Beyond words?

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.

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19 thoughts on “Beyond words?

  1. philwhiteland September 23, 2013 at 1:23 pm Reply

    I couldn’t agree more, Jim. Well said!

  2. keirarts September 23, 2013 at 2:06 pm Reply

    Blind faith is the biggest danger, I think everyone should be made to see life of Brian at least once. Mistakenly seen as an attack on Christianity it may be a comedy but it equals any serious text on the dangers of blindly believing in something. I say question everything.

    • jwebster2 September 23, 2013 at 3:25 pm Reply


      One of the interesting things, especially in the Old Testament, is where people are expected to argue with God. There’s a lovely bit in Genesis 18:22 onwards where Abraham bargains with God over Sodom. The demand for blind obedience stems from the inadequacy of those who make the demand, whether they’re priests, politicians or bureaucrats

  3. M T McGuire September 23, 2013 at 4:30 pm Reply

    The way I look at it is that the central command of most religions is to treat other people the way you’d like to be treated – ok ok the usual response to this is lots of jokes about getting whipped and chained up by people who are into s&m an think they’re doing you a favour, but you know what I mean.

    Maybe the problem is when a religion, founded in an effort to make people, and the world, kinder becomes dogmatic. If you follow the love thy neighbour commandment the rest should just fall into place. Most of the of the rules are there to help you obey the central idea. But it seems many of us have an unfortunate tendency to get hung up on them AT&T he expense of our own compassion nod humanity. It’s like walking along with your eyes on the ground; sure you don’t trip over any pebbles but you’d miss all the best scenery and you’ve only yourself to blame if you end up walking into a tree.

    To be honest I think the faith aspect is telling. Faith, by its definition, involves doubt. If something is proven true you don’t have faith in it you believe it. To me, doubts are the things that give us the ability to see other points of view to our own; to be open to new ideas… without doubt there is no grey, no flexibility, no what if, no compassion. I’m not sure I’ve put that as articulately as I could but I hope it makes sense.



    • jwebster2 September 23, 2013 at 4:46 pm Reply

      I thought this, like the life of Brian, summed up nicely the position of the professional, with his “We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!” 🙂

      I think we get hung up on the easy bits, and concentrate on the easy bits, forgetting what the job is really about. We get caught up in the current wheeze which we hope will let us sneak round the difficult truth. It’s like the new guide promise, something like ‘be true to myself’. An axe murderer could swear that oath.
      The core is normally easy to remember but a sod to live by. It was said that a pagan approached the rabbi Hillel and said he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the whole of the Torah in the time he could stand on one foot. Rabbi Hillel replied, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.”
      Christ said “Do for others what you want them to do for you: this is the meaning of the Law of Moses and of the teachings of the prophets.”

      Understanding it is a doddle. That’s probably why people study theology or philosophy, as a displacement activity to put of the evil day when you actually have to try living what you profess 🙂

      • M T McGuire September 23, 2013 at 4:57 pm

        Mwah ha ha haaargh. I’m clearly approaching my faith in a very simplistic way. I find rules rather difficult to remember, hence just going for the obvious one.

      • jwebster2 September 23, 2013 at 5:26 pm

        The advantage of going for the obvious rules is that you’re pretty certain when you’ve broken them. It must be awfully embarrassing to have to contact a professional because you need to check 🙂

      • M T McGuire September 24, 2013 at 9:04 pm

        That’s probably the only embarrassment I’ll ever avoid having in my life!

      • jwebster2 September 24, 2013 at 10:09 pm

        Why not go for the full set? 😉

  4. M T McGuire September 23, 2013 at 4:31 pm Reply

    Geez the new iPad has a bizarre spell checker. Sorry about that peps.

  5. willmacmillanjones September 23, 2013 at 4:39 pm Reply

    I’ve just seen a headline on a UK tabloid that made me want to scream in frustration, and cry because of it’s crass stupidity. ‘And the chilling news – one of them may be british’.

    How can the nationality of one of these people possibly be more chilling than their behaviour?

    • jwebster2 September 23, 2013 at 4:50 pm Reply

      It’s something we fall into, trying to tell the story in a way we hope will appeal and overlooking the basic humanity of the situation.
      There is a book I’ve never read.

      But I remember the author being interviewed. It was in the Congo during the insurgency in the 60s, he arrived at a convent which had been overrun by Simbas and had minutes to get a story, get out and drive down the road to somewhere he could get it to his editor. He heard himself say those very words that he used as a book title,”Has anyone here been raped and speaks English” and to him they summed up so much that was wrong with how we think and react. Our priorities are all to hell

  6. rootsandroutes2012 September 23, 2021 at 5:18 am Reply

    Was the blocked clip anything like this one Jim?

  7. EagleAye September 23, 2021 at 10:40 pm Reply

    A beautiful post, full of wise words. I think you’ve nailed it all on the head. The moment we turn our back on our fellow humans, we’ve already lost touch with our own humanity, and are then capable of monstrous things. The simple edict, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” has taken many forms in many religions, but the meaning is always the same. It’s such a simple thing, but if followed immeasurable benefits flow from it. Perhaps it is too simple an answer for us to accept as a solution for all the myriad problems we face.

    • jwebster2 September 24, 2021 at 4:16 am Reply

      It’s surprising how many problems ‘love their neighbour’ is the answer to

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