27 September 2007

Easter - Christian or pagan?

It has often been claimed in some circles that Christians "stole" Easter from pagans. The claim has been repeated so often that it has become a factoid (a piece of unreliable information believed to be true because of the way it is presented or repeated in print).

I was prompted to write about it because in this month's synchroblog Julie Clawson mentions it in onehandclapping: Rejection, redemption and roots. Since it is not central to the main point of her article (which is very good) I thought it was worth discussing separately.

I first came across this idea in The golden bough by Sir James Frazer, which I read when I was in high school. As the Wikipedia summary puts it:
Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship of, and periodic sacrifice of, a sacred king. This king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the earth, who died at the harvest, and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend is central to almost all of the world's mythologies. The germ for Frazer's thesis was the pre-Roman priest-king at the fane of Nemi, who was ritually murdered by his successor
This implies that the disciples of Jesus, some time between his death and the writing of the gospels, decided to apply this myth to Jesus, and to proclaim him as such a dying-and-rising king. The problem of the argument that Christians "stole" it from pagans, however, is that Frazer claims that it is universal to all religions. So if Frazer's argument is true, they all stole it, or at least all but the first one to come up with it, and it is very difficult to know which that one is.

I don't, at this point, want to discuss the historicity of the resurrection. That the resurrection of Jesus was a historic event is central to the Christian faith, but proving by historical methods that that event took place as described is a different matter. What we can discover using historical methods, however, is what Christians believed at various periods. And what we discover is that very early on Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead, and that this was linked to, and seen as the fulfilment of the Jewish Passover.

As one Easter hymn puts it:
This is the day of resurrection, let us be illumined, O people. Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord. For from death to life and from earth to heaven has Christ our God led us, as we sing the song of victory: Christ is risen from the dead
This may be more familiar to Western Christians in J.M. Neale's paraphrase:

The Day of Resurrection
Earth tell it out abroad
The Passover of gladness
The Passover of God
From death to life eternal
from earth unto the sky
Our Christ has brought us over
With songs of victory.

I've had several debates and even arguments about the topic previously, mainly with fundamentalist Christians who claim to have got the idea from a book called The two Babylons by Alexander Hislop. The first time this happened I could not find Hislop's book, but I checked every historical reference I could find, and found the claim was without foundation. When, some years later, a friend lent me a copy of Hislop's book, I found that Hislop didn't claim it either, at least not in the form that the people who made the claim said he did. They played fast and loose with their own source, never mind any others.

Their argument (which, as I say, went considerably further than Hislop himself did) was based on the word "Easter" itself, and involved the most extraordinary historical distortions and anachronisms, not to mention fanciful etymology, and extraordinary debates about the translation of "Pascha" by "Easter" in Acts 12:4 of the King James English version of the Bible.

Their argument was that since the English word Easter was derived from the name of a pagan goddess, therefore the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ was a pagan one -- which brings us right back to Sir James Frazer's point, and the only conclusion of their argument that I could ever discover was that they were saying the Jesus never rose from the dead because the disciples nicked the story from some pagan source, but not even Hislop claims this.

The fact is, however, that Christians celebrated the resurrection of Christ long before the word "Easter" was used, and the word they used for the celebration was Pascha, which is derived from and linked to the Jewish festival of Passover (as the above hymn shows).

So where did the word "Easter" come from?

It's time for a lesson in Christian missionary history.

When part of Britain was ruled by the Roman empire, Christianity spread there, as it did to the other parts of the Roman empire and beyond. Romano-British Christians evangelised Ireland, and Irish Christians sent missionaries to northern Britain to evangelise there among the Picts. Roman Britain was multi-cultural and multi-religious. There were Christians and a variety of local and Roman cults, and mixtures of them. In the 4th and 5th centuries Germanic "barbarians" were invading the Roman empire from the East, and at the beginning of the 5th century Roman troops were being withdrawn from Britain to help defend Italy against the Visigoths. By 410 the withdrawal was complete, and the British were told that they were on their own. The Emperor wrote a letter to this effect to different cities, as there was no longer any central authority. The "barbarians", Angles and Saxons from the continent, the ancestors of the English, arrived in Britain in increasing numbers. Sometimes they settled peacefully among the British, but at other times they embarked on violent conquest (this was the time of the legendary King Arthur), and by the middle of the 6th century they ruled most of what came to be called England, driving the Romano-British and the Celtic population to the north and west -- Cornwall, Wales and Cumbria.

Christian missionaries then evangelised the English -- Celtic missionaries from Ireland and Scotland in the north, and a Roman mission led by St Augustine of Canterbury in the south, which arrived in 597.

A couple of centuries later the English monastic historian Bede wrote his History of the English Church and people and other works on Christian festivals, about which there had been some contention. Among other things Bede tells us about the origin of the word "Easter". The English word Easter comes from the Anglo-Saxon name for the month of April, which was known as "Eostremonath" in the AngloSaxon tongue, and since Pascha was most often celebrated in Eostremonath, the English Christians began calling it "Easter". Bede surmised that the month was named after a goddess Eostre (nothing to do with "Oestrus", which has another derivation altogether), and there is also no demonstrable connection with "Ishtar". Bede tells us very little about Eostre, and there is nothing about her in earlier or contemporary sources. Bede is the earliest reference.

English missionaries to other places, like Germany, took the term "Easter" with them, and so German Christians called it "Ostern", but the rest of the Christian world called it Pascha, or derivatives thereof. So to claim that Passover/Pascha was "stolen" from pagans because the English called it "Easter" several centuries later is anachronistic nonsense.

Pagans might agree with James Frazer, and say that Christians "stole" the idea of a a dying-and-rising king from pagans, but if they do, perhaps they should stop and ask themselves where they themselves "stole" it from, because Frazer claims that it is universal.

But Christians who accept this factoid as a "fact" would do well to ponder St Paul's words: "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (I Cor 15:14).

25 September 2007

Christianity, paganism and literature (synchroblog)

Christianity and neopaganism - synchroblog

When I have read or participated in electronic discussions on religion in general, and the relation between Christians and neopagans in particular, I have commonly found an expectation of hostility. Christians are expected to be hostile towards neopagans, and often are. Neopagans are expected to be hostile towards Christians, and often are.

Much of the hostility I have seen in electronic discussions arises from ignorance. Christians and neopagans do not so much attack each other as they attack caricatures of each other. And when they really get into the swing of the attack, they sometimes start behaving like the caricatures too. I believe the writings of the Inklings can go a long way towards removing the caricatures.

Some Christians have never heard of neopagans, and wonder what they are, and there is even disagreement about that, so here is a brief description. The word "pagan", as used by Christians, originally meant someone who wasn't a Christian. It was probably derived from Roman military slang, where it meant a civilian as opposed to a soldier, and for Christians it meant someone who had not enlisted, by baptism, in the battle against the evil "Prince of this World".

As a result of this origin, in the early days of Christianity, pagans were not aware of being "pagan", though as time went on some doubtless became aware that Christians called them that. They had many different gods and cults and philosophies, depending on where they lived. But whatever else they worshipped or didn't worship, citizens of the Roman Empire had a universal obligation to participate in the Emperor cult. Christians were awkward in refusing to do so, and this sometimes got them into trouble with the authorities, and there were sporadic persecutions of Christians.

In many of the places where Christianity spread people stopped worshipping their old gods altogether, and became Christians; sometimes this happened because they wanted to do so, sometimes their king or other local ruler became a Christian and then forced all his subjects to do the same. For whatever reason, though, the worship of the old gods ceased.

In the 19th and 20th centuries a movement of secularisation spread through Europe and other parts of the world. Religion ceased to hold a central place in people's thinking, and in some places, the so-called Second World, it was actively suppressed. The Western world had become post-Christian. People who were nonreligious, for whom God meant nothing, often called themselves, and were called by Christians, "pagans". But some people were dissatisfied with a secular worldview, and many were spiritual searchers. Some of these searched in the pre-Christian religions of their countries, and began worshipping gods that had long been neglected. And they came to be called "neopagans", new pagans, to distinguish them from those who had worshipped those gods before the coming of Christianity (who were sometimes called "paleopagans"). These revived pagan religions were not the same as the originals, and had a totally different social base. Many neopagans were eclectic, choosing gods who had never been worshipped together, and some worshippped gods of their own devising. It is impossible to describe all the different varieties of neopaganism here. Some have particular names: Asatru, the worship of the old Norse gods; Hellenism, the worship of the old Olympian gods of ancient Greece; Wicca, the worship of a goddess, and sometimes a god who is a consort.

As a result of some fanciful and now-discredited ideas propagated by Margaret Murray, some neopagans, and Wiccans in particular, came to believe that the Great European Witchhunt in Early Modern Europe was actually a persecuton of a pagan religion (labelled The Burning Times), and that the "witches" then persecuted were precursors of modern Wiccans. This fuelled the hostility that some neopagans felt towards Christians, while some Christians accused neopagans of being satanists and devil worshippers, and in some cases neopagans experienced real persecution in the present, and did not need imaginary persecutions of the past to make them aware of hostility.

One thing that strikes me about the fiction of the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien et al) is that they are often enjoyed by Christians and neopagans alike. These three authors, and perhaps others who write in similar genres, may provide a way for Christians and pagans to communicate with each other without such hostility.

Lewis, Tolkien and Williams were Christians, and I am a Christian, so what I say here, I say from a Christian point of view, and I am mainly addressing my fellow Christians. That doesn't mean that I don't want neopagans or others to read this. Anyone who is interested in the topic is welcome to do so. It's just that I don't advocate a neopagan viewpoint here, and nor do I pretend to a neutral "objectivity". So if you are a neopagan, you'll probably disagree with a lot of what I say. A lot of Christians might disagree with it too.

Tolkien's Lord of the rings is probably the best-known and most widely read of the Inklings' works. In the rec.arts.books.tolkien newsgroup, there are periodic discussions on whether it is a Christian book or not. Christians often claim that it is a Christian book, whereas non-Christians often claim that is is a "pagan" book. The elements of pagan mythology are plain to see, whereas there are none of the externally-recognisable elements of Christian "religion". The characters don't read the Bible, they don't go to church, and Christ is never mentioned. There isn't even a recognisable Christ-figure, like Aslan in the Narnian books of C.S. Lewis, to provide a reference point.

It is also fairly well known, at least among Inklings fans, that there was some disagreement on this point between Tolkien and Lewis. Tolkien disliked allegory, and said that he regarded the Christianity in Lewis's books as too explicit. Some neopagans also find the Christianity in Lewis's books too explicit, and avoid them for that reason. Others enjoy them, and either ignore the Christian references, or regard them as another "path" that they themselves do not need to take, though they acknowledge that it may have been legitimate for Lewis and others.

Lewis's fiction works might be a good starting point, however, precisely because they are most explicitly Christian. Even though this is so, one could also say much the same of them as many have said of The lord of the rings - there are no church services or Christian ministers, or any other religious activities. There is no religion in them. But there is quite a lot of pagan material in them.

Consider, for example, C.S. Lewis's The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. A child from the normal everyday world hides in a wardrobe during a game, and finds herself transported by magic into another world, where she has tea with a faun, a figure from ancient Roman pagan mythology. A faun is half human, half goat, and the encounter is an introduction to a world of intelligent talking animals - beavers with sewing machines and the like. Lewis has no hesitation in blending Christian and pagan mythology in his Narnian books. There is even salvation. Salvation is at the centre of the plot of the book, but one would have to look hard to find it attributed to any religion at all, Christian or pagan.

Of course Lewis was known as a Christian, and his conception of salvation is a Christian one, but in this particular book he does not deal with what seems to be the central question for many Western Christian "theologians of religion" - the question whether there is salvation in "other" religions.

The next book in the Narnian series, Prince Caspian, is even more populated with pagan deities - Bacchus and Silenus, nymphs and Maenads, and even a river god. Lewis does not identify these with the forces of evil - they are not "satanic", as many Christians seem to think pagan deities ought to be (and many neopagans think that Christians think neopagans' deities are). They are rather part of the army of liberation, and are themselves liberated from the powers of evil in the course of the story.

One could give more examples from the other books in the series, but the picture one gets from all of these is far removed from some of the common Western perceptions of the Christian attitude towards paganism and pagan deities, whether seen from the point of view of Christians or of neopagans. That is, the perception that Christianty and neopaganism are, and perhaps ought to be, hostile to each other.

This hostility was not always around

Back in the early 1970s a group of us were trying to set up a Christian commune in Windhoek, Namibia. We made contact with other groups with similar interests, largely through an exchange of underground magazines in something called The Cosmic Circuit (a kind of hard-copy Webring). One magazine dealing with communes was produced by a neopagan group in Wales, and was edited by Tony Kelly of the Selene Community there. We sent them our Christian magazine Ikon in exchange for their publication Communes. They also sent us a few copies of their neopagan magazine The Waxing Moon. There was no hostility that I could discern. The people who published The Waxing Moon appeared to want to revive the pre-Christian nature religions of north-western Europe. It seemed to be part of a wider "back-to-nature" movement, a reaction against the urban-industrial society of the 20th century with its wars and political systems.

Then we lost contact. Our community in Windhoek was broken up by deportation and banning, and we went our separate ways and got involved in other things. In the 1990s I once again came into contact with neopagans, mainly through electronic computer links, such as bulletin board conferences and reading Web pages put up by neopagans. The bulletin board conferences were more informative, because they were more interactive. But there seemed to be differences from my experience of 20 years earlier. There was a hostility and suspicion that I had not noticed before. It also seemed that where there was this hostility, there was also a lack of communication. Christians and neopagans did not so much attack each other as attack caricatures of each other. The electronic media made it possible for people who might otherwise never meet to talk to each other, but when they did, they failed to communicate and just talked past each other. As someone once put it, these new electronic communications media made it easy to communicate with people of other countries and cultures, but very often it is communication without community.

One difference, which may be significant, is that the neopagans we were in touch with in the 1970s were in Britain. Most of those I encountered in the 1990s through BBSs were American. And some Americans, at least, seem to get a lot more aggressive and bitter about things, and were more inclined to divide the world into "good guys" and "bad guys".

But what I think may be even more significant is the time. I got the impression (which could be mistaken) that the neopagans of the 1960s and 1970s were engaged in a search for spiritual values in reaction against secular modernity. They failed to find those values in Christianity, because many Western Christians had sold out to secular modernity. The most influential Christian books at the time were all about how the Christian church must come to terms with modernity and secular values: The secular meaning of the gospel (van Buren), The secular city (Cox) and Honest to God (Robinson) are a few of the better-known ones. Anyone looking for spiritual values at such a time would have been hard-put to find them in the Christian churches of the West. While Christian theologians were saying how difficult it was for "modern man" to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the youth were marching in the streets in their thousands with posters proclaiming that "Che Guevara lives" and "Chairman Mao will live for 10000 years". The theologians who were trying to address the "with it" generation were quite obviously "without it".

In the 1990s, however, when I began communicating with neopagans and others electronically, I got a different impression (which could also be mistaken) - that many people who had turned to neopaganism in the 1990s had reacted not against secular values, but against religious ones, and those religious values were those of Christianity, or, perhaps more accurately, those which American sociologists have called "Judeo-Christian" when trying to describe the middle ground of US culture. The difference between American neopagans of the 1990s and British ones of the 1970s was that the former were rebelling against a "Judeo-Christian" upbringing, whereas the latter were rebelling against secular materialism, and could therefore more easily find common ground with Christians who were rebelling against the same things. Those who are rebelling against a "Judeo-Christian" upbringing might on that account be more inclined to be hostile towards Christianity.

What happened to make the change?

I suspect that one cause is that in the 1970s many Western Christians rebelled against the "secular sixties", and changed. This rebellion took several different forms. One form was radical Christian "Jesus freaks". Another was the spread of the charismatic renewal, with its rediscovery of a sense of miracle and mystery. It is possible that in the 1970s this attracted many who in the 1960s might have been attracted by neopaganism.

By the end of the decade, however, a reaction had set in. The charismatic renewal had become institutionalised and domesticated in a kind of Protestant neo-scholasticism. A thousand loose-cannon prophets receiving direct revelations from the Holy Spirit (so they said) found that these revelations seemed to concern all the other groups and teachings but theirs, and began calling on the faithful to "Come out of Babylon" and join their particular version of the New Jerusalem. The denunciations became stronger, and the tolerance of deviation less, and euphoria of the 1970s led to the hangover of the 1980s, which some called "charismatic burn-out". The miracle and the mystery had been swallowed up in a sterile intellectual rigidity. (I've been toying with the idea of a research project into the history of the charismatic renewal in South Africa to test some of these hypotheses).

Having observed this process among Western Christians, I am a little disturbed by signs of something similar beginning to happen among Orthodox Christians in the West, only three decades behind the Protestants and Roman Catholics. There seems to be an idea going around that Orthodox Christianity must be inculturated in the West by having clean-shaven clergy in business suits, with pews and microphones and musical instruments in the churches. Orthodoxy could be beginning its own sell-out to secular Western culture. Not entirely, though. Groups such as the Youth of the Apocalypse, with their slogan of "Death to the World", affirming the countercultural character of Orthodoxy, might provide a counter weight.

So much for the background (as I see it) to the hostility between many Christians and many neopagans. What does the fantasy literature of people like Lewis, Tolkien and Williams have to do with it?

In the 1960s Lewis and Williams's fiction was reprinted in paperback, and so became more accessible. Tolkien's Lord of the rings was reprinted in 1966, and enjoyed a new popularity. Until then, Lewis had been widely known as the author of popular works of Christian apologetics. In a smaller, more specialised circle, he was known as the author of some works of literary criticism. Williams continued to be known mainly by a fairly small circle of enthusiasts. All three writers based their work, mainly or in part, on premodern myths and legends.

At the same time as professional theologians were writing works extolling the virtues of modernity, of the modern world-view or "paradigm", and calling for Christianity to be "demythologised", these authors were in effect reaffiming the value of myth. At the same time as the publication of Robinson's Honest to God, which caused such a stir in the West, J.V. Taylor published The primal vision. Both Taylor's and Robinson's books were discussed at conferences of the Anglican Students Federation of South Africa, and their somewhat incompatible messages seemed to cancel one another out. Demythology was very trendy, but Taylor included in his book a quote from Nicolas Berdyaev, who pointed out that "myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept".

But the best means of communicating the value of myth is myth itself. The primal vision is almost forgotten, but the demand for the works of the Inklings has grown over the last 30 years.

I've already mentioned the appearance of pagan themes in Lewis's Narnian books, and have discussed the appearance of some of these themes in his Cosmic trilogy, and especially Out of the silent planet on another web page. The third novel in the trilogy, That hideous strength, comes closer to the writings of Charles Williams. It has been described as Lewis's attempt to write a novel in the style of Williams. Like Williams's novels, and unlike the other two in the trilogy, or the Narnian books, the setting is this world, rather than an imaginary one, or a setting on other planets.

In That hideous strength spiritual powers manifest themselves in this world - the ancient Greek and Roman deities, who are also the planetary rulers, show themselves in human society, and, in alliance with a revived Merlin of the Arthurian legends, confound the powers of evil. The Arthurian theme has echoes of Williams's poetry in particular. It has echoes in the children's novels of Peter Dickinson, who wrote of a revived Merlin whose awaking provoked an atavistic fear of modern technology among the inhabitants of Britain.

Alan Garner, whose children's novels The weirdstone of Brisingamen and The moon of Gomrath were first published in the 1960s, wrote of a wizard, Cadellin Silverbrow, who is guarding a company of sleeping knights, who are threatened by the evil power of the Morrigan and Nastrond. The sleeping knights are to waken when Britain is in extreme peril.

The return of a half-forgotten power from a mythical past to battle an evil in the present is common to That hideous strength and the works of Garner. Lewis uses Graeco-Roman mythology in developing the characteristics of the planetary rulers, and also uses Romano-British mythology and folklore for the idea of a revived Merlin. Garner uses Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and modern folklore - the idea of the "old straight track", for example, which he uses in The moon of Gomrath is a recent one.

Unlike Lewis, Garner's books do not have many clearly-identifiable Christian elements. Yet for Christians, Garner's books are as enjoyable as Tolkien's. Neopagans have sometimes recommended Garner's books as an introduction to a pagan worldview and pagan values for children. I believe that the attraction of these books could offer a key to understanding the common ground shared by Christians and neopagans, and also the differences between them.

One of the attractions for Christians is a struggle between good and evil powers, which is a central feature of the Christian worldview. In That hideous strength Lewis asserts Christian, liberal and democratic values against those of a fascist technocracy, and suggests that the latter are part of a satanic cosmic plot. This happens at several levels. For the modern worldview, nature and politics need to be demythologized (see Harvey Cox, The secular city). Lewis effectively remythologizes them. For the early Christians (and for most of their contemporaries) political and spiritual power were inseparable. The emperor cult, which Christians refused to participate in, bore witness to this. Lewis shows how this power operates in a modern setting.

In Garner's books the struggles are for the possession of the symbols of power - the weirdstone of Brisingamen itself, for example. But there is the same struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

In Tolkien's Lord of the rings the primary symbol of power is the One Ring carried by Frodo Baggins to Mount Doom, to be destroyed in the fire in which it was forged.

Where does that take us?

This article has been nearly ten years in the writing. I posted it on a web page, and have added to it from time to time, as new ideas have occurred to me, but the main point has been to pose questions rather than to give answers. In the blog format it is easy to respond by comments, and I hope that it may be the beginning of a conversation. The conversation need not be limited to a blog, and could take place in face to face discussions, or even in a reading group.

Here are some of the questions that occur to me. I hope that if this provokes any ideas, you may respond in comments, or even with other questions.

What values do you see in the writings of the Inklings? Which ones are common to Christians and neopagans? Which ones do you think are incompatible with one or the other?

For Christians: what kind of Christian theology of religions to you see behind the works of the Inklings? What are the similarities and differences between it and that of your community or tradition?

For neopagans: what do you think of the view of pagan deities in tho books of the Inklings? Do you find it hostile, friendly, condescending, cooptive?

[ Continued at Towards a theology of Religions ]

See the other Synchroblogs on the theme of Christianity and neopaganism:If you are interested in further discussion on the theme of Christianity and literature, with special reference to the works of the Inklings, join the Inklings Discussion Forum on groups.io

This article is loosely based on an article I posted on my web pages about 10 years ago, and have been adding to since then. An older version may be found at Christianity, paganism and literature

It is also a continuation of a series of posts on Theology of religion, which bedan with the August synchroblog on Christianity, inclusive or exclusive. The instalment previous to this one can be found at Theology of religions and interreligious dialogue. The next instalment is at Towards a theology of religions.
See also an earlier post on Beats, Inklings, Christian literature and paganism.

24 September 2007

A new history of the Liberal Party?

In a recent article Paul Trewhela calls for a new history of the Liberal Party
There is a major unmet need for a further serious, comprehensive history of the former Liberal Party of South Africa, especially while the younger of its former members (and some of its seniors) are mostly still alive and available for interview. Its neglect is a failing of the historians working on South Africa, and leaves a serious breach in an important and needed tradition. The current major history is Liberals against apartheid: A history of the Liberal Party of South Africa, 1953-1968 (Macmillan, London/St Martins Press, New York, 1997), written by a former senior leader of the party, Randolph Vigne.

The question that immediately comes to mind is whether a new history could add enough to Vigne's work to find a market and make a useful contribution to South African history. The Liberal Party was always a small one; it never gathered a large membership, partly because its ideas were not popular, and partly because of repression by the National Party government. What is amazing, however, is that most of the political ideas that the Liberal Party stood for have been embodied in the present South African constitution. That in itself makes its history worth recording, though whether two histories are needed is a moot point.

One of the reasons a new history is needed, according to Trewhela, is the prejudice against the word liberal, which is just as prevalent in the new ANC-ruled South Africa as in the old National Party-ruled one.
It is all the more needed since in present-day South Africa the language of power now replicates the language of power of the apartheid regime, in the violence and uncouthness of its diatribe against the word “liberal”. One need only glance at the language and categories of thought available weekly on the State President’s personal website, ANC Today, to get a measure of this... All the issues of cruelty and obfuscation which gave concern to George Orwell in his classic essay, “Politics and the English Language” of 1946, rise up in their sinister unclarity.

And there Trewhela has a point. Ignorance of the meanings of "liberal" and "liberalism" is rife. One only has to look at recent blog and general web postings to find examples. Take, for example, a blog post by Mpush a few months ago, entitled Liberal equivocations:
Liberal politics in South Africa, on top of their bankrupt political vision, have an uncanny habit of working themselves into tight a corner. First it was the DP (Democratic Party) ‘Fight Back’ campaign during the 1994 South African democratic election whose cynical tone rubbed most black South Africans the wrong way. Then in 1999, the DP merged with NNP (New National Party) to become DA (Democratic Alliance), and could only come up with a bland ‘South Africa Deserves Better’ slogan to fight elections with much success.

This embodies many of the current misconceptions, misperceptions and misinformation about South African political history. First of all, it is debateable whether the Democratic Party could accurately be described as "liberal". The "fight back" campaign (which was in 1999, not 1994) was a blatant attempt to woo the white right with "swart gevaar" tactics. The message was clearly that people who were "gatvol" after five years of democracy should "fight back" against it by voting for the Democratic Party, which, it implied, would restore the status quo ante. There is no way that this kind of behaviour could be described as political liberalism. And shortly after the election, the Democratic Party united with the rump of the National Party to form the Democratic Alliance, and was responsible for introducing the abomination of floor crossing into our political system, which is very far indeed from being liberal. The Liberal Party stood for "one man, one vote" when it was unfashionable and dangerous to do so. The crosstitutes stand for "one politician, one vote" and to hell with the electorate.

Similar misconceptions and wrong information are found in the following, posted on a "white right" blog: ZAR: How the CIA defeated Apartheid & placed the ANC
The NP probably got a higher percentage of the black vote than did the Pan Africanist Congress, a relic of Cold War history, which received scant support in the election. Also disappearing into oblivion was the Democratic Party (DP),which was nothing more than the reconstituted old Liberal Party that Allard Lowenstein had backed. Once banned by the primitive white racist South African government, and later reinvented as the Progressive Party with the help of Harry Oppenheimer, the DP was basically the personal vehicle of Helen Suzman, who spent as much effort fighting the ANC as she did apartheid.

Faced with such monumental ignorance, perhaps a new history of the Liberal Party is needed -- but would the people who write such rubbish bother to dispel their ignorance by reading it? If they haven't learned it from Vigne's book, it is unlikely that they would learn anything from a new history.

So let's turn to people who might be expected to be better informed, like Barney Pityana, the principal of the biggest university in the country, in his recent Steve Biko memorial lecture:
The white liberal establishment, including white opposition parties in the apartheid parliament, the media, and institutions like the SAIRR [South African Institute of Race Relations], as well as NUSAS could not be entrusted with the task of liberation. They too were part of the movement that imprisoned the mind of the black people and created false hopes about what they might accomplish while at the same time participating in and enjoying the fruits of an evil system.

Their vision of South Africa was based on exploitative values, and the integration they espoused would entrench inequalities. There was also a connivance between all these forces: the apartheid regime and their Bantustan collaborators, and the liberal establishment, all had one thing in common: they applied and derived comfort and sustenance from a system of racial oppression, then they dared to believe that self-respecting black people would wish to be co-opted to their grand design, and finally to have their response to the condition of oppression programmed. That had to be rejected.
Now it is true that in this Barney Pityana does not mention the Liberal Party. It is also true that in its beginnings in 1953 it was mostly white liberals who started the Liberal Party (whether they constituted an "establishment" remains a moot point) and that initially it was largely white people who spoke for blacks, for example Margaret Ballinger, who was a "Natives Representative" in the South African parliament and so was indeed a white person who spoke for blacks. She was, however, elected by black people to speak for them, until even that voice was silenced by the National Party regime when it abolished the "Native Representatives".

What changed the Liberal Party, however, was the introduction of simultaneous translation equipment at party congresses in the early 1960s. Black members, who had hitherto passively listened to eloquent debates in English, suddenly found their voice, made themselves heard, and had a real influence on party policy, and especially the policy of "one man, one vote". Some of the more conservative white members left and joined the newly-formed Progressive Party, which adopted a francise policy that was nonracial, but reserved the vote for the rich and educated, effectively moving the criterion from race to class.

Perhaps what is needed is not another party history, but a discussion on what constitutes liberalism. Paul Trewhela's proposal, however, has the effect of reinforcing what Barney Pityana is talking about, since he seems to be concerned only about the white members of the Liberal Party who formed the African Resistance Movement and turned to violence. That was a purely white-initiated movement, which was marginal to the Liberal Party as such.

What is missing from Vigne's history, and it would appear, from Trewhela's proposed history, is the role of black liberals. Why is it that in South African political discourse, the word "liberals" is almost invariably preceded by the epithet "white"? Barney Pityana does it, but so does Paul Trewhela -- if it is not stated explicitly, it is understood.

In Vigne's history black liberals play bit parts. They flit across the pages and disappear off them almost as quickly as they appear.

And yes, I agree with Barney Pityana and Steve Biko that there were (and are) white people who try to speak for black people and thereby suppress the voice of black people (as, of course, I am doing in this article!) I just question whether such white people are necessarily liberals. To characterise the Democratic Party in its "fight back" campaign in 1999 as "liberal" is stretching the word "liberal" way too far.

But we do need, somehow, to clarify the term "liberal" and the idea of liberalism, and to make a distinction between liberals (of any colour) and pseudo-liberals.


Last year, when Yahoo removed my web pages on the Liberal Party, I posted some of this information on my blog at Notes from underground: The Liberal Party of South Africa

22 September 2007

Fascist America, fascist Zimbabwe

It was Guardian Unlimited that had the extraordinary innuendo that Thabo Mbeki was the worst president in the world. But here they publish the criteria by which, I believe, Thabo Mbeki looks a lot better than George Bush and Robert Mugabe. Hat tip to Douloi Johanna for the link.

To summarise: Naomi Wolf outlines 10 steps taken by most dictators to establish their dictatorship, and shows how they have been taken by the Bush administration in the USA. I don't think it would be difficult to show that most of them have been taken by Mugabe in Zimbabwe as well. But in South Africa?

  1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy
  2. Create a gulag
  3. Develop a thug caste
  4. Set up an internal surveillance system
  5. Harass citizens' groups
  6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release
  7. Target key individuals
  8. Control the press
  9. Dissent equals treason
  10. Suspend the rule of law
Of course all 10 were in place in South Africa under National Party rule, but they were removed in the democratisation process during the 1990s. They all now seem to be present in Zimbabwe as well as in the USA.

21 September 2007

Mbeki -- world's worst President?

John Carlin, writing in the Guardian Unlimited, asks "Is Mandela's heir one of the world's worst presidents?" and after praising Mandela goes on to say:
Pity, then, about his successor, Thabo Mbeki, who chose the month when Mandela is immortalised in bronze to remind us of just how far short he falls of the best his country has to offer; how strong a candidate he is to rank, with his friend Robert Mugabe, among the worst Presidents in the world.

That's really something, in a world in which George Bush and Robert Mugabe are still going strong. Of course Tony Blair was a Prime Minister, not a president, though his style seemed to have a lot in common with P.W. Botha's imperial presidency. Tony Blair participated enthusiastically in not one, not two, but three wars of aggression, and Carlin has the unmitigated gall to ask if Thabo Mbeki is the worst president in the world?

But since Blair has retired, he's out of the running. Bush and Mugabe are running neck and neck for first place in the race for the title "Worst president in the world", so let's leave them out of it.

I look around the world at presidents and prime ministers in various countries, and ask myself, "Would I rather have X as our president than Thabo Mbeki?" And in most cases, my answer is "No". For all his faults, Thabo Mbeki is much better than many of the heads of government of other countries.

Who would I rather have?

Gordon Brown? John Howard? Vladimir Putin? Hugo Chavez? Nouri al-Maliki? Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir? Kostas Karamanlis? Angela Merkel? Levy Mwanawasa? Joseph Kabila? Romano Prodi? Guillaume Soro? Alexander Lukashenko? Ali Khamenei? Pervez Musharraf? Ehud Olmert?

I don't think so!

Does Carlin seriously suggest that Mbeki is worse than all of those?

Mbeki has many faults, most notably his "see no evil" approach to Zimbabwe and his vacillating Aids policy, but he hasn't yet started any wars of aggression, like Bush, or tried to suppress the opposition by force, like Mugabe.

But I've noticed this morning that Sky News is also trying to do a hatchet job on Mbeki, implying that he is urging people to put their faith in quack remedies rather than antiretroviral drugs. What I find interesting is that they don't provide any evidence of their allegations -- if they had a sound bite or a video clip of Thabo Mbeki saying this, it might be more convincing than the unsupported assertions that they have been making.

So I wonder -- why do the Brit media suddenly have it in for Thabo Mbeki?

Thanks to Leo Africanus for the tip, though unfortunately he has disabled "Link to this post".

War and hegemony

Alan Greenspan, the former head of the US Federal Reserve, has been in the news lately with the publication of his memoirs, in which he claimed that that Bush's invasion of Iraq was about oil, not weapons of mass destruction.

Counterpunch disagrees, however,
It is certainly the case that Iraq was not invaded because of WMD, which the Bush administration knew did not exist. But the oil pretext is also phony. The US could have purchased a lot of oil for the trillion [billion] dollars that the Iraq invasion has already cost in out-of-pocket expenses and already incurred future expenses.
and goes on to say that
Bush's wars are about American hegemony, not oil. The oil companies did not write the neoconservatives' "Project for a New American Century," which calls for US/Israeli hegemony over the entire Middle East, a hegemony that would conveniently remove obstacles to Israeli territorial expansion."

And it is on that point that the policies of the two major American parties are almost exactly the same. Americans seem to get hugely antagonistic about their politics, tossing puerile insults at the other side (one gets tired of seeing "DemocRATS" and "Repugs" all over the Internet), and yet to people outside the USA, they are as alike as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, fighting over the claim the one had spoiled the other's nice new rattle. American politicians do indeed seem to be like children fighting over toys, the toys, in this case, being America's military hardware.

Bush bombed Baghdad, but Clinton bombed Belgrade, and Blair joined in the bombing of both. And Madeleine Albright thought the death of half a million Iraqi children was a price worth paying to ensure American hegemony in the Middle East. And it was her Democratic Party administration that bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan using the false pretext that it was being used for the manufacture of WMD.

20 September 2007

BIOFUEL -- the answer to the energy crisis?

I've seen quite a number of bloggers promoting the idea of biofuels to solve the energy crisis, without the bloggers apparently being aware of the problems, which are well summarised here: Journey Home: BIOFUEL Realities - Not so fast big guys!

One of the biofuels that has been around longest is snake oil, and we ought to know by now that that is not the answer.

South Africans are no strangers to biofuels. In my youth one could buy "Union Spirit" at just about every garage in Durban. It was a by-product of sugar refining, made from sugar cane. It wasn't sold outside the Natal coastal belt though, with one exception. There one one garage in Jeppe, Johannesburg, which sold it in the 1960s. That was before petrol was sold with two octane ratings, premium and regular. Union was 100 octane, and was therefore prized by car enthusiasts who souped up their cars by increasing the compression ratio so that they could no longer run on regular petrol.

But even in the days of sanctions, in the late 1980s, when South Africa's oil supply was erratic and precarious, and the government stockpiled oil in secret locations around the country, Union was not plugged as the answer, and in fact that is when it declined and disappeared from the market.

17 September 2007

What has floor-crossing achieved?

They are asking this question on the After 8 debate on SAFM this morning: what has the floor-crossing archieved?

Do they really have to ask?

We all know what it has achieved:
  • voter apathy
  • the replacement of "the people shall govern" by "the politicians shall govern"
  • government of the people, by the politicians, for the politicians
  • a banana republic
The last is based on the similarity between politicians and a bunch of bananas - they are all yellow, they hang together, and there's not a straight one among them.

As long as the constitutional court allows crosstitution, South Africa will not be a democracy.

15 September 2007

An Insomniac: How logical are you?

You Are Incredibly Logical

Move over Spock - you're the new master of logic
You think rationally, clearly, and quickly.
A seasoned problem solver, your mind is like a computer!

Hat tip to An Insomniac: How logical are you? for this one.

And, as Insomniac notes, "Although, quite how logical it is to feel validated by an Internet quiz set-up by some anonymous person is open to debate..."

12 September 2007

Well done Zim!

It may be a moot point whether South Africa will be ready for 2010, but Zimbabwe were certainly ready for 2020 tonight, and Australia obviously weren't!

I didn't think I'd watch this cricket-lite, but Zimbabwe's performance had me glued to the telly.

A very good start to the tournament!

11 September 2007

Memory Eternal -- Pope Petros VII

This is the third anniversary of the death of His Beatitude Petros, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, who was killed in a helicopter crash on 11 September 2004.

He was the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians on the African continent, as the secular media would say. Several other clergy were killed with him on that day, including three bishops, so it was a severe blow to the Church in Africa.

Among those killed was His Grace Nectarios, Bishop of Madagascar, whose short period in that country as a missionary priest and later bishop was amazing.

Father Nectarios Kellis was a priest in Australia, and he read in a magazine published in Greece that a priest was needed in Madagascar, because they had been without a priest since 1972, when political changes had led to the expulsion of many foreigners, including the Greek priest.

Father Nectarios asked his bishop if he could go, but the bishiop said no, he needed him in Australia. As the computer fundi for the diocese, he would be hard to replace. But later the bishop relented. I can see that you will just be miserable if you don't go, said the bishop, so go with my blessing.

Father Nectarios went to Greece, and found the author of the article, so see how he could make contact with the people in Madagascar who were appealing for a priest. He was told that there weren't any. The person who wrote the article had made it up -- he had just seen that there hadn't been a priest there for a long time, and thought it would be nice if there was one.

Father Nectarios set out for Madagascar not knowing what to expect, and arrived there in 1994. He found two churches, neither in use, one in the capital, Tananarive, and one of the coast. There was a local family that was acting as caretakers of the church in Tananarive, and I met a member of this family, a young man, at the Makarios III Orthodox Theological Seminary in Nairobi in November 1995. I was then doing research for my doctoral thesis on "Orthodox mission methods", and was interviewing the students (who came from various parts of Africa) to find out how the Orthodox Church was growing in their home countries.

The story I heard from Madagascar was quite amazing. Father Nectarios had been there for 18 months, and had started 15 new parishes in that time. He travelled down the coast taking the student with him, and when he saw a village with no church, would speak to the chief of the village and ask if he could come on a date to be arranged to explain the Orthodox Christian faith to anyone interested. Then a few weeks later he would return and speak to the people there, and then gather the interested people to catechise them and baptise them, and so 15 new parishes had been started within 18 months.

Six months later I met Father Nectarios in person.

At that time Madagascar fell under the Archbishopric of Zimbabwe, and Father Nectarios had travelled to Bulawayo where the Patriarch was blessing a memorial in the local church. While they were there, the Archbishop of Zimbabwe suffered a heart attack, so Father Nectarios stayed on for a few days to look after him. When he eventually returned to Madagascar, he had to change planes in Johannesburg, and as the plane for Madagascar only left the following morning he was booked into a hotel overnight near the airport. The hotel was in Isando, an industrial area, all over factories, where there is nothing to do and nothing to see, but the seminary student had given him my phone number, so he phoned me, and we said we would fetch him and show him around a little, rather than leave him sitting in a lonely hotel room. It was Monday 1 April 1996, in the middle of Great Lent, and we wanted to take him to supper at a restaurant, but finding a restaurant open on a Monday in Gauteng is not easy, never mind one that serves fasting food. Still, we took him round to see some churches and a priest we found at home, and while we were going around he told us the story of how he had found himself in Madagascar. He was quite a delightful character, short, with a reddish hair and beard, and he spoke Australian with a Greek accent.

Later Madagascar was made into a separate diocese, and Father Nectarios was consecrated as its bishop, and served there until his death on 11 September 2004. His successor was Father Ignatios Sennis, who had served as a priest in Calcutta (Kolkata) in India, where he served mainly among the very poor people.

The 11 September 2004 was a sad day for the Orthodox Church in Africa, and for those who died and their families we pray: Memory Eternal!

09 September 2007

Guitar Priest: Dorothy Sayers on Christian Work

Now this is worth a read: Guitar Priest: Dorothy Sayers on Christian Work
The only Christian work is good work done well. Let the Church see to it that the workers are Christian people and do their work well, as to God: then all the work will be Christian work, whether it is Church embroidery, or sewage-farming. As Jacques Maritain says: 'If you want to produce Christian work, be a Christian, and try to make a work of beauty into which you have put your heart; do not adopt a Christian pose.'

When I was a student (more than 40 years ago) I used to attend St Alphege's Anglican Church in Pietermaritzburg, which at that time was a thriving Christian community. A new priest came to the parish, and complained that people were not doing enough "Christian work", meaning arranging flowers for the altar, baking cakes and so on. Several people objected, saying that for many people their Christian witness in the secular world of jobs, education and working for NGOs and even political parties was their Christian work.

08 September 2007

Amatomu add religion category

Amatomu have added a "religion" category to their blog directory/aggregator.

This is an improvement, because before it wasn't clear where blogs with a religious dimension should be categorised.

There's still a gap though, because the existing categories don't leave much room for society, culture, arts and books. "Religion" could fit into that wider category, but not all of those things fit under religion.

Still, it's a lot better than Digg, where the humanities are left out altogether, and yet the rather narrow range of categories that remain are split into great detail. On the whole Amatomu is doing pretty well, and does better than Technorati in my view. It's the best tool for finding South African blogs and what South African bloggers are saying, and keeps getting better.

07 September 2007

NeoInklings discussion forum

I've started a discussion forum for the works of the literary group the Inklings, whose members included Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield and several others. This forum, originally hosted by YahooGroups, is called Inklings. It was previously called NeoInklings partly to distinguish it from the original group, as it would be presumptuous to pretend to be a continuation of that, and yet also to indicate that this group has similar interests, including works of the original Inklings and their associates. While there are other mailing lists for discussing the works of the Inklings (a search on "inklings" at YahooGroups turned up 59 of them), this one differs in being unspecialised. It is not just for discussing their fantasy, or for their children's books, or their poetry, or their plays, but any and all of these, including comparison with other authors who were not members of the group, and also got general discussions relating to theology and literature. It is does not, like some of the other forums, concentrate on only one of the authors, but is for discussing all of them, and also authors that some would consider "almost Inklings", such as Madeleine l'Engle and G.K. Chesterton. Those who enjoy works by the Inklings often wish they had written more, since the original Inklings are all dead, the only way there will be more is if people write more works in similar genres. So like the original Inklings, NeoInklings members can submit their work for reading and criticism by other members of the group. So if your're interested in these topics, please consider joining the forum. There's more information on the forum web page, or you can subscribe below:

Important Update

YahooGroups is no more, so the Inklings forum has moved to groups.io You can learn mor about it and join it at the Inklings Forum on groups.io.

06 September 2007

Is that all?

Mingle2 - Seattle Singles

This rating was determined based on the presence of the following words:

* death (4x)
* dead (2x)
* shoot (1x)

Bit disappointing, that.

05 September 2007

Study war no more -- questioning assumptions

I'd just written a piece on peace, war, militarism etc on my other blog when I came across this altogether non-political piece on someone else's blog.

This was not written by a peacenik, or an America-hating radical, or by someone with a political axe to grind. But I wish all Americans could read it, and see how their foreign policy looks to quite ordinary non-political people in other countries. It seems to me that so many Americans fail to question their own assumptions, but perhaps they should really take a look at themselves, and see how the actions of their government look to ordinary sane and normal people.

03 September 2007

Women clergy leaving the Episcopal Church

According to Ad Orientem: Women priests leaving the Episcopal Church? Alice Linsley is doing a survey of women clergy who are leaving the Episcopal Church in the USA.

Alice Linsley herself was one who left to join the Orthodox Church, and knows of others who have done so, but would like to find out more. If anyone has information about this, please pass it on.

02 September 2007

The crosstitutes are at it again

It's floor-crossing season again, when South Africa abandons democracy and is ruled by a self-elected, self-serving bunch of politicians.

The worst thing about it is not the behaviour of the politicians. Politicians can be expected to be self-serving. The worst thing about it is the behaviour of our constitutional court, which has utterly failed in its duty to protect our democracy by allowing it to be destroyed in this fashion. One must seriously question the integrity of the judges of the Constiutional Court.

The Constitutional Court is supposed to evaluate legislation in the spirit of the constitution, and its fundamental principles. And one of the principles of the Constitution, one of the principles that the liberation struggle was fought for, was "the people shall govern".

While that may be true for the first 18 months after an election, for the rest of the time the people do not govern, and South Africa is ruled by an unelected oligarchy.

As The Weekender reported, even before it began the floor-crossing window was stained with "allegations of bribery, threats of violence, and offers of sexual favours".

The crosstitutes bring South Africa into disrepute. The Constitutional Court, by allowing crosstitution, brings South Africa into even more disrepute. Is the Constitutional Court there to protect our democracy, or to preside over a political brothel?

In a constituency system, where candidates are elected in their personal capacity, and their names appear on the ballot paper, floor-crossing is permissible, and may be judged good or bad according to circumstances. In a proportional representation system, however, where the names of candidates do not appear on the ballot paper, but are nominated on party lists, the politicians cease to represent the electorate the moment they leave the party that put them on its list.

What makes it so difficult for our Constiutional Court judges to understand this?

01 September 2007

Happy New Year, Happy Spring day!

It seems appropriate that the ecclesiastical new year coincides with Spring Day, and also that the first few days of September are dedicated by the Orthodox Church to environmental awareness.

And also, after the end-of-month Broadband Blues, I once again have access to the web after eight days of deprivation. At least they let my e-mail through this time. What did we do before the Web?


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