This short essay is an attempt to answer a conundrum that puzzles me. All the members of our government would claim if pushed to an extreme to be Christians. There are even some members of the government who demonstrate an extreme piety by being regular church attenders and by being active proselytisers for their faith. Christianity is foremost a religion of compassion and caring, yet this government treats the most vulnerable of people with inhuman contempt. Today it was in the papers that the government was stoping the personal care allowance for an eight year old girl with a distressing and disabling illness. It is the type of illness that makes the child totally dependent on her adult carers. With complete inhumanity this government denied the money for care, because the British father worked mainly in Germany and therefore it was up to the German government to provide funding. Even when claimants whose lose benefit commit suicide, this most inhumane of governments remains unmoved. Obviously this government is unfamiliar with the gospel text, in which Christ when surrounded by children and tells his disciples that if anyone harmed these children it would be better for him that he threw himself into the sea with a millstone around his neck, rather than face the wrath of God. (Matthew 18:6)
What kind of God I wondered do the members of this government worship? Obviously it is not the Christian God with which I am familiar. The members of this government see their actions as virtuous so what God can possibly condone such inhumanity? Whatever God it is it cannot be the Christian one.
One candidate is the secular religion, which goes by the name of Neo-Liberalism. Practitioners of this religion worship the market and believe that it this this very secular deity that will distribute wealth to each according to their deserts. They do realise that the free market will at times create human misery, but they believe that the good the market does outweighs the bad.
However the explanation lies with the religion of entitlement and privilege that has pre-dated Christianity but which has continued to coexist with Christianity. Christianity was a break from the religions of the past, which were little more than state religions. Religions whose role was to validate the social order, for whom the people were just an anonymous mass. The only individuals that mattered to these religions were the kings and the warrior heroes. In contrast the heroes of Christianity were the common people fishermen, carpenters and tax collectors. Christianity was a religion of individualism, one that threatened the existing social order as it saw merit in all not just the rich and powerful. A religion that would appeal to the oppressed groups such as slaves and women, who were the majority of its early members, a religion of the downtrodden.
Achilles Slays Hector, by Peter Paul Rubens (1630–35).
One of the best examples of a pre-Christian religion of entitlement and privilege is the religion of classical Greece, that of the Olympian Gods. Homer in his two poems ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ gives expression to the beliefs of the classical Greeks. In the Iliad the poor or the ordinary Greeks only get mentioned once. This is when a boastful soldier from the ranks foolishly challenges Odysseus (King of Ithaca) to a boxing match. Odysseus brutally beats the upstart challenger to a pulp, to the approval of the watching Gods and Homer. Throughout the epic story of Odysseus’s return from Troy, the members of his crew, the ordinary seamen are who crew his ship are almost never mentioned. When Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca he has lost all his crew through various misfortunes, yet he never expresses any regret about their loss. For Homer and the Olympian Gods of Greece, all that is of concern or interest are the actions of the heroes, all of whom come from a rich aristocratic warrior class. The masses or majority are merely there to provide a backdrop or audience for these aristocratic warriors. Throughout the Iliad the only conflicts described are those between the various Greek and Trojan aristocratic heroes. The war virtually stops while the ordinary soldiers observe the conflict between Achilles and Hector beneath the walls of Troy. Classical Greece is an aristocratic society whose religion only attributes any worth to the great and the good. Regret is only expressed over the death of the heroes, as with the funeral games held for Achilles. Only aristocrats can be heroes, ordinary people lack the virtues necessary to make them heroes or interesting to the Gods.
Only a religion that treated the common man with insignificance would be of value to our new governing classes. Rather than heroic warriors we are now governed by a class of less than heroic bankers and financiers. George Bush’s advisors who pushed for the war in Iraq were largely ‘chicken hawks’, men seconded from the large corporations who when young dodged the Vietnam draft. This new class of financiers, hedge fund managers and bankers, needs a greater vision to validate their superiour position in society. Something similar to Homer’s Iliad which glorified the heroic aristocrats. These self proclaimed ‘movers and shakers’ need a poet of Homer’s stature to justify their acquisition of vast wealth. Lacking a Homer, their virtues are lauded in such books as Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’, a book in which her billionaire heroes show the same contempt for the common man, as exhibited by Homer’s heroes. In this book thousands of the useless poor die from hunger, freeing the heroic billionaires from the burden of caring for this group of useless humanity.
What Ayn Rand and others such as Friedrich Hayek proclaim is a philosophy that frees the rich and powerful from the obligations and restrictions that are thought to make for the good society. Tax avoidance becomes a duty as the billionaire is better equipped to spend his money wisely, than is the wasteful state, who will foolishly squander its tax revenue. Poverty for example is no longer a social evil but a spur to the poor for self improvement.
Posted: Oct 24 Twenty Fourteen
By: Silvia Hoffman
The new class of financiers and politicians want more than the rather unappealing philosophy of Neo-Liberalism, as there are only so many ways that selfishness can be redefined as a virtue. Fortunately for our new governing classes of politicians and financiers, the Christian tradition is sufficiently plastic to be written to favour the rich and powerful. As Constantine proved, when he oversaw a remaking of Christianity as a religion of empire and power in the 5th century CE. These classes have successfully used Christianity as a means of sacralising the social order. The role of monarch is God sanctioned at the Coronation service, any sense of social injustice is dissipated by emphasising that the poor will get their reward in heaven. The campaigning priests of South America who preached liberation theology were silenced by the Vatican. It was a Vatican that preferred the poor getting their reward in heaven than on earth.
Theologians have used the concept of accommodation to explain how the organised churches drop those parts of their doctrine that are a threat to the established social order, so as to facilitate their acceptance within society. What I am suggesting is that the Christian churches long ago won acceptance by incorporating into their doctrines an acceptance of the old religion of power and privilege. The position of the rich and powerful in society was sanctioned by God. In England this new God had many of the characteristics of the old pagan Gods such as Odin and Thor. This new Christian God sanctified wars of conquest much like the deities of old. One of the first Saxon Saints was St. Oswald a warlord and king who was killed by a pagan adversary. Many of the new evangelical churches have so far accommodated to contemporary society in that they preach a doctrine of business success rather than one of compassion. Even the new Archbishop of Canterbury has instituted a reform programme to make the church more business minded. The culture of business targeting supplementing the existing practice welfare practices
Parish church in Sankt Oswald ob Eibiswald ( Styria ). Statue of Saint Oswald riding a horse.
There has always been an uneasy alliance in the church between what can be called the Christianity of compassion and the Christianity of power. This compromise is represented by two twentieth century Archbishops, Archbishop Temple the social reformer and Archbishop Cosmo Laing a conservative, who wanted to restore the old power and privileges of the church. The first a reformer who said in a speech, that if it was possible the rich would charge us for the air we breathe, while the second wanted to increase the wealth of the church by reinstating the collection church tithes (a practice that had long fallen into disuse.)
What I am arguing is that the practice of accommodation has led to the churches accepting, all be it implicitly many of the characteristics of the old pagan religions into their Christian practice. Is not the God of George Bush and Tony Blair who sanctioned the war of Iraq more like Zeus than Christ? The Christ who had an abhorrence of violence, is replaced by one who advocated turning the cheek has been replaced by a Zeus like Christ who hurls thunderbolts to destroy his enemies. In this accommodating church it easy for a cabinet minister to find an accommodating priest who will be accepting of the most inhumane of policy decisions. The old religion of power and privilege is very alive in today’s Christian church.