Setting a Good Example

Time was when the idea of consciously trying to set a good example was seen as unbearably priggish, smacking of Victorian do-goodery and implicit hypocrisy. Quite apart from the fact that I think we are unjust to the Victorians, I’d argue that the notion of setting a good example is one we need to re-visit. In the West we are only too ready to step away from responsibility. Politicians exclaim, ‘I have done nothing wrong!’ when caught out being greedy or in some shady activity. Parents exclaim, ‘They are out of control!’ when seeking to excuse themselves for their offspring’s behaviour. Even bishops have been known to disclaim all knowledge of what their priests have been up to. It is refreshing when someone has the courage to say, ‘The buck stops here. I take responsibility.’ But  we need to go further. It is not just responsibility for what has been done that we need to accept, but responsibility for creating the conditions in which certain behaviours are seen as acceptable. In other words, how we set a good example is something we all need to consider.

A short examination of conscience can be extremely helpful. The standards we actually live by, as distinct from those we publicly espouse, will soon show us what sort of example we are setting to others. Honesty, kindness, courtesy, hard work and so on are not specifically religious qualities, inasmuch as they are shared by many who would not claim any religious affiliation, but they do tend to point to the strength of our religious commitment. The intersection of public and private morality can be very difficult, and it is not made any easier by the way in which legislation can seem hostile to the open expression of someone’s beliefs. Wearing a cross or offering to pray for someone is not acceptable in certain situations, and I think most of us can understand why even if we do not always agree. It is much trickier when reservations about the morality of certain forms of research or corporate policy are in question. I remember, years ago, a banker friend putting his job on the line because of his objection to an advertising campaign which encouraged household debt. I am sure you can think of many similar instances.

The fact that something is difficult, however, does not mean that we can avoid making a decision, or ignore the fact that our decision, whatever it may be, will have an effect on others. We have recently celebrated Holocaust Memorial Day, and I was reminded of all those non-Jews in Occupied Europe who chose to put the Star of David on their coats to show solidarity with their persecuted fellow-citizens. We shall never know who was the first to do that, but the example he/she set was surely a good one. May we, in our turn, be just as ready to set a good example in both the big and small things of life.

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Jimmy Savile and the Spectacle of Shame

Peter Watt has written what is, in my view, the simplest, shortest and most worthwhile comment to date on the Savile scandal. You can read it here (link opens in new window). It has been bothering me that a media circus has been created out of a tragedy; that people who had no connection with Savile have been hounded as though they were responsible for his actions; and all the time, the underlying problem, the lack of respect adults have for children (many of them, anyway) and the quite frightening disregard for their safety has not been addressed. Will it ever be? All the regulations in the world cannot make up for the willingness or otherwise to listen to a scared child blurting out the horror of what they have experienced and then judging whether the child is telling the truth or not. (The presumption is in favour of the child, but let’s not forget that false accusations can be made and we have a duty to ensure that the innocent are not condemned.)

Every day brings fresh allegations. We are told that the scandal may touch a former Prime Minister. One would need to be very naive indeed to believe that politicians are exempt from any kind of wrongdoing, but the thought that first the Church, now the BBC and the political establishment, are to be paraded before us in a spectacle of shame provides no catharsis. Although the sickening cover-ups in the Savile case have helped me to understand better (though not to condone) the failure of bishops and other senior clergy to deal with clerical abuse in years past, I still think we are looking in the wrong direction. We are using the past to shield us from the present, looking at the child’s world with adult eyes.

That perhaps is the big problem. Thinking about events in Rochdale and Rotherham, I wonder whether we are somehow incapable of entering imaginatively into a world we are more and more distant from. ‘Except you change and become as little children,’ said the Lord, ‘you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ So often we hear those words and think in terms of conversion, religious change. Maybe we need to think about them in more purely human terms,  as a need for insight and attention to the least powerful, most vulnerable members of society. I don’t know, but it is something I urge you to join me in praying about.

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Being Special

Today’s section of the Rule, RB 60 On Priests who May Wish to Live in the Monastery, is not just for priests and monastics. It is for all who are special or think they are or are considered such by others. In short, it is really for all of us, because in a few short sentences Benedict gets to the nub of a problem that is always cropping up in society: how far does talent, wealth or any other advantage set us apart from others. His answer is, not at all. Those who have received more should give an example of humility, and that is valid whether we live in a monastery or not.

Commentators are still picking over the recent riots and advancing various theories about why they happened. Careful readers will have noticed that I made some very similar remarks about rioters and looters as I have made in the past about bankers and politicians. The sad fact is that the greed and criminality we have witnessed on our streets is really no different from the greed and criminality we have witnessed in the boardrooms of our banks or in the expenses claims of some of our politicians. If, now, there are calls for severe punishment for those who ran amok earlier this week, shouldn’t there be renewed calls for something of the same for those who have set such a bad example in the past? No one is so special that he or she is exempt from moral responsibility.

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