The Political Samaritan
How the perennially popular story of the Good Samaritan is deployed in supposedly secular politics. (2017)
Paul Bickley considers why Christians shouldn’t always roll with the punch.
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Of course I see the funny side. Of course I appreciate the huge opportunity for punning – “the creeping salamification of Christmas” amused me. Of course I’m not interested in participating in the culture of outrage. And, of course, there are thousands of things that are more deserving of our attention, emotional energy, and indeed our anger.
But now I think about it I actually am a little bit ‘offended’ by Gregg’s casual replacement of the Jesus in a nativity scene by a pale and uninviting sausage roll in a Christmas advert.
Why? Well, let me start with several reasons why I’m not offended.
It’s not because I think it signals the marginalisation of faith. Faith is – in some respects – being marginalised, but there are far more important instances of that than this. Anyway, merely being reminded of that process is hardly a reason for offence. If Gregg’s were on some kind of steak slice inspired mission to undermine Christianity, then I could see how that might be offensive. But I don’t think they are, so that’s not it.
It’s not because of some attachment to the classic picture of the baby in a stable, which is saccharine and quite unbiblical (you do know that the gospels don’t claim Jesus was born in a stable, don’t you?). Nor is my offence linked in any way to ancient debates around iconography – since a picture of a sausage roll doesn’t really count as an icon.
It’s not because, as people often say, “they wouldn’t have done that with a picture of Mohammed”. Of course they wouldn’t, but I’m not distressed by this popular baker’s unequal regard and/or sensitivity around Christians and Muslims. It’s not a bad thing that Christians aren’t feared – in fact, isn’t that quite consistent with the message of forgiveness preached by the one who is here replaced by a baked good?
So why am I offended? And all the while, I’m conscious that the very fact of being offended is a large part of what people find funny about such episodes, and that me expressing frustration merely contributes to the amusement of it. How could someone take offence at such a seemingly superficial thing?
But then that’s question begging, isn’t it. Who says that this is a superficial?
The taking of offence must be a psychologically complicated thing, but one cause is where a thing or a person has a dignity in the eyes of some which is ignored or rubbished. Or for me in this instance, in a free society dignity frequently is ignored, disagreed with and even mocked but that – in a good society – you ought only to do that if you have a decent reason for doing it. Which is to say, not for the purposes of fencing pastry based snacks.
Let’s not go to the Mohammed comparison. Most of us recognise what some of the consequences of causing offence in that case could be but we don’t really understand why, not deep down. Instead, how about on Martin Luther King day, photoshopping an image of the great man replacing him with a Martin Luther King themed chocolate mini–roll. Would that be offensive? Yes, the dignity of the person and what he achieved deserves something more than that.
Gregg’s PR and marketing people clearly don’t think that there is any dignity to the person of Jesus, because he did not exist, or they never really thought about it, or whatever. But it really irks me that they can’t imagine that there is anyone who does believe that or – alternatively – that they’re prepared to confect such a ‘row’ to get people talking about them, a la budget airlines threatening to charge for toilet visits to get people talking about them.
Christians are obliged time and again to make a Hobson’s choice between sounding like pompous moralists or adopting a kind of faux sophistication where we pretend not to care that what we love is treated with about the same seriousness as a funny cat picture. So we join in and laugh along as a kind of reverse virtue signalling where we show how moderate and liberal we are. On balance, that’s probably best. But it also gives the impression that we couldn’t care less.
As I Christian I am profoundly attached to Jesus – not images of him, but the idea of him. So much so that I rock up to church every Sunday and literally worship him. I believe all of the things in the Nicene Creed, though I know that there are people who will take the view that this is profoundly damaging to someone’s intellectual credibility. The possibility of the incarnation is one of the most beautiful and challenging ideas in history. It dignifies human life in a way that the ancient world found, ironically, so outlandish as to be offensive. That’s why Christmas carols – which like the nativity scene are well–worn and overly familiar – contain some of the most profound theological claims in the Christian faith – God of God, Light of Light – Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb – Very God, Begotten not created…
So yes, I really am offended by the sausage roll.
And to wrench a politically significant point, in a culture of wall–to–wall offence, the freedom to pillory and mock seriously held believes must be balanced by a seriousness about the occasions on which we do that. Even if we don’t really appreciate why people give dignity to some ideas or people, we must all realise that we all do that, regardless of whether we are religious or not.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.