Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Saint and the Prophet

"If you come here as a simple tourist," Quercy said, "France welcomes you. We have, as you well know, a beautiful country, good food, good wine, and pretty girls. They are all at your disposal-for you, no doubt, have plenty of those good American dollars which France so badly needs.
But as the Saint-that would be altogether different."

"Monsieur the Inspector is, perhaps, anti-clerical?" Simon suggested gravely.

"I refer, Monsieur, to the nom de guerre under which you are so widely known. I have not, it is true, been informed of any charges pending against you anywhere, nor have the police of any other country requested me to arrest you for extradition; but I have read about your exploits. Your motives are popularly believed to be idealistic, in a peculiar way. That is not for me to judge. I only tell you that we want none of them here."
"What, no ideals-in the Palais de Justice?"

Quercy sighed.

(The Saint in Europe)

I've been re-reading some of the Saint books, a mixture of whodunit, adventure story, and crime thriller, and they have a particular trope which also features strongly in various TV adventure shows, the lone adventurer (perhaps working for a secret organisation) who is outside the regular processes of law, and steps in to deal with cases that the law cannot touch, and provide justice. They are also great fun, and pretty well written.

The private detective, of course, is a model for this. Acting to detect crime, but also acting in cases where no legal crime has been committed. Sherlock Holmes, on a number of occasions, breaks the law in order to ensure that justice prevails. On one occasion, he actually has Watson decided as a "true Englishman" on an individuals crimes, crimes which would be subject to legal penalties, but which are in fact more self-defense. Agatha Christie in her book "And Then There Were None", also has an individual decide to lure 10 individuals to a remote island where they will die; they have all committed what could be considered crimes, but these were outside of the scope of the law, or the law had acted unjustly and against their victims.

On Television, the list of shows is countless. Man in a Suitcase. Kung Fu. Knight Rider. The Champions. Department S. Shoestring. The Professionals. Charlie's Angels. Cat's Eyes. The Persuaders. And of course, The Saint.

The train thundered south, perfected machinery roaring on its unswerving lines through a world of logic and materialism forged into wheels. And in one compartment of it Bruce Voyson sat mute, clutched in an eerie spell that drove like a clammy wind through the logic on which he had based his life.

"Romantic, wasn't it?" went on that incredible voice. "But the law has so many loopholes. Before it can hang you for murder you've got to beat your victim's brains out with a club. And yet you are a murderer, aren't you? Just a few minutes ago, a friend of ours would have committed suicide on your account if I hadn't spotted him in the nick of time. For all I know, others may have done the same thing already. Certainly some of your victims will. And while that's going on, you're on your way to Batavia to enjoy at least two million dollars of their money-two million which would do a little towards helping them to a fresh start. And all those dollars would be available for the receivers if you met with an unfortunate accident. There doesn't seem to be any obvious reason why you should go on living, does there?"

(The Saint in Europe)

Why are these shows so popular? Part of the reason is surely that we live in a society which sees people evade justice, perhaps because lawyers decide the evidence is not good enough for a prosecution, perhaps because of vested interests, or perhaps they get an absurdly lenient sentence with respect to others who have been sent to prison.

The law can appear arbitrary, and seem to favour some people more than others. I think most people can point to at least one case where they think the law has not been applied rightly. Or the law can even be an unjust law, which appears to have political motivation. I can think of at least two changes in Jersey which reflect this.

So the heroic story of the lone individual righting wrongs, perhaps with special powers, perhaps not, and sometimes even working within the police as a maverick yet bringing people to justice - Monk, Morse, Columbo, Bergerac - is a very popular one.

Is this because of a kind of wish fulfillment, when we would like to tackle cases of injustice, and we can enjoy a vicarious experience, and perhaps imagine ourselves in the role of hero? There is always that possibility, but I don't think that's the whole truth.

If we look even further back, we find the tradition in the Greek legends - Perseus, Jason, Theseus etc - the lone hero, battling against the odds to bring a kind of justice to the world, to fight against evil.

It is surely popular because we can all identify with cases where evil seems to go unpunished, where the criminal gets away without paying for his crimes, and the victims are left to face the pain of a legal system which, in their eyes, has let them down. If there is wish fulfillment present in these stories, it is because we need heroes, we need someone to take a stand against injustice.

But there's another class of people who also take a stand against injustice, and it is a very early one. There is a mistaken popular notion that prophecy has something to do with prediction, but in essence that's not what it is about. The Hebrew word translated as "prophet" could equally well be translated as "spokesperson". The prophets are those who speak for God, and they speak against injustice. In Israelite society, after the establishment of the monarchy - by popular demand, despite the warnings of the prophet Samuel:

"This is how your king will treat you," Samuel explained. "He will make soldiers of your sons; some of them will serve in his war chariots, others in his cavalry, and others will run before his chariots. He will make some of them officers in charge of a thousand men, and others in charge of fifty men. Your sons will have to plow his fields, harvest his crops, and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. Your daughters will have to make perfumes for him and work as his cooks and his bakers. He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his officials. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your grapes for his court officers and other officials. He will take your servants and your best cattle and donkeys, and make them work for him. He will take a tenth of your flocks. And you yourselves will become his slaves. When that time comes, you will complain bitterly because of your king, whom you yourselves chose, but the LORD will not listen to your complaints." The people paid no attention to Samuel, but said, "No! We want a king, so that we will be like other nations, with our own king to rule us and to lead us out to war and to fight our battles."
(1 Samuel 8:11-20)

So the prophet calls the priest, the King, and the rich members of society to account time and again. They "speak truth to power", telling out what is unjust, even if it is not always illegal.

In a well known story, King David becomes smitten with Bathsheba, and learns that she is married to Uriah, the Hittite. He sleeps with her, and she becomes pregnant. Then he tries various means to get Uriah back from the battlefield to sleep with Bathsheba, to conceal his crime, including getting him drunk. When that fails he sends Uriah back to his commanding officer, Joab, with written orders to Joab to put him to death in a way that makes it seem like a casualty of war. Uriah is deliberately sent into the front line, to ensure he will die, which he does. Uriah is killed "in battle".

Nothing in the death of Uriah is strictly illegal. He is a soldier, and soldiers can be placed where commanding officers think fit. If they die, it is a chance of war. But it is a grave injustice, nonetheless, and the story is extraordinary, because no other literature of the surrounding societies in the Middle East has anything critical of its rulers. Here is a story of the adultery and then the effective murder of a rival in love by a king, and it in no way excuses the king.

For now comes the Prophet Nathan, who tells David a story.

The LORD sent the prophet Nathan to David. Nathan went to him and said, "There were two men who lived in the same town; one was rich and the other poor. The rich man had many cattle and sheep, while the poor man had only one lamb, which he had bought. He took care of it, and it grew up in his home with his children. He would feed it some of his own food, let it drink from his cup, and hold it in his lap. The lamb was like a daughter to him. One day a visitor arrived at the rich man's home. The rich man didn't want to kill one of his own animals to fix a meal for him; instead, he took the poor man's lamb and prepared a meal for his guest." David became very angry at the rich man and said, "I swear by the living LORD that the man who did this ought to die! For having done such a cruel thing, he must pay back four times as much as he took." "You are that man," Nathan said to David. "And this is what the LORD God of Israel says: 'I made you king of Israel and rescued you from Saul. I gave you his kingdom and his wives; I made you king over Israel and Judah. If this had not been enough, I would have given you twice as much. Why, then, have you disobeyed my commands? Why did you do this evil thing? You had Uriah killed in battle; you let the Ammonites kill him, and then you took his wife! Now, in every generation some of your descendants will die a violent death because you have disobeyed me and have taken Uriah's wife. I swear to you that I will cause someone from your own family to bring trouble on you. You will see it when I take your wives from you and give them to another man; and he will have intercourse with them in broad daylight. You sinned in secret, but I will make this happen in broad daylight for all Israel to see.' "
(2 Samuel 12:1-12)

Nathan confronts David, and shows him the injustice. And he is not alone. Elsewhere throughout the Old Testament, the prophets speak out against injustice, and warn the people, be they rulers or ordinary people, that justice will come one day, and their acts will be exposed.

The prophet is not often listened too at the time, is often derided, pilloried, but eventually is seen in hindsight to have been correct. What matters to them is not their own ego, but the issue at hand: justice. I think we still need that today as much as ever.

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