Someone asked me about the recent terrorist attacks in Kenya and Nigeria. What can anyone say? It’s getting popular to say that people believing in some sort of faith are dangerous and mad. I’d beg to differ; the danger comes when people no longer ‘care’. It comes when ‘the cause’ is more important than ordinary people who become mere obstacles to be removed or tools to be used for ‘the good of the cause.’
It’s not religion as such. It wasn’t religious zealots who perpetrated the massacres at Srebrenica, on the killing fields in Cambodia, or organised the Ukrainian famine which killed around three million peasants.
What is it? It is the contempt of the ‘ordinary people’ which allows this sort of thing to happen. It happens when you get ruling elites who are out of touch (Politicians whose party is supposed to be building socialism and who claim that £60K a year isn’t big money.) or ideologies which stiffen the loyalty of their devotees by demonising their opponents. (The class war cowboys with their contempt of ‘toffs’, aging rock stars accusing those running the badger cull of ‘genocide’.) Once you’ve demonised someone, they are no longer a person. They’re a fascist, or a communist, or a capitalist. They no longer count as people and can be pilloried, trolled on twitter, and, when the process has made its way to its ultimate conclusion, rounded up and gassed, or gunned down and their bodies rolled into massed graves.
Religions can do this with as much aplomb as political movements. Doubtless churches and Caliphs have had their equivalents of Damian McBride. Indeed C.S.Lewis described the phenomena in a church context in the Screwtape Letters where he has the demon Screwtape write to his nephew
“But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future—haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth—ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other—dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”
I think Lewis sums up the nub of the problem with his comment ‘never honest, nor kind, nor happy now’.
As I’ve got older I’ve learned that, in reality, there are no ‘ordinary’ people. Not only that but if these ‘ordinary’ people have turned their backs on something, be it a political class or a religious denomination, then they’ve done it for good reason. The trouble is that this ‘turning away’ presents a quandary to those who’ve been shunned. They have two options.
Firstly they could examine themselves, explore the gap between their beliefs and their actions, and try to live what they profess to believe. If you have the courage to do this, it can work really well because most political parties and most religions are build round perfectly acceptable core beliefs.
Or secondly you can take the other route and you can label them recidivists, enemies of the people, heretics, homophobic, or global warming deniers. This way is easier, it saves you having to think or face up to the uncomfortable possibility that you might be wrong.
Strangely we’ve known the answer to the problem for at least three millennia. The instruction to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly is hardly new. The instruction, γνῶθι σεαυτόν, ‘Know thyself’ was carved on the wall at the oracle of Delphi long before Plato’s day. The command to ‘Love one another’ is approaching its second millennium.
It doesn’t matter a tinker’s cuss what you claim to believe in. What matters is what you do. You can tell what people are like by the fruit of their actions.