In fear of Jahannam

Behind the headlines, more mothers weep. Three young lives cut off: two full of hope cut down by one full of hopelessness. Rage cannot make sense of it.

I would have preferred it had the man been arrested, but I will not weep for his fall. His was a suicide. He went out knowing the day would end in his death in this way – “suicide by cop” they call it. I want to understand what brought him to end his life in this way, and to take other lives as he did so. We cannot sit inside his head though.  Those who tried, failed.

The murderer this time was Usman Khan, a Muslim militant radical.  He joins an ignoble list of lone-wolf killers of the last few years seeking fame or mayhem by these atrocities. Those who drove trucks driven into crowds in Nice and the Berlin Christmas market in 2016, and the Orlando shooter of the same year, or several other I could mention, had things in common; they were young men, at that wild, confused age, displaced from their own culture, if they could be said to have a culture. They were convinced Muslims but not devoutly practising: they had indulged in drink, drugs, loose women, and other sins of the flesh. As they sat and compared their lives with their religious ideology, they disgusted themselves. Usman Khan was not like that but maybe his past failure disgusted him, and like them, he was watching the time tick by.

The authorities thought he was cured.  He was not.  Those who taught him to deradicalize him were everything he despised, so of course he sat through and nodded, and laughed at them. The ‘Archbishop Cranmer Blog’ had a telling insight into this process yesterday.

Going off the rails is not uncommon in young men.  The rails are constricting and instinct is for freedom away from the one-dimensional line. For those who have been wrenched out of a parent cultural framework and thrown into a new society into which they cannot properly fit with their existing understandings and cultural preconceptions, then there are no the rails for them in the first place.

What is a young man thrown into a big, anonymous city? He is a drop in the sea, going unwillingly with the tide. What all seek though are power and voice. They must be in dejection, which Hobbes defines as “Griefe, from opinion of want of power“.

We know that:

The Passions that most of all cause the differences of Wit, are principally, the more or lesse Desire of Power, of Riches, of Knowledge, and of Honour. All which may be reduced to the first, that is Desire of Power. For Riches, Knowledge and Honour are but severall sorts of Power

The desire for power does not distinguish in the mind those forms which Hobbes enumerates. The base, animal instinct to destroy a thing in the public eye, whether smashing a bus shelter or burning down a building, is to feel an exercise of power as it effects real change. That is fleeting and tends to destroy any opportunity to achieve real power in the future, but young men are impatient. They fight, they break things; they paint crude messages on walls; and in our latter days they make women afraid on social media. It is all the same; an exercise of irresponsible power.

‘Irresponsible’ seems not a bad thing for the powerless man: responsibilities are constricting and breaking free of them is liberation. Society is constructed to restrain, for the public good, and to channel the energies of youth into positive channels, without which life is “continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short“. When they step outside society they step into “Warre Of Every One Against Every One“.

For Muslims, with those carnally-driven men who nevertheless identify themselves as adherent to Islam, their doctrine has a warning at the end: they are heading for Jahannam, Hell.

Each pint of beer, each temptress and each morning woken in shame, is a weight on the balance against them, for Islam, like Mediaeval Rome, has no grace or salvation but teaches that at the Day of Judgment they face a tilting balance of good deeds and evil, and those who have descended to carnal deeds believe the balance is weighing them toward the inferno.  Every time a lorry passes by too close they think of how close is death; each time they are startled in a dark alley or they are gripped with disease, they fear that the end will rush upon them with no time to rebalance the scale. An emergency action is required.  It is not for Islam: it is for themselves.

Waiting for them are the teachers who sell them snake-oil salvation – a get-out-of-Hell-free card. If you live in dread of a swift end and eternal flame, there can be no more joyful teaching than the idea that you just perform one act and all the alcohol, drugs and women are washed away. If it is an act of violence, it chimes with a young man’s desires, and if it is an exercise of power, without responsibility, then it is all they could dream of. The crusades were powered by just such a teaching, and the radical Muslim teachers are no different from the cursed priests of those days.

Here Islam is very distinct from Christianity.  The Roman pontiffs could not call on any Bible verse to justify their own indulgences for slaughter, while the imams can. That is a powerful difference.  However the act and the motivation are independent of the book – they come from the rotten heart of man.

For the desperate believer who has been thinking of his own death for years on end, now given this one hope of Heaven there is another element.  If they perform the act and walk away, the temptations of the world are still there.  They may empty the balance, but begin at once to fill it up.  If you score a goal, you may still lose the game, but if you score just as the whistle goes, it is secure. Therefore for them the motivation is clear:  perform the act and die at once so salvation is secured.

Against this motivation, who can reason?

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Bishops to mend a broken Britain?

Those misfiring bishops!  I want to believe I am being too harsh.

Assuredly the nation is in fine spiritual health, in spite of all we have heard and seen on the streets, for the bishops of the Church of England have stayed silent on spiritual matters and now they have spoken, they have addressed Brexit instead.  We must assume that there is no need for their input in spiritual matters, or they would surely have made that a priority.

The open letter from 25 diocesan bishops published this week begins on the issue of a No-Deal Brexit, which they assert (against the prevailing evidence) will have a “massive impact” on the poorest (with not a word for the entrepreneurs).  It is not certain whether they mean “no withdrawal agreement”, which is the immediate political issue, or “no free trade agreement”, or whether all those who signed appreciate the distinction between the two. The admonition in the letter is directed at the Government, which again is puzzling, because the government is trying to do a deal:  it would be better addressed to those who have pledged to oppose any deal which the government brings back from Brussels.

Is it any wonder that this studiously politically balanced letter comes out, to some eyes, as anything but that?

The main issue for the bishops, surely, is the second issue, thrown into the bullet points at the end, namely the quality of public discourse. That is a spiritual matter.

“Political polarisation and language that appears to sanction hate crime: the reframing of the language of political discourse is urgent”:  there no Brexiteer will differ for we have for the last three years been constantly insulted, shouted down, belittled, slandered, threatened and in some cases even been pursued by vexatious law-suits. Remainiacs have been targeted too where they have stepped beyond decent behaviour. That is a moral failing. They have not suffered anything like the relentless campaign suffered by even moderate Leave-voters.  Do the signatories mean the local, personal persecution of Leave voters equally with Remoaners, or are they just looking from a distance, without dirtying their hands, at depersonalised social media?

The worse threat is not electronic words but real-world confrontation. The face of screaming self-justified hatred is horrifying.

There is a spiritual sickness in the idea a man may conceive that his ideas and only his are valid and acceptable or intelligent, and all others are dehumanised crud.  Bishops are right to address this. That is their proper role. Regrettably, some of their number (not necessarily those who signed the letter, though certainly one of them) have fallen victim to the malady themselves.

“The ease with which lies can be told and misrepresentation encouraged: leaders must be honest about the costs of political choices, especially for those most vulnerable.”  You should not argue in favour of lies and misrepresentations, but then it is yoked to honesty about the costs of political choices, which in the context of the no-deal Brexit concerns is zinged at the current Cabinet. Is that wise? The belters in this post-referendum period have emerged from the LibDem machine. They deserve at least a mention.

Are the signatory bishops then accusing Boris Johnson of lying in this matter?  He has a history in his personal and professional lives of exaggerating, through his teeth on occasion, but in this context there is no falsity, only interpretation.  It is a moral failing to lie; it is also a moral failing to accuse others unjustly of lying.

There follow platitudes.  This is as expected.  I am though puzzled by the last: “Attention must be paid not only to the Union, but also to the meaning of Englishness”.  The meaning of Englishness is a mystery to me.  It ceased to have a meaning centuries ago as the nation discovered its completeness as we became Britons.  The Church of England is left alone caring for a snippet of the wider nation.  Once the church had a worldwide vision, now too localised.  Perhaps a world-spanning vision from a Brexit born through such unexpected struggle.

In this then we have a letter which is right in its words but wrong somehow in its conception or giving the impression of being so.

When at last we can get Brexit over the line, the vision of healing a fractured society for which the bishops plead may be able to take a step forward. Achieving that break must be a priority for the healing of the nation. Then churchmen and laymen can together work to diagnose the sickness and cast it out. We must bring the nation to its knees, in prayer.

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Puritans and the Pilgrim

The Church Times (which may be some readers’ favourite journal) carried an article recently by Dr Nicholas Fisher, ‘Standing down the Puritan Penumbra’, celebrating the work of Symon Patrick, who played a crucial part in defending the settlement of the Church of England after the Restoration. It is not just a subject of interest to church historians but it contains a strong lesson about the nation’s social and political divisions in our own day.

The history and the conflict

In the 17th century, the Church of England commanded the moral teaching of the nation and potentially its whole social outlook, and so control of it was key to controlling the ideology of England.  The Church’s official doctrines included freedom of conscience in that only the Bible is an absolute standard, but secular authorities would frequently find an excuse for punishing dissentient speech.  (Thomas Hobbes was accused of atheism for some of his ideas even though fully concordant with the Bible.)

Therefore the church in England and in Scotland was a battleground, much as media regulation is becoming a battleground for us today, and dissent from the established church would be punished not for doctrinal reasons, but to control preaching.

Before the Civil War, Parliament’s Puritan faction demanded that the King abolish bishops, to cow them into ceasing their opposition, and when the war was over the victorious Roundheads carried this through; they changed the polity of the Church of England, replacing bishops and dioceses with assemblies and presbyteries. It was a classic political case of the means to an end which became an end in itself, or the fringe demand, put just to be sacrificed in negotiation, which became an unshakable demand.

The old order was restored at the Restoration but it was not a foregone conclusion: Pepys in his diary confides that the King may be forced to concede to a Presbyterian church. In the event, the bishops returned, clergy were required to conform, huge numbers of clergy left to form non-conformist congregations, but it was not over:  strong voices still pressed for the abolish prelacy, to turn the Church of England into a Presbyterian church.

The pressure for Presbytery was strong and growing, and each fault in a bishop, or any slippage towards ceremonialism was held as proof of lapsing towards Roman ways. The move to Presbyterianism was made to feel inevitable.  That is echoed in every age: imperfection is held up as utter corruption and the word ‘inevitable’ breaks resistance. You may think of your own examples.

Into this stepped a clergyman, Symon Patrick. He could see that the Puritans were gaining the upper hand, and so he wrote ‘The Parable of the Pilgrim’, about a pilgrim trying to travel to Jerusalem, and first seeking a reliable guide.

I cannot say the Patrick’s Parable is a gripping read.  It is for from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. (written in the same age).  It was popular though, and is credited with convincing the King and the establishment that Presbytery was not inevitable nor was it the will of the people, and that the public mood was for the old ways.

The argument and the outcome

Patrick’s theme in essence was that the Church of England is a reliable guide, and the non-conforming Puritans are a violent, extreme faction who were responsible for the Civil War and would cause another one.

He does not claim that the episcopal version of the Church had the sole claim on truth and does not accuse the non-conformists of false doctrine, except in as far as they claimed to have a monopoly of the way to salvation and of acceptable practice. This then is a key: we are the reasonable men; they are dangerous extremists; remember the horror of the late war, as a revival of it looms in their counsels.

The result was effective: public opinion turned strongly in favour of the bishops, and the Puritans shrank back.  However it also encouraged the secular authorities to impose malicious penalties on non-conformity.  Whether Symon Patrick had that in mind I cannot say, but it makes it uncomfortable to read the triumphalist tone in the Church Times article, perhaps just an echo of the inevitable affection of a biographer for his subject.

Ill-treatment of non-conformists was unprincipled and counter-productive. Since the Restoration, the non-conformist churches and the Church of England have had a mutually supporting role in their mutual antagonism: the non-conformists are often the conscience to admonish the Church of England when it goes wrong, as it frequently does, and they allow preachers to speak out, on matters such as slavery and false doctrines, where the Anglican structure encourages silence and bland following of liturgy. At the same time, the Church of England provides a structure and written standard against which the non-conformist churches may be measured in case they are tempted to stray, as they do without structure: the Quakers have ceased to be Christian in any meaningful sense.

The lessons into modernity

In our own day, the moral teaching of the nation is secularised. Novel, irreligious doctrines coming out of nowhere are established and pressed upon us by secular authorities and those who set themselves up unelected as authorities. Even the clergy of the Church of England are complying.

The argument in Patrick’s Parable holds good today: the Puritans who claim a monopoly of truth are dangerous, and while their positions and arguments may be within the wide cast of honest opinion, they cannot be allowed in charge.

However the position of our own day is reversed from the Restoration period: the establishment has been seized by secular Puritans, little different from those Patrick describes in his Parable of the Pilgrim. They act in the way he warns, and without any apparent sense of irony the New Puritans are ready to accuse dissenting, conservative-minded folk of being dangerous extremists, and spit hatred at them in the name of opposing hate.

The New Puritans are not a myth, as case after case demonstrates: careers ruined, businesses closed and intimidated, others harassed by lawsuits. In this, the radical New Puritan may act as legislator, judge, jury and executioner. After the Long March Through the Institutions, establishment positions are held by left-wingers, so there is little resistance.

Now we need non-conforming commentators. A secular Symon Patrick in our own day would face ostracism, even in the cowed Church, as he would be writing outside the establishment. Maybe it would be coming too late: Patrick wrote to prevent a takeover, but for us, that takeover has happened.

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