Not much goodwill about
SAD as it is to say, and without in any way doubting or disrespecting the hopes of millions for whom today is about more than expensive overindulgence or ostentation (not to mention the millions without clean water or enough to eat), the millennial message about "peace and goodwill to all" has still to penetrate or overcome power politics.
Today's news from Nigeria, where dozens of people have reportedly been killed in a string of church bombings, is a reminder of the way religion itself is used as a cover for hate-mongering and organised murder. Like the bombings in Iraq which it closely followed, and the ferocious attack on an Assyrian church in October 2010, these are not spontaneous outbursts by mobs, as suggested perhaps by the inadequate expression "sectarian strife", but planned attacks by trained groups with arms and explosives, and sometimes suspicious ability to get past security forces.
And before any self-righteous Christians smugly point their finger at Islam as a "religion of violence", we needn't remind them of what the Churches have sanctioned and exhorted over centuries, but just mention Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon, Omarska and Srebrenica in Bosnia. The UK too is no stranger to "sectarian violence"; and the Assyrians whom we mentioned have not been safe from attack in the United States.
Having unleashed so much destruction and misery in Iraq, and bombed Libyans to "free" them, the US and Britain are threatening to do the same for Syria, and meanwhile hitting its people with sanctions which starve the ordinary people they are supposed to save. "Suffer little children" seems to be the part of the Gospel they apply. Meanwhile right-wing American preachers and politicians are competing to promise Armageddon with Iran.
In Israel recent months have seen a spate of arson attacks on mosques, with which the police seem suspiciously unable to cope, as well as threats to Jewish peace groups, for which one suspect was caught and turned out to be the son of the head of the security services. It is just one manifestation of a shift towards intolerance and the politics of the far Right.
Last year we had the mayor of Nazareth Illit, which sits on the hill overlooking what we're told was Jesus' home town, announcing a ban on Christmas trees in the squares, because this was a "Jewish town". Arab residents, many of them Christians, got the message. Decorated trees may not be essential to Middle Eastern Christian tradition, but nor are they offensive to Judaism, which has a New Year for Trees, Tu b'Shvat. Besides, more than a few Jewish families in the West have been known to install festive trees indoors at this time of the year, "just for the kids".
But this wasn't just about religious intolerance, it was about showing who is boss, and telling others they don't belong. No wonder Palestinians put such an interpretation on the Israeli leaders' insistance that Israel is a "Jewish state", and Western government's injunctions on them to recognise this as the price for peace, particularly when they also see maps depicting the West Bank and Gaza as parts of Israel.
No wonder, either that the Christmas Tree has become so significant a symbol in Arab Palestine, from Beit Sahour east of Bethlehem, which claims the fields where shepherds saw a new star announcing hope, through Bethlehem itself, to Nazareth.
In Britain, where we are used to stories in the right-wing press about Christmas and its symbols supposedly being banned or at least threatened in order supposedly to appease other religions, or in the name of "political correctness", the ban in Nazareth somehow escaped much attention. Maybe because it was real unlike their usual fabrications, or because they don't want their blinkered readers to realise Palestinians are not all fundamentalist Muslims.
Last week we had Prime Minister David Cameron turning from patriotism (evidently not quite the last refuge of a scoundrel) to the Bible, declaring on the 400 th anniversary of the King James Bible that the UK was still a Christian country and "we should not be afraid to say so".
I should not think the Prime Minister was signalling his intention to join Occupy LSX protesters and clear the money changers from the temple, nor even that he would listen to what the Archbishop of Canterbury has to say about social services and cuts. But that exhortation to "not be afraid", implying that somehow poor Christians were being intimidated by non-believers and those of other faiths was a signal to those who assert their "Christianity" by hostility to others that they are on the right lines. This might not upset Mad Mel at the Mail, who likes to think we are in it together, defending "Judeo-Christian values" against the rest, and maybe it won't trouble Tory Priti Patel MP who is busy campaigning against trade unionists to prove her worth to the Tory Right.
I don't know whether Baroness Varsi is comfortable with it. She complained last January that prejudice and hostility towards Muslims was becoming almost respectable in British society.
But then in October, remembering perhaps that she is chairman of the Tory party, the Muslim peeress adopted what could almost have been a foretaste of Cameron's speech, by saying Britain needed to become more Christian and people should not be afraid of saying they went to.church.
I thought people were more afraid of being called liars when they claimed to go to church, for instance when trying to get their kids a place in religious schools.
The BBC report I saw of Cameron's speech did not get a quote from the baroness, but oddly did give us Michael Portillo: " We all know the classic cases of political correctness that you are not allowed to mention Christmas, and cards that you send out at this time of the year must not mention Christmas and things like this. I mean, absolute nonsense. So, as though my Jewish friends would not send out new year's cards at the time of their new year. Quite extraordinary."
If that is the message Portillo got, I think we can guess what the EDL and those who encourage them made of it.
Pride and Prejudice
If some people in whatever religion are unlikely to unite and love one another, they can sometimes unite in hatred of a common foe, be it wicked materialism (that of the have-nots, not the rich) or gay rights campaigners, who unlike some clerics tend to choose willing partners above the age of consent.
We saw the furore over a "Pride" march in Jerusalem, and here in Britain a body called the Christian Institure is boasting that retailers Tesco have been forced by the threat of a boycott to withdraw its sponsorship from London Gay Pride.
The Christian Institute says it exists for “the furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom” and “the advancement of education”.
"The Christian Institute is a nondenominational Christian charity committed to upholding the truths of the Bible. We are supported by individuals and churches throughout the UK.
We believe that the Bible is the supreme authority for all of life and we hold to the inerrancy of Scripture. We are committed to upholding the sanctity of life from conception".
Though not happy that the government is doing enough to deal with gays and promote Christian family values, or remove supposed protection from Muslims, the Institute probably sees Cameron's speech as encouraging.
But its exasperation with Tescos does not just extend to the subject of gays. Apparently the store chain, in common with various other institutions, has been causing poor unwitting Christians to purchase and consume Halal meat. What's more it was slow to refund them when they found out.
'But Mrs Robinson told him that if she had been a Muslim who had unknowingly bought non-Halal meat, the store would give her money back. She said: "I felt that as a Christian I had as much right to demand a refund. At that point he relented and reluctantly took the meat back.”
'If Tesco had continued to refuse her a refund when it would have given one to a Muslim, Mrs Robinson could have launched a legal action. She added: “If I’d known it was Halal I would not have bought it. It is an issue of conscience for me, something I feel strongly about'.
Now maybe I am a bit slow to see the equation being made here. A Muslim or Jewish person required by their religion to only eat meat that conforms to their dietary laws will expect that meat that is labelled halal or kosher is as it is described. Especially if they have to pay extra for it as is usually the case with kosher meat, not because of any superiority but for the cost of religious supervision. They are unlikely to be satisfied with a refund for having inadvertedly broken their religious code.
Christianity, so far as I am aware, does not have any dietary rules. You can eat what you like. And until comparatively recently, kill it how you like. Good Christian English folk, clergy included, managed for centuries to spear, shoot, snare or ring the neck of creatures for the pot, as well as setting dogs on other animals to see them rip them apart, just for fun. It seems a bit late to become squeamish about other people's slaughter methods, if that is the issue. But assuming it is (and some of my friends have become vegetarians for the same reason), I don't see how this can be classed a religious objection, albeit apparently one than can be assuaged with a cash refund.
Still, whatever the genuine feelings of the lady in this case, I think we might discern other motives in the Christian Institute making a campaign around such things.
Another report on the Institute's website says that Ofcom is trying to clean up offensive language in broadcasting, especially when children might be exposed to it.
But the Christian Institute is not that keen on censorship.
'Should the law criminalise "insulting" words or behaviour? Most people would say "no". The freedom to disagree and to challenge received wisdom lie at the heart of a democracy. But Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 outlaws "insulting" conduct. We believe it is having a chilling effect on free speech and particularly Christian evangelism.The Christian Institute is campaigning for the word "insulting" to be removed from Section 5, as part of the forthcoming Freedom Bill'.
They have the support of some Tory MPs.
I feel tempted to take this as encouragement to freely say what I think of the Christian Institute. But it is hard to find adequate words, and besides, this blog is a family site.
So peace on earth, goodwill to all. But don't expect it now.