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Archive for May 2014

May/14

24

Fire, Brimstone, Free Speech and English Law

tall hat 3aHere’s just another reminder that there’s not much in the way of free speech left in David Cameron’s Britain.

The Daily Mail has the details:

A baptist church was at the centre of a police probe after a sign which suggested non-Christians would ‘burn in hell’ was investigated as a ‘hate incident’. The offending sign at Attleborough Baptist Church in Norfolk, pictured burning flames below words which read: ‘If you think there is no God you better be right!!’.

Now the church has been forced to remove the sign after a passer-by complained to police that it could ‘not be further’ from the Christian phrase, love thy neighbour. Robert Gladwin, 20, said: ‘It is my basic understanding that Christianity is inclusive and loving in nature. ‘The message being displayed outside of the church could not be further from the often uttered phrase ‘love thy neighbour’.’

Mr Gladwin said he was ‘astounded’ when he spotted the poster by chance as he was walking home. He said: ‘I was just astounded really. We live in the 21st century and they have put that message – that non-Christians will burn in hell – up to try and scare people into joining their mentality.’

The strongly-worded sign – which was put up next to a notice board which promises that visitors ‘can always be sure of a very warm welcome’ – was taken down by Pastor John Rose, 69, after police launched an investigation into the complaint.

Mr Rose said he ‘regretted’ how the poster could have been interpreted. He said: ‘Attleborough Baptist Church offers a variety of ways in which people are able to engage with the Christian message…Jesus encourages us to love God and to love our neighbour and we therefore regret that the poster has been seen as inciting hatred.

The Eastern Daily Press has more:

A spokesperson for the police said: “Norfolk Constabulary received a report regarding a poster outside a church in Attleborough which was deemed offensive by the complainant.

“National guidance required us to investigate the circumstances and the matter has been recorded as a hate incident. Having spoken to the pastor of the church, it has been agreed the poster will be taken down.”

This is, of course, a ludicrous story, not least the presumption on the part of Gladwin that his understanding of Christianity is superior to that of the pastor. It might be, it might not be (Christianity takes many different forms).

But it is also a sinister story. It is sinister that Gladwin’s response to seeing this poster was to turn to the police. It is sinister that the police chose to investigate the matter on the basis of one complaint (it would have also been sinister had they chosen to investigate after receiving five thousand complaints). It is sinister that this decision was based on (unspecified) “national guidelines”. “Obeying orders”, it seems is no longer enough. It is sinister that there are “national guidelines”. It is sinister that the police then labeled the posting of this entirely unobjectionable poster as a “hate incident”. And it is sinister that the pastor has “agreed” to take down the poster.

A friend who is a Roman Catholic priest once told me that there are more references to Hell in the gospels than to Heaven. If that’s so, let’s hope that Jesus doesn’t show up in Norfolk any time soon. Because if He does, the moment that He starts talking about, oh, the “furnace of fire” or, say, “the fire [that ] is not quenched,” He will probably have to start looking for a very good lawyer.

H/t: Cranmer

For some relief from this nasty tale…

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May/14

18

“Nostalgia for the Absolute”

hereticIn the course of an article triggered by the bullying of climatologist Lennart Bengtsson, Mark Steyn digs up this extract from a tremendous “imaginary address” by Yale law professor Stephen Carter to America’s Class of 2014, currently so busy, as Steyn puts it, “disinviting truckloads of distinguished speakers from their graduation ceremonies”:

The literary critic George Steiner, in a wonderful little book titled “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” long ago predicted this moment. We have an attraction, he contended, to higher truths that can sweep away complexity and nuance. We like systems that can explain everything. Intellectuals in the West are nostalgic for the tight grip religion once held on the Western imagination. They are attracted to modes of thought that are as comprehensive and authoritarian as the medieval church. You and your fellow students — and your professors as well; one mustn’t forget their role — are therefore to be congratulated for your involvement in the excellent work of bringing back the Middle Ages.

They never really went away (see Marx, K., to start with), but otherwise spot on.

And, yes, read the whole of both Steyn and Carter’s pieces.

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May/14

11

Populist Pope, Populist Religion

satan_the_devil_painting_by_Michael_PacherThe Washington Post reports:

VATICAN CITY — A darling of liberal Catholics and an advocate of inclusion and forgiveness, Pope Francis is hardly known for fire and brimstone.

Well, if that is what he is “hardly known for”, people have not been paying attention. Listen to what he has, at least implicitly, to say about those who disagree with his pose on immigration (his speech on Lampedusa would be a good place to start) or economics, and there’s quite a bit of ‘fire and brimstone’, at least as that term is metaphorically understood.

But for this pope, there’s more to this than metaphor.

The Washington Post explains:

After his little more than a year atop the Throne of St. Peter, Francis’s teachings on Satan are already regarded as the most old school of any pope since at least Paul VI, whose papacy in the 1960s and 1970s fully embraced the notion of hellish forces plotting to deliver mankind unto damnation.

Largely under the radar, theologians and Vatican insiders say, Francis has not only dwelled far more on Satan in sermons and speeches than his recent predecessors have, but also sought to rekindle the Devil’s image as a supernatural entity with the forces­ of evil at his beck and call.

Last year, for instance, Francis laid hands on a man in a wheelchair who claimed to be possessed by demons, in what many saw as an impromptu act of cleansing. A few months later, he praised a group long viewed by some as the crazy uncles of the Roman Catholic Church — the International Association of Exorcists — for “helping people who suffer and are in need of liberation.”

….Since its foundation, the church has taught the existence of the Devil. But in recent decades, progressive priests and bishops, particularly in the United States and Western Europe, have tended to couch Satan in more allegorical terms. Evil became less the wicked plan of the master of hell than the nasty byproduct of humanity’s free will. Even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a lofty German theologian, often painted evil with a broad brush.

Enter the plain-talking first pope from Latin America, where mystical views of Satan still hold sway in broad areas of the region. During his time as cardinal of Buenos Aires before rising to the papacy, Francis was known for stark warnings against “the tempter” and “the father of lies.” Now, his focus on the Devil is raising eyebrows even within the normally unquestioning walls of Vatican City.

“Pope Francis never stops talking about the Devil; it’s constant,” said one senior bishop in Vatican City who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. “Had Pope Benedict done this, the media would have clobbered him.”

Yet, as with so many of his actions, Francis may simply be correctly reading the winds of the Catholic Church…

As a good, canny populist should.

Not so coincidentally, the Devil (or, more accurately, fear of the old monster) has always been a good recruiting sergeant for clergy looking to fill their pews.

And so the show goes on:

Although it is difficult to measure, Vatican officials talk about a resurgence of mystical rites in the church, including exorcism — or the alleged act of evicting demons from a living host. Cardinals in Milan; Turin, Italy; and Madrid, for instance, recently moved to expand the number of exorcists in their dioceses to cope with what they have categorized as surging demand.

But by focusing on old-school interpretations of the Devil, some progressive theologians complain, the pope is undermining his reputation as a leader who in so many other ways appears to be more in step with modern society than his predecessor.

“He is opening the door to superstition,” said Vito Mancuso, a Catholic theologian and writer.

Among the things lurking behind that door is the alleged gateway to hell guarded by the small cluster of officially anointed exorcists of the Roman Catholic Church.

By most accounts, the ranks of official exorcists number between 500 and 600 in a global church of more than 1 billion Catholics, with the vast majority operating in Latin America and Eastern Europe. This week, at the ninth and largest Vatican-sanctioned convention on exorcism, attendees gushed about the fresh recognition being afforded the field. Almost 200 delegates — most of them priests and nuns — from more than two dozen nations talked about how Satanic cults are spreading like wildfire in the age of the Internet.

…During the conference, the Rev. Cesar Truqui, an exorcist based in Switzerland, recounted one experience he had aboard a Swissair flight. “Two lesbians,” he said, had sat behind him on the plane. Soon afterward, he said, he felt Satan’s presence. As he silently sought to repel the evil spirit through prayer, one of the women, he said, began growling demonically and threw chocolates at his head….

Lesbians! Throwing chocolates!

Well, it beats projectile vomiting.

The Middle Ages, wrote that old crank Carl Jung, “live on… merrily”.

And so they do.

They are good box office too.

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May/14

11

Now St. Vladimir?

May/14

10

St. Josef?

Modern Russia:
Russia2014

Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves tweets:

Syncretism: the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.

Pause to consider the outrage if a similar icon, but bearing the picture of Hitler, had been included in a march in Germany.

And here’s Serge Schmemann writing in the National Geographic back in 2009:

…Some astoundingly dark and retrograde notions openly circulate in reactionary churches and on nationalist websites. One is a drive to canonize Rasputin and Ivan the Terrible, two of the more noxious characters of Russian history who have been reinvented by extremists as “defenders of Holy Russia.”

Outside St. Petersburg, the decaying summer palaces of old Russia’s tsars and grand dukes overlook the Gulf of Finland. Behind the ruins of one such palace stands a tiny, half-restored chapel. Inside I come face-to-face with a spectacle that makes me gasp—a large icon of Joseph Stalin. He’s not wearing the halo of a saint, but a saint is blessing him.

The icon depicts a legend in which Stalin, at the outbreak of World War II, secretly visits St. Matryona of Moscow, a blind and paralyzed woman to whom many people came for spiritual guidance until her death in 1952. According to the legend she counseled the Soviet dictator not to flee Moscow before the invading German Army, but to stand firm against the onslaught.

The chapel’s pastor, Evstafy Zhakov, is a fiery nationalist highly regarded by his flock for his charismatic sermons. In an interview with the right-wing newspaper Zavtra, he defended the icon by explaining that Russia has a long tradition of saints blessing warriors before battle.

“But Stalin was an atheist,” the interviewer interjected.

“How do you know?” Father Evstafy retorted. Two wartime patriarchs proclaimed Stalin a believer, “and I will believe them before I believe all these liberals and democrats.”

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This morning the Supreme Court decided Town of Greece v. Galloway, on a challenge to prayers preceding a town council meeting. Evidence was that the small town of Greece, N.Y., near Rochester, had reached out to all the churches in a local directory offering the opportunity to give invocations; it happened that all the churches in town were Christian, but there was no sign that the town was conniving to avoid other religious faiths.

Quoting AP: “The court said in a 5-4 decision that the content of the prayers is not significant as long as officials make a good-faith effort at inclusion. … ‘The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers,’ [Anthony] Kennedy said [for the majority].”

The Court was split several ways, with Alito and Thomas/Scalia writing separately from the majority on various points, the latter two declining to join one section of the majority opinion, and Breyer writing separately as well as joining the dissent. Jonathan Adler analyzes the opinions at Volokh Conspiracy.

The fact is that the Justices were disputing a very narrow strip of territory in this case. Notably, all four liberal justices endorsed the Court’s earlier ruling in Marsh v. Chambers approving Nebraska’s use of prayer before legislative sessions. In other words, not a single current Justice in fact fits the “raving secularist liberal” caricature we sometimes hear about.

There will be overreactions by combatants on both sides of the culture wars. A few social conservatives, who I suspect must not have read the Kennedy opinion closely, are crowing as if the Court had somehow vindicated the views about religion and the public square of David Barton or the Witherspoon Institute. On the opposite side, Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, declared that the Court “just relegated millions of Americans— both believers and nonbelievers—to second-class citizenship.”

That wasn’t my reaction. As a convinced secularist I think I can live with the careful, limited balance Kennedy strikes, and I suspect most Americans will feel the same.

The American Humanist Association announced that it is launching a program training people in the giving of secular invocations. So did the Freedom from Religion Foundation, but with very different aims in mind: the AHA wants to show that unbelievers can fully join in and be an equal part of the civic ideals traditionally symbolized by invocations, while the FFRF is more intent on upsetting the applecart and creating enough discomfort with the whole idea of such a ceremony to cause its discontinuance.

I have to say I like the AHA’s approach better, but your views may differ.

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May/14

3

“Western Education Forbidden”

ChibokCross-posted on the Corner:

An atrocity now turns out to be even worse than previously thought.

The Sydney Morning Herald:

Kano: Nigerian police say Boko Haram militants are holding 223 girls of the 276 seized from their school in the country’s north east, revising upwards the number of youngsters abducted. School and government officials in the northeastern state of Borno had previously given lower figures on the numbers being held since the mass abduction nearly three weeks ago in the town of Chibok.

Gunmen believed to be Islamist fighters stormed the girls’ boarding school, forcing them from their dormitories onto trucks and driving them into the bush after a gun battle with soldiers. Borno state police commissioner Lawan Tanko said on Friday his officers and other security agencies revised the figure after “intensive and extensive investigation, consultations and collation of figures from parents and the school”.

“So far, we have a comprehensive list of 276 girls abducted from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok on April 14 and out of this figure, 53 were able to escape and return,” he told AFP.

“The number of girls being held by their abductors stands at 223 but this figure is not exhaustive and may change because we have made an announcement calling on parents whose daughters are missing from the school to come forward and register their names.

Eliza Griswold, writing in The Chicago Tribune:

The girls, aged mostly between 16 and 18 years old, haven’t been heard from since April 14, the night before their final exam at the Government Girls Secondary School in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok when they woke to the sound of gunmen bashing in windows and setting fire to their classrooms. Within hours, 234 of them were herded into trucks headed for the jungle. As many as 43 managed to escape. Some swung down from trucks in the slow-moving convoy; others ran off when they reached the forest. [As the Sydney Morning Herald Story explains, the numbers have since been updated]

The fate of the rest remains a mystery. Each passing day makes it more likely that the girls have been raped, and possibly killed, in captivity. Given Boko Haram’s name, which means “Western education forbidden,” and their agenda to wipe out secular society in mostly Muslim Northern Nigeria, it’s hardly a surprise that the group locks students inside schools and sets them on fire. This, to date, is their largest mass abduction. The girls were taken into the jungle to serve as sex slaves. Yet the abduction of these girls is about much more than finding “cooks and wives.” For Boko Haram, it is about dismantling the fragile existing society by attacking its essential institutions: schools.

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