Values Worth Defending?

In recent days politicians of every stripe have appealed to our western democratic values and urged that they are worth defending in the light of violent onslaughts by Islamist extremists. At one level, that sounds eminently reasonable. I, for one, would not want to live in a society where failure to observe the puritanical code imposed by its de facto rulers could lead to flogging, mutilation, stoning or decapitation. But I am not sure that I am absolutely convinced by that appeal to ‘western values,’ either. As a Catholic, I’m always going to question some of the prevalent western assumptions about abortion or the morality of capital punishment, for example, not to mention having some very different ideas about poverty and riches. Yesterday’s debate in the Lords about Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill left me wondering whether Lady Campbell’s eloquent explanation of how illness affects judgement would be matched against Lord Cashman’s equally eloquent account of how he had wished to die alongside his partner of thirty-one years. The emotional charge of both was compelling, but also, for me, highlighted the way in which we are losing a common ground for our morality and our decision-making. We actually don’t agree on what constitutes our core western values.

If you think that last statement too sweeping, run through some of the things you would identify with being western and democratic and ask yourself whether there is still general agreement on what they are and on what limits, if any, should be, or are, imposed and by whom. We do not agree on life-death issues, sexual morality, the legitimacy or otherwise of nuclear weapons, the duty of helping the less fortunate, and so on and so forth. Even the idea of free speech, which has been so much discussed of late, proves on examination to be more nuanced than some would have us believe. No one is entirely free to say whatever he/she likes (though it often seems  they are) because we have laws governing slander and libel. The problem comes when an individual or a group refuses to accept the law and situates itself outside the common legal framework of the land. That seems to me to be happening more and more. I also wonder whether we are tending to appeal to transient emotions in much of our decision-making rather than trying to weigh pros and cons as fairly as possible. It is a piquant and sometimes discouraging mix.

This morning I find myself encouraged by two things. First, Pope Francis has been speaking clearly and plainly in the Philippines about many of the things we are arguing about in the west. He has come out on the side of the angels rather than the bankers and the religious bullies that often dominate our conversation. Secondly, the story of St Antony, whose feast we keep today, reminds me of the perennial creativity of Christianity in the face of opposition and darkness. Antony heard the gospel imperative to go and sell all he had and follow Christ. He did so, and gave the Church both the monastic and the eremitical way of life. A thousand years later St Francis heard the same gospel and gave the Church a new love of the poor Christ and a new way of following him. These are not western democratic values, although the Church has played an important role over the centuries in shaping western civilisation. What we can take from them is, I suggest, the same in each instance. We do not need to defend our values, but we do need to live them.

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The Murder of James Foley

The barbaric murder of James Foley is being picked over by the media, as is only to be expected. The fact that the IS spokesman who did the foul deed is apparently British will have set alarm bells ringing in Britain, where there is already considerable concern about the role of British jihadists and the radicalisation of young Muslims by extremist clerics. Even here, in my monastic fastness, I feel uncomfortable. I have Muslim friends — kindly, civilized people, predominantly second or third generation British and middle class — who are as appalled by this kind of violence as anyone else. But, perhaps because I am a woman and a religious, I have also encountered another face of Islam, one that is much more hostile, much less ready to accommodate itself to British notions of law and justice or socially acceptable behaviour. It is this other face of Islam I find increasingly troubling.

One cannot argue with a gun or a knife, any more than one can ‘dialogue’ with someone who thinks one has no rights or value as a human being. The murder of James Foley, like the murder of Lee Rigby, confronts us with a form of Islamist violence that we do not know how to deal with. It is beyond our experience, outside our conceptual world. We can only ask, rather pathetically, ‘How can people do such things?’

In the past Britain has been, nominally at least, a Christian country. We haven’t always lived up to Christian ideals, but there has been general agreement on the Judaeo-Christian basis of much of our law, morality and social behaviour. That sort of cohesion is now breaking down. We have both an increasingly secular and an increasingly religious divide — but the religious divide is not Christian. A few days ago, newspapers were reporting that the most common newborn boy’s name in Britain is now Mohammed and it is the stated wish of some groups to establish areas where Sharia is applied to everyone living there. That presents a peculiar difficulty to our liberal Western minds. Are there limits to what is acceptable? How do we reconcile the demands of some Islamist groups with our societal norms?

It is a question that affects Christians no less than our secular-minded countrymen. To be expected to be complaisant in the face of Islamist outrages because Christians are, by definition, loving and forgiving is to forget that Christian tolerance is really only a pale form of Christian patience; and Christian patience means more than just putting up with things. We are children of Light, dedicated to the service of Truth. A readiness to forgive injuries does not mean that we condone them. A willingness to accept others’ differences and to defend their right to freedom of religious belief and practice does not necessarily mean we regard them as equal to our own. We walk a difficult path, seeking to be true to what we believe while allowing others to be true to what they believe. But still we must ask the question: do we have a common basis for deciding moral questions any more? Do we have a genuinely common response to the kind of militant Islam fostered by IS?

Inevitably, there will be calls for revenge, for more violence to try to end the violence we have seen in Syria and Iraq and, indeed, on the streets of Woolwich. No doubt Western governments are already planning ‘appropriate responses’ to try and guarantee the safety of their citizens. We know that our safety cannot be guaranteed unless there is a change in attitudes, and no one knows how to do that. It has been said that to adopt an ‘eye for an eye’ approach, tit-for-tat violence, leads ultimately to a world full of blind people. Can we be any more blind than we already are? IS fighters are determined to exterminate all who think or believe differently from themselves. Will there come a point when their brutality proves too much and destroys themselves as well as others? Is it possible for so much cruelty not to have a backlash? I do not know, but for all our sakes, Christian and Muslim alike, for the sake of everyone now living and for the sake of the children yet to be born, I hope and pray it may do, and soon.

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