11 November 2009

Something Old, Something New

I've been reading a lot of Habermas lately, particularly his more recent commentaries on the nature of a European identity. Emerging from his long standing disagreements with Derrida in May 2003 to jointly publish a plea for a common European Foreign policy in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, continued in a series of interviews with both Derrida and Habermas on "Philosophy in a Time of Terror", and culminating last year in the publication by Habermas alone of "Europe - The Faltering Project", the concept of a shared European identity and role in opposition to and occasional collaboration with US hegemony in the 21st century is one that has been occupying most of Habermas' work in this later period of his career.

While Habermas is often accused of defining Europe solely as the "Core Europe" of Germany, France, the Benelux countries and occasionally Spain and Italy based on a shared Judeo-Christian heritage and Napoleonic law, two areas that serve as the biggest distinguisher between US and European values are common to all EU nations: the private nature of faith and the sanctity of human life. On the issue of faith in politics he writes:
"In modern Europe, the relation between church and state developed differently north and south of the Alps, west and East of the Rhine. In different European countries, the idea of the state's neutrality in relation to different world-views has assumed different legal forms. And yet within civil society, religion overall assumes a comparably un-political position. We may have cause to regret this social privatization of faith in other respects, but it has desirable consequences for our political culture. For us, a president who opens his daily business with public prayer, and associates his significant political decisions with a divine mission, is hard to imagine." - Habermas & Derrida, 'Old Europe, New Europe, Core Europe', p10
Later on in the same paper he touches on the historical basis for the moral prohibitions on a State murdering it's own citizens:
"Contemporary Europe has been shaped by the experience of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century and by the Holocaust - the persecution and the annihilation of European Jews in which the National Socialist regime made the societies of the conquered countries complicit as well. Self-critical controversies about this past remind us of the moral basis of politics. A heightened sensitivity to injuries to personal and bodily integrity reflects itself, among other ways, in the fact that both the Council of Europe an EU made the ban on capital punishment a condition for membership." - Habermas & Derrida, 'Old Europe, New Europe, Core Europe', pp11-12
These thoughts were fresh in my mind as I read this morning of the execution last night in the US of John Allen Muhammad, who together with an underage accomplice killed 10 people in the Washington DC area with a sniper rifle from the back of a modified car over a three week period in October 2002. I remember those events quite vividly as I was living in the US at the time; much was made by the media of his name and faith and the tragedy was easily weaved into the American tapestry of Islamophobia, much as last week's incident in Ft Hood is doing now. No questions were raised about the availability of high powered sniper rifles to anyone with an ID and money.

As a theologian what often puzzles me is the disconnect between the theocratic nature of American society and its love of weapons, violence and the death penalty. For a nation where a sizable portion of its citizens believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God, it is quite jarring that those same Christians do not seem to believe in the literal words contained within the Bible. It is a nation where successive generations of preachers have sought refuge in the fire-and-brimstone of the Old Testament, and interpreted the actual teachings of Jesus such as "Love thy Enemy" as "Love them by converting them to your beliefs at gunpoint", "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" as "God wants you to make money", and above all others the central Commandment of "Thou shalt not Kill" as "Thou Shalt not Kill unless it is in the name of Jesus". The words of God have been cynically warped and mangled to suit the needs of Man.

The public influence of a conservative faith and the subsequent stigmatizing of the "other" that accompanies it has shaped almost all aspects of the US penal system, with 25% of the worlds prison population being in the US, 1 in every 9 African-American men between 20 and 34 being currently incarcerated (and 13% of all African-American men having no voting privileges as a result of previous or current convictions). The US prison population has doubled since 1990 and increased 367% since 1980 (all data from 'Mother Jones' July/Aug 2009, pp 46-54), all corresponding to the rise of conservative Christian evangelicalism in the public sphere, while in godless Netherlands a decline in criminals is currently forcing the closure of prisons or the leasing of them to neighbouring Belgium.

And then there is the death penalty, where US juries openly consult bibles before reaching a verdict. According to Amnesty International:
"the following countries carried out executions in 2008: China (at least 1,718), Iran (at least 346), Saudi Arabia (at least 102), USA (37), Pakistan (at least 36), Iraq (at least 34), Viet Nam (at least 19), Afghanistan (at least 17), North Korea (at least 15), Japan (15), Yemen (at least 13), Indonesia (10), Libya (at least 8), Bangladesh (5), Belarus (4), Egypt (at least 2), Malaysia (at least 1), Mongolia (at least 1), Sudan (at least 1), Syria (at least 1), United Arab Emirates (at least 1), Bahrain (1), Botswana (1), Singapore (at least 1) and St Kitts and Nevis (1)" - Amnesty International, 'Death Sentences and Executions in 2008', p8, pdf link.
The US occupies a unique position amongst nations with majority Christian populations in its eagerness to murder its citizens, something that puts it in good company with its atheist Communist foes or the mainly Islamic Axis of Evil. It is no understatement to say that American popular faith is almost unrecognizable as Christianity to non-US Christians,.

As a cultural, linguistic and economic satellite of the UK (itself little more than America's Airstrip One), at times Ireland can feel even further away from Europe than its isolated position as a tiny island on its westernmost fringe. However in our nation's approach to the sanctity of the life of its citizens and the anathema of State-sanctioned murder, we can firmly and proudly call ourselves European. While we still have some way to go on the full separation of Church and State as evidenced by the recent Blasphemy Bill, the fact that Biffo with all his many flaws does not begin the day with a public prayer is a sign that despite occasional evidence to the contrary Ireland is genuinely an enlightened nation.

Let's try not to forget that.



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