David Cameron should turn to Jesus’ teaching on divorce
The riots that torched England’s cities last week came just over a month before the US remembers the 10th anniversary of 9/11. And I fear they will become for David Cameron what that fateful date became for George W. Bush: a defining moment with terrible consequences.
Bush began his presidential career as a genial centre-right Texan able to hold the reactionary racketeers of his party at bay. But after 9/11 he became a war-monger; the attack on the twin towers awakened something terrible and unleashed the full force of American military hell.
Cameron’s response to the riots looks to be subtler. But no less toxic. And no less extreme.
It’s subtler because there won’t be any bombs dropped or armies deployed. But where Islamic extremism gave Bush an enemy, so the ‘scum’ of our cities’ underclass have given Cameron his. Already the normal systems of criminal justice have been bypassed as suspect’s families face eviction and further cuts to their state benefits. Now Cameron’s promise to ‘fight back’ has been followed by a commission to ‘fix Britain’. Expect nothing less than the condemnation of single-parent families, absent fathers, moral decline, and – following David Starkey’s poisonous Powell-esque performance on Newsnight last week – immigration.
Make no mistake: Britain is about to lurch Right.
All this talk of family breakdown has led me to reflect on Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew’s gospel. Moses permitted divorce, said Jesus, because people’s hearts were hard. I’m telling you, he continued, that it’s not on! (Matt 19:1-12)
Sounds like Cameron’s Conservatives have a bosom buddy here, right?
But divorce was about power, that elusive unholy grail that blinded Bush and risks captivating Cameron. Power could solve our problems, we say – a tendency both for Left and Right. But just as giving men the power to divorce their wives – like tycoons trading in cars for newer models – is to place power in the wrong hands, so curtailing their power, as Jesus teaching did, is to place power in the hands of the powerless, by protecting their rights.
Jesus’ ethic is tougher than Moses’ because Moses gave power to the powerful. Jesus gave power to the weak.
The divorce question occurs in a section of Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem for the last time and is taking on those who placed their faith in the Law of Moses. The next question comes from a young, rich man who wants to know how to inherit the life of the age to come. He’s very chuffed to report that he’s kept Moses’ Law. So Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. A response about which the young guy is not so chuffed. Keeping the Law is one thing; giving up his wealth, the source of his power is quite another.
The champions of Moses’ Law were the Pharisees and the Sadducees, of whom Jesus had earlier warned his disciples, saying ‘Beware their yeast!’ He’d been challenging the deep divisions in Jewish society – of a culture in which some were ‘in’ and some were ‘out’, a few were okay, but most were not – and this was his summary. The poison of the Pharisees and Sadducees is subtly working its way through society; beware their yeast!
The Pharisees and the Sadducees believed they could ‘fix’ their society through imposing Moses’ Law, the Sadducees from their imposing Temple in Jerusalem and the Pharisees from their moralising tours of the regions. But both groups were blinded by power and privilege. So in Matt 23:13-26 Jesus erupts into his most virulent tirade against their religious oppression. Woe to you, he repeatedly calls, you whitewashed tombs, you hypocrites! You make yourselves look good on the outside but inside you are full of decay. Woe to you who can tick yes to all social and religious niceties but neglect the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You have strained out the gnats but have swallowed a camel!
This idiosyncratic straining is happening right now here in Britain. In the words of Umair Haque, writing in the Harvard Business Review, ‘Some kinds of violence are more punishable than others. Blow up the financial system? Here’s a state-subsidized bonus. Steal a video game? You’re toast.’
I have no intention of making light of these riots, and they definitely reveal some deep-seated problems with our society. But they are not the only act of extreme social vandalism we have suffered in recent years. Just as Bush’s narrative of the War on Terror masked the camel of his country’s military oppression so Big Dave’s Big Society is being used to mask the camel of our country’s gross inequality. In London right now the richest 10% are 273 times better off than the poorest 10%. And though some of those rich have smashed up way more than a few shops, they have got away with little more than a slapped wrist.
But it’s the not just the shocking injustice of that inequality that we must challenge. It’s the narrative that sustains it. It’s a narrative that targets the poorest and the most vulnerable and says ‘you’re the real problem here; if it wasn’t for you we’d be ok.’ And that narrative finds its footing as a moral attack. It’s generally not very acceptable to bash people for being poor. But if being poor leads you to a different lifestyle, perhaps even to make some very poor choices, well then you’re in for it! The morality police will be out in their well-dressed force to ensure you know just how wrong you are. And if they can pull it off, to use all their considerable power to compel you to change.
When the powerful start finding ‘sinners’ to blame, you know it’s gonna get ugly. Cos when society is broken, the Sadducees and Pharisees are always a comin’.
Beware their yeast!