Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti, mad Christians and the media.


With the sad synchronicity of these things, in the week of the Haitian earthquake some of my students have been looking at suffering as a topic. Some of them were even aware of the Haitian tragedy and some of the conversations in the classroom echoed the sorts of sentiments voiced by Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh (not that my kids will have heard of either of them).

That my students, who are overwhelmingly resistent to religion for themselves, might view Christian attitudes to suffering in this way is disturbing but not entirely surprising given the strange melange of quasi-Christian ideas, new-age and Eastern philosophies and folk religion they have absorbed and which they believe passes for Christian doctrine. (Sir, Sir, My Nanna said that when her budgie died it would go to Heaven and then be reincarnated.) That high profile religious leaders and opinion formers, on the other hand, who have a responsibility to....well...to lead and inform opinion, espouse these same half-baked ideas and share them with millions is simply unacceptable.

It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, necessary to take into consideration the negative impact of the media in the way that Christianity is reported. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori of the American Episcopal Church delivered a thoughtful and measured response to the earthquake The people of Haiti have suffered a devastating earthquake, and it is already clear that many have died and many more are injured. Even under "normal" circumstances, Haiti struggles to care for her 9 million people. The nation is the poorest in the western hemisphere, and this latest disaster will set back many recent efforts at development. I urge your prayers for those who have died, been injured, and are searching for loved ones -- and I urge your concrete and immediate prayers in the form of contributions to Episcopal Relief and Development, who are already working with the Diocese of Haiti to send aid where it is most needed. This is a simple statement and it goes straight to the heart of the Christian Gospel: action before words. There is no attempt to explain, simply a request to act out of compassion and love. However, it garnered little media attention and was surpassed by the media feeding-frenzy over the comments of Robertson and Limbaugh who tell us that Haiti had a pact with the Devil and not to donate to relief funds because we were already donating to Haiti via our taxes.

You can find similar and worse all over the INTERNET.

No wonder the world thinks Christians are mad but most people are not well enough informed to know that these soundbites do not represent the views of the vast majority of Christian people and the media largely colludes in promoting that ignorance. Now we hear Robertson saying he misheard and thought the discussion was about Hades rather than Haiti. More grist to the media's mill here: as if Robertson would then go on to pontificate about how Hades had sold its soul to the Devil in exchange for getting rid of French colonial rule. It would be laughable if it wasn't so damaging. Limbuagh now says that he didn't suggest to anyone that they should not donate to relief funds. The text of the speeches is in the public domain: I could find Robertson on Youtube and I am quite clear that he understood perfectly what he was saying. So now the media can poke more fun at Christians: they tell lies to get themselves out of the holes they have made through their own ill advised pronouncements, just like the three "evangelists" who spread their homophobic poison around Uganda and now claim that they bear no responsibility for the proposed Ugandan death penalty for homosexual acts.

On BBC Radio4's flagship Today Programme yesterday morning, the Archbishop of York was put under pressure by presenter John Humphreys to endorse the Robertson line. The Archbishop wasn't having any of it but Humphreys wasn't much interested in anything else the Archbishop had to say. Listeners will remember Robertson long after they have forgotten anything John Sentamu had to say on the matter.

On Thought For The Day (The Today Programme again) this morning, the Revd. Dr. Giles Fraser delivered an excellent homily. LISTEN HERE Fraser expressed concern that there is the perception that it is the role of theologians to "get God off the hook." He disagreed. There exists a place within me, deeper than my rational self, that compels me to respond to tragedies like Haiti, not with clever argument but with prayer. On a very basic level what people find in religion is not so much the answers but a means of responding to and living with life's hardest questions, and this is why a tragedy like this doesn't, on the whole, make believers wake up to the foolishness of their faith. On the contrary it mostly tends to deepen our sense of a need for God.

The problem here is that the BBC Today programme, arguably one of the best news and current affairs programmes in the English speaking world is only heard by a fraction of the British public - and certainly not by my students or most of their parents. In this celebrity obsessed culture priorities are the wrong way round: Celebrity Big Brother, the X Factor are the viewing of choice and pander to the intellectual lowest common denominator. News and current affairs are "boring" and Rupert Murdoch wants to turn British broadcasting into Fox News and further impoverish our ability to hear real news about real people in far away places without editorial or bias. But don't start me off on that one again.

I can challenge my students. With patience on my part and a willingness to engage on theirs I can offer them an alternative perspective that starts with religious views a long way away from that of Robertson and Limbaugh and an understanding, not only of what Christianity actually teaches, but of the fact that most Christians are sane and compassionate individuals who don't go for the easy answer or the plattitude.

My overriding concern is that no-one seems to be doing that for the Robertsons and Limbaughs of this world who have got it so wrong while being in positions of significant influence and that the media prefers their views to that of the Jefferts-Schoris, Sentamus and Frasers of this world.