Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Too Many Gods (Old Testament v New)

I wonder why Christian churches don’t scrap the Old Testament. Much of it is an embarrassment. The Burning Bush, The Parting of the Sea, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat... All of those are harmless fairy stories, but it’s all the gratuitous violence that compromises the message of the religion.

And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and their little ones. ..And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel to commit trespass against the Lord. ..Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man. But all the women children that have not known man, keep alive for yourselves. Numbers 31:9-18 KJV

Slaughtering prisoners of war, raping and killing their widows and sons, and keeping the little girls as sex slaves... Those sound rather like the NATO atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those atrocities, as we know, are committed by Christian troops and supported by most Christian congregations. Unless the Messiah was a psychopath, he would not have approved of them, surely.

Why don’t Christians and their priests and pastors publicly renounce the Biblical atrocities, and the psychopathic god that inspired them? The god that ordered those atrocities was a tribal god, and the role of every tribal god is to advance the interests of its tribe. Moses took an assortment of refugees and moulded them into a brutal military force – the Taliban of its day. He managed that force in what he reckoned were the interests of his new tribe; but it’s hard to see how his actions are relevant to modern Christianity.

All tribes need to have a heritage. Moses and his lieutenants cobbled one together in the wilderness from the various legends of the various communities of refugees. First they worked back to a supposed patriarch (Israel, formerly Jacob), then further back to the Abraham of regional legend, then back to Noah of the Flood, and eventually right back to the physical creation of the First Man by a non-tribal, universal god. The Bible tells us that this creator-god was the same god as Moses’s tribal god; and the two gods came in the Old Testament package sold to the early Christian church. The tale of Abraham’s readiness to murder his son was a constant reminder to the new tribe that the god of the universe has the same cruel standards as the god of the tribal atrocities. Wow.

..Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and offer him for a burnt offering. ..And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. Genesis 22:2-10 KJV

The third god of Christianity is the “prince of peace” – a wholly admirable person in whose name the reach of his personal ethics was extended to the rest of humanity. “Thou shalt not kill” applied to everybody, he said – no exceptions. Even the Midianites would be safe, and Abraham’s son. Slaughters, rapes and oppressions of tribal enemies might be okay by the tribal god – but they were not okay by the god of love. The god of love was worthy of worship, not the other. So why keep the other on the books?

There is a schism in the Christian religion that needs to be resolved. The meek of the community embrace the philosophy of love: the savages, the philosophy of cruelty. It’s the savages who recruit young men to slaughter and mutilate their way to political dominance around the world, and who relish their gruesome work. The meek... well, the meek go along to get along, I guess.

How can any decent person honour all three gods of the Christian Bible? Until the vicious tribal god is removed from the pantheon, what worth can “Christian ethics” possibly have?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Checkpoint Charlie (T 1 - Berlin 1960s)

It’s a grandfather’s privilege, universally acknowledged, to bore his grandchildren with tales of his younger days. I miss out on that, because my granddaughters don’t speak English well enough to get the full benefit. All I can do is wait until they are fluent enough to read my memoirs. In the absence of memoirs, there are my blog postings. So I’m going to start slipping in occasional reports like the one below. Will they enjoy them, when they’re older? Ah well, that’s not my department. I deal in stories, not enjoyment...

It was 1965, at the end of a week’s driving through East Germany from Poland. It was 11.30 p.m., our visas would expire at midnight, and the East German border guards were refusing to let us cross into US-occupied West Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie. With the brashness of youth, and some experience of evading a few minor border formalities elsewhere in the Soviet Empire, I set out to change their minds. My smattering of German had served us well in similar negotiations. A smattering is sometimes much better than fluency; with a smattering, you aren’t expected to understand everything that’s said.

“It is forbidden to enter West Berlin except from West Germany.” (West Berlin was an enclave in East Germany, with access restricted to three long corridors.) I didn’t actually know that, though we had been warned by Westerners we had met along the way. Pitching up so close to midnight was a gamble.

“But two years ago I visited East Berlin for a day and crossed back at this exact place.”

“That was a day visit, sir. This time you want to formally enter the West from East Germany, and it is forbidden to exit East Germany here at this place. You must drive around to some authorised exit, cross into West Germany, and enter West Berlin on the autobahn. Is that clear?”

“Yes, it is clear, and thank you. But the nearest exit is sixty kilometres away, and I don’t have enough petrol to drive that far, and we have spent all our East German currency.”

“Then you must buy some. You cannot cross here. It is forbidden. Do you understand that?”

But no exchange was open at midnight in East Berlin, and no service station, and we were within ten minutes of being in East Germany illegally and subject to arrest. I explained this, and held out my crossed wrists with the most disappointed expression I could manage. Linda watched this pantomime in horror, and in another few seconds she would begin giving serious voice to her concern. The guards could see that as well as I could.

The crossing at that time was a sort of obstacle course of brick walls and sharp corners, with signs in German and English warning us to drive v-e-r-y slowly. We made it to the American checkpoint with two or three minutes to spare – to be greeted with the utmost suspicion. Sunglasses at night on soldiers with guns never indicate a warm welcome.

“Hey, buddy, you can’t enter here! You have to go round to the autobahn.” I shrugged, and let the situation speak for itself. How come they let you through? They never let people cross here. It’s forbidden. Jesus! This is crazy. Look at these passports, guys! Holy crap!

It was a Cold War first, we gathered. Maybe it was unique. Certainly, nobody has ever believed my story. “They could have shot you as you drove through”, the sergeant said. Well, maybe. But they were nice fellows, just doing their job. Maybe, too, they felt a guilty thrill in ignoring the rules and using their initiative for once. That occasionally happens in dictatorships.

The Berlin Wall lasted for another full generation. I’d like to have watched it being torn down, and I’d like to have a small piece of the hut at Checkpoint Charlie, for old times’ sake. I’m told the hut has been moved to a nearby museum now, where there are photos of the old obstacle course. One photo has a little white VW driving the course. The photo was taken in daylight, so I know it’s not my car. All the same...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Town & Country (cruelty to animals)

Sometimes daily newspapers have to cast a wide net for their news, don’t they? Last week England’s Daily Mail reported that two men in a lamb-castrating speed-contest in Wyoming had become physically ill from removing lambs’ testicles with their teeth. I may have been one of a rather small number of readers whose immediate reaction was, “Gosh, Dad used to do that all the time, and it never made him sick.”

I mean, why should it?

There has always been a huge cultural difference between the customs of towns and countrysides. What counts as good, practical sense in rural settings is often frowned upon in urban ones, and vice versa. Until very recently, Cayman’s isolation made it “country” as opposed to urban. So one finds some significant differences in customs and attitudes, between native Caymanians and city-bred expats.

The political dominance of the native-born Caymanians more or less forces us immigrants to (pretend to) admire the old Island ways, and there is not much reciprocity. Caymanian community leaders are not the slightest bit interested in other places’ customs. If there were some meaningful reciprocity, the cultural divide would be a whole lot less than it is now.

Ever since the earliest settlements, Cayman has had sheep and goats. How did the old-time farmers castrate their lambs and kids, if not the way my father’s generation did it? Those things are too slippery to get a grip of, Dad reckoned. Around 1950, where we lived, the traditional method gave way to expandable rubber rings, by which means the expendable organs dropped off in the course of time - way too slow for speed contests like the one reported in the Daily Mail, of course, and probably not quite as certain.

Horses, too, fulfil different cultural wants in the countryside and in the towns. Town horses have riders with helmets on, leaping gracefully over formal obstacle courses. Country horses are vehicles for pulling ploughs or herding sheep and cattle. Older Caymanians, at least, will readily acknowledge the cultural gap the two usages reflect.

Dogs, too: workers in the country, pets and guard-dogs in towns. In the Caribbean, yard-dogs are a third category - neither pets nor guards, they’re encouraged to bark themselves stupid at all hours of day and night at anything that moves within half a mile. Immigrants from outside the region find yard-dogs an unpleasant novelty. We have one behind our house. It starts its mindless noise at five or six o’clock most mornings and continues for much of the rest of the day.

Country dogs are lucky not to get kicked into silence by their owners, whereas yard-dog owners exercise no control at all. They don’t make for good neighbours, in quiet middle-class areas. South Church Street is not quite as exclusive as Crystal Harbour, but it is middle-class enough for us residents to find a yard-dog a nasty cultural shock.

Cruelty to animals is not a universal constant. Tugging baby lambs’ balls out without anaesthetic seems cruel, to townies; leaving dogs alone to go mad with loneliness seems cruel by country standards. Forcing horses to jump the same hurdles over and over again is unnecessarily humiliating, from the country viewpoint; making them gallop unshod over rough ground and fallen trees while chasing breakaway cattle is disgracefully risky, from the urban viewpoint.

Which offenders most deserve the attention of a local Humane Society- my present neighbours and their lonely yard-dog, or my childhood neighbours and their dentally de-testefied lambs? Animal cruelty is defined by local judgments, I guess.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The 16 Days (Violence against women)

About this time every year, Cayman honours “16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence”. There are a couple of marches, and a couple of speeches, and that’s it for another year. It has long disappointed me, that our community’s supposed concern for the safety of women is concentrated on such a brief period. Shouldn’t it be longer? It’s also disappointing that the concern seems to focus only on women who are Caymanian. Shouldn’t it cover ALL Cayman’s women?*

We don’t exclude black women or white women or brown women; why shouldn’t we extend our concern to the migrant women who work among us? (“But we do!” Oh, but we don’t!) Last month the Philippines government put Cayman on a blacklist for failing to grant adequate protection to its nationals in these Islands. How did our authorities react? Did our Immigration bureaucrats investigate the work-conditions of Filipino women in domestic service, and announce their findings to the public? Maybe they did and I missed it; more likely, they couldn’t care less what happens to migrants.

What kind of message does discrimination of this kind send to men who abuse women? Don’t rape Caymanians, but your migrant helper is fair game? Must be.

At an international conference I was at a few years ago, some female judges from several African nations spoke on the difficulty of enforcing the “right” of African wives not to be beaten by their men. International human-rights standards were fiercely opposed by tribal tradition, which verged on sacred. The battered wives invariably pleaded in court for their men’s freedom: babies would starve without their fathers’ work, they cried, truthfully. The men claimed it was their human right to beat their wives - just as some men do everywhere. Some Caymanians claim the right to exploit their migrant employees, on the grounds that it is their (the employers’) human right to do so. Well, what can you do with tribal traditions?

For many men in the civilised West, violence against women is still an equivocal topic. A joke from my schooldays, for illustration: Viking warriors! This is your captain speaking! Tomorrow we raid England. Here are my orders. Boat #1: you will do the looting! (“Hooray!!”) Boat #2: for you, the pillaging! (“Hooray!!”) Boat #3... (Groans and protests: “Oh, come on, chief! Not the bloody raping again!”)

Male violence against women is strong-versus-weak persecution. Rape is almost always about power and bullying, rarely about sex. Even in civilised societies it’s a kind of war, and every war is about strong-versus-weak. The motivation for wars is the reward you get for winning. In The Good Olde Days the prospect of rape and loot was what kept the troops in the field - and from what we read about the West’s occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, it still is.

A great many TV shows contain jokes about the prospect of male-on-male rape in prisons. Strong versus weak, again. For as long as the jokes about violence continue, our society is bound to limit its disapproval to sixteen days a year.

* This criticism is NOT directed at the Estella Scott-Roberts Foundation, but at our community as a whole. To the best of my knowledge, the Foundation’s work is beyond reproach.