Poisonous Drifts and Their Antidote

Last night I could not sleep. My usual remedy, trying to make some extra prayer, did not work, and I was too heavy-eyed to read, so I amused myself through the night hours by listening to the BBC World Service’s various attempts to report Mr Trump’s alleged remarks about immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and ‘African countries.’ We were treated to a number of variants, ranging from the the mealy-mouthed ‘vulgarism’ to the more forthright ‘offensive and derogatory language’. In most cases his alleged phrase ‘shit-hole countries’ was quoted. I could not help reflecting that for some the phrase was not in the least shocking, even from the lips of the President of the USA. To others, especially I would imagine those who are from Haiti, etc, it must have been utterly loathsome, indicating a contempt of others that is breath-taking in its complacency and virulence. This morning, predictably, there is a mixture of responses, ranging from synthetic outrage to genuine disgust.

You notice I distinguish between synthetic outrage and genuine disgust. If we habitually use vulgarisms or profanity in our speech, I do not see how we can criticize Mr Trump because we are using very similar thought processes ourselves. We are allowing the poison to drift through our system, so to say, and whether it erupts in a mindless ‘OMG’ or the adjectival use of swear words, it is pretty much the same. Coarse language reflects coarse thinking. In particular, it often reflects hasty judgement or no judgement at all, both of which can lead to unintended consequences, to violence and injustice.

Yesterday Mrs May announced plans to tackle the environmental poisons we are allowing to mar the world. The amount of plastic being dumped in the seas is tragic. The amount of plastic and other rubbish we pick up from the verge outside the monastery is tragic, too. It seems we are reluctant to face up to our responsibilities in the matter unless the law takes a hand and tells us what we may or may not do. The trouble is, when our ideas of right and wrong depend entirely on what is or is not legally permissible, we are giving further scope to the selfishness and contempt for others that is at the heart of both Mr Trump’s attitude to immigrants and our own reckless use of plastic and other environmental poisons.

Today is the feast of St Benet Biscop, about whom I have written often in the past, usually focusing on his love of beauty and his indefatigable labours for the church in England. This morning, however, I am reminded of something else. Benet is credited with introducing the Rule of St Benedict to England, and anyone who follows that Rule knows that an important theme is reverence — reverence for God, reverence for people, reverence for material things. To speak roughly or ungenerously is as alien to the monastic ideal as waste or the wanton destruction of the world about us.

Perhaps we need to do some hard thinking. It is easy to criticize Mr Trump. It gives us a nice glow of moral superiority. It is easy to criticize those who package everything in plastic or who are careless about its disposal. That, too, gives us a nice glow of moral superiority. But what if we were to ask ourselves how far we are complicit, how far we are spreading the poisons we condemn in others? We may pat ourselves on the back that we are impeccably right-thinking, only to fall down when it comes to action. A theoretical love of others has to be translated into genuine welcome and support. A theoretical love of the environment has to be translated into caring for the particular area in which we find ourselves. It means guarding our thought processes, so that it is literally unthinkable that we should hold anyone in contempt or treat our surroundings with anything but respect. That is not easy, and it does not give us any glow of moral satisfaction because it is a task never fully completed. There is always something more to strive for.

What do you think?