Religion and politics

In front of Pilate. Detail from a door at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Passion Facade.
Reading of this post to make life easier for my dyslexic friends and anyone else who also likes to listen.
Religion and Politics 1

There has been much talk in the UK press about what does and does not belong in politics, about who has and has not the right to speak out, and in what context. There were some articles in The Guardian newspaper questioning Her Majesty’s lack of involvement in the political arena and bizarrely, where lawyers challenged the right of judges making a judgment of unlawful behaviour with respect to proroguing parliament:

Government lawyers had told the court, which sits in Westminster directly opposite parliament, that the justices should not enter into such a politically sensitive area, which was legally “forbidden territory” and constitutionally “an ill-defined minefield that the courts are not properly equipped to deal with”.

The Guardian, September 24 2019
Sign in West Pottergate, Norwich. It has since been removed.
Religion and Politics 2: Of course, I meant to say 2 thousand and 19. Silly me.

In The Tablet (14 September 2019) the president of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain, Dr. Ashley Beck, is quoted as saying:

If we push the language of God out of this or that crisis or moral issue, we’re pushing God out,

Article in The Tablet, 14 September 2019, by Margaret Hebblethwaite, p31

and on the same page, in the same issue, Archbishop Eamon Martin is quoted as saying that bringing faith into politics is:

…not an optional extra for a committed Christian.

Article in The Tablet, 14 September 2019, p31

I started an argument once on an online group where the comment from the Bishops of the Church of England about how they were praying for the country and how Brexit had caused division and acrimony in Britain, was greeted with derision. Comments such as:

Well, that’ll fix it then.


They should keep their religion out of politics.

to me, showed a lack of very basic understanding of the nature of living in faith. The words from the bishops had come from their prayer together, and from their noticing the division and rise of aggression and violence in our society, the increase in racist attacks, of intolerance. They were speaking out, and calling out the deterioration of moral values and behaviour. Here is the prayer they made:

A prayer for the UK.

A Prayer for the UK

In this time of turmoil…

We pray for the Prime Minister and Party Leaders as they negotiate the political future of our nation:
Father, give them your wisdom and vision.

We pray, and calling for all in Parliament as they represent their communities:
Jesus, give them your humility and strength.

We pray for the media as they interpret events for the nation:
Holy Spirit, give them your truth and compassion.

We pray for ourselves, your Church, as we show your love to our neighbours:
Would we speak hope, embody courage and model unity in diversity.

Almighty God, we place our trust in you:
For yours is the kingdom the power and the glory, now and forever, Amen

Church of England, Prayer for Brexit
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Passion Facade. The word in gold on the door in the background: Veritat? meaning Truth?
Religion and Politics 3

Time and time again, I have heard this point of view, that religious faith should be kept out of politics: it dismisses it to merely a private matter. And there is a hypocrisy to this viewpoint. I object just as vehemently to having atheism thrust down my throat as the atheist does to any crude attempt to convert them, and I also have as much right to live my life, think my thoughts and express my opinion as the atheist does. The issue here is about respect: and the growing lack of respect in Britain is what prompted the Church of England response.

I should also comment that my political opinion on Brexit was the same as those in the online group: I took issue with their derision of the Church speaking out and their ad hominem attacks, rather than noticing the legitimate concern of the Church about the vitriolic discourse now rife in British society. The online group both missed my point and vindicated the point the Church of England was making.

The meaning of the word “political” as given by the Oxford dictionary is:

1. relating to the government or public affairs of a country.

relating to the ideas or strategies of a particular party or group in politics.

interested in or active in politics.

motivated by a person’s beliefs or actions concerning politics.

2. derogatory done or acting in the interests of status or power within an organization rather than as a matter of principle.

I am thinking that by this point, it is obvious that my opinion is that when we are called to be prophets, when we speak out, we are being political. It is inevitable: and to think it reasonable that a person of faith ought not to express their opinion publicly is to not understand what faith is. Worse than that, it is a double standard, because the atheist also speaks from a position of faith.

Scripture sets a precedent for the people of God being politically active. The Book of Amos has social justice as one of its major themes, where social justice is described as:

… a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society. This is measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity, and social privileges.

Remember that Jesus was crucified for sedition! One does not come in front of the governor of the region for judgement, or cause social unrest without being political. So, we are in good company here.

Why would they want to stop us from speaking out, from expressing our opinions when we are speaking from the ground of our being in God?

St. Ignatius has some things to say about how the enemy, the one opposed to God, goes about his business. The first is that he behaves as a spoiled child, simpering, batting his eyes, stamping his feet, throwing a tantrum and going in the huff when he does not get his way. (Okay, Ignatius actually said like a woman, and given his time, I’m going to let him off the hook on that one, and simply update what he describes to our day and age). The second is as a false lover, who flatters and whispers lies in secret and solicits something unwholesome, telling us it is just between us, our little secret and that we should not tell anyone else about it. The third is as a general, circling the castle to find the weak spot from where to launch an attack; stabbing at our soft underbelly and filling us full of doubt and self recrimination. When we are speaking out, standing up for our principles as guided by our faith, how many of these strategies do we notice in the people who stand in opposition to us?

Ignatius also makes suggestions as to how we deal with each of these scenarios. In the first, he suggests a show of strength, to be unwavering. Of course, any parent who has gone through the toddler years, knows that you have to stand your ground and weather the storm, even as your furious child is attracting all the disapproving, and sympathetic stares of others in the supermarket, or whatever public place they have decided to show you up in. Maximum power, minimum reason. In terms of weakness, one of mine is that I try to be reasonable and base my opinions and arguments on evidence. I know, you would think that this is a strength and in the academic world it is, but in the world of populist politics and online discourse, which fuels the lynch mob mentality, the voice of reason cannot always be heard above the noise, and sometimes may give the space for those who act from an unreasonable standpoint, who show no such scruples, to step in and abuse. Ignatius suggest shoring up the weak walls in our castle, and that may mean continuing in faith, in the course that we know to be right, to stand strong, as in the first case of dealing with the spoiled child. In the second scenario, the secret whispering, Ignatius encourages us to tell, to disclose what is going on in us with someone well versed in discernment of spirits: a spiritual director, or a close friend with such skills. When the turmoil of the dark recesses of our mind are put on the table and God’s light shone on them, they lose their power to potentially uproot us. Our doubts and fears expressed, cannot withstand the process of discernment when examined in the light with the help of another. And through this process we find the courage to face them. Notice that the company of those also engaged in this process of living reflectively in God is important in strengthening and encouraging us. Ignatius suggests discernment, prayer and penance to help strengthen us when we find ourselves beset with that which would pull us away from God. As for the latter, I have a lot to say about penance, but I will save it for another day, at the appropriate time.

At the end of the day, Ignatius describes three steps for those standing with Christ:

…the first, poverty as opposed to riches; the second insults or contempt as opposed to the honour of this world; the third, humility as opposed to pride. From these three steps, let them lead men to other virtues.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.

and in The Contemplatio, he makes the first point:

…love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Passion Facade. Detail of Pilate washing his hands of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Religion and Politics 4

If we were to accept popular direction to keep our religious beliefs out of politics, are we not simply acting like Pilate, and washing our hands of what happens in our society? In unapologetic defense of my own position, I am a Psalm 40 person:

See, I will not hold my tongue,

As well you know.

Psalm 40: 9b. The New Jerusalem Bible, Readers Version.

What’s in a name?

Detail from the door at the Passion Facade of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
What’s in a name? part 1. Recording of this post to make life a little easier for my dyslexic friends. Reads up to T S Eliot reading his poem, play this and then the reading of the next part and the song at the end. Enjoy, and please forgive any reading inconsistencies.

Recently, when a friend told me the name of a baby girl that he had learned from her parents, I responded with:

What a beautiful name!

He agreed and had been moved by it. I am fussy about my own name and by what I am called. I use both of my first names, and it does not contain a hyphen. It is not so unusual where I am from, but where I am living now everyone consistently tries to shorten it. It started when I went to university and my mum gave me some very good advice at the age of eighteen: she told me that if I wanted to be called by both names, I had to insist on it, otherwise I would end up always being called by only my first name, as had happened to her. So, I insist upon it.

As a teacher, whenever I meet a new class and I’m doing the register for the first time, I ask the students if they want to be called by their formal name , or do they have a shorter version of it they prefer: Joe instead of Joseph, for example. Quite a few of them tell me they do not really mind, and it always surprises me. I think it matters. Others do insist that I pronounce their names properly – quite rightly, and good on them.

So, what is in a name? Why is it so important? I read fantasy books during the holidays – these are my “trashy” novels that I like to relax with, escapism if you like. There are a couple of premises that run in the fantasy genre. The first is that the real name of someone or something is more than what it is called, it is what it is. It is the difference between a simile and a metaphor: not he is like a lion, but he is a lion. The sword in Christopher Paolini’s book Brisingr is not so much called fire, as it is fire.

The word brisingr is an ancient Old Norse word meaning “fire”, which Paolini found while reading through a dictionary of word origins. › wiki › Brisingr

In this genre, to know the true name of something or someone, gives you power over it or them. Eragon spends time learning the language of the elves, from which the true names in the natural world originate, so that he can improve his magic: In “The Gentleman Bastards” series, Locke Lamora never gives his true name to anyone, lest the Magicians learn it and use it against him, as they do with his friend Sam. In The Name of the Wind, the prologue of which is one of the most beautiful, poignant and haunting pieces of prose I have ever read in my life, Kvothe is able to call and control the wind at will, simply because he knows its name.

And this concept does not just belong to the fantasy genre. In Jesus A Pilgrimage, in relation to the healing of the demoniac, James Martin raises the point that it was a belief in the time of Jesus. He says:

In the ancient Near East, names held great significance and power.

Jesus A Pilgrimage. James Martin S.J.

When people are renamed in scripture; Abram as Abraham, Simon as Peter, it signifies a divinely ordered change of identity, a new life and mission.

Moreover, knowing a person’s name was believed to give someone power over that person…Thus, when Jesus asks the demon’s name, he poses a direct threat. “What is your name?” means “Let me have power over you.”

Jesus A Pilgrimage. James Martin S.J.

And the demon answers Jesus:

My name is Legion; for we are many.

Jesus A Pilgrimage. James Martin S.J.

The name is what it is, more than what it is called, it is the essence of being.

When we ask ourselves the big question:

Who am I?

what we are really asking is:

What is my name?

and even more than that, it is:

What is my name, the one that He gives me?

Who am I to Him?

To know who we are in God, to see ourselves as He sees us and to live accordingly is to make an election, it is to discover our personal vocation, the deepest desire of our soul, the state in life that draws us more deeply into Him. It is not what we do, it is who we are. It is to be free. And it takes God time and prayer: contemplation of God and of how God looks at me; of how God sees me.

I asked Him once:

Who am I to you?

and He gave me an answer. During my formation as a spiritual director “Discovering your Personal Vocation” by Herbert Alphonso S.J. was required reading. He closed the book with the poem:

The Naming Of Cats by T. S. Eliot
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey–
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter–
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover–
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

T. S. Eliot‘s poetry book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
What’s in a name? part 2

And it dawned on me that there is another Name, an adjective, and I’ve heard myself called it all my life, but dismissed even the thought of it as arrogance on my part. It is how He sees me, who I am to Him, and it is a name that is deeply affirming and leaves me in no doubt about being loved. So here, I invite you, if you have not already done so, to ask Him in prayer:

Who am I to you?

And I leave you with my response to hearing Him call my Name.