James Callaghan Memorial Lecture
29th January 2008
Lambeth Palace has just sent me the full transcript of the Wiener Lecture given by the Archbishop of Canterbury last night at the House of Lords. It is entitled 'Religious Hatred and Religious Offence'.https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/1561
The lecture is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Although the main subject of concern is whether to repeal the blasphemy laws, the Archbishop has obviously thought long and hard about what it is to be the 'other' in society. He concludes that dominant cultures have a duty to understand the position of minorities in their midst and takes the Jewish people as the prototype of this.
The lecture should of course be read in full, but these are the extracts specifically pertaining to the Jewish position and role in Christian societies. What the Archbishop says is even more relevant today, when so many, including atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, pontificate on their own infantile view of the 'Old Testament' for instance, often coupling these statements with references to the myth of 'Jewish power'.
What follows are the seminal points made by the ABC on antisemitism and its role in society today:
[W]e have just marked marking Holocaust Memorial Day: there is a sense in which the foundational form of religious hatred and religious offence in our culture has been and remains anti-Semitism. Its history in Europe
This next is the ABC on the anti-Judaism of the New Testament. I would add that I'm not sure that the Judaisms of the time constituted 'an entrenched religio-political establishment'. I should have thought that the Romans were in power, and that the Jewish people were both disintegrating and forging a new 'myth' at the time - the one which replaced sacrifice by prayer and the Temple by learning, study and doing good deeds. But what the ABC says about Christianity as a power lording it over 'vulnerable' Jews is spot on, and, coming from him (the second most powerful figure in today's Britain, after the Queen) absolutely amazing.
He is also to be thanked for pointing out the way the term 'Zionism' has been used indiscriminately as a term of abuse against us. And he is quite right to say that it is not only 'certain Muslims' who use this epithet. No, it's mainly people on the left, Guardian and Independent readers, self-hating Jews and the like, who have cottoned on to the street cred it gives them with their peers, as well as the great self satisfaction it affords them - as I said in a previous blog, the nearest the British get to fox hunting, which is now banned.
Yet again, we should remember some of the history of anti-Semitism. Some of the passionate polemic against Jewish people in the New Testament reflects a situation in which Christian groups were still small and vulnerable over against an entrenched religio-political establishment; but the language is repeated and intensified when the Church is no longer a minority and when Jews have become more vulnerable than ever. It is part of the pathology of anti-Semitism (as of other irrational group prejudices) that it needs to work with a myth of an apparent minority which is in fact secretly powerful and omnipresent. It is the pattern we see in the workings of the Spanish Inquisition, searching everywhere for Jewish converts who might be backsliding; it is the myth of the Elders of Zion and comparable fantasies of plots for world domination; it is the indiscriminate attribution (not only by certain Muslims) of all the evils of the Western world to an indeterminate ‘Zionism’. A rhetoric shaped by particular circumstances has become so embedded that the actualities of power relations in the real world cannot touch it. There are many instances where the habit of imagining oneself in terms of victimhood has become so entrenched that even one’s own power, felt and exercised, does not alter the mythology.
Then, the ABC, gets a bit more controversial. He uses the fact of anti-Semitism to look at other groups who've apparently been misunderstood by the leading culture. However, the Muslim and Sikh groups referred to reacted violently to this situation, leading to a favourable mention by the Queen, the Supreme Governor of the Church, during her Christmas Broadcast of that year, 2004. Whereas the Jews have never reacted violently, not even when they've been beaten up, and - accordingly - didn't warrant a mention at all - something that some of us found quite shocking at the time. We were, in fact, taken for granted, which some might say is a sign of contempt.
In recent years – even more than at the time of the Rushdie controversy – many commentators have fallen into the classic ‘anti-Semitic’ trap: Islam is perceived worldwide as an organised, coherent and omnipresent danger, and Islam as a local reality in the United Kingdom
Now I recognise the qualifications that have to be entered at once. Some anti-Muslim images or words (foolish or insulting as they may be) may well exhibit courage in a world where terrorist violence reaches across every national boundary and intimidation is more and more common; no-one will forget in a hurry the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands. Likewise we can’t overlook the ways in which offence can be deliberately exaggerated for the purposes of fomenting greater violence (as was the case with the Danish cartoons, where some extremist groups circulated far more offensive images than those that had actually been published). But what if we exercise a little imagination again? What Webster describes as the insensitivity of an elite means that those who lack access to the subtleties of the English language, to the means of expressing their opinions in a public forum or to any living sense of being participants in their society know only that one of their most overpoweringly significant sources of identity is being held up to public scorn. This feeling may be the result of misunderstanding or misinformation, it may even be in some cases linked to a failure or reluctance to take the opportunities that exist to move into a more visible role in the nation’s life, but it is real enough and part of a general conviction of being marginal and silenced. It is not a good situation for a democratic society to be in. The belief becomes entrenched among minorities that the majority in this society have decided to understand you and your faith exclusively in their terms.
In the case of the bitter controversy in the Sikh community over the play Behzti in 2004, it was clear that many deeply intelligent members of the Sikh community in Britain were torn between the belief that the play would cement in the minds of audiences largely ignorant of the Sikh religion a distorting and negative set of images and the gloomy conviction that violent protest against the play would have exactly the same effect (c.f. Nash, pp. 34-6): very much a no-win situation. Once again, there is the disconnection between the firm claim of an artistic establishment that protest against oppressive systems is justifiable, even imperative (and Behzti had identified a real and too-often buried concern among Sikh women), and the counter-claim that this kind of representation of a religious culture in front of what was likely to be a fairly religiously illiterate audience would be experienced as a straightforward flexing of the muscles by a hostile, alien and resourceful power.
But the second point is to do with what can sometimes underlie the thoughtlessness or cruelty. The assumption of the naturalness of one’s own position is regularly associated with an experience of untroubled or uninterrupted access to the dominant discourse and means of communication in one’s society. If I can say what I like, that is because I have the power and status to do so. But that ought to impose the clear duty of considering, when I engage in any kind of debate, the relative position of my opponent or target in terms of their access to this dominant means and style of communication – the duty which the history of anti-Semitism so clearly shows European Christians neglecting over the centuries.
I have intimated that I think the law could and should take this into consideration where ‘incitement to hatred’ is concerned; but it is again primarily a moral question, the requirement in a just society that all should have the same means to speak for themselves. It can reasonably be argued that a powerful or dominant religious body has every chance of putting its own case, and that one might take with a pinch of salt any claim that it was being silenced by public criticism; but the sound of a prosperous and socially secure voice claiming unlimited freedom both to define and to condemn the beliefs of a minority grates on the ear. Context is all.
Yes, context is all. And the ABC should be congratulated on yet another very insightful piece in honour of Holocaust Memorial Day.
However, what needs now to be addressed, and specifically in Britain, is the way that the Jewish community feels sidelined when the media and others deal more or less exclusively with the Muslim question, or sees things from one particular point of view. Examples are when the teaching of religion and even the Holocaust is skewed towards the Muslim point of view; when state schools provide prayer rooms only for Muslims and not others; and where censorship regarding Islam and Muslim culture abounds at British universities.
However, this is a start, and a very good start. And it would be a very brave person indeed, who would get down to the besetting problem now facing Britain - the attempt of one minority religion to take over all the others.
The Archbishop is probably the one to tackle this, because he has the intelligence, the integrity and the thoughtfulness to do so. Plus, this is his role. With a little help from his friends, I am sure that he will be the one to solve this most thorny of problems in the end.
I feel that this is a seminal moment in the history of religions in Britain.