Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis; Times change, and we change with them.
The “Black Lives Matter” debate, sparked (to be more accurate, rekindled) by the dreadful death of George Floyd in the USA, and the interlinked debate on slavery (dramatised by the tearing down of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol), should cause us to reflect on two counts.
Firstly, we react with much greater emotion to what happens to one identifiable individual than when larger numbers are involved. 6,000,000 murdered in the Holocaust is beyond comprehension; it became all too real, however, when my wife Lynda emerged tearfully from the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam saying “she looked just like I did at her age”, or when I consecrated the tombstone bearing the names of two sets of parents of the deceased: his birth parents, and the neighbours to whom they entrusted him when they were despatched to their deaths in Auschwitz.
Secondly, we need constantly not to re-write, but to re-evaluate, history. Too often, we teach the history of the British empire as a noble mission to bring our civilisation to people we perceived as savages, while conveniently forgetting the bestiality and exploitation which accompanied it.
The key point is that people, countries and institutions are not set in stone; they evolve over time. And they have to be seen from that perspective.
One of the best examples of this is the Old Testament. Jewish fundamentalists assert that this is a work of perfection, handed down on tablets of stone by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Those of us of a more rational cast of mind point out politely that this assertion is a bit tricky when those tablets describe Moses’ death some considerable time thereafter!
The best way of viewing the Old Testament (which was clearly, like the works of Homer, the eventual reduction to writing of a bardic tradition of oral recitation) is not as a work of perfection handed down by God, but rather as a divinely inspired work which was the first monotheistic tract, the first attempt at ethics (with the Ten Commandments) and the first story of nation-building. That some laws now seem to us wrong (eg the prohibition on homosexual conduct) does not detract from the value of this first attempt.
It's worth quoting part of what Woking People of Faith said to mark the tenth anniversary of “9-11”:
“As People of Faith, we assert that the hallmarks of true faith are love for God and love for one another. This shows itself in justice, generosity, self-sacrifice, compassion, the valuing of all life and active seeking after the transcendent. These ethical values unite us.
We acknowledge that religions developed historically within societies which themselves changed over time, and continue to do so. In the course of that process events have been instigated in the name of religion which cause us all to feel shame.”
That’s our historical re-evaluation. I hope each of you who reads this is pondering yours.
Philip Goldenberg, member of the Jewish faith
Date: Monday 27th July 2020