tanks. Millions of deutschmarks were spent on building different production sites.
Finally the Nazis had a stockpile of Tabun. But Hitler was afraid that the Allied had the capacity to retaliate with even more sophisticated chemical weapons. Otto Ambros, production kingpin, informed him that the Allied programme was probably advanced. He was wrong. And Hitler was deterred.
During the Cold War both sides made similar miscalculations about the enemy’s capacity. The Allies had seized most of the Nazi chemical scientists but encountered the same problems of mass production and delivery. Nuclear weapons dominated the strategic landscape. In 1969, President Nixon shut down US production of a potent new British-developed agent, VX.
After the Cold War ended, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 29 April 1997 prohibiting production – including precursors – stockpiling and use was one of its first fruits. 193 countries have signed and ratified the Convention. Israel signed but has not ratified. North Korea, Egypt - with a longstanding production programme - and South Sudan have not signed. After 1997, about 96% of chemical weapons were subsequently destroyed. The threat of nerve agents seemed to recede.
Saddam Hussein possessed Tabun, Sarin and VX. During the war with Iran he had used nerve agents in March 1988 against Iraq’s Kurdish population at Halabja, killing between 3,200-5,000 people with 7,000-10,000 injured, mainly civilians. He also used Mustard Gas on Iranian troops. The slaughter of Kurdish civilians in Halabja, an act of State terrorism, became the model later adopted by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in massacres in Khan Shaykun and al-Lataminah and at Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. Nothing sophisticated: bomb civilians into underground cellars, drop bombs containing Sarin, heavier than air to seep into their shelters, bomb them again when they emerge confused, gasping for air, and dying.
In Toxic, Kaszeta attempts to explain Russia’s flagrant use in the UK of A232, a Novichok (literally ‘newcomer’) from their Foliant Programme. It returns us to apartheid’s Dr. Wouter Basson, and National Security States’ belief that they can do anything they like. As in Frank Chikane’s case, absorption of the poison was through the skin and onset of symptoms took time. Early administration of Atropine reverses the action of the nerve agent. The Skripals survived. Dawn Sturgess who found the perfume bottle used by the two Russian GRU assassins was sadly not so lucky.
However difficult the manufacture of nerve agents they are not guaranteed to remain in the hands of State actors. In March 1995, an apocalyptic cult, the Japanese Aum Shinrikyô, made a crude but deadly Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Underground. The movement actually had ‘ministries’, behaved as if it were a state within a state, and employed skilled members. It managed to make a small amount of impure Sarin, enough to kill twelve people and severely injure fifty more, with 1,000 others showing symptoms.
One final disturbing thought. International order is weakening. North Korea has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. Kim Jong-il has already used VX to murder his brother Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia. And there are a number of terrorist organisations which would only be too happy to buy some. We should be grateful for the advanced research on treatment and counter-measures that Porton Down provides.
See also The Article 20/07/20
Persia figures strongly in Western Europe’s imagination. We know it as an ancient great Middle Eastern Empire, the liberator of the Israelites, the enemy of the Greeks. And a coup planned and executed by Britain and the USA against its Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, ensuring enmity for decades.
My own first experience of Iran’s political culture was as a member of a delegation. The meeting was to negotiate the restoration of some property confiscated after the 1979 revolution. It took place in Tehran. A senior Hujjatu-l-Islam, one rank below Ayatollah, was presiding. We sat in a half-circle. Respectfully we focussed our well-rehearsed brief on him, though he wasn’t forthcoming. The occasion was stiff and formal. All were smartly dressed. Except that is for a man in his thirties in jeans lounging opposite me.
Translation slowed discussions. We were getting nowhere when suddenly, the lounger straightened up and in near perfect English explained how we needed to understand that this was a difficult and sensitive subject. And so on. I assumed he was from the intelligence services. We’d been addressing the wrong part of the Iranian governmental system.
The second was when the Iranian embassy in London invited me to visit them. I’d published an article on Iran. I thought it had been balanced: human rights violations mentioned alongside the Iranian casualties in their fight against the drugs trade. To lighten the story I’d ended with my failure to find two newly announced traditionally dressed Iranian dolls, male and female, in the Tehran bazaar. There were only Barbies whom these new, official, dolls were meant to replace.
I was ushered into a very large hall furnished only with a table and a pot of flowers where I assumed the microphone was placed - and two chairs. Here I was gently upbraided for my article’s ‘typical’ anti-Iranian attitude, with sighs at how Iran suffered from such misunderstandings. I awaited my ‘entry-refused’ papers. Instead my host reached under the table, produced Sara and Dara, the two official Iranian dolls wearing traditional Persian dress and presented them to me. Wrong again.
I remembered the traditional dolls when I watched Samira Ahmed’s wonderful recent three part series, Art of Persia on BBC4. Remarkably she had got permission to film in Iran and had criss-crossed the country in pursuit of its pre-Islamic as well as Islamic cultural heritage. I felt resentful that on our officially guided visits we had only seen Isfahan’s beautiful central square with the exquisite early 17th century Shah (Abbas) Mosque (renamed Imam Mosque). We had to insist on visiting the Armenian Christian community in Isfahan’s Jolfa quarter. Official visits and delegations were tightly controlled by the Iranian government.
Art of Persia revealed an Iran that I’d missed by talking just to Shi’ite scholars, especially the poetry. Poetry above all has sustained Iranians’ sense of themselves as a nation with their own moral and cultural priorities. Ferdowsi’s national epic poem Shahnameh, written between 977-1010 is Persia’s founding epic and intended to be so. Its mythical and semi-historical stories of Persia’s heroic kings and princes like Rostam and Sohrab, their failings and successes, the epic battles before the arrival of Islam, are both reading for generations of children and performed in public for adults. Wonderful new editions of the Shahnameh illustrated by miniaturists in stunning detail and colour followed. They established miniature painting as one of Persia’s artistic jewels, a tradition that lives on today.
As seen through the eyes of Samira Ahmed, Persia produced at least one outstanding poet per century. Omar Khayyam, who died in 1131, came from a major centre of Zoroastrian religion, Nishapur. His Rubiyat, well known in the West after Edward Fitzgerald’s translation in 1859, touched much of human experience, fear, regret, doubt, and the need to escape from the quest for material pleasures. Saadi, 1210-1291, born in Shiraz, wrote in the same national tradition. His Bustan, The Orchard, illustrates virtues such as justice, modesty, magnanimity, and contentment, and has been compared to La Fontaine’s fables. Golestan, The Rose Garden, has chapters on love and youth, on weakness and old age and on the advantages of silence. In the 14th. Century comes Hafez who lauded the joys of love and wine and targeted religious hypocrisy.
President Obama quoted Saadi in a video message on Iran’s national day, Nowuz, in 2009: “The Children of Adam are members of a whole, since in their creation they are one essence” (there are numerous translations). President Rouhani tweeted the same message at Nowuz in 2014. Was there mutual understanding of this cultural signalling. Who knows?
Art of Persia highlights the staying power of Persian identity derived from its culture. Rulers might change, Mongol hordes from the steppes might conquer, but all at some point had to come to terms, to assimilate themselves to some degree, to become Persian. The last Shah, Mohammad Reza Palavi, both mistrusted and tried to use this cultural heritage. In 1967, he staged a lavish party to celebrate his crowning as Shahanshah, King of Kings, Cyrus the Great’s title 2,500 years ago, liberator of the Jews from their Babylonian captivity. Iranians were not amused. Punished by opposition from a pious Shi’a community to his social reforms, and hated because of the torturers in his intelligence service, SAVAK, he paid the price twelve years later. The austere, avenging puritan Ayatollah Khomenei returned.
Iran today is a divided country, divided by the required strictness of religious adherence, most notably between rich and poor, with young and old rejecting puritanism and the repression of the velayat-e-faqih, the rule of the clerics. If you think you understand the complex interactions within government and civil society between Iran’s powerful nationalism, religion, poetry and culture, you are almost certainly wrong.
And do we really understand our own society and cultures? Art of Persia carries some lessons here. Poetry and the Arts configure the soul of a nation. The BBC produces outstanding cultural programmes with two types of presenter, the Mary Beard expert and the Samira Ahmed journalist both bringing a passionate engagement to their task. The BBC is a great promoter of our own Arts. Rishi Sunak’s £1.57 billion life support for our Arts, large and small, national and local, is timely. It will play an important part in our nation’s recovery.
See TheArticle 10/07/20
One in Four American adults identify as a born-again or evangelical Christian. At 22% of the population Roman Catholics are almost as numerous. An insidious US Christian nationalism is abroad. Religious influences amongst almost half the voting population in November 2020 will matter.
Exit polls at the 2016 Presidential election, commissioned by the respected Pew Foundation, showed 81% of evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump; for White Catholics it was 60% and Hispanic Catholics 26%. Compared with Obama in 2012, Hillary Clinton lost between 3-8% of such voters. Overall, Trump’s White Christian vote was older, poorer and less educated. His support increased with reported frequency of church attendance. Piety can be plausibly linked to voter behaviour.
How, you might ask, can this be? Does the Christianity of White America make no difference to the kind of person sought as President? Not entirely. Two thirds of White Catholics in a March 2020 Brookings survey thought that the statement Trump ‘fights for what I believe in’ corresponded well, or fairly well, with their beliefs, notably about abortion and gay marriage. They also believed they were winning the ‘culture wars’, but unsurprisingly had mixed feelings about Trump’s personal conduct. But evangelicals tended to discount his conduct on grounds that God often chose flawed people for his purposes. Some, echoing Israel’s Netanyahu, compared Trump to Cyrus the Great who liberated the Jews from their Babylonian captivity some 2,500 years ago.
In America’s swing States the percentage of evangelicals becomes important: 29% in Florida and Rust Belt Ohio and 25% in Michigan. In 2016 Trump won Michigan by less than 50,000 votes. A recent poll in North Carolina where 35% of the population are evangelicals showed voter intentions are complex. Participants were asked about a range of issues, including healthcare, environment, immigration and gun control. On abortion 63% of evangelicals preferred the Republican Party compared with 36% of non-evangelicals, but this did not necessarily translate into Party registration. A significant number of evangelicals who voted Democrat preferred the Republican position on abortion. And this creates vulnerability for Catholic Joe Biden who performed a U-turn to support ‘reproductive rights’ to win the Democratic Party nomination.
Benefiting from voter preferences may be behind the nine Republican States - seven of them in the South - pushing through restrictive abortion laws in 2019. Some, the ‘heart-beat bills’ aimed at ending abortions after 6-8 weeks. But photo-ops of Mr. Trump brandishing a Bible and eyes shut as pastors prayed with him may not be entirely cynical. Trump watches a lot of television and in 2002 learned about the Prosperity Gospel from the televangelist Paula White. At the time, he was buying prime real estate with the multi-million inheritance from his father. The Prosperity Gospel with its promise of faith bringing rich financial rewards rang a bell. A firm believer in spiritual warfare, with demons later manifesting in anti-Trump activists, Paula White undertook Bible readings with him. In 2017 she delivered the invocation at Trump’s inauguration then, in October 2019, he appointed her to lead his White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative.
Evangelical voters also explain why Trump’s public support for Netanyahu, the symbolic move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, and his partisan ‘peace plan’, all aimed at Jewish voters, appealed to a further audience. Christians United for Israel (CUFI), an umbrella body founded in 2006 by John Hagee, pastor of the Cornerstone church in San Antonio, Texas, claims some seven million members. In Jerusalem Countdown published in 2007, Hagee plays on the Christian Zionist theme of Armageddon, the final battle being fought out in Jerusalem with, according to him, the head of EU as the anti-Christ. Hagee also calls for a pre-emptive strike on Iran as a precondition for the desired Second Coming of Christ. Though CUFI has since tried to move away from such eschatology. Here is Vice-President Pence’s speaking to CUFI about Trump: “a president who is fighting every single day to defend faith, restore freedom, and strengthen America’s unbreakable bond with our most cherished ally, Israel”. Not so much a dog-whistle, more a clarion call.
US evangelicals cut across denominations and are far from homogenous in their beliefs and political attitudes. Many are traditionally compassionate in their social attitudes. There are also rising numbers of politically engaged groups of ‘progressive’ US evangelicals who point to work for social justice and peace as central to the Gospel message: for example Jim Wallis’ Sojourners, magazine and community, whose mission since 1971 is “to articulate the biblical call to social justice”, Dr. Rick Warren pastor of the 30,000-strong Saddleback megachurch in California whose global peace plan to promote social justice was launched in 2005, and Vote Common Good started in 2018. Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice represent another strand. Each wing of the evangelical movement has its advocacy groups, pastoral action, think-tanks and publications. But there is no denying that the evangelical infrastructure supporting Trump, with its thousands of radio stations and televangelists, is part of the biggest religious ecosystem in the USA today, and represents the highest level of political organisation and ambition, promoting a Christian nationalism sometimes synonymous with White Nationalism.
How will the Trump campaign play these final six months? He’s in trouble with Coronavirus and his reaction to Black Lives Matter, trailing Biden. His evangelical vote dropped 15% from March to May and Catholic support by a hefty 23%. He has been hitting the conservative evangelical Christian Broadcasting network and the Catholic EWTN (Eternal Word Broadcasting network) last week. Will Trump star in TV ads as saviour of America’s soul, a – flawed – Emperor Constantine? Too risky. But there will surely be a Cambridge Analytica- style deployment of extensive mined data targeted on evangelical voters. Evangelical and Catholic Democrats who show the strongest signs of approval of Republican positions on abortion and gay marriage will be digitally singled out for attention. Older black and Hispanic Christians, possibly detachable from Biden, will be wooed.
It’s dangerous. The evangelicals in Trump’s court erode the separation of Church and State. Appeals to religious ideals and emotions are powerful and rarely yield to fact and argument. In a concerted, powerfully appealing ecumenical response, US Church leaders must clearly, passionately and theologically counter the Christian nationalist power seekers who support Trump. He fights not for evangelicals, not for Christian values, but for himself, bringing shame on America.
The Department for International Development’s (DFID) budget was a “giant cashpoint in the sky that arrives without any reference to UK interests” our Prime Minister told Parliament last week. DFID’s announced merger with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) was confirmation that government intends to make humanitarian aid an instrument of geo-political and security goals. “We believe the aid budget’s sole focus should be on helping the world’s poorest people, and that is how Britain will get the respect of other countries and their people”, CAFOD responded.
The gulf between Boris Johnson’s perception of overseas aid, shared with the Conservative Party in thrall to its extremists, and that of the international NGOs, has been growing. Priti Patel, International Development Secretary for eighteen months, 2016-2017, declared DFID’s funding priorities to be not in the national interest. Penny Mordant, who followed her, 2017-2019, told Parliament last week that she wanted to spend the aid budget on two new boats to replace the Royal Yacht. If the present incumbent, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, and her predecessor, Alok Sharma, are anything to go by, a career in corporate finance is just what you need to understand poverty reduction. The swing doors nature of the appointment – five ministers in less than four years - was most noticeable with Rory Stewart who resigned his position after six months following the purge of the Tory BREXIT dissidents. Sad, as like the National Audit Committee, he showed signs of understanding that DFID was outstanding amongst government departments in doing what it was set up to do, combatting global poverty.
Britain, with an aid budget of £15 billion a year, is the only country in the world to achieve the UN target of 0.7% of Gross National Income spent on international development. We should be proud of that even in adversity. Though only 73% of this funding is spent through DFID itself. The remainder, for example support for tackling climate change internationally, goes through other government departments. This hidden plunder of the DFID budget is likely to grow under the new dispensation. Merged into a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, DfID’s mission to end extreme poverty and tackle the global challenges of our time including disease, mass migration, insecurity and conflict, will have to contend with a raft of other priorities.
One of the most pressing FCO priorities in a post-Brexit world remains trade. Theresa May set up the Department of International Trade (DIT) in 2016 to expand Britain’s non-EU trade. Every British Ambassador and High Commissioner around the world is charged with promoting trade. If, as Boris Johnson claims, the DFID merger will enhance policy coherence you might have thought the DIT would be the first to fall under the FCO. You would be wrong. You might also have thought the Prime Minister would have discussed his plan with leading British international NGOs such as OXFAM and Save the Children. Wrong again. He didn’t. Boris Johnson has simply ignored the conclusion of the excellent International Development Select Committee that retaining the independence of DFID is vital.
Johnson claims that moving DFID into the FCO will give the British taxpayer better value for money. Only if you ignore, as he does, the existing experts with years of experience vetting, implementing and monitoring programmes and projects, experts already regularly in touch with Foreign Office staff in country, sometimes with offices in the same secure compound. DFID’s research unit is crucial in assessing the effectiveness of it work. This efficiency argument is a red herring.
DfID has been merged with the FCO by the Conservatives then demerged by the Labour Party in the past. Their departments’ goals are different. No amount of spin can change that.
If policy coherence were Johnson’s main purpose, there are other ways to achieve it. JTAC, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, brings together some sixteen government bodies. It has proved its worth in co-ordination of counter-terrorism strategy. Similar bodies could be created, or developed further, for overlapping international issues and interests such as achieving the international sustainable development goals, climate change, gender equality, pandemics, corruption, human rights and human trafficking.
At heart, though, the government justifications reveal the gulf between thinking in the Cabinet and those on the front line of development and humanitarianism. The argument is a moral one. You don’t have to be Christian to view it as such. In my experience as a former CEO of the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), the Scandinavian countries have tried more successfully to sustain a moral purpose in their foreign policy. Nordic policy over apartheid and the liberation of Namibia took a different path to the British. Sweden supported the internal movement of the African National Congress in South Africa. The UK tried to undermine it dividing communist from nationalist members. Tiny Finland is respected globally for its work on conflict resolution. Beyond the religious and ethical dimension of the argument, but as CAFOD’s response suggests, lies the political debate about the nature of ‘soft power’ and our future place in the world at a time of general crisis in Britain’s perception of itself.
Do we really wish to present ourselves in macho fashion as ‘punching above our weight’? Not if it requires tens of billions spent on nuclear missile-bearing submarines and aircraft carriers. ‘Global Britain’ needs to find a new and fitting strategic role. We need the moral vision underpinning our international development programme as a prominent part of it. We need to heed the best of our INGOs. It is in the national interest for Britain post-Brexit, post-pandemic, to draw both from our Christian tradition and its understanding of who is ‘Global Britain’s’ neighbour, and from our own history of supporting and contributing to international institutions. And we will not always have a Prime Minister who seems to think jokes are a substitute for principled action.
See The Tablet online 23/06/2020
Outside City Hall in Buffalo, USA, on 4th June at a Black Lives Matter demonstration a police officer deliberately shoved an approaching solitary, tall, 75 year-old man. Martin Gugino fell backwards to the ground, where he lay bleeding from his right ear. The cohort of police surged on leaving him prostrate. He had a fractured skull and was later put in intensive care before spending time in rehabilitation in the Erie County Medical Center. A video of the incident went worldwide.
Deploying a typically crazed Right-Wing conspiracy, the One America News network (OANN) put out a fake-news story that Martin Gugino was from Antifa, an umbrella body of anti-fascist organisations which deems violence in self-defence permissible. President Trump, a ground-feeder off such media, repeated it, tweeting that the man “could be [a standard Trump ploy ] an Antifa provocateur” scanning police communications in order to block them.
In the real world, Martin Gugino was active in a number of different campaigns for human rights, social justice, non-violence and peace. Most likely he was approaching the police to talk to them. Martin Gugino was a member of the Catholic Worker movement, a radical international organisation many younger Catholics may not have heard of. President Trump certainly hadn’t.
Dorothy Day, the woman who invented ‘taking the knee’ - but as a protester’s substitute for standing during the Star-Spangled Banner, founded the Catholic Worker newspaper in New York in 1933. Her inspiration was the larger than life French ‘classic autodidact’, Peter Maurin, a man obsessed with the need for a ‘green revolution’, with the poor’s suffering during the Great Depression, who opposed capitalism and who challenged the complacency of middle-class Catholics. Dorothy Day had escaped via university from a conventional family lacking any religious interests into the bohemian world of Greenwich Village, lower Manhattan, where journalists, writers, artists and radical thinkers, some of them communists, drank and talked the nights away. Today we might say she had a ‘chaotic lifestyle’ including feckless male admirers, heavy drinking, an abortion, an atheist husband who left her, and a long-suffering daughter Tamar born in 1927. She later denied having an affair with Eugene O’Neill but they were close.
Dorothy Day was an avid reader. Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, full of moral and political purpose, were her sacred texts. But so was Thomas á Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. Throughout these free-wheeling years there was something about Catholic liturgy that spoke to her. John Loughery and Blythe Randolph in their excellent biography, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, believe Dorothy Day wanted above all to protect Tamar from repeating her own painful quest for identity and purpose. A kindly nun instructed her in what was required of a parent so her daughter could be baptised. Then she followed Tamar into the Church in December 1927.
During 1934, Dorothy’s part mentor, part friend, Peter Maurin, began taking in rough sleepers. That winter the idea of a ‘house of hospitality’ took shape, a dilapidated four story building in Greenwich Village, close by the Hudson river. Caring for the weakest and poorest members of society became for Day and Maurin a ‘sacrament of duty’. It did not matter how drink or drug addicted and impossibly aggressive the guests might be, however racist, lice-ridden and unwashed. There was nothing romantic about their involuntary poverty. Nor about the voluntary poverty that drew idealistic young Catholics to share the lives of the guests, accepting the bedbugs, the chaos and the noise. For Dorothy Day a needy person was the image of Christ and could never be the ‘undeserving poor’. It was a theological position. She shared it in indefatigable travels and talks.
At the house of hospitality in the evenings there were lectures and debate rather threateningly known as ‘clarification of thought’. The discussions connected with the radical content of the Catholic Worker newspaper and attracted a wide range of people, not only radical journalists who over the years wrote for the paper. From the beginning racial justice, workers’ rights, opposition to war and nuclear weapons, and the Gospel values, were strong, repeated themes alongside the realities of poverty in the USA. Whilst committed to the worker struggle, Dorothy Day was wary of the leaders of the US unions. Demonstrations and civil disobedience, which qualified Catholic Workers for arrest and prison sentences, rarely prolonged, were rites of passage for Catholic Worker volunteers. The paper’s readership peaked at about 120,000 before the USA entered the Second World War but subscriptions halved when the paper continued to support conscientious objection.
During the 1950s McCarthyism increased the vulnerability of the movement. No support from the US bishops could be expected, least of all from the sixth Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman. The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were another story. The growing peace movement with its draft card burnings brought in the two Berrigan brothers, Jesuit and Josephite priests, who both served long prison sentences. I remember in the 1960s listening to Daniel Berrigan SJ, charismatic and compelling in his clerical black drainpipe jeans. When Dorothy Day was asked if Berrigan was a Catholic Worker, she replied:” No, Dan isn’t a Catholic Worker. He came to us and stole our young men away into the peace movement”. But the young men and women kept coming. And the houses of hospitality proliferated around America and the world, 175 communities in the USA and 29 more internationally, including one in north London. The Catholic Worker, described in 1971 in the New York Review of Books, as ‘the Methuselah of little mags’, still survives.
So, in a way, President Trump was right. There was a conspiracy. He recently held the source of that conspiracy aloft for a photo-op outside St. John’s church right opposite the White House. As Pope Francis said in front of a joint session of Congress in September 2015, referring to Dorothy Day whom he selected with Thomas Merton, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King as illustrating the best of US values and culture: “Her social activism, her passion for justice and the cause of the oppressed were inspired by the Gospel, her faith and the example of the saints”.
See TheArticle 17/06/2020 "Trump was right - there was a conspiracy. But not the one he thought"
An on-line history of Progressio, formerly the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), was published a week or so ago. Do have a look: https://www.progressio.org.uk/what/legacy-publication-organisations-life-and-work Open hyperlink and click on A Record of Change in a Changing World.
When Progressio closed two years ago I wrote a valedictory piece - see below. I hope it may encourage you to dip into the online CIIR history put together by Jon Barnes, a former regional manager for Latin America and the Caribbean. It tries to capture a dimension of Catholicism during and after the Cold War.
A Radical Loss
Writing the obituary for an organisation, rather than a person, is a daunting task. That might be because the seventy-six years that span the life of The Sword of the Spirit, from which the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) budded off in the mid-1960s, finally to be renamed Progressio, merit a proper contextual history. Or it might be because I worked there for twenty of those years, fifteen of them as general secretary six on the southern Africa desk; that puts a strain on my objectivity. For both reasons important people, programmes, events may get left out, and other characteristics, perhaps less acknowledged, emphasised.
Last things first: Progressio's demise, sixteen years after I left, is sadly mundane. No great dramas. It ran out of money. Some £2 million of its £5 million plus budget came from a partnership with the UK Ministry of International Development (DfID), and this ended.
It was ever so. I remember trying to widen the donor base, knocking on bishops' and convent doors, seeking those elusive German Benedictine Abbots with gold bars under their chasubles, trying to convince American Catholic millionaires that they didn't really want to endow a chair in Mediaeval Studies, or a chapel, but contribute to Africans having a decent life. But most of the Sisters had their elderly to care for - some helped - only one or two bishops got out their cheque books as I came in the door - bless them – and I never found those rich Abbots hiding in the Teutonic mists and forests. My “elevator-pitch” with American Catholic millionaires didn't get me past the first floor. Changing the name to Progressio to widen donor appeal in 2006 didn't work. I suspect those imagined secular supporters thought Progressio was an Italian football team.
But enough of the petty humiliations of fund-raising in competition with the well-oiled machines of CAFOD and VSO which, in some ways, occupied the same charitable terrain. CIIR was “at the edge” and radical. Under the leadership of the late Mildred Nevile, it built up a substantial reputation for advocacy in southern Africa and Latin America, and for outstanding grass-roots development work in a range of different countries. It was some measure of the times that the most outstanding Catholic woman of her generation, Mildred, never, until her death, received the recognition from the Church that she merited. The State, at least, gave her an MBE which she promptly lost in her car, holding up celebrations as staff scrabbled in the front seat to find it.
What made CIIR different was what made Mildred different. CIIR was deeply imbued with the tradition and spirit of Catholicism, but not inward-looking or “churchy”; it looked outward never fretting for long about episcopal support or what bishops were worried about. Yet a high regard for the work of the organisation was often forthcoming. I used to have a private joke with Cardinal Hume, our patron, whom I visited regularly. I'd greet him and then ask: “has anyone been complaining about us”. He'd pause to think then say “I don't think so”. I'd reply “then we aren't doing our job properly, are we?” Then we'd laugh. Though odd Catholic and non-Catholic members of the Tory back benches were occasionally apoplectic at what we did. That was comforting.
Looking outward meant that CIIR was able to see the UK in the context of a global Church and different cultures and ways of thought as diverse as those of Yemen, Zimbabwe, El Salvador, South Korea, Philippines, and Somaliland, to give a sense of the contrasts. Instead of “little England” there was “big global South”, not the cosmopolitanism of the international bankers but of the barrios and favelas of Latin America and Philippines and the black townships of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. Being part of a global Church was not an academic idea but a lived reality. The CIIR's sending of volunteers to share their skills to strengthen civil society around the world, chosen entirely on professional rather than confessional grounds, meant that for many years CIIR had outstanding representatives in eleven different countries feeding their ideas and experience back into the life of the organisation.
This global feedback coupled with close bonds of friendship forged with workers for justice and development in local Churches, from archbishops to lay workers, could not but shape the implicit theology of the organisation. CIIR became a thoughtful promoter of liberation theology, and its contextual variant in South Africa. Sister Pamela Hussey SHCJ, now 96, with whom I was privileged to share my years in CIIR, said in her book Freedom from Fear that Christian commitment was “redefined, tested, and purified in the crucible of repression”. She was awarded an MBE for her work for human rights in Latin America - which shows how little influence the CIA had with the UK honours committee. We hosted –clandestinely - theologians from around the world who wanted to reflect on the nature of this repression, out of which came the 1989 Damascus Document. My sadness in retrospect is that this reflection did not embrace the comparable martyrdoms of the communist world and eastern bloc. The Cold War divided the Church no less than the world; our focus was the military dictatorships and oligarchies. The Sword of the Spirit, had originally had set the trend doing education work to combat the intellectual flirtation of some Catholics with fascism in the 1940s.
For CIIR, being intellectually colonised by the developing world was no bad thing. It meant that keeping theology, politics and development in separate silos was impossible. This was reflected in everything CIIR attempted. It also kept the organisation “on the edge”. Internally it had to negotiate the differences between a volunteer programme that saw itself as “secular” and an advocacy programme that saw itself, more accurately, as religious. But the secular programme could be seen as an expression of “the option for the poor” and the religious programme worked with liberation movements and, for a while, the South African Communist Party. The latter was as secular as it gets even if it often wanted Archbishop Hurley to preside over funerals of leading members of the African National Congress (ANC). He used to complain to me that on these occasions the red flag somehow always appeared behind him as photographs were being taken.
Whether working with the Rhodesian Justice and Peace Commission or getting the general secretary of the Southern African Council of Churches, Frank Chikane, back across the South African border – he had been forced to “skip” for several months to UK - or smuggling in a de-bugging device for the United Democratic Front, CIIR activity was necessarily borderline. Our partners' lives were at stake. The South African security police poisoned Frank Chikane but he survived. CIIR was borderline only in relation to the less life-threatening world of the UK politics. The organisation also had colleagues there: the late Liberal Peer, Pratap Chitnis, Labour M.P. John Battle, and Lord Chris Patten then a Conservative M.P. was a constructively critical supporter. We even sent Jeremy Corbyn to East Timor to monitor the elections.
CIIR was a feminist organisation. This Catholic feminism was what motivated books such as Life out of Death: the Feminine Spirit in El Salvador by Sister Pamela Hussey and Marigold Best, a Quaker, published in 1997. One of the experiences of accompanying friends through struggles for freedom in the closing years of the Cold War was to see how little the liberation struggles of the time resulted in the situation of women changing however much they had engaged in the struggles. But above all, feminism informed much of the skill-share work. Some of the most outstanding country representatives were women. The projects that volunteers worked in came under, in one way or another, the heading of “women's empowerment”. This covered a range of programmes from masculinity training in Latin America to advocacy training in Zimbabwe. Likewise some of the unseen and unsung heroes in the Church's opposition to apartheid, and against the illegal occupation of Namibia, were women in the Grail.
Looking outward, forgetting yourself, thinking beyond yourself, learning from the other, being at ease on the periphery, at border crossings, I would describe as the spirituality of CIIR (though I don't like the word). It could take you further into the thick of things than your emotional resilience was ready for, but I think there was something about this experience that took you in the right direction, moving towards a glimpse into the meaning of discipleship.
There was most poignantly in the last decade, some sharing in the Poor's perennial sense of betrayal. I often think of how the CIIR office was a venue for the leading players in the Zimbabwe Patriotic Front and how betrayed the Zimbabwe people are today by what power did to this political elite. I also remember going off to the EU to negotiate funding to the South African Churches with the great Afrikaaner Dutch Reformed Church opponent of apartheid, Beyers Naude.
There were meetings with Thabo Mbeki, then leader of the ANC in London pubs also creating a sense of hope and common endeavour. There were the friends who were tortured because of their active opposition to the apartheid regime, and how they and the people of South Africa have been betrayed by the political party they sacrificed so much for, and then had to suffer a corrupt thug, Jacob Zuma, as the President of their nation. I am sure colleagues who worked in Latin America and in programmes in Yemen, destroyed by war, or Latin America destroyed by drugs cartels, will have experienced similar thoughts and sadness. These are memories that, with hindsight and without mercy, correct visions of what is possible with our unredeemed humanity, with a politics that is about power and not about compassion and the powerlessness of the Cross; these are memories that humble and should not and cannot be air-brushed out.
In short CIIR was a Cold War baby, living in the interstices of a divided Church and a divided world, getting its hands dirty. The geopolitical change when the Cold War ended in 1991 nearly upended the organisation. It was a struggle to “redefine, test and purify” its mission in the new context. Nobody was any longer interested in funding work in Namibia or South Africa anymore and Latin America slipped off the map at DfID. We focussed for a while on truth and reconciliation commissions. There was continuing work to be done with returning Namibian, Zimbabwean and South African refugees. We began a new programme on the Church's role in countering the drugs trade. My successor retained the grossly underfunded advocacy theme by the overseas programmes training our partners in advocacy, and, of course, the CIIR's gender work continued. Her successor began a new programme with VSO of working exposure trips for young people.
Much of the present work will be handed over to other organisations. Just as CIIR went under, there is a certain irony in having the Latin American Pope we could have done with twenty years ago, clear about the implications of the option to the Poor, and who could answer honestly that, yes, the Curia were complaining about him. I think many radical Catholics feel about Pope Francis a little like Afro-Americans felt about Obama: we made it but not much has changed. The radical vision of Catholicism, rather than its conservative or liberal version, remains a vision - with a few wonderful exceptions.
I would like to think that CIIR will be seen historically in the same category as the Christian Institute in South Africa: radical, at times distinctly “edgey”, ready to take risks for those in the thick of it, stumbling into Grace. But also producing world class analysis of development, political analysis of fast-moving revolutionary change, and good theology. Its Overseas Programme changed innumerable lives. I can hear Mildred Nevile saying without fuss: “It had its day. Something else will take its place”. I really hope so.
See Doctrine & Life Dominican Publications, Dublin, November 2016
“We are all in this together”. Even the global jihadists. Though I doubt they are social distancing and self-isolating. Londoners prone to anxiety on the Tube have different worries these days. Risk levels no longer refer to Daesh or Al-Qaeda activities.
If global jihadists now have extra problems travelling and murdering people, their ideas are far from locked down. Thinking jihadism has been defeated, because Bin-Laden is dead, because the brutal travesty of the territorial Daesh ‘Caliphate’ is no more and many of its leaders dispersed or killed, is a mistake. The spread of the doctrine of global jihad is not out of control, but it would be rash to say it is contained, even if no-one can give a figure for the R rate of transmission.
So where did the idea of global jihad come from? There are few significant references made to it before the 1980s. A sense that all Muslims formed one global community, umma, comparable to a Christian understanding of the Church, was present within Pan-Islamism arising in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. Muslim internationalists created organisations such as the Muslim World League and the World Association of Muslim Youth. Universities in Mecca, Medina and Jeddah, with their international student bodies and global links fostered by the annual pilgrimage and trade were natural soil for Pan-Islamism. Later, teachers from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, opposed to Nasser’s secular nationalism, imprisoned and then released by President Sadat, along with militants from other Arab secular republics, found a home in the historic Hijaz, the Saudi western coastal province, and employment as lecturers.
Despite military themes seeping into lectures and sermons by late 1970s, Pan-Islamism was essentially a peaceful quest for transnational Muslim solidarity, for observance of Shari’a Law and for promotion of Muslim scholarship and way of life. Around the world, Saudi oil money poured into the promotion of Islamic networks and societies. And in the other direction came jihadists who had opposed their own governments fleeing to Saudi sanctuary. Their political horizon was national, overthrowing governments deemed un-Islamic and corrupt – provided they weren’t Saudi Arabia. Only the liberation of Palestine had transnational appeal.
Enter a much revered pious, personable, Palestinian Sheikh, Dr. Abdallah Azzam from the ultra-conservative wing of Islamism, nurtured within the Muslim Brotherhood where his support lay. Thomas Hegghammer’s meticulously researched biography The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the rise of Global Jihad demonstrates how Azzam’s writings and peripatetic teaching helped turn Pan-Islamism into the threat that is global jihad. The groups of jihadists, inspired by Azzam, who crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviet invader are the caravans of the book’s title and the original global jihadists.
The Egyptian ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, chastiser of ‘Western decadence’, imprisoned and executed by Nasser, was the jihadists’ widely proclaimed hero. Azzam himself had fled from Palestine to Jordan, and thence to Saudi Arabia from where he began seeking a training ground for the jihad against Israel. He found it in Afghanistan. There he developed the Services Bureau, a recruitment organisation for Arab foreign-fighters, which was located across the Pakistan border in Peshawar. Its widely distributed house magazine, al-Jihad championed the Afghan resistance and attracted foreign fighters. And though Azzam’s primary goal remained training troops for Palestine (Hamas was founded in 1987), soon caravans of Arab fighters were crossing into Afghanistan for jihad against the atheistic Communist invaders. These were global jihad’s small beginnings.
Hegghammer’s research destroys three myths about the origins of global jihad. The first is that the USA sponsored the Arab precursors to Al-Qaida and Da’esh as useful agents against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. In reality the CIA focussed on arming and supporting the Afghan (future Taliban) national resistance, working with the ISI, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Arab foreign fighters were too few in number and too inexperienced to command much attention. The second myth is that Abdullah Azzam, whom Usama Bin Laden revered, was the originator of Al-Qaeda. The truth is that Bin Laden deserted Azzam’s disorganised Services Bureau and training efforts to form his own base (literally al-Qaeda). He viewed Azzam as a religious teacher rather than jihadi warrior. Thirdly there is no evidence that Azzam would have supported 9/11, sexual slavery or routine killing of women and children, which later became features of global jihad after his death.
In 1984, Azzam pronounced a fatwa which declared that all Muslims around the world had an individual responsibility to support jihad in Afghanistan. It was a turning point. Because of the Sheikh’s legal expertise and the widespread respect for him – he put his preaching into practice - this fatwa intensified the internationalisation of the Afghan War. Azzam, a great believer in miracles and martyrdom, sanctified the foreign fighter. Given the background of Pan-Islamism, it was a relatively small step from propounding this well-defined religious duty to an apocalyptic vision of global war against the foreign policy, culture and politics of the West. Gone was the traditional Caliph’s call to the Muslim community to defend Islam which traditionally legitimated jihad. Soon gone were the constraints of just war theory – a theory shared with the West that regulated the conduct of combatants.
Azzam himself was assassinated. Global jihad lost its moral compass. He and his two sons were killed by a car bomb while approaching the Peshawar Sab’al-Layal mosque at 12.20pm on Friday 24th November 1989. It was a highly professional operation. Hegghammer rehearses the likely perpetrators settling tentatively on the Pakistan ISI whom he suspects wanted to push Arab fighters out the region once the Soviets had been defeated. Abdallah Azzam instantly became the revered martyr of global jihadism, his many books and speeches standard recruitment texts.
The Caravan is a long book, worth the time and effort, which gives a fascinating insight into the Promethean role of religious ideas. As Hegghammer writes in his last line: “There is no saying where the Caravan is heading next, but it is a fair bet that it will keep moving well into the twenty first century”.
Let’s hope he is proved wrong.
We are all worried about the future and how to stay optimistic, or should it be hopeful? We have plenty to worry about. Currently top of the league for recorded Coronavirus infections is the USA followed by Russia. Brazil has jumped to third place. Astute observers may notice similarities between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro, though finding exactly the right word to describe what their leadership has in common is difficult. Shall we just say they are not noted for their overwhelming concern for the welfare of their citizens, nor for their moral scruples. So it is disturbing to find the UK in fourth place. If we use a different measure, Coronavirus deaths per 100,000 , only Belgium and Spain, comparable democracies with a slightly higher median age than UK, are ahead of us. Germany, with a higher median age is way below. Anxiety is justified.
Of course, recorded infections depend on population size, demography and the amount of testing done. But the overall picture puts Britain in a bad light; according to the Financial Times today, in the most reliable measure Britain is the worst in Europe and second only to the USA globally for excess deaths (the increased mortality - above the usual for the period - during the pandemic to date). If we think about our future it is hard to be optimistic. Yet, perhaps a comforting ritual for some, at the end of television interviews with the scientific experts comes the standard question: “So are you optimistic?” and what seems to be the required answer “Yes”. By this they do not mean, as did the 17th century German Enlightenment philosopher, Gottfried Leibnitz, that we live in the best of all God-created worlds, or that imperfections in it are designed to draw us towards what is truly good. They mean that the belief in human ingenuity and scientific wisdom, in short, the diffuse idea of ‘progress’, now interrupted, will resume its onward course.
The problem with faith in progress is that scientific knowledge does not bring about change in a vacuum. Things, events, people get in the way. Chinese bureaucrats in Wuhan terrified of being the bearers of bad news to the top ranks of the Chinese Communist Party initially supressed and punished the scientific expertise that identified a potential pandemic. British government ministers became so immersed in the task of leaving the European Union that they neglected the necessary measures set out by ‘the science’ for preparing for a pandemic. We are not automatically drawn towards what is truly good or rational but towards immediate competition for scarce resources (PPEs, vaccines), in a narrow nationalism in which there is one rule for the rich and the governing elite and another for the people, and yet another for foreigners. We know it doesn’t have to be like this. We hope for something better.
In this national and global crisis, we want to talk about our present predicament and our future, to hope, but we have lost the language for such a discussion. An important missing ingredient for the discussion is our formerly Christian understanding of what it means to be human. We no longer speak of bad actions, of evil or sin. Instead we make do with ‘misspeaking’ rather than lies, ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and ‘mistakes’ rather than intentional acts of deceit or criminality. If actions are really bad we resort to semi-therapeutic words such as ‘sociopathic’. We hardly speak of what a good person or a good society is like. We end up with political leadership being the art of appearing to care about society’s wellbeing.
Being optimistic while equipped only with our etiolated repertoire of moral language and with unchecked governments realising their propensity to use power for bad purposes, is not rational. We need more than scientific rigour. We need to talk about the cultivation of virtue and the purification of desire and we need these habits of mind to be qualifiers for public office. If you baulk at Christian discourse on the nature of true leadership call it integrity if you like, but it is a prerequisite for sustaining genuine hope. The absence of these qualities, or the absence of majority public concern about them, must not be taken as a political given within a secular culture.
Hope, in its realism and refusal to despair but act, not knee-jerk optimism, is the ‘appropriate’ virtue for these times. Hope contains an element of desire for the good, or Common Good, and a – theological – sense of expectation (understanding that the hoped-for future is not going to come by human agency and human desire and expectation alone). For hope to be rational it will inevitably be a hoping against hope, for example, to imagine after Coronavirus a more just and peaceful world with leaders who care effectively for the planet. And who could disagree with that in a world which automatically dismisses the political implementation of such an idea as utopian, a world dominated by two superpowers and one wannabe-again superpower led by Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin. Those who have got into the habit of hoping also have reason to agree with another kind of leader, Nelson Mandela. “It always seems impossible until it is done”, he once said, most reasonably. He was speaking not abstractly but from his own experience of leadership and of hope.
See The Article 28/05/20 "How to be Hopeful"