Single Jehovah’s Witnesses

Canary Wharf, business suits…

Being a pensioner, thus not very bright by definition, when I first heard the acronym ‘SJWs, I thought it referred to “Single Jehovah’s Witnesses”. I imagined this to be a dating website where optimistic young ladies could find young gentlemen with a similar religious persuasion. But, no. Somebody put me straight, obviously. There’s something grandiloquent about the notion of “social justice warriors”, something apparently praiseworthy, to be emulated or at least admired since the current tidal wave of public opinion runs inexorably in their favour – for the moment. The sight of a climate change protester being forcibly removed from the roof of a London commuter train by those simply wishing to get home was both cheering and indicative. The 17th century mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal wrote “Justice is as much a matter of fashion as charm.” How richly such a truth is demonstrated in our times. Seldom have the demands of (social) justice been so manifestly faddish, blown hither and yon by the caprice of public opinion, relentlessly fuelled by social media, any dissent being asphyxiated by an avalanche of protest. We now talk endlessly of climate change. Not Tibet, or the Yazidis or Christian persecutions any longer. Being identified as a victim of injustice, in the present case, the entire planet, is short term, until something else flits across the screens of public consciousness.

SJWs are intolerant of criticism. The suggestion that some of the primary propositions upon which their protests hinge are plainly wrong is rejected as reactionary thinking, worthy only of ridicule, the more public the better. Overthrow the prevailing power structures, and injustice will simply vanish is both the strategy and the creed. Anyone who questions this vision is not just wrong but evil. Plenty of activism, disruption and days out in the city, with the thrillingly illicit possibility of arrest and hence vindication is the driving force. Solutions are sparse, perhaps non-existent, but, of course, that doesn’t really matter – others will find those.

At the heart of so many SJ initiatives is the overarching theme of equality (good) and merit (bad). These imperatives are inescapably locked in either competition or conflict, both practically and ideologically. A society that was perfectly just by meritocratic standards would be quite unjust in egalitarian terms. Some injustices may be worse than others, but no world is imaginable in which all the demands of social justice are fully realised.

For example, income and wealth distribution are partly random. But so is the distribution of genes. Some have to manage with a pair of sixes, others get four aces dealt them. Gross disparities in educational opportunity are accepted as long as they cannot be defended in terms of merit. Selection by ability such as in UK grammar schools is rejected by large swathes of progressive opinion; people seem to find it less objectionable to send their children to schools where selection is by parental income.

There’s a hypocrisy here. Hypocrisy requires a measure of self-awareness, and there is little evidence of that in the sunny uplands of certainty that the SJW inhabits. When people buy an expensive education for their children, perhaps they are in fact sidestepping the whole uncomfortable notion of meritocracy. No doubt egalitarians who send their children to private schools, buy in private tutors or are well-heeled enough to buy a house in a catchment area containing a socially selective comprehensive are stacking the life-chances of their offspring against those of the majority. But why should any child be denied the good fortune of having progressive parents?

Extinction Rebellion, the apotheosis of egalitarian thinking, will of course go ‘the way of all flesh’ eventually, the irony being that its primary support base is derived from those who have benefited most from a meritocratic worldview. We remain hopeful that at the very least they won’t do too much damage.

When it does not lead to tragedy, the pursuit of social justice can quickly turn comedic. There was something darkly amusing about the short shrift given to the people who climbed on top of the trains and, perhaps, rightly so.

Sheep

This being Yom Kippur, a reflection. A look back at things well done and a resolve to do better. No more golden calves.

People crave certainty. At least in some of us there’s a stubborn, persistent hankering and adulation for leaders which is why dictators flourish. Indeed, in the kernel of personality there seems to exist this idea that it’s OK, indeed desirable to be a sheep where all one has to do is to follow instructions and all will be well. Highly structured religions are full of instructions to be followed on pain of serious, everlasting and frequently painful retribution. One point eight billion people worldwide subscribe to a religion based around a man who lived in a cave and received visions which were orally transmitted by an archangel over a long time and over 170 years later somebody thought to write them down. History, or better, historical fact has been overlain by the dust of centuries, redacted by opinion, scholarship and sheer manipulation, to form a set of rules that all its adherents mostly abide by, with more or less fervour. When actually written down it seems fatuous and naïve, a collage made up of small, half-remembered pieces picked up and hastily sewn into some kind of semi-coherent whole.

The Jews have an even longer period as their rituals and practices evolved from pre-Canaanite traditions into a massive lexicon of mitzvot, regulations and rabbinic pronouncements which have provided fertile ground for opinion, debate and argument.  Moses Maimonides, the great twelfth century rabbi, wrote his ‘guide to the perplexed’ to shed light on the fundamentals and to provide a bedrock of certainty which could be relied upon to stand the test of being assailed over time by other, divergent views. Christianity stands or falls on the messianic principle, as the wild olive of the Gentiles is grafted into the Jewish branch to ingather all into a soteriologically secure sheepfold of belief. 

I was thinking about my own experiences in light of some of these ideas. Brought up by a righteous father and confused and basically monochromatically inept mother, I believed what I was told to believe for longer than most. Argument with Sunday school teachers was a sport I learned in mid-teens when dissent was considered rebellious and “as the sin of witchcraft”, the only consequence being the development of an overloaded sense of guilt and an inability to match up to exacting but entirely artificial standards. Grace seemed too easy to obtain and too hard to justify one’s receipt of it. Toes were dipped into the experiential, the miraculous, the emotionally-fuelled and intellectually impoverished with a brief but delicious diversion into the theatrics of Anglo-Catholicism, an opera for the sensations; all the awe and wonder held together by the granite of scriptural certainty.

Things changed. And yet, the old ideas persist, as if woven into a childhood garment that one can never quite outgrow or throw off. I have watched the church as it has metamorphosed so spectacularly in the last few decades, from a 1950s conformity and a sense of treading a well-worn yet secure path, one sheep following another, into a smorgasbord of different doctrinal emphases, as evangelicalism gave way to charism and emotion, which in turn spawned rock concert church plus a bit of sermonising, prosperity gospels which asserted that one could simply pray one’s demands into existence like Janis Joplin’s Mercedes-Benz, with much head-wagging from the Calvinists and traditionalists. We cast about for someone to blame and a theology which had been in the sights of the intellectuals for a hundred and fifty years became the culprit. Things began to change with the Germans who began to disembowel the ancient texts as one might dissect Chaucer or Shakespeare and meaning, myth and poetry swirled around in one’s mind like gauzy silken scarves, through which it became more and more difficult to visualise truth, so much so that it is today not inconceivable to refer to an atheist archbishop. So, we abandoned the idea that truth even exists, and moral relativism became the post-church, postmodern doctrine du jour. Modern miracles were relegated to dewy-eyed Pentecostal adherents for whom healing, prophecy and deliverance were part and parcel of everyday experience. For most, such improbables perfused downwards and backwards so first century miracles were disassembled and reconfigured to be consistent with the more intellectually acceptable position of our being disinterested observers rather than active participants.

I have seen more than most, experienced either directly or indirectly some of the axial shifts and changes in moments of inertia that ‘church’ has become. And yet, in spite of all efforts to make sense of so much, the less I really know and understand. Wisdom is compensation to the old for lack of knowledge in one’s youth, but it is not easily come by.

Belief systems are in disarray, and they themselves serve as a metaphor for a worldwide and accelerating confusion which in some cases has descended into near-panic, so amply demonstrated by near-hysteria over climate change and our purported part in it. The oldest democracy in the world is headed towards a cliff edge at full throttle with no clear plan as to what happens when we fall off and the consequences are thought by some to be apocalyptic. The many-headed hydra of radical Islam has been imprisoned but not killed off, civil disobedience is considered almost legitimate and wars rage ceaselessly, swapping participants as if bringing on the substitutes of protest to replace the faithful in a football match.

I read today that Greta Thunberg is the bookie’s favourite for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un are in the frame as well, along with many others, perhaps far more deserving. If she gets it, it will serve as a metaphor for the clouds of unknowing in which much of the world seems currently enmeshed. We know so very little, yet sheep follow sheep, all bleating in unison and often with no real understanding of why they do so. Some have grown teeth and claws, ready to savage, upend and attempt to destroy the fragile democratic systems on which so much of our security has been built. They seem prepared to demolish the political status quo with no idea what to replace it with, play follow-the leader with the gullible, the blind and the delusional and moreover, are rewarded for doing so.

And yet, faith refuses to lie down and die, at least for me. I have seen too much for full-blown denial, too little to volunteer for the armies of righteousness. In the maelstrom, there exists the eye of the storm, where order replaces chaos and stillness the crashing and battering of mountainous waves. I fail to find it, so very often, but I know it’s there.