Saturday, 28 April 2012

Brain Damage

Midnight has come and gone and the rest of the night will, hopefully, be quiet. Most of the preparation for tomorrow’s day shift has been done, I’ve just done my round and all the children are now comfortable and sleeping. The next hours will now be spent with the struggle to stay awake, another couple of rounds, reacting if some of the monitoring equipment should sound an alarm before the final round begins at around five thirty, making the last preparations for the morning, handing over to the day shift and then, finally, going home to sleep shortly after eight o’clock.

The last night shift before beginning two and a half weeks holiday. The last night shift of many – this month and in the past couple of months. I’ve written about night nursing before here. It’s part of the job and it does have some advantages, despite all the downsides. The larger part of what I’ve posted here in the past two years has been written in those quiet hours when my patients have been quiet as a personal antidote to the basic diurnal instinct of my body to use the darkness for sleep.

We have five children here at the moment – all of them seriously, chronically ill. Two of them are on respirators at the moment, including Jenny. I’ve written about her a couple of times before (here and here). Jenny is in good form at the moment. Her basic condition remains the same (deaf, facial paralysis, inability to swallow, etc.) but she is free of the respirator for most of the daytime, is soaking up sign-language like a sponge (much more quickly than most of us can learn it) and refuses to regard herself – or behave – as anything other than the intelligent, lively, fun-loving four year old which she is. She generally sleeps the night through and when she awakes (like nearly all kids of her age, she usually wakes quite early) is quite happy to remain in her bed, playing with her Nintendo until the day shift arrives and she can enthusiastically throw herself into a new day.

There’s an alarm. Lisa has problems. Too much phlegm. A bit of suction and her bronchia and lungs are free again; her blood-oxygen level back to normal. Lisa has been having a lot of problems in the past couple of months.

Lisa will be twelve in a few weeks and I have known her for a long, long time – over ten years now. On the day before her first birthday she drowned. Having been pulled out of the water, a doctor spent forty minutes working on her before he succeeded in getting her heart going again. Forty minutes clinically dead. More than long enough, unfortunately, for Lisa’s brain to be severely, irrevocably damaged by lack of oxygen. Since then she has been in a Persistent Vegetative State (PVS).

I’ve been working with people diagnosed as being in a PVS for around eleven years, on and off. Nearly all of them are “victims” of the wonderful progress medicine has made in the past half century – a progress which is still a long way from an impossible perfection. What do you do when you pull a lifeless person out of the water? Everything you possibly can to bring them back to life, of course. Heart massage, defibrillation, cardiac adrenalin injection; and if it doesn’t work the first time you keep trying, increasingly desperate, until something works or you finally give up.

In retrospect – and everything is easy in retrospect – you can argue that they should have given up on Lisa earlier. I’m not in a position to make any kind of judgement in her case; I wasn’t there. Sometimes people can be brought back, with moderate abiding damage, or no lasting damage at all. And which one of us can condemn a team which was led by that fundamental human instinct to struggle for the life of a child to go on trying beyond the limits of what was sensible? In the end, they succeeded – and that success gave rise to a tragedy.

Our brain is continually working, and therefore continually needs energy, energy provided by the chemical reaction between glucose and oxygen; basically burning sugar. So the brain has to be continually supplied with these ingredients and if this supply is interrupted for more than a few minutes, brain cells start to sustain damage and die. At a certain stage, this damage becomes generalised and the results become irrevocable. The problem is that no one can say beforehand just when this stage has been reached.

In Lisa’s case it had been reached. After she had been stabilised, MRI scans showed that large areas of her cerebral cortex (what is often referred to as “grey matter”) had been severely damaged. The cerebral cortex is that part of the brain which, experts agree, plays a key role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language and consciousness. But she was not “brain dead” and her brain stem was functioning fairly well, so that, for example, she was breathing and controlling her body temperature normally. With a tracheotomy tube (largely to facilitate the suction of phlegm and saliva) and a feeding tube, she was able to survive autonomously.

And so she has, for nearly eleven years now. What do we know of her inner world? Very little. While large areas of the brain responsible for her essential self-awareness just aren’t there, even this fact allows us to reach very few conclusions. Developmental neurology tells us that the development of the brain is not complete at birth, but that the final “hard-wiring,” the completion of the building of neuronal pathways and connection networks, goes on until around the end of the third year of life. Though this means that significant portions of Lisa’s brain did not reach a final stage of development, on the other hand it also presents the possibility that her severely damaged brain was still in that pliant form where it could develop alternative pathways and networks (something that would be impossible in an adult brain).

Lisa lives in her own world – most probably a world of an eternal present, without past and memory, hope and future. On some levels she seems to be aware of her surroundings. She likes a quiet and relaxed atmosphere and reacts negatively to stress and turmoil. She may not be rationally processing her environmental perceptions but she does seem to register them on other levels, in other ways. Anyone who starts to work with her learns this very quickly. You do not go into an encounter with Lisa in a tense, stressed, wound-up state. She will sense this immediately and react with stress herself. You have to relax, be calm and self-assured because she is extremely perceptive on an emotional level and will register your mood quickly and – basically – mirror it back to you. Working with her is a bit like a Zen exercise; you have to leave everything else outside, concentrating on her alone, moving into her world of the ever-now, letting the connection between what she’s feeling, and what she’s needing, and what your professional judgement tells you can be done, develop organically, at a level almost beyond thought, moving seamlessly into action which is for her and the situation in which she finds herself inevitable and right.

If you’re lucky. Sometimes nothing works. And, worryingly, such situations have been increasing in frequency recently.

For Lisa is coming up to her twelfth birthday and the first winds of the developmental storm known as puberty have started to blow through her body. It is a storm which is an extremely complex interaction of all sorts of hormones, including hormones produced in the brain. It is also a cascading process, where one development sets lots of others going and where everything is connected to everything else.

Puberty is stressful enough for a normal teenager. For Lisa, whose capacity to deal with stress is minimal, it threatens to be a real horror trip. Living in her eternal now, she has no possibility to rationalise or relativise what’s happening to her – she is completely defenceless in the face of all the hormonal and developmental gales which are starting to blow.

We are aware that she may not survive it.

For we have begun to realise that the damage to her brain may be accelerating, that ever more of it is atrophying. Benzodiazepines (like Valium), which used to help her with seizures and stress when she was younger, aren’t working. The doctors suspect that the relevant receptors in the brain just aren’t there any more. It may well be the case that even morphine won’t work (we haven’t tried it yet). The next thing planned is a CT scan (possibly also MRI) to try to get a picture of just what is going on in her head. Not that it will really make much difference; Lisa’s situation is far beyond almost anything that medicine can do.

After so many years looking after people in a PVS I do not make ethical judgements. Lisa lives and – for as long as she lives – she is a precious human being who needs and will get all the support it is possible to give her. When she can no longer live, she will leave us. I will, hopefully, be able to say that her living was good and her dying good also.

The last night shift is over now. Lisa had a bit of stress, but I was able to help her and she’s peaceful now, her blood oxygen level good, her pulse around eighty beats per minute, her muscle tone fairly relaxed (for her, anyway; one of the results of her condition is a generally sharply increased muscle tone – spasticity). She’s probably asleep. It’s not always that easy to tell as her eyelid reflexes don’t work; Lisa sleeps with her eyes open.

I do it with my eyes closed. During the daytime when I work nights. For the next couple of weeks I can live like a normal human being. Whatever normal is.

Pictures retrieved from:

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Dismantling Vatican II

Confessions of an Ex-Priest (2)

In a piece I published here about a year ago, Confessions of an Ex-Priest (1), I attempted to formulate my complex relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in relation to my own personal history. I gave that post a number, because I confidently expected to come back to the subject before long. In the event, it has taken me a year to get around to this (though I have touched on other aspects regarding God, Christianity and religious belief in the interim).

Towards the end of that post I wrote about a tendency I perceive within the Catholic Church since the end of the 70s “away from openness, dialogue and courage.” I want to come back to this now.

Around fifty years ago, a new Zeitgeist seemed to be sweeping across the world. Its roots were many and complex, going back to the end of World War II and the bi-polar post-war settlement, but also involving a growth of prosperity, the beginning of the dismantling of political colonialism, the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation, the growth of the Youth Culture, the spread of TV, the Kennedy-Camelot, the emergence of rock and roll and the Beatles. It all led to an atmosphere, almost impossible to describe, but immediately recognisable to all of us – the Sixties.

“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.”

Pope John XXIII
Bob Dylan wrote these words in October 1963. Amazingly, the one group of the older generation who had seemed to have heard the message he was preaching were the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. Under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, who declared that it was time to open the windows of the church and let in some fresh air, they had gathered in Council in the Vatican from 1962 onwards, and were in the process of thoroughly shaking up a worldwide institution which had seemed completely impervious to change for hundreds of years.

It was an amazing phenomenon. In the first session of the Council the bishops basically threw out all the careful plans which had been made by the professional Vatican bureaucrats – designed to produce a lot of sonorous discussions resulting in practically no real change whatsoever – and made it quite clear that everything was on the agenda. In an unparalleled atmosphere of courage and hope, they proceeded to initiate a vast programme of reform, from the liturgy to the structures of church government and the making of decisions.

But beyond all of this was something more; something essential, something intangible. If I were still a believer, I would describe it as a sense of the movement of the Holy Spirit; a creative wind tossing ossified, petrified structures up into the air, letting wonderful new patterns form, like the shaking of a kaleidoscope. It is what has been called “the Spirit of the Council” ever since.

It is something which is now being systematically stifled and liquidated by the official organs of the Catholic Church. This process began quietly and tentatively soon after the Council ended, grew in strength and confidence during the pontificate of John Paul II, and has become comprehensive during the reign of Benedict XVI.

The official line taken by the conservative neo-traditionalists who are now in firm control of nearly all the positions of power in the Church is that many of the changes implemented in the wake of the council were never formally approved and nearly all of the changes still demanded by many Catholics were never intended by the fathers of the Council. They go on to argue that Vatican II was a purely “pastoral” council and never understood itself as in any way having a mandate to deliberate and make decisions on “issues of doctrine.”

Such a line of argument is disingenuous, to say the least. It is true that the Council did not concern itself with such doctrinal issues as the internal relations between the three persons of the Trinity, the understanding of the two natures – human and divine – in the person of Christ, or the relationship between faith and good works in the economy of salvation. But Vatican II did have a very specific doctrinal aspect, one that was as far-reaching as it was practical. For the main theme of the Council was the Church; and it put forward a theological vision of the Church which was open, hopeful, tolerant and visionary – and one with many practical consequences.

I’m not going to go into further theological specifics here – though I am sure, even as a former believer, that I can back up any of my analysis with sound (orthodox) Catholic theological argument (I did, after all, spend quite a number of years studying theology). Suffice it to say that the ideas presented in Lumen Gentium, the Constitution on the Church which was the first formal document produced by the Council – concepts such as that of the Church as the People of God, collegiality, the common priesthood of the faithful (laity), as well as what it has to say about non-Catholic Christians and non-believers – have vast theological consequences, as well as organisational ones.

And this is where the nub of the problem lies. The teaching of Lumen Gentium, even taken on its own, but particularly when read together with Gaudium et Spes (the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World) in the context of the open, hopeful, positive “Spirit of the Council,” is incompatible with an exclusivist, top-down, authoritarian model of power and unity in the Church. This is something which the majority of committed Catholics recognised immediately. The first area in which it was acted on was that of liturgy. Following the lead of the Council, which removed the requirement for the mass to be celebrated in Latin and emphasised a broader, richer view of the Eucharist beyond the sacrificial, the laity (by and large) eagerly empowered themselves in a continuing, creative, living celebration of liturgy, making it rich and meaningful in hundreds of different cultural situations.

I will admit that in some of these processes there were incidents where enthusiasm overcame taste, particularly in the heady early years, where lack of experience with the new liturgical freedom led to some shallow phenomena perhaps best described (misquoting REM) as “shiny happy Christians holding hands.” But, in general, this settled down pretty quickly with most parishes and local church groups finding tasteful, meaningful ways of celebrating liturgy – at least in those church communities where ministers and laity worked on it together.

However the liturgy is only the final expression of a living, vibrant church. And that vibrancy comes from a church where all its members can identify with a church as their church, where they have accepted the teaching of the council that they are the church.

In the end, it comes down to a basic human reality – though not one which the “official” Catholic Church likes to talk open and honestly about – power. This is all the more hypocritical, because the conservative neo-traditionalists show in their every action that this, in fact, is what they are really concerned about. The message of the Council was that the Church was not the administrative organisation of priests, bishops and pope, organised from the top down in Rome – the Church was the people of God, all its members. The theological and practical consequences which flowed from this renewed vision are huge. Following it, the administration – as an instrument of organisation and unification – is a servant of the wider church. Within this context, practical questions concerning the way ministry is organised, for example, would be solved according to the needs of this wider church – and this implies a very different way of thinking about married priests, or women priests. It gives rise to new ways of understanding how power should be exercised in the church, what say the laity should have in practical decisions, how bishops are elected, etc., etc.

But all of this involves embracing a basic faith in the church, defined as all its members. I would even go farther and suggest that it involves embracing a basic faith in the presence of God, through the Holy Spirit, guiding the church.

In retrospect, it was all too good to be true. It would have meant an exclusivist elite accepting a more generous, inclusive reality and giving up power, privilege and the assurance that they were always right. It was never going to happen.

Back in the late sixties and the seventies, however, many believed that it would. Disorganised, knocked off balance by the fresh wind of the Spirit of the Council, the traditionalist conservatives took cover. The Zeitgeist was against them. But even in the sixties they saw fresh signs of hope. The Council had left the vexed question of artificial contraception to the new pope, Paul VI, generally seen as a sympathiser with moderate reform. A theological commission reported in favour of the Church allowing contraception for Catholics. But Paul lost his nerve in the face of what he saw as a too drastic change in the traditional teaching of the Church and reaffirmed the ban on contraception with Humanae Vitae in 1968.

However, it was ten years later that the atmosphere definitively changed in favour of the traditionalists. The election of Karol Wojtyla as John Paul II put a man at the helm of the Catholic Church whose understanding of the way things should be organised was deeply influenced by his Polish experience. The Catholic Church in Poland formed a counter-culture to a totalitarian communist regime. In such a situation, a diversity of views, a plurality of practices, makes you vulnerable. The Catholic Church in Poland remained strong because it presented an absolutely united front; in this manner it could protect itself. He transferred this model – and the authoritarian position which it inferred – to the global Church. There was little room, in Wojtyla’s world-view, for honest dissent in charity, for unity in diversity. Despite his charismatic, pop-star personality, he was fundamentally a traditionalist. Those who questioned, those who thought differently, would be brought into line. The old, secure discipline had been lost. It was time to bring it back.

Many of us gave up and got out. And, in doing so, we inevitably strengthened the position of a growing group of new traditionalists, who saw a life in the church as a possibility for a life governed by certainties, for a life in a secure enclave, undisturbed by the complexity of real life where things aren’t always black and white and there aren’t always clear answers to every question. A security made even easier by the identification of the enemy within; the liberals, those who challenged the newly-embraced old certainties. Those teaching – oh, how ghastly! – heresy.

John Paul II was pope for over twenty six years. This meant that practically all the cardinals voting for his successor had been appointed by him. It was no real surprise, then, when they elected Josef Ratzinger, the man who had been the Vatican’s orthodoxy watchdog for over twenty years.

Seven years of Benedict XVI have seen the closing of the last of the windows opened by John XXIII, half a century ago. It is reported that his greatest wish before his death is the reconciliation of the Society of Saint Pius X, a right-wing group which explicitly rejects the reforms of Vatican II, with Rome. Although his pontificate has been marked by continual revelations of sexual abuse of children by priests and brothers in many countries, going back far longer than fifty years, this has not led to any real heart-searching, or deep self-questioning by the conservative traditionalists who are now once more firmly in control of the Catholic Church. That Church structures, dominated by male authoritarianism, repression, secrecy, unquestioned privilege and unquestioning obedience, might have something to do with the whole ghastly phenomenon is not even considered.

The last vestiges of the “Spirit of the Council” are now being dealt with. Dissenting theologians are being silenced – this link tells of some of them. For English-speaking countries, a new translation of the Roman Missal (the basic official textbook for all major liturgy) has been mandatory for a few months now. From what I have seen of it (and read and heard about it), it seems to be deliberately obscurant, stilted, and, at times, downright incomprehensible. Getting the first (and last) areas where openness and innovation ruled back under control, or simply Rome fiddling while the world burns?

Does it matter, anyway? As someone who has also trained as a historian, I sometimes wonder whether the conservatives’ analysis may not be more correct in the long term. Perhaps that wonderful outburst of chaotic creativity, of rapprochement with modernity, of a vision of the church inspired by fearlessness, hope, and faith in the Resurrection unleashed by the Council was simply a momentary aberration in the millennial-long history of an organisation which regards everything not under its direct control with deep suspicion. Perhaps the pre-conciliar view of humanity as deeply sinful, untrustworthy, in need of constant guidance and ruling by an infallible spiritual leadership, a humanity whose unworthiness in the face of a stern but loving God could only be propitiated by the sacrifice of His Only Son on the cross, is the more enduring Catholic vision. Maybe that vision of freedom, of liberation, of the humiliation of the powerful and the exaltation of the lowly, of trust, of love – that vision inspired by a Jesus whose most frequent greeting was, “Fear not!” – which inspired me in my youth to think I could give my life to the church, was nothing more than hippy-dippy sixties thinking.

If so, then I am well out of it. Still, though I no longer believe in God, and though my ideals have taken more than a few knocks in the course of my life, I refuse to abandon a more generous vision in favour of a more niggardly one – though the grounds on which I accept it are now different, freely chosen ones. But that is another story. That the Catholic Church, or, rather, those who lead it and exercise power within it, prefer a message dominated by pessimism, fear, and control, rather than one inspired by openness, trust, and hope seems to me to show a weakness of faith in the life and message of the man/God they claim as their foundation and inspiration.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Günter Grass and Israel

Last week, the German Nobel Literature Prize Winner, Günter Grass, published what he described as a poem, “Was gesagt werden muss [What must be said],” (you can read it here) in which he criticises the right claimed by Israel to carry out a nuclear first strike, should it feel the threat posed by Iran make this necessary, Germany for providing Israel with submarines which could be used as launching platforms for that strike, and the West, more generally, for its hypocrisy regarding the whole subject.

The result has been a storm of controversy, in which Grass has been accused by many of anti-Semitism. The Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, has responded by declaring Grass persona non grata in Israel. But Grass is not without more nuanced defenders, even in Israel.

The issue is made vastly more complex by the fact that Grass is Germany’s most prominent living writer and because of his own personal history. Grass defined himself throughout his whole public life as one of the primary voices of Germany’s conscience with respect to the Third Reich, and the country’s shameful past and its consequences have been his most central literary theme – most famously in his acknowledged masterpiece, The Tin Drum. He has described his work as “writing against forgetting.” He has also been someone who has consistently and publicly identified himself as an intellectual with left-wing sympathies – to such an extent that he publicly campaigned for Willi Brandt in the sixties. He has commented, often controversially, about many issues of German public life; from reunification to Germany’s relations with Poland. It was, therefore, a sensation when he admitted six year ago that he had, as a 17 year old, in autumn 1944, joined the Waffen SS. This was a biographical fact he had managed to conceal for over sixty years.

Declared intellectuals, as a group in any country, are not particularly noted for charitable, forgiving and understanding dealings with one another, and the German intelligentsia has quite a reputation for being particularly vicious with each other. It was no surprise then when his confession about his past led to widespread excoriation, particularly from many who had previously experienced the caustic character of comments about them by Grass. In a more detached way, the influence of his own guilt and embarrassment about his past provides a fascinating new aspect in an analysis of the roots of his literary and public personality, his writings and his utterances.

What makes any considered comment about his poem so difficult is the fact that it conflates three complex issues, winding them into a ghastly Gordian knot. They are: (i) The person of Günter Grass himself and what he actually wrote, (ii) The question of the extent to which it is acceptable for Germans to criticise Israel, and (iii) The particular question of certain current Israeli policies and actions and the wider issue of anti-Semitism.

(i) Grass and his poem
“The general silence …, which my silence has been subordinated to, … promises punishment as soon as it is broached; the common verdict: "anti-Semitism".”

In his poem, Grass himself predicts that he will be accused of anti-Semitism and this has indeed happened. It is, in my view, not justified – though one of the basic flaws in the piece is his general reference to “Israel,” rather than “particular policies pursued by the present Israeli government,” a weakness which the author himself has admitted to since publication. But, even then, the question remains as to the legitimacy of the automatic equation of any and every criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, a point which I shall take up later.

But Grass’s piece has other major weaknesses. The form he chooses for it is, frankly, a mistake. He himself calls it a “poem” but, apart from the blank verse form he chooses for it, it has little if any poetic characteristics. The very title calls to mind, particularly in the German context where there is a tradition of such things [Stammtisch], a diatribe uttered by an ignorant man, sitting late in the evening with friends in a bar, after the consumption of too much alcohol. He states his entire argument in 382 words, a little more than half of what I have already written here. Though he is normally not a man especially known for succinct pithiness, he seems to have been suddenly afflicted with an extreme fear of the often hasty internet judgement, tl;dr; as a result he fails to do the complexity of the subject justice, something fatal in anything to do with Israel, its history, its present political situation, and its tangled relationship with all its proximate and not so proximate neighbours in the Middle East. It would have been much better for the author – and all who feel moved to comment on his views – if he had expressed them in a longer, more closely argued essay.

Beyond this, given his own biography, it can also be asked whether it was wise of Grass to publish on this subject at all. Even if his membership of the Waffen SS was short, though he was never involved in any of the activities of that sinister organisation which were related to its major role in Hitler’s Final Solution, though he was very young in that chaotic, hopeless last year of the war, it remains a part of his biography which might make him pause to think before publicly taking any position on anything to do with Israel, particularly given the fact that he only admitted it six years ago. Given the sensitive complexity which still permeates the question of how Germans should express their relationship to Israel, it would probably have been better if Grass – a German with an especially ambiguous past – had just this once kept his mouth shut.

(ii) Germany and Israel – guilt, history and responsibility
The philosophy and actions of Nazi Germany with regard to the Jews remain unparalleled in history – all the ghastly aspects of the Shoah – and were one of the factors which led to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. The Federal Republic of Germany was founded a year later and since then has seen itself as having a historic and moral responsibility to support Israel.

Germans and Israelis are bound together in their identities by what the Germans did to the Jews between 1933 and 1945. The question of how they regard their historic responsibility for the Nazi period and particularly the Shoah, remains a central and continually developing theme in the definition of German identity. As the generation involved in the war has largely died, and even those who can even remember it as children are now over 70, new questions arise in the discussion of the nature of this historical responsibility for younger Germans. I remember reading somewhere that the legendary Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, once said that it would be a major mistake for Jews to assign Germans the same kind of personal and historical guilt for the holocaust as Christians assigned to the Jews for nearly two thousand years for the death of Jesus.

I have lived in Germany for more than a quarter of a century now and have been an observer of the difficult and fascinating process of the continuing development of German identity during this period. If there can be one lesson learnt from the current Grass controversy it is that even today, 67 years after the liberation of the concentration camps and the end of the war, it is still difficult to have a “normal” dialogue in Germany regarding the complex themes of Germany, Judaism, the Shoah and Israel. There has been little or no progress since the “Walser-Bubis Debate (1998), the “Jenninger Speech Debate (1988) or the “Historikerstreit (1986-89). It seems that there are many people, in Germany, in Israel and worldwide, who see the eternal shame of German history as denying Germans any right to comment negatively about any aspects of Israeli politics or actions.

If Grass’s poem has any merit, it may be to call attention to precisely this fact. It is, I suspect, the kind of thing which will have to go on recurring, a constant re-examination of the present state of the German “soul” and the relationship between Germans and Jews. It is a process which, I would hope, can finally achieve some kind of positive development.

The past half century has seen much positive development in Germans’ own dealing with their own past, from the convenient “forgetting” of the fifties and early sixties (against which Grass so effectively worked) to serious artistic attempts at honesty and catharsis in films like Der Untergang [Downfall] (2004). I can only hope that this could be mirrored in a more general maturing in the relationship between Germany and Israel, in which honest friendship would also admit respectful and honest criticism when you genuinely feel that your friend is doing something wrong.

(iii) Anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel
There can be no doubt that the ghastly phenomenon of anti-Semitism is alive and well worldwide; one only needs to listen to the lunatic ravings of Iran’s president, Ahmadinejad, to be unpleasantly reminded of this fact. But this does not mean that any criticism of Israel can automatically be labelled as such and unfortunately there is a tendency among certain Israelis and supporters of Israel world-wide to do just this.

I’m not going to even enter the snake-pit of discussion about the origins of the State of Israel, the Palestinian problem, etc. There is enough right and wrong to be shared out all over. It is a fact that Israel exists and, as such, cannot be made not to exist – which means that Israelis have a right to live in peace, within secure borders. It is a fact that the Palestinians exist – which means that they have a right to their own state and that the over sixty-year-old scandal of the refugees must be addressed and solved. But none of this means that either side has an automatic right to do anything they choose to protect what they see as their legitimate interests.

Israel is justly proud of its position as the only genuine, mature democracy in the region. But the basis of any democracy is open discussion. Those who instinctively reject any criticism of particular Israeli policies and actions as anti-Semitic do their own cause a disservice – and this includes Prime Minister Netanyahu, who dismissed Grass’s poem on this basis. If this is the case, then there are a large number of Israelis, who vocally criticise the policies of their government, who must also be seen as anti-Semitic.

To criticise the current Israeli settlement policies, for example, is not necessarily anti-Semitic. Nor is it anti-Semitic to be very worried about and afraid of a possible nuclear conflict in the Middle East. To Israel’s credit is the fact that it has possessed a nuclear-strike capacity for decades and has never used it, being content in the knowledge that its enemies know it and know that Israel will use it – as a last resort (the so called “Samson Option”). But even should Iran actually acquire a nuclear strike capability (and most experts agree that this is not yet the case), the Samson Option would still exist for Israel (particularly given a submarine-based launch capability), though in the slightly modified Mutually Assured Destruction mode. The current (nuclear-hinting) sabre-rattling which the Netanyahu regime is engaged in is dangerous, particularly because it is playing on the fact that the USA is moving into a presidential election campaign. This is a game with too many imponderables, and one false judgement could have dire consequences, not just for the region, but for the whole world.

There is nothing anti-Semitic about that worry.

* * * * *

Even as I finish this piece, reports have appeared that Grass will respond to his critics today in the Suddeutsche Zeitung. His reaction is bellicose, and he compares his banning by Israel to actions by the junta in Burma and the Stasi in East Germany. Obviously he feels deeply hurt and misunderstood. It’s a pity that his reaction – just like his original piece – is not more considered and nuanced.

Sadly, however, it seems that nearly everyone involved in any aspect of this whole question, whether the politics, the actions, or the discussions of these, is far more interested in pouring petrol on the fire rather than putting it out.

Pictures retrieved from:

Friday, 6 April 2012

A Non-Believer's Easter

The Easter Bunny died on the cross for our sins. At the moment of his death he laid an egg, from which all new life came.

I remember hearing a vox pop on German radio a couple of years ago, where people on the street were asked what Easter was about. Although I’ve made the above up, it wouldn’t have been unusual, for the amount of general ignorance about the details of Easter which many of the passers-by interviewed showed was very great.

Easter, as we formally celebrate it, is a Christian feast. During the week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday (Holy Week), Christians remember the passion and death by crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday. It is a moveable feast, its dating being closely related to the dating of the Jewish Passover (for, according to all the New Testament accounts, Jesus was executed during the Passover week) and Easter Sunday is reckoned to be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox[i]

But in the popular celebrations of Easter there is much which has nothing to do with Christianity – a least formally. A lot of the symbolism which is used today in connection with Easter has its origins in basic spring festivals. The egg is a classic symbol for new life, for the burgeoning of nature following general winter dormancy. Although there are connections made in conscious medieval Christian symbolism, the Easter Bunny has his origins in Germanic folklore and is, in fact, originally not a rabbit but a hare [German: Osterhase]. His connection with Easter probably has to do with the peculiar behaviour of the European brown hare in springtime, when this normally timid animal can be seen “dancing” in the fields, chasing and even “boxing” with his fellows – all signs of mating rituals (also giving rise to the saying, “as mad as a March hare”).

The Christian Churches all see the events remembered at Easter as their fundamental basis, their very raison d’être. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul puts it quite clearly:

“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15: 12-19)

It is through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead that God vindicates Jesus, his doings and his message, and the message of the sacrifice of Jesus, God the Son, to God the Father to atone for the sins of humanity and his subsequent resurrection as proof that this sacrifice of atonement has been accepted is the very centre and foundation of all Christian teaching.

There is nothing new about any of this – it is standard, basic Christian doctrine. If you do not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, was crucified and rose (physically – at least in some sense) from the dead, then you have no business calling yourself a Christian. And given this, I wonder how many millions of modern women and men who happily and unthinkingly identify themselves as Christians would state that they honestly and completely believe in the resurrection. Because Paul – and all the Christian Churches – are quite clear about it; it’s not enough to believe that Jesus was an inspired holy man, teaching a beautiful message of love and peace; the litmus test is whether you believe that he was really dead and subsequently physically (in some sense) rose to new life, because that is what the testimonies of the empty tomb are all about.

In my own personal journey – for I was born and raised a Catholic – it was the realisation that I did not, in fact, believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead which led me to stop referring to myself as a Christian, even before I was willing to admit to myself that I did not believe in God either. I still have great admiration for the figure of Jesus, for much of the message he preached, for his integrity, his courage, his gentleness, his insights into life and human nature, his radical message of how we could find a way to live as individuals and communally by following better, more noble ideals than those of competition with and dominance over each other. But none of this makes me a Christian, for I do not believe (have faith) that he was the son of God who died, was buried and on the third day rose from the dead.

All of this said, I do not believe that Easter is irrelevant, or that we should not celebrate it. One of the strengths of Christianity (as of all great religions) is its ability to take the most central human experiences and weave them into a narrative which gives us eternally sense-seeking humans some kinds of answers to the questions and mysteries which we constantly experience in living our lives. From our first emergence into (self-)consciousness hundreds of thousands of years ago up to the last handful or two of decades, our human experience has been existentially and immanently connected with the basic course of nature, the year, the seasons. Winter is that season where our survival, our very existence is acutely threatened – it is that time where it is often extremely difficult to find enough nourishment and shelter from the elements to just continue living. If spring does not come soon we will die. And when the days finally become longer and warmer, when nature finally produces enough new life to ensure that we will not starve, that is surely a reason for celebrating. Moreover, having survived a time where much of the world seemed cold and bare and lifeless, it is natural that our thoughts should turn to the cycle of dying and the birth of new life out of that death.

Although Christians like to think that their story is original, nearly all the memes which are gathered together in the Easter narrative are general human ones which can be found in many religions and philosophies; death and the triumph of life over death, the strength of weakness, the suffering of the righteous and their vindication, the belief that justice is ultimately stronger than human power constellations, the sacrifice of the gentle king for the good of the land and the people, even the incarnate god. What makes Christianity unique is its insistence on the essential historicity of its teaching and its consequent claim to universal validity and truth.

As a non-believer I can still be touched and moved by the powerful drama and deep insights into life and the human condition contained in the Easter story. I can find inspiration in a message which proclaims hope beyond hopelessness, vindication beyond failure, new joy beyond despair. Where I cannot journey with the Christians is their assertion that their narrative is a basically factual statement of a particular, explicit, essential intervention of an all-powerful, all-loving God into history with reality-transforming ontological consequences on a cosmic – and even para-cosmic eternal (beyond all space and time) – level. And, of course, it is precisely this assertion which is the heart of the message for Christians.

I am aware that many believers may see my position as impoverished. If their belief should be true, then they are right. I can remember my own years as a believer (or, more accurately, as one who wanted to believe), I can remember the impression of desolation and emptiness I had when the sacrament was moved to a side-altar, the empty tabernacle door left heart-achingly open, the cross on the altar draped in a purple shroud. I remember the feeling of joy and lightness spreading through a darkened church during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night as the Easter fire is kindled, the Easter candle lit from it and then the light springing from candle to candle in the church, accompanied by the thrice-repeated responsory, Lumen Christi – Deo Gratias. Much of this is, of course, wonderfully staged theatre, (holy) smoke and mirrors, but the feelings induced are none the less real for all that. There is a deep part of us which has a need for, and responds to ritual and solemnity and the only demand I would place on such ritual is that it should be honestly and well done.

But wanting to believe something does not necessarily make it true – even subjectively – and my own journey brought me to the personal realisation that I did not believe. And even if, for the sake of genuinely open discussion, I were to present my position from a Christian point of view, I would put forward the argument that faith is essentially a gift from God and if God, in his infinite wisdom, has not deigned to grant me this gift, then there is little I can do about it except to remain honest in my unbelief. And, perhaps, remain open to the possibility of future change. After all, one thing I do know is that I do not dogmatically cling to any of my convictions, convinced that nothing I think or experience can ever change them; life has given me enough lessons in my own fallibility.

And so I will express my position in the words of one of the greatest Christians, Martin Luther, as he is reported to have said at the Diet of Worms in 1521:

Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir! Amen.
[Here I stand. I can do no otherwise. God help me! Amen]

(… even if I do not believe in God! J)

Happy Easter.

[i] This is a bit of a simplification. Historically, there has been quite some controversy concerning the precise dating of Easter and, even today, the Eastern Orthodox and Western Churches sometimes come up with different dates, as the Eastern Churches still use the Julian calendar for liturgical purposes.

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