Monday, 8 February 2010

Ten Commandments

"It seems obvious that our country would be better off if we followed the Ten Commandments." (Ann Widdecombe)

I watched Moses and the Law, part of Channel 4's ongoing series The Bible: A History, with Ann Widdecombe last night.

The more I watched, the more I became incredulous at both the style of presentation, and this obviously clever woman who was simply not prepared to countenance anything that she disagreed with, or even listen to opposing points of view. She simply waited until they had given their replies to her questions, and then restated her own position. I suppose that is why she is a politician, and not a philosopher, because it was the kind of dialogue you might expect her to give with an encounter with Jeremy Paxman, but it did not sit well with this kind of programme.

There were a number of encounters in which she did not always come off best - with a Jewish scholar, an Old Testament scholar, and people like Stephen Fry. On all these occasions, her solution was to supplement the conversation with a "direct to camera" monologue in which she stated how wrong they were.

"We've departed from the law of Moses," , she said, and stated categorically that Moses had received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and written the whole first five books of the Bible. When the Old Testament scholar explained that this didn't quite fit with archaeology, because there was no single trace of the numbers involved in either Egyptian records, or the archaeology of the promised land around Jericho, Ann Widdecombe does not attempt to answer this, but simply states: "Well I have to say that smacks to me of 'Let's disregard the whole of the Old Testament because it talks about God" . She never even gets as far as letting the Old Testament scholar point out the three differing versions of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 5:6-21 and Exodus 34, or explaining why they are different.

She comments: "The Ten Commandments have been massively important is shaping British society and law - 'Thou shalt not steal', 'Thou shalt not kill', 'Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour' - these things are very, very central to our law but to our society as well."

Of course British society and the shape of its Christianity have been massively shaped by Henry VIII's split with Rome, and his patent disregard for the commandment about adultery. His example has been cheerfully followed by aristocrats and monarchs down the ages - one has only to name Charles II, Edward VII, or even our own Prince Charles - as examples. Somehow there always appears to be an exclusion for the upper classes, which I am sure she would be the first to condemn, but it does make her history lesson just a little suspect. As Joy Davidman, in "Smoke on the Mountain" shrewdly observes:

In the feudal days, a half-tamed nobility took whom it wanted when it wanted-and the Church, though insisting that marriage was indissoluble, perforce discovered all manner of loopholes by which a marriage could be declared void.

When it came to "Thou Shalt Not Kill", I thought, given the immediacy of the Chilcot enquiry, she might turn her attention to the vexed question of warfare, or even given her attribution of the commandments to the "shaping of society" to the time a few hundred years ago where people could be hanged for stealing a sheep; a case perhaps of one commandment trumping another. As she had voted for war in Iraq, this might have been interesting, and we may even have had a glimpse of just war theory, as to how "Thou Shalt Not Murder" can be used to let in all kinds of nasty practices, such as the Israelites slaughter of the indigenous peoples of their "promised land".

Alas, she turned her guns on the far easier target of euthanasia, although even there she offered little in the way of ethical discourse. Unlike Rowan Williams, who has made a very good case against legalising "mercy killing", all she did was to restate and state again and again that the commandment said "Thou shalt not kill", and that should be the final word on the matter, and it was not obeying the commandment that was letting in the floodgates for legalised murder.

Some of the examples she gave in support of her case for the Ten Commandments were quite bizarre. She took a puritan preacher of the 17th century who had taken a fire as a judgement from God on the sinful practices of his town and presented him as someone who brought his community back to godly, puritan ways. This is disturbing. By colluding in this kind of thinking, how far is she from those people who saw the fire at York Minister as a judgement on the appointment of David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham? Or, closer to today, how far is this thinking from Pat Robertson, the USA TV Evangelist who notoriously said that the destruction on Haiti was a result of a pact with the devil?

When she encounters Stephen Fry, he points out that the Ten Commandments cannot be that wonderful, because they somehow omitted to condemn slavery, and left that justifiably both within Judaism and Christianity. She never really answers this criticism, but just goes on to press him with the question "Don't you think they are good precepts for living", and Fry counters by saying that virtually all of them are moral truisms, and found in philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle, or in Buddhism. She just ignore this and goes on repeating her question until the usually affable Fry finally snaps, because she simply won't listen to the criticisms he is stating mildly, and tears into her saying they are responsible for centuries of suffering and persecution.

Fry might have added that the commandment against "covetousness" mentioned not "coveting your neighbours wife" but not "coveting your neighbours husband" because women were simply chattels, property, and hence enter the commandments alongside other property. To say that this is somehow time bound, part of the culture of the day, begs the question: how do you judge what can be discarded and can is not? Ann Widdecombe never really addresses this question, because it would expose a fatal weakness in her position that the commandments are for all time.

Curiously, while concentrating on other commandments, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, nor any likeness of anything"  gets very little mention. If she had been watching Diarmaid MacCulloch's excellent nuanced account of "A History of Christianity", she would have seen the Reformers such as Zwingli and Calvin use this to justify the destruction of all the statues so beloved of her own Catholic faith, along with wall paintings, and stained glass windows". They took this commandment very seriously. Again if she wishes to sideline this, because of her own Church tradition, she should explain how the Puritans, in her opinion, got it wrong.

Instead she comments "perhaps we could do with a bit more Puritanism", and never even comes to terms with the severity of this kind of Puritanism, that quite happily went on a rampage of destruction, and even tried to abolish Christmas. She does acknowledge that all is not sweetness and light, that "nowadays Puritan is a dirty word", but by just looking at its strengths and never at its failings, she never really explains to the viewer as Diarmaid MacCulloch does, why it became a byword for a detestable killjoy Christianity.

Joy Davidman, in her "Smoke on the Mountain" also discusses the Ten Commandments but her presentation is in startling contrast to Ann Widdecombe's fanatical diatribe. One of the comments that Davidman - a Christian and a Jew - makes in her interpretation of the second commandment is something that is particularly pertinent to Christians, and one wishes Ann Widdecombe would reflect on it:

There can hardly be a more evil way of taking God's name in vain than this way of presuming to speak in it. For here is spiritual pride, the ultimate sin, in action-the sin of believing in one's own righteousness. The true prophet says humbly, "To me, a sinful man, God spoke." But the scribes and Pharisees declare, "When we speak, God agrees." They feel no need of a special revelation, for they are always, in their own view, infallible. It is this self-righteousness of the pious that most breeds atheism, by inspiring all decent ordinary men with loathing of the enormous lie.


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